Understanding the Nature of Ideas

                One of the most common questions writers get asked, at least based on my experience and that of the other authors I know, is where do we get our ideas. Or sometimes we’ll get someone who has an idea of their own wanting to give, or even sell, it to us for it to be developed into a story. We never take them up on that, just as we never really give satisfactory answers to the question of where our ideas come from. Part of that is because it’s an impossible question to honestly answer, I can’t trace the exact origin of my thoughts any more than you can, people dedicate entire lives and philosophies trying to unravel where those sparks of cognition come from. But the other reason we tend to skim past that question is because we know the truth. A dirty, filthy little secret I’m going to unveil to you right now.

                Ideas are easy.

                Now I know a lot of people’s hands slapped at the keyboard in fury at that last bit, and are already racing down to the comments to call me an asshole, but for those of you still reading take a deep breath and here me out. An idea, at its most basic level, is just a seed. A kernel of a thought. A one-line synopsis that could be taken in untold directions. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a very popular idea.

                Idea: Book following the life of a spell-casting child in a magical academy.

                So, Harry Potter, right? Or wait, The Magicians technically falls into that scope too. And there was The Black Magician series, and that Discworld book following a student at Unseen University, not to mention Wizard’s Hall, A School for Sorcery, I think you all get the idea. That’s without even counting ones that are derivative of the idea, aka magic school but we don’t call it magic. You know, like if there were superheroes at a school instead, an element you might see in X-Men, or PS-238, or Super Powereds.

                I’m not trying to say all of those works are just rip-offs of each other, all dating back to some proto-book we’re stealing from (Don Quixote). My point is that different authors can take the same idea, the same seed, and develop it into entirely different works of fiction. Because the idea is a starting point, and barely one at that. There is so much more that goes into a work than the initial concept. Developing the world, the tone of it as much as the lore and history that built it. The types of character you want to have, the sort of challenges the MC(s) will face, the length, narrative structure, numbers of arcs per entry, series vs. standalone, what level of violence/swearing/sex to put in, I could go on for long enough to fill out the rest of this blog. Writing a book isn’t a matter of popping out an idea and then letting the rest unspool. Ideas are the first small step you take in writing a book. That’s why we tend to skim past the question when it gets asked: partly because it’s hard to trace the origin of a thought, but mostly because there’s so little about the idea worth discussing. All the things we added onto the idea, all the character designs and plot threads and that stuff are topics we usually won’t shut up about. But the idea… there’s only so much to say.

                That’s sort of the point of the blog today: we put too much emphasis on ideas. However, I’m not writing it in hopes that people will stop asking about the ideas, it’s a harmless question that very few people mind answering. No, my real target for this one is all the writers out there struggling because they’ve got it in their head that there will be some huge “Idea” that comes down from the mountain and be unmistakable for anything but solid gold. I get emails from authors fighting with themselves more than anything else, going from project to project, never finishing things up, because they get a new idea and mistake it for being better than what they’re working on. It’s rarely better though; the new ideas are just easier. You haven’t hit walls in the development yet, or found frustration trying to write the plot. A new idea is shiny, and promises that it will be the one to unspool easily from the writer’s mind, a book that practically writes itself. But those are hollow promises. No idea can deliver on that, because it’s the creation of the story that gives them value. An idea on its own is just a thought. A “that’s neat” which can be easily set aside and forgotten about.

                I’m not saying that some ideas don’t offer more room for development than others, part of writing is learning to recognize which ideas you can turn into a short story, novel, series, or nothing at all. The key word there is “you”. Some writers can take preposterous notions and spin a series out of them, others would only be able to grow a novella from the same seed. Knowing how to evaluate and nurture those story seeds takes practice to get right, and some will lead to dead-end projects along the way. That’s fine. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s nothing wrong with failing. Taking risks, trying new things, that won’t always work. Failing is part of the job, and you should embrace it sooner rather than later unless you want to make yourself miserable. But you won’t get the practice you need if you never see your ideas all the way through to a final product, jumping ship to something shiny and new doesn’t do you any favors.

                Lastly, I want to talk for a minute about originality. It’s a common idiom these days to say “Nothing is original” and leave it at that. Which is fair, to an extent. As the wizard school example showed, a lot of tales do leave from the same starting station. But while yes, any idea you have will doubtlessly have been tried before, that doesn’t mean they’ve done it your way. We’ll use a real life example that comes up fairly often: nerdy vampires. For anyone who follows the A&D authors, you might be aware that John Hartness, Rick Gualtieri, and I all write books about dorky vampires that satirize elements of urban fantasy. People will often ask if we were inspired by one another, or ripped the others off, which is A) impossible, since they were all released so close to each other we couldn’t have had time to read another and write/edit/publish our own and B) sort of misses the point. Despite all those books starting from the same concept, we took them all in wildly different directions. You would never mistake any of our works for one of the others, because all the character development and world-building made them into strikingly different tales. So yes, in a way originality is impossible, even when you think you’re on the cutting edge of something, but when you develop beyond the initial idea there will be so many turns and choices to make that you don’t need to worry about ending up with the same piece of work as anyone else.

                I rambled a lot in this one, but the tl;dr of this one is simply that as an author, it’s dangerous to get hung up on the notion that ideas are the biggest part of the creation process. If you go that route, you start waiting for perfection instead of learning the tools you need to take a simple concept and build an entire story around it. Don’t waste time expecting perfection from the first step of a journey, focus on learning to see those stories through, even if they end up below the quality you consider publishable. That’s how you make the mistakes and improve, so that next time you have an idea you’re better equipped to see how it’s best pursued, or if it’s worth chasing at all.

Things I Won't Miss About Living Downtown

                 Some of my longer-term readers might recall that a few years back I wrote a post about life in the Deep Ellum area, mostly full of cool things I’d discovered while living in a downtown environment. But like all things in life, my time down here is coming to an end. In fact, April will be the final time I do the monthly Wine Walk as a Deep Ellum resident. As my eyes fall upon the quiet suburbs where I’ll be moving to, it’s tempting to glamorize my years living here, to let my mind remember them as nothing but fun and non-stop partys. However, the truth is there are many things about this sort of lifestyle I very much won’t miss, and I think recording them now will be a useful tool in keeping Future-Drew from donning rose-colored glasses. If we’re lucky, it might even help a few of you deciding between downtown and suburban living which one is right for you. So, here are the things I will not miss dwelling in the heart of a downtown community:

 

All of the Poop

                I can’t say if this is a Dallas thing, a Deep Ellum thing, or a people who live in my general building/neighborhood thing, but there is more poop around here than there should be. Granted, any public poop is too much, however I would look past the occasional dog turd in the grass. Assholes are everywhere, and I don’t imagine I’ll avoid that in the suburbs. But we’re not talking about a few lone bad pet owners. There’s too much poop for that. In the grass, on the sidewalks, in the bushes, and occasionally in the halls. While most of it is animal, as you’d expect, there’s an occasional dump pile that is either from a huge dog or a human, and given the number of drunks who wander around after bar-closing time human is the more likely option.

                Now I’m not trying to run my old neighborhood down the road and make you think the streets are lined with manure. You can walk through the whole area as a tourist without noticing any poop. When you live here, on the other hand, and you have to go off the main foot traffic areas, you know you’re risking running into rogue turds. I’d say at least once every two days I encounter some form of poop, and that is way too often. Something I’m very much hoping not to see as much in suburbia.

 

Having No Damn Stores

                People in your mid-early twenties, think fast: What’s the first thing you look at when choosing a neighborhood to live in? Some of you probably said safety/niceness, not wanting to live in a place with lots of stabbings, and I’ll bet a few of you (my people) said how close it was to the nearest bar. I would wager that virtually none of you said “Close to a grocery store” as your answer, because who bothers to think about that? I sure didn’t right up until I had to start fighting traffic every time I needed so much as a damn tomato. As cool as Deep Ellum is, the closest thing we have to a store is a 7-11 down the street. And while that thing has saved me numerous times, it’s not a substitute for a real grocery store. The closest of which isn’t too far away on a map, but requires fighting highway traffic to reach, making it a 20-30 minute process just to get there, add another 20-30 to get back.

                The grocery store is just one example; there are a multitude of things I’m not close enough to reach easily. Electronics stores, office supplies, really anything that isn’t food or booze, and Dallas doesn’t help by spreading shit out so much. Running errands for me takes hours, and very little of that time is spent actually in stores. I know it seems like having endless bars in walking distance is the beginning and end to what you need nearby, but trust me that sooner or later making a pilgrimage for the basest of dinner ingredients will wear on your nerves.

 

The Lack of Space

                I’ve mentioned this before, many times in fact, but I come from a pretty small town. As in, the Walmart was all we had open past 9 p.m. small. Which means a lot of the fun we had came from doing shit outside. Parties in open fields, setting up cheap inflatable pools in the summer, jumping off buildings and other dumb kid shit. Although I don’t really look back on my small town with much fondness, over the years I have started to miss having space. Not that I’ll have a lot when I move, but some, which is enough to at least host people outside when I have a party, or play beer pong somewhere other than the kitchen, the lone spot in my current place with enough space to run a game. From the crampedness of the apartment itself to the actual lack of ability to go outside (other than my comically tiny balcony) everything about a place like this starts to feel cramped over time. Full disclosure, I’ve talked to other people and this doesn’t bother them as much as it seems to bug me. Hard as I’ve tried to run away from it for so long, part of me is still that small-town kid, and I think that means there will always be a peace of me that yearns for ample space.

 

                Credit to Deep Ellum, in spite of all these issues and many more, I’m going to miss this neighborhood. It was a weird, shifting, uncertain place, but I made a ton of memories here, some blurrier than others, and I know once I’m actually away I’ll miss it deeply. That’s the nature of adventure though, to explore something new you must leave the familiar behind, and I hope to find that suburbia will be an adventure of its own.

                Except for mowing my lawn. Calling it right now, I already hate that shit and I haven’t even had to do it yet.

Saying Farewell to a Legend

                Some of my earliest childhood memories are of watching wrestling with my Dad.  We haven’t ever had a lot in common, I was always the artsiest member of my family on both sides and while the folks were supportive, it didn’t mean they shared my interests. But wrestling was an exception. We watched it during the Ultimate Warrior days, caught the tail end of Hulkamania, and saw the donning of a new WWF superstar in Stone Cold Steve Austin. But through the years, as the faces changed due to injury or WCW recruitment, there was always one constant, and he was my favorite for a long time. That constant was The Undertaker.

                Before I understood the industry, and kayfabe, and really anything beyond the spectacle of wrestling, I just knew he was awesome. He had a badass gimmick (at one point the word was literally in his name), put on crazy good matches, and never broke character. Fans never got to see Mark Calaway, the man beneath the wide-brimmed hat, there was only ever The Undertaker. Well, except when he was the American Badass, but even then the commitment never waned. Commitment is a good word to toss about when you’re discussing The Undertaker. He’s a man whose life seemed to be built on a bedrock of commitment. He was committed to the WWE, never straying during the Monday night wars. He was committed to his character, not even inducting long-time friend Paul Bearer into the Hall of Fame because it would break kayfabe. He was committed to the industry and the fans, giving everything he had to wrestling until he was just too worn to keep putting on matches.

                For those of you who don’t know, The Undertaker officially retired last Sunday at Wrestlemania 33. That’s why I’m talking about him in the past tense. Because while Mark Calaway is still very much alive, and I hope he stays that way for many more years, the time of The Undertaker is past. And that’s not just another retirement. That’s the end of an era. A generation of fans grew up with The Undertaker as a constant, and to see him go signals the loss of something special. Something from our childhoods, and adolescence, and even parts of who we are today. Even if many of us fell away from wrestling as we got older, I don’t know any former fans who don’t still look back on The Undertaker fondly. It was cool, knowing he was still out there, squashing jobbers and building amazing feuds. But as of Sunday, that is no more. The Undertaker is gone, and like a true pro he went out on his back.

