Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category

In The Tombs of Poets

This is 3 Ninjas.


If you’re around my age, you might remember it as part of a mid-90’s craze for all things ninja.  After the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, American youth could not get enough of wisecracking young men practicing the art of ninjutsu.  There were a few things that came out of this era, some of them pretty embarrassing, and amongst them, 3 Ninjas was nothing particularly special.

It was about three youths who liked pizza, candy, music, bicycling–all the stuff you were supposed to like–who outwitted three bumbling burglars with a number of zany household traps, got the girl and eventually foiled a terrorist plot with the help of their grandpa, who taught them all how to be ninjas.

It was really stupid, so of course I loved it.

It was produced, in part, by a man named Simon Sheen.

This is North Korea.



Formed in the early days of the rivalry between the East and West, it was part of Korea that was claimed by Russia after the Korean War, which occurred after the occupying Japanese colonies had been expelled after World War II.

It is a nation of dire poverty ruled by the last Communist dictatorship remaining on earth.  Its many troubles include an intractable social structure, widespread famine, endless paranoia and a government so oppressive that it could almost be called cartoonish if not for the thousands of its citizens dying in prison camps.

At the moment it is controlled by a man called Kim Jong-Un.  For many years before that, including the 90’s, it was controlled by a man named Kim Jong-Il.

You can read many books about North Korea.  Here are three of my favorites.

In the 70’s to 80’s, North Korea’s many troubles became the world’s many troubles.  Inflated by then-relevant military equipment, North Korea was frequently a source of strife in the world, including many military skirmishes, assassination attempts and kidnappings of foreign citizens.

These latter ones were almost all choreographed by Kim Jong-Il, who later kidnapped a man named Shin Sang-Ok.


This is him, doing what he loved.

Shin Sang-Ok was a man who was born in North Korea back before there was such a place.  He moved to South Korea later and, at a young age, decided that he had to make movies.

Note the language choice there.  He didn’t want to make movies, he had to make movies.  It was his only calling in life.  He wanted to do nothing else but make movies.  We all tend to laugh gaily, sipping wine, as we discuss theoretical “callings” to our art, but Shin Sang-Ok never discussed it, any more than you or I would discuss a need to eat, to breathe, to sleep.  Because these things were one and the same to him: something that simply had to be done, occasionally to his own detriment.

Post-war Asia was an interesting time: devastated and humiliated, many Asian countries sought a means of exporting their image, rebuilding themselves in the eyes of the world.  A fair number of artists, Shin included, realized that the way to do this was through film.  In this era, you would start to see geniuses like Akira Kurosawa rise, but few people discuss Shin Sang-Ok.

But back when he was in his prime?  They did.  Because Shin Sang-Ok was everywhere.  His movies were phenomenal, the delight of his country of South Korea, enrapturing the attentions and imaginations of a country that had seen far too much suffering.  He was rebuilding a nation through the stories he told on screen and it did not go unappreciated.  As he was the delight of his people, so too did the military dictatorship of the Park government appreciate him.  At the top of his game, his films were so popular that the leader of his country was his best friend.

His game ended, of course.  They all do.

His need to make movies led to the breakup of his personal relationships, the end of his financial success and later the end of his financial stability, and ultimately, his falling out with the Park government and the revocation of his license to make movies.  He was denied his calling.  Things could not get much worse for him.

But they did.

He was later abducted by North Korean’s military dictatorship, along with his ex-wife.  He was imprisoned in horrible conditions and tortured until he agreed to do as they asked.  And they asked him to make movies.  Kim Jong-Il knew what he did and knew that a nation could define themselves by its films.  To that end, North Korean films were droning, monotonous affairs about duty and loyalty to the government.  Shin Sang-Ok did the impossible and rejuvenated a second Korea, making dynamic and energetic films that reinvigorated the populace and made them question their lives.

You might say Shin contributed to North Korea’s hermit kingdom cracking, just a bit.