                That’s something that I don’t think gets enough credit about wrestling culture. When a wrestler finishes their career, the farewell is not getting handed a big spectacle match where they defeat some new rising start to leave on a win. That’s how most of us would write it, because we see victory and accomplishment as inherently tied together, so of course we’d want to see them leave with a win. But that’s not the way it works in wrestling. To that world, no matter how big you are, the best way to say goodbye is to lay down for someone younger, newer, someone with more matches ahead of them. You take all of the momentum and crowd-love you’ve earned and pass it on by making the new guy seem like he’s so good not even a legend could beat him. You put him over, make him look great, and pass some of that momentum on rather than taking it with you when you leave. They even call it “doing right” to leave on your back, because that’s the right way to go out.

                And the fact that The Undertaker left that way is not something to skim over. I mentioned commitment above for a reason. Vince McMahon (the man, not the character) might be made of muscles and crazy, but it’s no secret that he prizes loyalty above all else. That matters, especially since no one was more loyal to the company during the most hectic years than The Undertaker. By all accounts the two men are very close and The Undertaker has a lot of creative control over his character. If he’d asked to go out on a win, I don’t doubt they would have done it that way. Probably not to Roman Reigns, but they’d have let him leave as a victor. He didn’t ask for it to go that way though. The Undertaker stayed committed to the industry he loved up to the very end, and when he went out on his back he did more than just add to the push WWE insists on giving Reigns. He reminded the entire locker room that this was how a true wrestling legend left. If he’d won, it would have made some of the younger talent think that if they got big enough, they could leave on a victory. He would have made the new goal to be so popular that you could exit on top, instead of reinforcing the idea that everyone, even legends, do right by the new stars.

                I don’t have a plan to tie this all into some writing-themed conclusion. There’s a lesson in there about the importance of losing, but I already covered it in the first writing/wrestling article. And I could try to tie it up with a point about how the world would be better if we were all more willing to help the next generation rather than shoving them down for fear of losing our place. But the truth is there was no plan for this blog. I just couldn’t sleep and found myself writing, because it didn’t feel right to let this event pass without saying something. Without acknowledging how big of an event had just occurred. Not for some of you, heck probably not even for most of you. Still, for a lot of people out there this was a big moment. It only felt right to say one last farewell to the Phenom, the Dead Man, the American Badass.

                Farewell Undertaker. And long live Mark Calaway. After everything the man has given us, he’s more than earned this walk off into the sunset.

Does Stability Lead to Worse Art?

                There’s an old stereotype of an artist’s (author, filkmaker, painter, really take your pick on medium) journey that in the beginning we’re expected to sacrifice and suffer for our creations; commonly it’s called being a “starving artist”. The idea is that rather than eat right or pay rent, we pour all of our resources into the work we love. We work all the harder on that next piece, because we’re betting heavily on success. We create to survive, churning out constant and increasingly ambitious projects in an attempt to gain some form of stability. This idea of the starving artist is problematic for a lot of reasons, and unpacking them all would be a blog unto itself, but for right now I just want to establish that the idea exists.

                And, to some extent, there’s truth in the idea of personal-sacrifice. Working hard on your art demands, at the absolute minimum, time. That’s assuming you’re working in a medium with no other associated expenses to create your art, which is rare, but for now let’s stick with just time. Giving up time to create something means you’re taking it from elsewhere in your life. If it’s out of your personal life, then you’ll see the deterioration of friendships, and maybe romantic relationships as well. If you take the time from your professional life, then you’ll have less disposable income, or maybe miss out on promotion opportunities. So yes, there is an element of sacrifice even if all you give is time, and we often feel these sacrifices the most early in our careers.

                There is also a flip-side to this equation though: what happens when the artist is no longer starving? When they have enough security to stop producing to survive, and instead can focus on creation for the sake of creation alone? Is it purer for the sense of focus, or weakened by the lack of that primal drive to survive fueling the creation? You’ll find people with different opinions all over the place, and I doubt anything I’ll say is going to impact you either way if your mind is made up. Still, it seemed like an idea worth discussing, and to do so I’m going to use an icon that I think almost everyone who reads my books will be at least passingly familiar with: Kevin Smith.

                To grossly oversimplify the career of a man who has been all over the place, Kevin Smith is a director from New Jersey who got his start by self-funding (off credit cards) and directing a movie called Clerks. It gained notoriety and was eventually released to acclaim, giving Smith a career springboard to make more films like Chasing Amy, Mallrats, and Dogma, to mixed receptions. After some time though, he grew tired of what he was doing and tried something very different with Red State, then left movies altogether for a while, focusing on his newfound love of podcasting. That changed with the release of Tusk, a film inspired by an idea he had during an episode of Smodcast, in which a podcaster is surgically turned into a walrus by a madman. This was followed by Yoga Hosers, and the upcoming Moose Jaws will finish out the run he’s calling The True North Trilogy, since all 3 films are set in Canada.

                You’re probably noticing that the further into that filmography I got, the stranger the titles and plot became. We went from clerks in a convenience store, to angels trying to break into heaven, to a human being turned into a walrus through horrifying torture surgery. Was he smoking himself into madness, or was the change due to him becoming rich and famous, thus giving him the freedom to explore what he wanted all along? And the real question: did losing his need to survive lead to him making worse art?

                Well, no. No, it didn’t. True, he might be making art you don’t like as much, but that’s different from making worse art. You see, there’s a factor people often mix-up with quality: marketability. From a technical perspective (don’t worry, I checked with friends who actually study film before talking out of my ass) Smith’s newer films are written, shot, and directed better than most of his earlier works. Calm down, I know you like the old stuff better, we’ll get to that in a moment. But it really shouldn’t be that shocking that the work is improving. If you do something for 20 years, you’re naturally gaining more knowledge, experience, and resources along the way. Obviously his skill is increasing over time, that’s part of doing anything for several decades.

                So if the new movies are technically better in most ways (and I know I’m asking a lot from some of you to meet me on that point) why are they popularly regarded as worse? You already know the answer, I told you in the last paragraph: marketability. With his first film, Smith tapped into the slacker culture in a way that few films had before at the time, and that appealed to a lot of people. From there on, Smith was working within the confines of Hollywood, meaning his films went through traditional corporate filtering like focus groups to make sure they appealed to a wide enough audience. Factors that didn’t fit the bill were cast off; everything was put on a path toward making a solid profit, because that’s what movie studios have to do to stay solvent. His work had to be marketable to get made, the art was required to appeal to the greatest number of people possible, and thus it was tweaked and tooled around with until it fit the bill. It does bear mentioning though that even in what many see as Smith’s heyday, his films were often too niche to be considered blockbusters.

                The reason Smith’s films changed so significantly was money-related, though not in quite the same way as one might expect. To, again, really sum a lot of shit up, Smith began using independent distribution houses and investors in his films, keeping production costs way below what they were in the Hollywood machine. That means his amount needed to break even is far lower than it was before, and that allows him to make movies that don’t need to be exceptionally marketable. He can makes whatever he wants, even if it’s using nazi-bratwursts as the bad guys, trusting that there are enough people with similar tastes out there to break even or perhaps turn a profit. And so far, he’s been right. Despite not getting a lot of critical love, both Yoga Hosers and Tusk are already in the black. Did they earn enough that he’d still be okay without his existing fame and wealth? I don’t know, you’d have to ask him about that, but the point is that they both now exist and nobody lost money to make them happen.

                That’s what really changes when artists are no longer trying to pay rent with their next work: they’re freed from having to write with the market in mind. Sometimes this leads to better work, freeing them up to take bold chances and risks that they never would have before and breaking all sorts of new ground. Sometimes the art we get from this is a little too crazy, or so niche to the creator that no one else finds joy in it. I’m not going to try and say that one is better than the other, only that it’s important we see this for what it is: fiscal stability providing the artist room to take more chances, not lessening their artistic drive.

                I’m not saying you have to love the works of artists in their later careers. In fact, the less marketable they become, the higher a chance that you won’t like them. But I do think it’s important to separate out the idea that making something non-marketable somehow implies a decrease in quality. Taking risks is usually a good thing, and even when they don’t pan out there’s lessons to be learned from them. For my part, that’s why I try to structure my releases so I alternate between established series and new, untested projects.

                Tying talent to desperation with the starving artist idea, on the other hand, is kind of a dangerous thing to put out there. Attempting to make your art into a career is already crazy hard; people need to know that it’s okay to stay at that day job until they’ve got a solid footing to step out on. Having rent and food doesn’t weaken your ability to produce any kind of art, you don’t need to go all in to be a “real” writer/painter/director/animal trapeze trainer.

                Take your time, learn about your market and what ideas you have that might appeal to them, and build your work at your own pace. And probably don’t finance everything with credit card debt. That gamble worked out well for Smith, but it’s not one even he recommends others take.

Rejected Blog Ideas 2

                Yes, it’s that time again, the time when I run low on ideas for a blog so I decide to write about the things I decided not to write about. I’m assured it’s very “meta” although that assurance comes from the voices in my head, so maybe take it with a grain of salt. Anyway, despite the weird shit that often shows up on this blog, there are some topics that are too far out there or underdeveloped to get written out. Here are a few ideas I had that failed to make the cut to full-feature.

 

The Exploding Audiobook Market

                The long and short of this one was that it was a long idea that just came out too short in words. Basically, the audiobook market is booming right now, with lots of users joining audible and more authors starting to depend on that income to support themselves. And that’s really cool, something totally worth talking about. The problem is, the second sentence in this paragraph pretty much says it all, and it’s hard to make a blog out of a topic that can be summarized so easily.

                True, I could have gone into some other aspects of audiobooks, but between writing about how to make them and doing yearly lists of my favorites, I didn’t leave a lot of water in that well to pull from. Even talking about the technology route is too easy to sum up. Ready? Audiobooks are exploding in popularity because 1) most of us have phones that can store entire libraries of the things, eliminating the need for bulky CDs, and 2) More and more cars have Bluetooth/aux functionality allowing us to play those audiobooks on trips. Boom, that right there covers most of the technology factors. I might have been able to drill down a little on specifics, but not enough to be worth a real blog unless I added in a ton of padding.

                Bottom line: audiobooks are great and it’s a wonderful time to get into the market. And that pretty much says it all.

 

Genetically Average

                When I first got a “Superhero Genetics Test” as a Christmas gift, I had 2 thoughts: 1) Can you turn your genes into vodka if you drink enough? And 2) Hey, this will make a cool blog. The test was a basic genetic screening panel that checked to see if you had genes indicating you would be stronger, faster, or smarter (basic superhero skills) than the average person. I swabbed my mouth and sent it in, waiting to see what my results would be.

                So what was the problem? Well the title kind of gave it away: I’m genetically average on all accounts. And that’s fine, but it’s also kind of boring. If I’d gotten even one that was above normal, I could have written about me trying to make my own costume and go out to fight crime with my… let’s say speed for this hypothetical. I’d go out and try to help people, mistakenly thinking genetics would give me an advantage and ultimately getting injured or my ass-kicked. None of those jokes would work with an average rating across the board though. I tried doing a blog about Average Man, but none of the directions I found for it worked in such a short context, so I ended up ditching the idea entirely.

                Fun Side-Note: I also got a genetic testing kit for my dog, Dr. Winston. That one turned out to be super enlightening, because while I’d always assumed he was a mutt, it turned out he was a half-breed. Half-Corgi, half-Australian Shepard. Kind of a limited audience on that one though, so no blog there either.

 

Should You Stick to One Genre?

                So I didn’t know this when I started, but conventional wisdom says a writer, especially a new one, should stick to a single genre. If they can swing it, one series in one genre is considered ideal. Now obviously that’s not how I work, and since I’ve talked to people who were surprised I managed to stay self-sufficient using my multi-genre approach it seemed worth examining. Was conventional wisdom right, or had the market evolved to tolerate authors writing across multiple different genres?

                The problem here was that I couldn’t stretch “Fuck if I know” out for a whole blog, and that’s the only honest conclusion I’d be able to present. Digging into this topic turns up all sorts of competing ideas, philosophies, and experiences in regards to multi-genre writing. If you care, do a Google search and you’ll find tons of discussion on the topic. Which was part of the issue: there doesn’t seem to be a consensus to reach on this one. Some authors only succeed when they stick to genre; others find a lot of success by branching out. It’s one of those weird things about this job that doesn’t make sense, and you make peace with that the longer you’re doing this gig. But making peace with it and being able to meaningfully contribute to the conversation are different things. I ultimately realized that my own experience was little more than a lone drop in a huge bucket of conflicting accounts, and accepted that this was just too big of an issue to get my head around.

                For what it’s worth, I’ll say this much: the level of debate means that clearly it is possible to succeed writing in multiple genres, otherwise there wouldn’t be much to discuss in the first place. Now whether it’s the right fit for you or not is going to be a case-by-case thing, which is no surprise since that tends to be how these always end up anyway. If you feel the desire to stretch yourself across multiple genres, then I’d say go for it. Writing the thing you’re passionate about is usually the best strategy to undertake. On the other hand, if you like your genre, then don’t force yourself out of it without cause. Either tactic is viable; it’s just a matter of finding a way to make it work for you.

 

Managing Indie Income

                That’s right; I’m doing another blog about the business side of being a writer. If you went back in time and told my parents I’d grow up to write blogs about money management, they’d yell at you for invading their home and accuse you of being a time-traveling witch with your strange future garb. Once you’d been taken away for breaking and entering, however, they’d laugh quite a bit at the nonsense that time traveler was spewing. But necessity forges strange friendships, and over the last decade I’ve had to learn to balance a budget well enough to pay for rent, booze, and food, usually in that order.

                Much of that training came when I was doing sales for a living, which prepared me for my current job as a full-time author better than I’d have expected. I’ve talked before about how writing full-time is a lot like being in sales because it revolves around managing a pipeline of your work and making sure you’ve always got irons in different stages of the fire. Today, however, I wanted to talk about the other side of that equation: how to handle the money you get when there’s no set amount coming from month to month. And trust me, its’ very different from working a job with a set salary.

 

Know the Cycle

                Although there are some variations, for the most part book releases of authors with established catalogs tend to follow a predictable cycle. A new book will launch, dedicated readers will pick it up and spread the word that it’s either good or bad. Regardless of whether the book is a success or not, or even part of a series, that first month will generally be among the highest for its particular sales. The next month will also be elevated, and a bit of a bump on the third can sometimes be found. After that the book will level off to whatever amount your books usually sell in a given month. Now those can be spiked with promotions and marketing, but for this blog we’re going to focus on the natural cycle and not get into manipulating it too much.

                So, the cycle of a new book is Month 1: Biggest sales, Month 2: Big sales, Month 3: Small elevation of sales, Month 4: Back to normal. That’s really important, because those release months will often also lift your other books too, leading to them being the points where the large chunks of your income come from. And having inconsistent income requires you to view your revenue stream in a slightly different manner.

 

Don’t Spend What You Make

                While I won’t get into real examples here because every author’s journey is different, I do need to use some financial examples, so we’ll pick some big numbers that are easy to work with. Let’s say romance/Lovecraftian author Svetle Thruster has a stable series with happy readers. In a normal month, he makes $3,000. On release months, however, he makes $9,000. So Month 1 is 9k, Month 2 is 6k, and Month 3 is 4k before going back to 3k as usual. Now you might look at that and think Svelte is going to rent himself the biggest cocaine fountain he can find in Month 1, a smaller one in Month 2, and maybe just eat out a little more in Month 3, but that would be a terrible plan.

                You see, Svelte actually needs $4000 per month to cover rent, food, car, and other necessities like his passionate love of fancy cheeses. So rather than spend the extra he makes in those 3 months, he puts it away to cover for the normal months when he’d be coming up short.

                This takes a little getting used to, especially when you come from hourly or quick-cash jobs such as bartending that make living paycheck to paycheck easier, which I did. The goal here is to look at income in terms of what you’ll make all year rather than month to month. Trust me on this lesson I learned during my sales days: It’s really easy to have a big month and think the money will never stop flowing, but it will. The key to lasting in jobs like this is to use the big months to cover for the lean ones, because sooner or later they will be coming. For authors and salesman alike, they will be coming. When you look at your income over a year, balanced against the monthly budget you have, it gets easier to see how one month is filling in the gap from another, allowing you to balance your schedule and bank account without ending up short and selling blood to make rent.

                Pro Tip: Blood places know if you try to sell them animal blood instead of yours, no matter how ethically it was obtained. Don’t try it; they are a little too free with those lifetime bans.

 

Track Your Money

                When people write in to ask me how they know if they should do the writing thing full-time (I know, those e-mails surprise me too) one of the first things I tell them is to get all their sales records in order and try to put together some averages of what they made. Assess the release months and the slow ones, try and figure out how often their releases will be coming and what the average amount on the slow months is. If they haven’t got enough data to do all of this, the my advice will be to wait, because unless they hit the author-lotto chances are no one will be making enough to quit before they’ve been at it long enough to have this sort of information.

                Assuming they do have it, however, then the next step is for them to look at their bank statements and figure out how much they spend, and then to split it off into essentials versus non-essentials. Not just the obvious stuff like rent either, but the things you know you’re going to spend money on whether it’s responsible or not. Like Svelte and his love of cheese, we all have weaknesses and you shouldn’t assume future you will suddenly develop better self-control. Once they have the numbers for average spending broken out by essentials and non-essentials, they can take a real look at the situation.

                At this point you have to look at how much cash the books are bringing in, and how much is from the release months vs. the normal months. Do you have enough to cover your spending? Does it depend on wild upswings, or do the usual amounts support it? Will there be new expenses (like health insurance) you have to account for when working for yourself?

                I’m not going to have an answer to this part; it’s a decision you have to arrive at on your own. But by laying out the facts and taking a hard look at them you can at least figure out what amount you need to be working toward. Whether it’s by producing more work or cutting back spending, you’ve got something to shoot for and a good foundation for how to handle income once you make the jump.

                Common sense as I know this is for some of you, I personally wish dearly I’d gotten this explained to me when I was first on my own and doing sales. Because let me tell you, it doesn’t matter how much you sedate them or what gauge needle you use, cheetahs wake up pissed when you steal their blood. Sluggish and easy to outrun, obviously, but pissed nonetheless. Don’t steal cheetah blood; just learn to manage your cashflow.

Overlooked Movies from 2016

                I think it’s not a great shocker to anyone that I love taking risks on movies. Anyone who has read my list of Halloween films that are fun to drink to knows I must have gone through a lot of bad cinema to find the ones with redeeming qualities. Well good news, my love for the good/bad/unexpectedly amazing doesn’t just extend to horror schlock, I also greatly enjoy movies from all kinds of genres. And let’s be honest, after several weeks of blogs that were in some way linked to promo work for the new release, I’m overdue to talk about someone else’s art. So today I am going to talk about some of my favorite movies from 2016, either to drink to or just to enjoy, that got overlooked by the bulk of movie goers.

 

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

                For the life of me, I can’t tell if this is actually a good movie or not. I strongly suspect that it’s not, at least in terms of script and plot, but fuck me if I don’t love watching it all the same. The reason for that is because the cast is insanely talented, and they pull off every scene with so much charisma and humor that even if the words aren’t funny they still manage to sell that shit. And I mean, can you really be surprised? This is a collection of crazy talented comedic actors, all playing off one another at every opportunity.

                The movie stars Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza as the female leads, both of whom are amazing alone and fucking unbelievable when they work together, as well as Adam Devine and Zac Effron as the titular Mike and Dave. Adam Devine is strong as always, from starring roles in Workaholics to side-parts like in Pitch Perfect, the man always turns in quality work. As for Zac Effron… you folks might fight me on this in the comments, but I’m still going to say it: I think Zac Effron is among the most criminally underrated comedic actors out there right now. The guy nails every bit of humor handed to him, be it in films like this or awful trainwrecks like Dirty Grandpa, where Zac is one of the few good things on screen. Anyway, with these four anchoring the main cast they could have done Titus Andronicus and pulled some funny bits out of it, working with an okay script made for a few hours of unexpectedly enjoyable hilarity. Like I said, the movie itself might not be good, but you’ll still be glad you took the time to watch it.

Bonus Drinking Game: Drink every time someone says the name Mike or Dave.

 

The Bronze

                I know my audience pretty well, so I’m keenly aware that telling most of you to watch a film anchored by someone whose biggest credit is The Big Bang Theory is going to meet with eye-rolls and mutters about laugh-tracks. Truthfully, I doubt I would have picked this one on my own, and it would have been a mistake on my part. This film was a passion project for Melissa Rauch, and wow does it ever show off another side to her acting skills.

                Switching off from her usual meek persona (she played that even on other shows like True Blood) Rauch comes out swinging as a foul-mouthed, bitter, entitled former gymnastic prodigy who is still coasting through life on the glory of her former accomplishments. From getting free pizza at the mall food court to demanding to be treated like a celebrity in her small town, Rauch starts off as unlikable and then digs in at every chance to make the audience think less of her. It’s a lot of commitment that leads to some really hilarious moments, but it’s when the movie’s plot actually kickstarts that things get moving well.

                I won’t bother doing a synopsis, if foul-mouthed former gymnast didn’t get you then this movie isn’t going to be your jam, but it does present the opportunity for Rauch’s character to show another side to herself. I really liked that they never tried to redeem or excuse her, new facets of her personality are treated exactly like that: she’s a dick, and she’s also these other things, but neither cancels out the other. It’s a strong character piece that lets a previously underrated talent show what she can do, and all in all it’s definitely worth a rental.

Bonus Drinking Game: Drink every time Melissa Rauch drinks, lies, or curses.

 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

                For the life of me, I can’t imagine how this movie ended up on an under-appreciated list. It’s the fucking Lonely Islands doing a movie-length segment with new music, tons of cameos, and hilarious performances. The plot is strong; the acting is what you’d expect from SNL alums like Andy Samberg, and the songs are catchy as shit. My only guess here is perhaps that some people thought what worked for music-video length segments wouldn’t hold up over a full movie, and they might be right if that’s what Lonely Islands had done. But to their credit, they branched out, telling a complete, cohesive story that’s got a great mix of comedy with an unexpected amount of heart.

                Satire can be a tough genre to sell in sometimes, and music-based satires are always fated to be compared to the juggernaut that was This is Spinal Tap, which makes it an extra intimidating field to put a film in. Popstar holds its own though, with a veteran cast, a tight narrative, and an insightful poke at our current music industry. It’s really good, and if you’ve liked anything by Lonely Islands you are going to love this film. So stop reading and go rent the thing already!

Bonus Drinking Game: Drink every time a celebrity cameos as themselves.

Release Day Tradition Origins

                I never know how many of you folks who read the blogs also follow along when I do book releases, but I assume there has to be some overlap, so at least a few of you know that I have certain traditions in place when I launch a new book. Though most of them are pretty straightforward, there are a few that are a little more unique to me and my way of doing things (read: shitshows) that stand out. And since people will often ask where these came from, I thought today was a good time to go through all of my traditions, or at least the ones I’m not sworn on a sacred altar of blood and Bud Light cans not to divulge, and talk about where they came from.

 

Tradition #1: The Morning Mimosas

                I don’t know if this one really counted as a tradition back in the beginning, unless almost every weekend was somehow a book launch. The truth is I love mimosas, and champagne in general, so these have been my breakfast booze of choice since I discovered them. Thus, when book releases came around and I needed something to settle my nerves, mimosas were the drink of choice. And boy, were there some nerves to settle. Even now when I release a new book, I wake up a little scared that people won’t like it and I’ll have put in all that work only to disappoint my readers. That’s a natural fear that I don’t think is ever going away, and probably shouldn’t if I want to keep making quality work. However, that fear has nothing on the absolute terror of releasing in the early days.

                Back then I had no idea what I was doing, whether the books were selling by luck or weird coincidence, or if the next step I took would be the one to plunge my fledgling career into ashes. That was when the release day mimosas were essential, not a tradition as much as a coping mechanism for the insecurity and fear trying to overpower me. They were there every time a book came out, all the way back to the beginning, and as time went on and I got less scared (and also learned to deal with those fears with ways other than booze) I kept them around because they’d been woven into the fabric of my releases, and it would have seemed strange not to have them.

                Also because, as stated, I really like mimosas.

 

Tradition #2: Digital Release Parties

                One day, I would love to hold a release party in person, with the opportunity for fans to come drink some mimosas and celebrate the launch right alongside me. I even tried to put something together for Forging Hephaestus, but all the dreaming in the world doesn’t change the fact that I’m still a relatively little guy in the literary pond. In a few more years, maybe that dream can become a reality. Until then, however, I have the digital release parties, which do have the upside of allowing everyone who wants to, regardless of geographic location, join in the fun.

                The digital release parties grew out of the dream to hold a big event and the limits of my current prestige. I started by holding Q&A sessions on release days, but those got pretty messy as it was just one topic that kept popping up and filling people’s feed, plus the poor organization meant I missed a lot of things readers asked. I finally hit on the idea to put everything onto an event page, that way we could all have our fun and it would be easy to navigate, plus not bother anyone who didn’t care about the release. I kept the Q&A portion that I started with, slowly adding in more activities as new ideas came up or technology became available. Nowadays the parties include games and prizes, sneak peeks and tidbits, and recently even a video live-stream where I can actually talk to answer things instead of typing. Each innovation has made the process more fun, and I hope in a year’s time there’s even more going on at every one of them. Even when the in-person parties become viable, I think I’ll keep the digital component. I have too much fun to let it go, and besides that gives me an excuse for two parties!

 

Tradition #3: The 5-Star Shots

                Oh boy. These things. So the first two were pretty self-explanatory, but to clarify for those who don’t know I’ll go through how this one works. On release day (before I pass out), every time someone posts a 5-star review I take a shot. Normally that isn’t too many, since my books are long and until Forging Hephaestus I never did Advanced Reader Copies, meaning the only ones who could leave a review were beta-readers and people who stayed up all night to read the book. Originally, I didn’t even tell people I did this, it was just a fun way to secretly cheers the readers who were that determined to start the books off on a good review footing. But, as one might imagine, between the mimosas and the shots discretion is not one of my strengths during a release day, so I happened to mention it during one of the parties. People were intrigued, I started posting pics of me doing the shots through the day, and from then on it’s been a part of my release day traditions.

                I actually really like these, otherwise I wouldn’t keep doing them, but when Corpies came along I thought I might die. Since that one was a web-serial first, tons of you got to read it prior to release, and I think it reached somewhere around 20 reviews that first day before I fell asleep. It was a rough hangover, but a great start for the book, so I was more than happy to muddle through the next day. That said, I did decide to start keeping more than straight liquor around, some mixers and gentle boozes like Baileys and Rumchata were added to my stock so I could vary things up when the numbers got high. The traditions have to evolve, after all, if I’m going to find fun new ones to add to the mix.

 

                Those are my big three for every release, and I’m curious to know if the rest of you have any traditions for big days in your lives. Maybe before a game, or a work presentation, or whatever you need to psych yourself up for. Talk about them below, and maybe the rest of us will see some good ideas to borrow.

 

Super Villain Broadcast

                Every television, computer, and other screen in the world suddenly clicks on displaying crackling static. Confusion ripples across the world for several seconds, until the static suddenly vanishes to display an empty chair in front of a concrete wall.

                Is it on? Well you’re the genetically enhanced rabbit with Wi-Fi in its brain, aren’t you supposed to know? What? It is? Fuck!

                Static returns briefly. When it clears again the world can see Baron Baddington now seated in the chair, a slightly frantic expression in his eyes as he whispers inaudibly off camera. In the days to follow, government agencies will enhance and filter this whispering until they’re able to make out his words. They were “How’s my light?” as it turns out.

                Good morning world! For my non-English speakers out there, this broadcast is presented in brand-new Translate-O-Vision, patent pending, which should put my words into a language you can understand. As some of you may have heard, I recently escaped from the paltry prison you all held me in. My time there was not pleasant, and now that I’m out I felt it only fair to reshape the world more to my liking, since I had to spend months in discomfort. To that end, I have constructed a machine that will produce endless clouds to block out sunshine. They’ll still let enough rays through to nurture plants and the like, I’m not trying to starve myself or anyone else here, but until my demands are met none of you will feel the warmth of the sun on your face, every beach day will be clouded over, summer will be hot yet somehow feel as depressing as fall… basically it will be like you’re all stuck living in Seattle. Now don’t fret, because I am a reasonable mastermind. I have a small list of demands I want met, and once they are you can have your precious sunshine back.

                From the side of the camera, a small paw covered in white fur can be seen, lifting a stack of pages into Baron Baddington’s reach. He snatches them up, giving a brief nod to the paw, which slips away from sight.

                Let’s get the money out of the way first. It’s gauche and trite, I know, but endless cloud machines don’t pay for themselves. I’m going to need a cool ten billion from the nations of the world to get back my investment and some spending money. Oh, and only the nations with the top ten highest GDPs are allowed to be part of the payment. I don’t want any of you “world-powers” screwing over a third-world country, again, by making them foot a part of the bill. Only the cash cows are taking care of this one. Have the money ready to go by tomorrow morning.

                Next up, I want every country, and this applies to all of you, to start funding some endowments to the arts. Let’s say five percent of your GDP, or two percent if you take all of it from defense. I don’t need you shoring up your weapons against me anyway, and to be frank the number of operas and symphonies across the globe has been falling at a depressing rate in the last few years. I may be a villain, but depriving the world of such culture would be truly criminal.

                After that… ah yes, no more pay toilets. Anywhere. After having to suffer the indignity of pooping in a public cell, I feel a kinship to those struck down by circumstances seeking only a private space to do their necessary. I will not stand by and allow others to suffer through such a degrading experience. Anyone with a pay toilet after sunset tonight will be targeted and punished by my squads of robot soldiers. And I made them on the cheap, so they are not equipped to do anything delicately.

                My next demand is that every country farm and ship carrots to me, with the amount due proportionate… to… wait a minute, I didn’t write this.

                Baron Baddington turns off camera to glare at someone unseen. He begins a frantic whisper fight, too low and polluted with another sound source for government agencies to clean up. After several seconds of fighting, he turns back to the camera and offers a weary smile to the billions watching him live.

                Right, where was I? Ah yes, carrots… apparently. Fine, every country owes me one ton of carrots per year, either grown on their own or bought from a neighbor. Anyone who tried to use this to demand to economically gouge another nation of carrot sales gets a visit from the robot soldiers. And one ton of carrots per country is plenty, more than a single rabbit could or should eat in a year.

                Another brief glance off camera, although this time there is no audible response.

                Anyway, my next demand is all education in all nations becomes immediately free. That might sound strange, coming from a madman holding the world hostage, but let’s put our cards on the table folks. I’m not getting any younger, and as I age I’ve started to look ahead, to the next generation of evil geniuses. How will they rise up to take my place if we don’t properly nurture and refine their intellects? This demand is my investment in the future of villainy. Plus I’ve got a niece heading to college soon and knocking this out will get my sister off my ass, so it’s win-win as far as I’m concerned.

                That leads us to the first of my big demands, because all that piddling stuff was just the warm-up. Superheroes must be deemed as illegal entities, and all superheroic activities must cease at once. From now on, the act of fighting villainy shall be criminal in itself! That should throw those goody-two-shoes on their ass with the moral dilemma of it all. Not to mention, I can-

                The screen fills with red light as a flashing bulb over Baron Baddington’s head begins to flash just as a high-pitched siren can be heard over the television. He turns off-screen, presumably looking at some sort of display.

                Wow, looks like we’ve got some incoming superheroes. A lot of them, actually. Guess I might have pushed my luck with that last one, huh? Well, you can’t blame a guy for trying. Looks like I’ll have to do a strategic retreat for now, I am in no mood to go back to prison. Luckily, an old pro like me knows to never start one of these proclamations without an escape plan. Until next time, this is Baron Baddington Esquire signing off and reminding you all to stay terrified.

                Leaping up from his chair, Baron Baddington hurtles past the camera, knocking it slightly askew as he does. Now facing a blank wall illuminated by a flashing red light, the camera faintly picks up Baron Baddington yelling from off-screen.

                Hurry, Commander Whiskers, to the multiverse! Let’s go to that world where hangovers don’t exist. I need a drink after a day like this.

 

While Barron Baddington won't be there, remember that today is the Digital Release Party for Forging Hephaestus (10am-2pm CST) with trivia, prizes, a livestream, and more. Also, Forging Hephaestus itself is available as of now! Get it in digital or audio form. 

Super Hero Drinkalong Power Hour

This week, in celebration of the upcoming launch of Forging Hephaestus (with audiobook now available for Pre-Order) Ruby joins me one last time for a Super Hero Power Hour. Enjoy!

 

Note: We had some folks point out that Ruby and I are a little washed out by the video on this one, so I'm adding another version where our audio is dominant. Now you can pick which is louder: The video noise (1st video) or our jabbering (2nd video). Hope you dig them either way.

 

Louder Music Version

 

Louder Vocal Version

The Good Place and The Art of Foreshadowing

                So before we get into today’s blog, I have to get the obligatory Spoiler Warning out of the way. Today we’re going to be discussing NBC’s Television show The Good Place (TGP from here on) and the entirety of its first season. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll try to structure this so you can still follow along, but if you haven’t seen it and you think you might want to, even a little bit, then bail out here. I’m going to be spoiling the shit out of the first season, so you have now officially been warned.

                For anyone who hasn’t seen TGP, go watch it now. If you can’t be bothered to do that, then you should know it centers on a woman (played by Kristin Bell) named Eleanor who awakens post-death to find herself in a comfortable office, met by a man who professes to be an architect of the afterlife named Michael (played by Ted Danson). She learns that while no religion ever got the afterlife correct (most were about 5% right) they did nail the idea that there is a Good Place and a Bad Place, and Michael assures her that she is in the good place. Eleanor is led out to her community, where she sees her house, views memories of her philanthropic trips and good deeds in life, and meets her soulmate Chidi. The catch is that we soon learn Eleanor didn’t do any of these things, and was in fact a fairly shitty person in life who seems to have arrived in the good place by mistake. She confides this secret to Chidi, who ultimately decides it’s his moral duty to try and teach her to be a good person who deserves to stay rather than be sent to the bad place upon discovery. Making it more complicated is the fact that when Eleanor does shitty things, the world is warped by her badness, causing mayhem and occasional giant shrimp to fly through the air. Thus the crux of the series, or so we think, kicks off as Eleanor must suppress her shitty tendencies while trying to learn to be better and keeping her secret the whole while.

                If you’re like me, then you’re probably wondering how the hell they’re going to stretch that concept out through a full season. The answer, as it turned out, was tight scripting, a limited run of episodes, and a willingness to take bold turns to keep things fresh. This is not a show that runs out of steam at any point, and it always keeps you wondering what will come next. Eleanor ends up outing herself for the sake of Chidi around episode 7, making serious personal changes to evolve, and eventually sacrifices her own shot at freedom to save her friends. All of which makes the big reveal at the end of season 1 so thrilling: Eleanor was never in the good place to start with. She, Chidi, and her friends/neighbors who she grew close with, have all been in the bad place from the start. It’s a new type of bad place, designed by Michael, where the torture comes from she and her friends driving each other crazy. The twist is insane when it hits, and I literally remember staring at my screen as Ted Danson’s character shifts from dopey to outright evil, thinking there was no way this could be happening.

                Then, when the episode ended, I went back to rewatch the whole season. And fuck me if they hadn’t been laying down the clues for that twist since episode 1. They managed to hide a huge surprise like that on a show during the age of fan theories and internet speculation running rampant all over everything, and they did it with a wink to the audience the entire time. The more I mulled it over, the more I appreciated the level of work that had gone into it, and the more I wanted to discuss how they’d earned that twist.

                They played with the expectations of the viewer. From the beginning, Michael explains things to Eleanor, and we take it as a device to provide exposition to us as viewers. Sure, he might be talking to Eleanor, but we really know the point is to inform us about the world. And when some of the things he explains about the afterlife seem kind of dumb, or illogical (like the painting of the stoner prophet hanging in Michael’s office) we just take it at face value because it’s a sitcom, and the people who write it can go for a laugh instead of building complicated lore. We don’t question what we’re told any more than Eleanor does, because why would we? This is TV, and a character is explaining how the world works. For all intents and purposes, that’s gospel, to us and to Eleanor. Until the end, when we find out Michael has been lying to Eleanor, and by extension us, ever since the start. Suddenly it clicks, and we realize that all the oddities in the lore we’ve heard aren’t because it’s a sitcom, but because everything we know has come from a character purposefully misleading us. All of which makes the idea of season 2 more interesting, because thanks to that twist we now have no idea how this world really works. They turned our own trust against us to keep us from noticing the flaws in Michael’s explanation, and it was masterful. Even better, you can rewatch season 1 with this new knowledge and it’s almost an entirely different experience, as the context alters the dynamic of virtually every scene.

                They played fair. An unearned twist can be really annoying, especially when it carries the sense that the writers had no idea what to do so suddenly a main character is evil, or an alien, or whatever. But TGP definitely laid the groundwork for their surprise, even if it’s only clear on rewatches. For starters, outside the four humans (Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason) everyone in the series turns out to be either an architect or a Janet, so they would only need to be “in character” around the humans. And on the rewatch I discovered that there is not one single scene in the show that doesn’t depict one of the four humans. No quick, misleading shots of Michael talking to Janet in character for no reason or anything like that. They only show how these people act around the humans, which is easy to notice when you know to look for it. There are also the flashbacks to everyone’s lives. While Eleanor is outright shitty in hers, we see glimpses of the supposedly “good” people’s lives and gain more insight into their time on Earth. Through that, we also learn that Tahani had a bad relationship with her sister and Chidi was cripplingly indecisive. We see their flaws, and assume it’s meant to be about giving us moments to view the characters as more human. But again, that’s just playing our assumptions against us.

                They give us the tools we need to understand. A big part of TGP is the discussion of morality. It’s baked into the concept, since Chidi is teaching Eleanor to be good, so it doesn’t raise any eyebrows when the show slows down to teach Eleanor about things like consequentialism, or how good actions can be bad if their motivation is corrupt, or utilitarianism, or a dozen other ideas. And while again we take that as part of the show, the truth is we’re the ones who need these lessons. All serving the great twist at the end, when we discover that our characters are in the bad place. Now while Eleanor and Jason were a given as rotten apples, Tahani and Chidi appear to be decent people. It’s only when we look at the flashbacks through the lens of our new understanding of ethics that we see the problems: Chidi’s actions, intended or not, caused suffering for everyone in his life, and while Tahani raised billions for charity, her motivations were corrupt from the start since it was really about showing up her sister. It’s because of the lessons imparted through the show without us even noticing that we can understand why these two have ended up where they have.

                I already liked this show, it’s hard not to love Kristin Bell and Ted Danson in anything, but the end of the first season vaulted it to among my all-time favorites. It’s very rare a show manages to hide a secret like this out in the open, laying the groundwork to earn it, without setting off so much as a single red flag in the process. It’s amazing, and if all my gushing hasn’t conveyed the point yet you need to go watch the whole thing. Look for all the lines that seem to say one thing but have a whole new meaning in other context. There’s a ton of them. Really take it in, because that show is a great learning opportunity for anyone who wants to use surprises and twists in their writing.

                Michael-only-knows what we’ll see from them in season 2.

The Basics of Advances

                Once upon a time, as legend tells it, advances on a book flowed freely from the mouth of the Publishing River, soaking every author with a moderate track record and a hot new property to pitch. But the rise of indie and the shift of the publishing model has changed a lot of things, not the least of which being that advances are far less frequent and lower than they once were. Some authors feel that’s a sign of the end-times for the industry, while others (like me) think it’s less of a big deal.

                For anyone not familiar with publishing lingo, let’s knock out a definition real quick. An advance is when a publisher offers an author a chunk of money for their book, let’s be optimistic and say $10,000, upfront upon agreement to publish. However, this is not bonus money as some people believe, it’s more akin to borrowing against your own royalties. See, now the author has a 10k “debt” to fill in. I used quotation marks because they’ll never be asked to pay the money back out of pocket, however the publisher keeps their royalties until they’ve paid back the 10k. This is called “earning out” an advance, where you’ve made back the initial money and have started being paid in royalties once more. Thus, an advance is just what the name implies, you’re getting a big chunk of payment upfront and then nothing more until that amount is paid back.

                I’ll be honest with you all, for a long time I didn’t actually see the point in advances. Lump sums are harder to mentally budget and allocate than a steady stream of cash pouring in from royalties, and from what I’ve heard some publishers use bigger advances to sell authors on a smaller royalty percentage, which can often be a bad deal depending on the sales. But as I’ve learned more about the industry I’ve started to understand the uses of this tool, so I wanted to share those lessons with you folks.

 

Advances Give the Publisher Skin in the Game

                No publisher wants a book they’ve signed to fail. That would be stupid, and bad business, and really just make no sense at all. Every time they spend the money on editors, covers, formatting, etc, they are hoping the book will be a grand slam that earns them enough to buy a yacht made of cocaine. That said, there is a large difference in motivation between a book they’ve published and a book they’ve published while sinking our optimistic $10,000 into. If the non-advanced book does poorly, that sucks, but it’s part of the gamble. If the 10k advanced tanks, that’s a fair chunk of money they know they aren’t going to recoup through royalties. This means that even if every other element in the two books is equal, the publisher has a fiscal incentive to promote the one with an advance more aggressively. That one needs to sell to make the accounts balance, the publisher is more fiscally invested in its success.

                For most authors I’ve talked too, this aspect right here is the biggest element of wanting advances. It’s like the publisher is investing in the book, putting their own money in the game, and promising that they’re going to do all they can to make the book succeed or else they’ll take a loss on the project. And to be fair, in a world where we’re constantly reading tales of publishers shutting down unexpectedly or tossing books they signed into the wind with no promotion, it’s perfectly reasonable to want some assurance, especially if the author is dealing with a publisher they have never worked with before. To this day, I’ve never been big about negotiating for advances, however I also have to admit I’ve been working with the same companies who have earned my trust for years now. If I was building a publishing relationship with someone new, there’s a good chance I would try to get an advance as a sign of commitment, and that would make things tougher because…

 

Advances are Drying Up

                Listen, right now we have to draw sort of a line in the sand between the Big authors and the rest of us on the mid-list and lower. Yes, Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher and J.K. Rowling are going to get huge advances for their projects. They have proven their ability to sell, to generate revenue, so it makes business sense for any publisher to back a dumptruck full of cash into their driveways during negotiation time. For the rest of us, it’s a little more complicated.

                The digital revolution did a lot of things to our world, and a shitload of things to publishing as a whole. Among those changes were the rising of the indie tide which allowed writers like me to even be on the scene in the first place. One of the other big ones, however, was the proliferation of digital books. Aside from convenience and ease of use for the readers, that shift impacted the publishing industry in a big way: minimal production costs. Before e-readers, the cost of a book was more than just editing and formatting it, they also had to produce each copy. Physical books that required time, resources, and transportation, all of which have costs of their own. That’s still around, sure, but not nearly to the same level it once was. Selling e-books is so much cheaper, once the book is finished there are literally no more associated production costs (marketing and the like are another boat). People just click and a copy arrives on their device. This means that the cost of every book is far lower for the publisher, and that translates to a simple business truth: publishers can afford to take more risks than before.

                That impacts advances pretty directly, because it makes a new business model viable. Rather than doling out 10k to an author you think will sell well, they can invest that 10k in creating 10 other books instead. 10 more books, with 10 other sales progressions, and all it takes is one of them to do great or a couple to do moderately well to make back the investment of all 10. Low production costs allow for diversification and greater extension into the market, rather than betting big sums on authors who are expected to, but don’t always, produce sales. I’m not going to say this is the only reason advances seem to be getting rarer and rarer, in fact I’m positive it’s not. This is just one of a million other factors, most of which are way above my paygrade, that have contributed to the advances becoming rare. So, with advances being less frequent and harder to get, the question becomes…

 

Should You Fight for an Advance?

                Like pretty much everything I talk about related to money or art on this blog, there’s not a concrete answer to give. Your situation is your own, and no one will have the exact same circumstances as you do. Big lump sum or steady stream are very different payment methods, and I’m not going to tell you which is best for you. I can, however, talk about how I view the options and maybe give some points to consider.

                For me, even now, I’m not huge on fighting for advances. I’ve gotten a couple through Tantor, nowhere near that optimistic number we’ve been kicking around though, but it was never a big sticking point of the negotiations. Working indie for me is all about consolidating small revenue streams together until I’ve got enough to live on, and I’d rather have another stream than a big chunk of cash followed by nothing.

                There are definitely times it’s worth pursuing, however. Working with a new publisher is a big one, as we discussed above, since it’s a show of faith from them. If you have a project that’s appealing to what you fear might be a limited audience, sometimes an advance will be more than you expect to earn in royalties from the book, so at that point it’s a slightly safer bet for you. And, of course, anytime you’re in a fiscal situation where you actually need a lot of money upfront an advance can be a life-safer. Don’t be afraid to go for it, if an advance is what you really need, just be prepared for a probable uphill battle. Or, if you don’t really need one, maybe consider sacrificing it for a larger slice of the royalty pie or other concessions on the contract. You know you and your work best of all, so don’t be afraid to make the fiscal choices that set you up for success.

Indie Celebration Month Book #4: Mythfits

                Welcome back to the fourth and final week of our Indie Celebration Month! For the final entry, I decided it was time to feature a genre that is dear to my heart for obvious reasons, and often doesn’t get the love it deserves: comedy. Humor is a big part of not only my own work, but what I look for in books to enjoy in my free time, so when I found Mythfits by Heide Goody and Iain Grant I was glad to crack it open and give it a try. What I found was a short-story collection with humorous takes on fairy tales and religious mythology, spanning a myriad of different subjects and yet coming at each of them with an interesting, often funny, spin.

 

Where It Shines

                Mythfits is a collection of short stories, and while some feature pre-existing characters that have appeared in earlier stories many exist only for one shot. It’s in the latter group that Mythfits really shows what the team of authors is best at. The tales are concise, and strong for it, often exploring single concepts or ideas but doing so well enough that each story feels unexpectedly satisfying. There’s a brevity that some authors would shy away from in a few of them, and while that could have been a detriment in this case it makes several of the works stronger. They get in, set up the funny premise, and then leave before the idea can grow stale. It’s bold in a few cases, but overall a strategy that works. There’s a story about supportive witches that was a great example of this quick-and-funny strategy.

                There’s also a big emphasis on the humor itself, from dialogue to narration to small details that add an extra layer when a reader notices them. Some books like these will toss the comedy on as an afterthought, however here it was clearly a focus and showed more polish because of that effort. Despite the comedic concentration, there’s plenty of careful world-building done, especially in the one-offs, that utilize the economy of words and paint a fuller setting for the stories with a few carefully dropped details.

 

Where It Could Improve

                As much as I enjoyed the one-shot stories, the ones with previous continuity were a little weaker. I’d never read anything by this duo before, but within a few stories I’d realized that they were using the book to explore some worlds that had clearly existed beforehand. A quick search of their Amazon listing proved me correct, and while there’s nothing wrong with using short stories to show a new angle on an existing property (I’ve done it, and more importantly so have authors way bigger and better than me) it felt like these entries expected the reader to already be familiar with those worlds. Less effort was put into establishing characters or building the setting, which led to the tales as a whole feeling a bit flatter than the one-shot entries.

                I’d also say that while most of the stories were well-constructed and enjoyable, some of them lacked any real arc. It was more like watching a scene played out by characters that, while interesting, didn’t build toward resolution or conclusion. I enjoyed the time spent on them, I just wished a few of the stories had a bit more story in them. That said, one of the benefits of working in comedy is that if the laughs are good and it serves the tone of the tale, it’s okay to tell a story without a point. The few that didn’t resonate with me might hit your funny bones right on target.

 

Conclusion

                Comedy short story collections are fewer and farther between than they should be, and this one was a fun way to kill a few hours. Mythfits spans a large array of worlds and settings, dipping a toe in here and there all over the place, ultimately cherry-picking the best humorous materials from each of their sources. It’s a quick, enjoyable read that’s perfect for when you’ve only got time for a few pages and still want to feel like you’ve finished something. The authors have a long list of titles available on their respective Amazon pages as well, so if you like the overall tone and style you’ll have lots of options to follow it up with.

                I’d also like to say a big thanks to everyone who submitted ideas for this year’s Indie Celebration Month. It was amazing getting to look at and read through so many of your favorite indie titles, and I hope to make this a yearly tradition so that I can discover even more hidden gems. Thanks so much for joining us for this, and remember if you read and like any of these books be sure to leave a review for their authors. Hope you found something you’ve really enjoyed!

Indie Celebration Month Book #3: Fire Sower

                Hey there folks! Glad you could make it to the third week of our celebration of indie books, this time featuring Fire Sower by Callie Kanno. While the first two books were good, they were also both toned in a way that was meant to examine and play with genres and the expectations therein. I decided it was time for a more straightforward book, one that tried to be true to its genre rather than deconstruct it. In Fire Sower, I found a story set in a seemingly simple fantasy world with a big emphasis on characters, and that was exactly what I was looking for.

 

Where It Shines

                As I said before, the book does a good job of making the tale about its characters, specifically the MC Idris. You’ve got a classic premise of a simple farmer chosen for greatness by forces beyond his control, so the premise isn’t trying to be ground-breaking, but that’s okay because it’s not really about that. The real story is Idris having to adjust to the new world where he finds himself, trying to find a balance between embracing the new and remembering his roots, as well as figuring out if this is even the life he truly wants to live. A big emphasis is put on relationships through the tale, and I don’t mean the romantic kind. Idris has to find familiar ground with his fellow Royal Guards, the higher-ups, and even his own weapon. None of which come easily, either. This isn't a “one good talk and we’re fine now” kind of tale, it’s about small steps, some of which go backward, and building trust a little at a time.

                Also worth a mention: the plot keeps you guessing. I mentioned above that the premise is fantasy-standard, and really that’s true for most of the elements in the story as a whole. Yet the way they’re used and mixed about is often surprising. There were several times I thought I knew which direction the tale would unfold based on how these things usually went, only to find myself surprised as it went a whole other way. And those new directions never felt unnatural, they were well-grounded in the thoughts and personalities of the characters that had been established.

 

Where it Could Improve

                Despite the twists and turns, the overall plot still does feel a little too familiar in a lot of places. It stays true to the fantasy roots, and while adding a lot in terms of character and relationships, does very little unique with the world as a whole. Maybe the author is playing a long game here, planning for a series and intending to expand the setting slowly, revealing its own gems a piece at a time, but for their first outing the world as a whole felt generic. There were a few tidbits with potential, however they came later and were packed against more interesting plot points so it was easy to miss them.

                Additionally, while the character work on the main cast was excellent, the side characters weren’t nearly as well developed. It’s a bit strange to go from dealing with complex, well-rounded characters to ones that may as well have their roles written across their forehead. Had the author not done such a good job on the prime cast it may not have stood out so glaringly, but the difference between the quality of characterization was wide enough to be jarring on some occasions. This is especially true in terms of the antagonists, who were more plot props than people. We saw nothing compelling, redeeming, or interesting in them, they’re just assholes who are clearly meant to be evil. It didn’t weaken this book tremendously, but if Fire Sower goes for a full series I hope it finds a more compelling villain to pull things along.

 

The Conclusion

                If you want a classic fantasy with a big emphasis on characters and a plot where you won’t see every turn coming, Fire Sower is a good fit for you. It also does an excellent job of properly ending the book while still leaving room for a series rather than cutting off without warning, an issue you’ve all heard me rant about at length. Thankfully, this one had a satisfying conclusion that really brought with it a sense of closure, along with curiosity of what else awaited the characters.

                You can read Fire Sower for yourself here, or check out the author’s website. It seems there will be more books in the series to come, so if you really like it don’t forget to check back for the sequel. And I look forward to seeing you all next week for the final book in our month of indie celebration!

 

 

Indie Celebration Month Book #2: Mayday: A Kaiju Thriller

                Welcome back for the second week of our indie book celebration month. After I’d finished last week’s deep dive into the realm of fantasy, I started wanting to try something a little more modern next. I found a good fit for that craving in Mayday: A Kaiju Thriller by Chris Strange. As with last week, I won’t bother rehashing a plot when you can read the author’s own summary for yourself. It’s a tale where kaiju are not only real, but an ever-looming threat in a world that’s seen how destructive they can be. Despite all the trappings of an action piece, which this definitely is, the story itself is a mystery, styled in a blatant throwback to the pulp noir detective pieces of old. It’s an interesting mixing of genres, and I wasn’t sure it would work, but I’ll be damned if the two didn’t mesh surprisingly well.

 

Where It Shines

                I have to say, Chris Strange did a wonderful job building atmosphere with this book. That, more than any other element, stands out to me even in the weeks since I actually read the novel. From the beginning, there’s an inherent tension to the setting we’re presented with. This is a battle-scarred world, one where humanity has seen how easily it can be wiped out, and the effects of that really resonate throughout the story. It’s even more impressive because, as tense as things open, they escalate well as more plot unfolds, until you genuinely feel the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

                The book also does a good job with conjuring the right feel of the old-school detective novels. Despite the fantasy setting, the main character (Jay Escobar) seems like he could have been plucked from the grime-covered streets of any classic gumshoe’s tale. Smart, pragmatic, and surly at the right times. As a mystery, the story holds up well as a whole. There are constant twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, to the point where you really don’t know how things will end, or if the humans will even win. The stakes are firmly established and feel very real, which is vital to both a horror tale and a mystery novel, and which the book pulls off quite nicely.

 

Where it Could Improve

                As much as I just praised Jay Escobar as a character that does an excellent job of encapsulating his genre, the truth is there are times when he’s a little too spot on as a vintage detective. While the throwback is nice to establishing a tone and genre for the book, Jay is such a carbon copy of the old-school detectives that he comes off thin as a character, feeling instead more like a piece of scenery. I kept waiting for some modern update or addition that would distinguish Jay from the mental cardboard cutout of a PI we all have, but it never arrived. If he were a side-character it wouldn’t have been as noticeable, but as the MC the lack of distinction did make it harder to care about him as a whole. He worked great as a set piece, and I definitely cared about the fate of the world, but there was nothing human enough to drag me into caring about Jay and I think the book was a little weaker for it.

                To some extent, that’s true of really all the characters with a couple of rare exceptions. They feel like pieces moved into position that are meant to add to the style and atmosphere rather than exist as individuals. The flipside to this is that it creates a story where it truly feels like the world is the main issue at stake, individuals can be cast aside easily, and that serves to reinforce the overall tone of the novel. But if you’re the sort of reader who really needs to connect to a character to get into a book, then this might be a harder work to enjoy.

 

The Conclusion

                Overall, Mayday was a great, quick read. It was especially refreshing because I’d just rejected a few fantasy works for going so clumsily hard on world-building in the first few chapters, whereas this one did a wonderful job working the small details into the actual story. It wasn’t afraid to toss you an idea at the opening, then slowly drag out the reveal of backstory and tidbits about the world. It trusted its reader to stay engaged even if they didn’t know how everything worked from the outset, and it paid off by allowing a world that feels more expansive than the ones that blow their whole setting before chapter three.

                Pick this up if you’re looking for a great example of a genre-mashup and world-building, as well as an intricate mystery plot surrounding giant monsters set on destroying humanity. It was an all-around good time to read, and I look forward to the sequel when it comes out. You can pick up the book here or go check out Chris Strange’s website. Enjoy, and I’ll see you all here for Book #3!

 

Indie Celebration Month Book #1: Dungeon Born

                Welcome everyone to Indie Celebration Month here on DrewHayesNovels.com! For the next four weeks, I’m going to be reviewing books that you, my wonderful readers, told me to check out and I ended up greatly enjoying. Now obviously there were more than four books I liked, you all suggested a ton, so I tried to give these spots to books with fewer reviews than some of the ones already tearing up the charts. Gotta spread the love where it’s needed most, so don’t worry if something you loved didn’t end up here, it might just be too big already.

                I’m tackling this project chronologically in order that I read the books, so this week’s choice was one I found early on named Dungeon Born by Dakota Krout. I’ll skip the summary, mostly because there’s a link right there where you can read one in the author’s own words. All you need to know is that it’s about a man in a stone that turns into a dungeon, and it’s pretty damn fun.

 

Where It Shines

                I really don’t know if this is LitRPG or not, people seem divided on what that term encompasses, but this particular fantasy is clearly meant to poke some fun at the Tabletop/Video Game worlds we often go exploring in. The world-building here is really great, as it justifies common aspects to dungeon crawls which had previously seemed nonsensical. Reappearing monsters, loot dropping from nowhere, shifting difficulty curves, all of it is addressed in a way that not only makes sense, but really contributes to the story as a whole. It’s fun, light-hearted stuff for the majority of the tale with sudden, often unexpected, turns into dark patches that highlight the inherent dangers this sort of world would encompass.

                I’m also going to say that the characterization is strong in one piece of the story, that surrounding the owner of the dungeon’s land: Dale. Through the eyes of a relative rookie that begins ascending the ranks of adventurer, we see more of the world outside the dungeon and meet a cast of characters that, while sometimes blending together, shine well when they do stand out. We see a lot of classic fantasy stock-types, some played straight and others tweaked for surprise, and all in all the moments of the story that might have been a real detraction end up bringing some of the most interesting bits in the book.

 

Where it Could Improve

                Weirdly, we’re going to start with characterization again. As much as I enjoyed the characters outside the dungeon, those inside it were significantly less fleshed out, which is no small detail since one is arguably the main character. There’s a lot of growth and discovery in the dungeon as the stone (Cal) learns more about what he can do with his abilities. Those bits are fun, too, don’t get me wrong. It’s part of the world-building and as I said already that area is strong. The issue is that we see very little personal growth in Cal through the story. Maybe it’s a commentary on the static nature of beings like Cal, but it still felt like there was room for more there.

                A lot of the characterization trouble probably came from the other main issue in this book: exposition. Specifically, exposition in dialogue. Cal and his Wisp friend are the main occupants of the dungeon, and over the book we’re told that they’ve grown closer, but it’s an odd shift considering that nearly every chat they have is a massive dump of exposition regarding how to be a dungeon/how the world works. There is minimal effort made to get to see what lies beyond these characters’ business arrangement, and it makes some of the sentiment near the end come a bit out of nowhere. Maybe the author is trying to move character development slowly through the series, maybe he was just hamstrung by the tremendous amount of exposition that went into the world-building. Either way, I hope this area picks up a bit in the next entry.

 

The Conclusion

                Look, I’m not going to talk about any books in here that I don’t really enjoy, so this section won’t be some big shocker regarding whether or not the book is worth checking out. It definitely is, that’s why it’s getting a place in the celebration. The only reason I put in a “Where it Could Improve” section was so folks knew what they were stepping into. As I discussed in Literary Red Flags, there are just some things that every reader can’t stand, and it only feels fair to let you know what you’d be getting in a new read.

                With all of that said, I really enjoyed Dungeon Born. It was fun, never took itself too seriously, and knew when to go for the laugh instead of the drama, and vice versa. It’s a solid work by a new author; one who I hope sees a lot of success in his works to come.

                As far as a sequel, Dakota has confirmed that one is in the works. A pre-order page is expected to go live on January 15th with a release of February 15th. If you want to know more, Dakota’s site is https://dungeonborn.wordpress.com and he’s got a Facebook page for the series over at https://www.facebook.com/TheDivineDungeon/. I hope you all dig the book as much as I did. See you next week when we talk about Celebration Book #2! 

 

2016 Wrap Up

                Wow, another year in the can. It’s been an interesting one too, for the world at large as well. This was a year of contraction for me, of learning to scale back rather than let myself become over-loaded and have things fall to the side. Before writing this, I read the 2015 Wrap Up and the need for that is painfully clear in last year’s writings. Last year I discussed the fact that writing Forging Hephaestus blew up my schedule and how I wouldn’t have my head above water for a month yet. The truth is I didn’t actually break through the waves until around May, I was playing one form of catch-up or another until then.

                In 2016, I ended the experiment that was Starter Serials. It was a lot of fun, and I felt like it did serve a purpose, but ultimately I created it because I wanted a place where new serial writers could get their feet wet before starting a site of their own, and in the time it existed the other options for that ballooned significantly. Starter Serials wasn’t needed, and taking it off my plate freed up a fair chunk of time. I also stepped down from my presidency of the Pen and Cape Society. Truth be told, I wasn’t a very good president during my second year, I was always running between one project or another and I didn’t take the time to lead as I should have. Since I stepped away, the PCS has gotten a lot more active under its new leadership, which is as it should be.

                Now some of you are probably wondering why, in a blog where I traditionally celebrate accomplishments of the past year, I took a whole paragraph to talk about things I quit. The reason for that is simple: quitting is in itself an accomplishment. Running your own business like this, it is easy, too easy, to over-extend yourself. You try to do everything, and in the end only pull off a handful of things while half-assing all the rest of it. There’s nothing wrong with trying something new, just like there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that it hasn’t worked out or isn’t needed anymore. For those of you wanting to go down the full-time writer path, it is vital that you learn to manage your time, creativity, and energy properly, because you don’t have infinite of any of them. Letting go is important, shifting priorities is necessary, so don’t be afraid to do that when needed.

                In terms of overall accomplishments, it was a pretty good year. I did my first con, Comicplaooza, then did my second con, CONtraflow, with most of the A&D guys. We had our first live podcast at CONtraflow, in fact. In the book world, I released my first-ever spin-off, Corpies, and it did well. The third books in both Fred and the SS&S series came out as well, both of them outselling their predecessors. Tantor released audio versions of all of the current Super Powereds books, which have been a great shot in the arm and gotten the books out to a whole new audience. Tantor even liked them enough to sign Forging Hephaestus and try to produce it in advance, so that the audio version should (remember, not in my hands) be out with the digital and print versions. I created my first ever hardcover book! And while there’s no movie or TV series for anything yet, there has at least been interest in a few properties. Maybe Super Powereds: Year 1 being an Audible Finalist for Best Fantasy Book of 2016 (I know this is bragging, but this is the paragraph where I celebrate accomplishments so it’s permitted) will get me some attention. Maybe that goal isn’t as far away as it has been in years prior.

                But, as with all years, 2016 has come to its end. So the slate wipes clean, and I have to start working on new accomplishments to celebrate. Let’s get the ball rolling on that with some goals (no resolutions here if you recall) for 2017!

 

2017 Goals

1. Finish Super Powereds: Year 4: I don’t have a release date for this book yet, and I won’t anytime soon. But in 2017, I plan to finish writing Year 4. My current plan is to take the next few months and write as far ahead as I can in the story. By March, which is the latest I could wait to start a book for Fall 2017, I’ll have to make a choice: keep writing and turn Super Powereds: Year 4 into my fall release, or pause to write something else and put out Year 4 sometime in 2018. Which I choose will depend entirely on how far along in the story I am. Remember, even once I finish there’s still editing and proofing that needs to be done before the book can come out. It’s purely going to come down to pragmatic issues in terms of timing, however no matter what I plan to wrap writing the story in 2017. It’s a little bitter-sweet to be honest, but I’ll take time to reflect on that when I’ve actually reached the end, not before.

2. Release Fred #4: As always, this is in REUTS’s court in terms of timing, but seeing as I’ve got the first draft already written, I don’t forsee this being a big issue. Some of you might notice that, unlike last year, the next Swords, Spells, & Stealth book isn’t in this entry. That’s because if SP:Y4 takes the fall slot, the next SS&S book won’t be out in 2017. Like I said earlier, there’s not infinite of anything, so we have to choose our projects carefully.

3. Do a Con with the whole A&D crew: As much fun as we all had at CONtraflow, I’d really like to attend a con with the entire team present. We’re working on this behind the scenes, and while nothing is certain I will say that the possibility of pulling this off is viable. I have a minimal amount of ability to influence this one, but I’ll still do my best.

4. Movie/TV deal: You know what, there have been enough close calls, and I’m ready to see something happen, so I’m putting this on the list. Let’s make 2017 the year Drew gets his first TV/Movie deal, followed by 2018 as the year you finally see one of the properties on a screen. Other than the words on your computer screen, I mean.

5. Complete the Authors & Dragons secret side-project: I can’t tell you what we’re doing, hence the word secret, but me and the A&D guys have been putting something together for the past few months. I’d like to see it pulled off and released in 2017 for our listeners/readers who have been amazingly patient.

                That’s enough droning from me about what I plan to pull off in 2017, tell me about your New Year’s Goals in the comments below. Thanks so much for sticking with me through another year, it’s been a great one, but let’s make the next even better!

Drew Tries Stuff: A Bunch of Gift Boxes

                Hey there everyone! I hope the holidays are treating you well. Down here in Texas the temperature has finally dropped below 20, so I’m starting to see what winter is like for the rest of the country. Have to say: not a fan. I had to wear real shoes instead of flip-flops the other day, can you believe that?

                Anyway, today I wanted to do a special festive version of Drew Tries Stuff. With Christmas on Sunday, I know some of you are scrambling to think of last minute gifts for people you have no clue what to buy for. And in those moments, the option to get them some sort of monthly gift service can be truly tempting. No judgement here, I’ve used the tactic myself. So, for those of you stuck wanting to get a person something without having any idea what they might actually want, I went and tested several different services to see what the best bang for your buck is.

 

The One Everyone Knows: Lootcrate

                Part of me wishes I’d asked them to sponsor this blog, since it seems like they’ll pay for advertisements everywhere else. Podcasts, Youtube, even regular old cable: sometimes it seems hard to even open the fridge without hearing about Lootcrate. I guess that’s the point of aggressive marketing though: to make sure people know your name. Anyway, this was the first thing to check off on the list since it’s so well known.

                Full disclosure: I actually bought this last year since it seemed fun. And for the most part, it has been. Figurines, shirts, neat little accessories, and digital coupon codes make up the usual offerings from month to month. It’s a fun moment, getting the box and popping it open to see what’s inside. Occasionally you’ll get something really unique and interesting too. But since I’ve got a long-term perspective on this, I know that the other side of the equation is clutter. After looking at the non-functional stuff like figurines or décor, you then have to make a choice: use it to decorate your home, give it away, or trash it. While in the beginning you’ll pick the first option a lot, eventually it starts making a home look kind of cluttered, like you left things lying about. Soon you’ve got to make room for the new stuff, which means giving away or tossing the old.

                For the price and the fun, Lootcrate isn’t a bad deal by any means. But if eventually the shine wears off the apple and you opt to quit then you won’t have a hard time. Full credit to Lootcrate: it was super easy to cancel. All available right there online, no need to make any calls. Plus, there’s a lot of customization on this one. You can do Lootcrate Anime, Lootcrate Gaming, Lootcrate Pets, and several more. It’s a good value for a fair cost (About $15-$20/month depending on the plan), so if you need a gift in a pinch this one can work well.

 

The High-Priced One: The Chive Box

                I thought about doing one of those fashion boxes next, but I decided not to for a lot of reasons, mostly that loads of people have different ideas of what makes good fashion so it would be hard to make a general review on the topic. Maybe somewhere down the line.

                This is a little more comparing apples-to-apples. The Chive is a site either known for its philanthropy or douchery depending on which part of the Internet you hail from, but it was the best example of a high-end lootcrate style box I could find. And that’s what this is, make no mistake. It’s a version of Lootcrate that costs ~$60 a month and advertises a box with a value of over $100 in contents. I got one of these in November, and to their credit they did send a fair bit of stuff. Some of it was referral to the brand, but most of it was generically usable. The theme was Movember, and it contained things like a simple (comfy) t-shirt, a mustache beer mug topper, and several different products for beards/mustaches.

                While I wasn’t going to get much mileage out of the beard stuff (I keep a short trim even at my facial-wildest) I do have to give them credit for sticking to the theme. And with the exception of some stickers, everything they sent was either wearable or usable, which means it’s less likely to be a clutter issue. However, on the test of cancelation The Chive fell flat: forcing me to contact a representative to end the expensive subscription.

                Between the price and the issues of cancellation, it’s hard for me to call this one a great deal. That said, if you know someone who enjoys the brand and would get a lot out of it, this would make an excellent gift that includes things of actual usefulness, so it absolutely has some value. While Lootcrate was a good catch-all gift, the Chive Box is a solid option for someone you might want to get something more targeted for.

 

The Specialized One: Shades Club

                 Despite originally planning to do three grab-bag style boxes like the two above, searching the internet kept leading me to options that were A) Far more specialized or B) Clearly trying to ape the exact model of Lootcrate, and I just didn’t see any value in reviewing what would fundamentally be the same product twice. Instead, I decided to take on one of the more specialized options in the form of Shades Club, a company that sends you sunglasses for $30 a month.

                I picked this one for a reason, by the way. I am constantly wearing sunglasses, both because the sun is always bright down here in Dallas and because I like to be left alone when walking my dog. But I’m highly prone to losing the damn things, so I always buy extremely cheap pairs from gas stations or Amazon. This seemed like a good way to get slightly nicer sunglasses for my constantly shrinking collection that might be better than price indicates.

                And you know what, that’s exactly what I got. I’ve only recieved one pair so far but I have to say it was a pretty nice set of sunglasses. Comfortable, functional, and without the thing where it’s darker at the top than the bottom. I hate that crap, it always leaves me discombobulated. These were awesome, a very nice pair I’m happy I have and get a lot of use out of. Granted, one set is a narrow sample size, but it indicated at least a quality product. And like Lootcrate before it: full marks for ease of cancelation. You just log-in, click your account, and turn off the subscription when you don’t want to keep paying. No calls, no e-mails, no nothing.

                At the end of the day, this one is a little more specialized than the grab-bag boxes, but the flip-side is that you’re getting a product you know the recipient wants (or else I’d hope you’d get them something different) with almost no chance of it becoming clutter. $30 for sunglasses is a steep mark-up from my usual gas station accessories, however it’s a small sum compared to what shades usually cost. Overall I’m pretty happy with this one, enough that I actually decided to keep the subscription up for a few more months. Summer is just around the corner after all, and I’m bound to lose a few pairs of sunglasses on my first trip to the beach.

                Whatever you choose, good luck with your gift-giving and Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah/Happy Holidays/Merry Festivus to you and yours!

Literary Red Flags

                As many of you know, this week I’ve been spending my days reading rather than writing as both a nice mini-vacation and a way to look through as many of the recommendations for January Indie Blog month as possible. Sidenote: Is it too on the nose if I call that event the Drewgos? Yeah, it probably is. Anyway, the point is that since there are far too many books on the list for me to read, I had to start with samples and see which ones held my interest enough for me to keep going once we passed the 10% mark.

                In going through it like this, however, I’ve started to notice more of the red flags that I pick up on that tip me off to the fact that perhaps a book needed a little more polish before going out into the world. Since critical reading is a big part of being a writer (at least when reading your own work) I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of my red flags, why they exist, and why even when I see them I’ll sometimes keep on reading.

 

Flag #1: First Person Narrative

                Relax everyone; I’m not saying that first person is a bad way to write stories. It is, in fact, a really powerful tool that’s responsible for some truly great pieces of literature. If I’m settling in with an author I trust, then it’s not even a red flag for me. However, when exploring books by new authors seeing first person automatically makes me worried over what I’m about to step into.

                I’ve talked about it here and there on other blogs, but my issue with first person is that while it’s in fact one of the hardest narrative perspectives to do well, it’s also the default choice for a lot of new writers. I’m not crapping on others from a hill here, my first attempt at a book (never published or on the net, thank god) was first person and it was horrid, this was a lesson I learned firsthand. First person seems like it should be easy, because it’s looking at the world from a single person’s perspective, and that’s what all of us do already. But the truth is first person is very limiting, yet you’ve still got to do all the other work a story demands through that one viewpoint. You have to build a world, other characters, tension, ambiance, and so much more all through one set of eyes. And that shit is hard. So it’s not a knock that most people, especially new writers still finding their style, don’t use the narrative especially well. It’s a good tool, and one that should be used, just not without reason.

                When people ask me about stuff like this (I can’t believe it either, but the emails do come) I try to tell them that if you want to use first person, you need to have a reason for it, not assume it as the default. For me, I used first person for the Fred series because seeing the world through the filter of the character was important to setting the tone and general humor. One of my fellow web-serial-turned-ebook-writers did the same with Continue Online, where the limitations are important because uncertainty and discovery are big themes of the book. To use a commonly known example, from a well I’ve admittedly drawn from many times, Dresden Files works great as a first person because Harry Dresden has limited information, so you as the reader do to, which makes for a more thrilling read as the cases unravel. Like I said before, first person narrative is a great option to make solid stories, but it requires care and precision to be used well.

 

Flag #2 Starting with Worlds over Characters

                In several of the books I’ve been looking at, especially the ones geared toward the fantasy genre, there has been a heavy emphasis on creating the world over introducing me to the characters. Now, I know some people with disagree will me here, but to me that reads as flawed storytelling. Yes, your world is very important, especially at the start of a new series, however there’s almost no chance it’s more important than your characters. The world is a setting, perhaps a grandiose and lovely one with endless possibility that a reader wants to dive into, yet still a setting. Characters, on the other hand, are the emotional hook that draws a reader in and makes them care about the world in the first place. Using the early sections of a book to establish how awesome and historic a world is can seem like it’s laying a foundation for awesome story-telling later, I get that. The problem is that if you don’t give a reader enough story to draw them in then they’ll never stay long enough to see it. Without a strong connection to the characters we’re basically reading a fictional history/geography textbook, and there’s a pretty small market of people who enjoy that.

                I’m not saying world building isn’t important, mind you. It is, it really is. And I’m not even saying you have to eschew it entirely in the beginning. I’m just saying go slow, be sparing with what you give. All I need to start a book is where I am in a given scene. Give me that piece of the world first, and maybe sprinkle in some hints at what lays beyond that. A nice farming village where they occasionally find debris from an ancient battle, a kingdom’s capital where the threat of war hangs in the air, an island community made up of those who came for reasons unknown (for now) generations ago. Start small, and then slowly expand outward. Make each piece of the world interesting first, then let us see more of what’s beyond the boundaries as the characters move there. People, emotions, common experiences or desires, these are what ground us in a world no matter how mythical. Lay that foundation first, and then move us into the world.

 

Flag #3 Poor Editing

                Look, I know I’m the last person who gets to talk shit about this. My editing skills are horrendous. It takes me two editors and a wonderful beta group to get my books to the state they’re published in. But part of me thinks that because it’s my area of weakness, I can say this to my fellow authors without sounding like I’m talking down to them: you need an editor. There might be people out there who don’t require one, geniuses and prodigies do exist, but never assume you’re one until you’ve got the track record to prove it.

                I try to read a lot of indie, and that means I see a loads of books with real potential and awful editing. I don’t just mean typos and misplaced commas; though yes plenty of that too. I’m talking about badly structured discussions where it’s unclear who is speaking, whole chunks of exposition dropped into conversation without so much as a pause for someone else to ask a question, continuity errors large and small, and so much more. An editor is more than an expensive version of spellcheck, it’s a person who looks for these sorts of issues professionally and brings them to your attention. They may not always say what you want to hear, but if they’re good then they’ll tell you what you need to hear, and your book will be better for it. Even if you don’t take their suggestions, it will force you to look at the issue and find a way to improve.

                In a pinch, if cash won’t permit paying for a true editor, then workshop the shit out of your book. Get critique partners, there are dozens of sites dedicated to matching up authors so they can look over one another’s work. Make sure someone else, someone impartial and not concerned about hurting your feelings, takes a long look at your work. Because there are mistakes there, whether you’re Neil Gaiman or an indie nobody like me. You need the input, the edits, to make a work stronger. We all do, and there’s no shame in that.

                 I think that’s enough red flags for this time around. I just want to take a minute to thank everyone for all their suggestions for January’s upcoming event. Despite how this blog might make it seem, you folks tossed out some great stories I’ve had a ton of fun reading, and I’ve still got a lot to get through. Thanks for sharing the books you loved with me!

Surviving Office Christmas Parties 101

                Believe it or not, before I became head of the endlessly burning strip-mall carnival that is Thunder Pear Publishing, I used to work regular office jobs. Well, okay, that’s probably easy to believe since I’ve mentioned it before and obviously I had to work regular jobs before the writing took off. Point is, I spent much of my twenties having to go to Office Christmas Parties (OCP from here on out) and noting the myriad of missteps my fellow cubicle grunts would commit. Since I know much of my audience is still finding their own footing in the corporate world, I thought I would put together a handy guide for how to get through an OCP without tarnishing, and perhaps even elevating, your reputation among your coworkers.

 

1. Don’t Steal Anything Too Heavy

                It goes without saying that you’ll use the distraction of an OCP to rob your office blind. They pay you shit wages and refuse to promote you even though you only showed up drunk to work like… three times this year, which is a huge improvement from the last. Seeing as how no one does Christmas bonuses anymore, it’s your God-given right to pilfer as much as possible while the bosses are doing body shots off a copier.

                However, rein in your ambition there Robin Hood. You still have to come to work next week, and it’s not like security is going to be too drunk to watch the security cameras when an entire copy machine is missing. Focus on small things you can hide in your pockets, purse, or suit jacket. Pens, pencils, staplers, toilet paper (if your office is nice enough to spring for the good stuff), post-its, memo pads, you get the idea. Things you can sell to your irresponsible roommates or some college kids with hope still shining in their eyes (bastards) to make a quick buck.

                I know, I know, the monitors look nice and shiny and you can just picture how fancy the pizza you could buy with that money would be, but better a thousand small crimes you pull off than one big one that gets you booted out the door.

 

2. Never be Drunker than “The Boss”

                I put quotation marks on that because I want to be very clear here: I’m not talking about your particular boss. Like you, they are a cog in a greater machine, meaning any power or value they appear to have is illusionary. No, I’m talking about The Boss, the most powerful person present at any given gathering. It’s a title that shifts as people enter and exit the party, one you need to keep careful track of. If The Boss is throwing back shots and yelling for someone to make a sandwich run, you take a few yourself and make that fucking sandwich run (By which I mean order sandwiches on your phone. It’s the future, let’s act like it).

                Nobody likes the office shitshow (or so I’m told) but a stick in the mud is no fun either. Treat The Boss like a pace car: however much they’ve had, you’re a few drinks behind. Because when the dust settles, as long as you were A) around The Boss and B) didn’t do anything worse than them, you’ll be untouchable. After all, if you play this right then The Boss might have a new drinking buddy, and nobody fires their drinking buddy.

                In the event your version of The Boss is sober, quiet, or otherwise boring, then you must be too. Maybe use the time to hunt for a new gig, because that place sounds like it sucks.

 

3) Spike the Punch Carefully

                Listen, we both know you’re going to spike that punch. What did they put in it, two drops of Crème de Menthe? Don’t they know you’ve got the kind of drinking habit that comes from dealing with a dead-end job in your post-college years? That punch as is won’t cut it. You need something that hits you like an actual punch, yet still tastes sweet enough to mask the garbage liquor you can afford. But you have to use a delicate hand, you don’t want upper management to realize all the cube-dwellers are shit-housed before they’ve sipped enough wine to feel buzzed. Part of that means making sure no wanderers who try the punch can tell that you’ve… let’s say recalibrated it.

                Your first aim should be to match flavor with flavor. If it’s a fruity punch, use a fruity liquor (yes the old man who runs the liquor store will judge you, but he’s done that since you came in three times in the same night to buy more cases of beer anyway) or if it’s a mint punch go for something like Rumple Minze to get mint flavor. If flavors cannot be paired, however, then you might have to match bite with bite.

                In a worst case scenario, you may have to show (gasp) initiative. Bring your own fruit punch mix, toss out whatever garbage they made, and fill that fucker with Everclear. Fruit punch is already a little tart, so the bite of the Everclear won’t be as bad. I won’t lie to you, the punch-spike-switch is a high-level maneuver that comes with plenty of risk. Pull it off though, and you shall be carried on the shoulders of your fellow cube stooges as the night’s triumphant hero.

 

4. White Elephant with Care

                Don’t bring a dildo to the office gift exchange. I know by this point you’ve realized this whole blog is comic over-exaggeration, but this is actually a very real lesson I saw unfold in the office days. Someone brought a dildo to a white elephant gift exchange with management, not just their department, and it went over exactly as well as you’d expect. So I repeat once more before we dive back into the absurd humor: Don’t bring a dildo to the office gift exchange.

                Instead, bring a dozen dildos to the office gift exchange. Bring as many as you can afford, and remember you’ve got that sweet office supply money coming to refill your coffers, so go nuts. Swap out every card and tag with one of your dildos wrapped in an assortment of different, untraceable festive papers. The goal here is not to make everyone bring home a sex-toy, that’s a side-benefit. No, the goal is to sow distrust among your peers and overseers. When the gifts start getting opened with false name tags attached, they will be forced to ask the inevitable question: did… did someone replace all the gifts with dildos? No, that’s impossible, no one would be crazy enough to do that. More likely, everyone here felt like dildos were an appropriate gift to bring to an office party. As more dildos emerge and the distrust mounts, whisper in their ears, plant fears and secrets, and wait to harvest them when the New Year arrives.

                But if you’re not willing to commit to that level of deception and trouble-making, then skip the lewd gift entirely. Bring batteries, or something useful but boring, and bide your time until the real party begins. Soon the booze will flow, The Boss will try to drown their latest divorce in whiskey, and the office supply pantry will be unguarded.

There is partying to do, so go forth and do it!