He eventually escaped.  His films were never as popular as they were before his collapse.  Eventually, he would fall out of making movies, withdraw into himself and quietly pass away.  But before he did, he tried desperately to make movies again.  When his style was no longer in favor, he tried new things, just to stay relevant, all so he could keep making films.  Compromising a lot of his ideas, he reached for what was popular, including a shitty little ninja action film that he made under the name he took when he converted to Christianity (in part, because he thought it’d be easier to help him make movies).

Simon Sheen.

I learned all of this by reading A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer (which you all need to read, I mean really need to read) and, upon learning it, I was kind of blown away.

The idiot ninja action film I watched as a kid was the last legs of a man who was being denied his needs for a final time.  The stupid movie about stupid kids was his desperate attempt to stay relevant so he could keep making films.  While I thought I was watching a movie about pizza and kids and ninjas, I was actually watching a man’s dream die.

I was disquieted by this.

As I hope you are disquieted by this blog post, just a little.

I’ve never been a fan of the whole idea of a writing “community”: people gabbing about all the works they’re going to write, people sitting idly in coffee shops as they wait for the muse to strike, people laughing and making jokes about bars and cliches and all the ways they’re going to revolutionize the writing world…someday.

But it didn’t really solidify to me why I disliked that so much out of a vague contempt for posturing until I read about Shin Sang-Ok’s life.

Creation is powerful.  Amazingly so.  It’s more than words on the page, more than sitting down in a coffee shop and so, so much more than typing #amwriting as if that means something.

Shin Sang-Ok knew this.  Shin Sang-Ok used this to rejuvenate one Korea, then the other Korea, all at the expense of his own life.  It was never a choice for him.  Writing was more than passion to him, it was need.  When he had it, his life was complete–even when he was kidnapped and tortured, he was whole when he could make movies.  When he lost it, he withdrew and quietly disappeared from the world.  He would be remembered for ninja movies and for being kidnapped.  But there’s enough talk about that.  I want to tell you what Shin Sang-Ok meant to me.

Your duty is to the art.  And it is a heavy one.  Your duty is to write what you have to, to be true to the art, to fill your need.  No one else has a right to that: no government, no loyalty, no people.  These things are incidental to the art.  The art is everything.  It is drive, it is ambition, it is big enough to revitalize countries and intimidate governments.

But I don’t think Shin Sang-Ok ever thought of that when he was making them.  I don’t think he ever wanted to appease governments.  He wanted to make movies.  He wanted to make art.  He wanted to fulfill his needs.

This blog post is in tribute to him: the impact he was rarely praised for, the needs that were rarely understood, the power he never cared he had.

And I hope you took as much out of that story as I did.

Tucson Festival of Books 2015!

Hey, hey!  Next weekend, March 14th-15th, I’ll be at the Tucson Festival of Books!  It’s one of my very favorite convention-types to go to for the variety of authors and genres represented.  They always do such an amazing job with panels.

And speaking of which, here’s my schedule, just in case you want to find me!


Workshop: Creating Characters Who Drive Plot

Sam Sykes, Scott Lynch

Time: 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM

Location: Integrated Learning Center Room 119

Scott and I will be discussing character-driven fantasy and how to make characters who drive plots, rather than plots who drive characters.

Blood and Bravado

Sam Sykes, Weston Ochse, Brian Keene, Jeffrey Mariotte

Time: 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM

Location: UA Bookstore

Adventure!  Mayhem!  Murder!  Monsters!  Come join us to learn all about action, adventure and combat!



Working in Comics and Graphic Novels: Indie Publishing, Crowd Sourcing, or Working With the Big Boys

Sam Sykes, Jonathan Maberry, Jeffrey Mariotte, Eric Schock

Time: 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM

Location: UA Library – Special Collections

All about creating comics!  I’m as eager to learn from this one as I am to be a part of it!

Aim to Misbehave

Sam Sykes, Elizabeth Bear, Gail Carriger, Scott Lynch

Time: 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM

Location: Integrated Learning Center Room 140

Con artists, tricksters, troublemakers in fantasy.  Let’s talk about them.  Like we know what’s what.


And that’s it!

There will be signings after each panel and I will be around to sign many things, afterward!  Please don’t hesitate to stop by and see me if you would like a nice comic!

Hope to see you then!

Fanart Contest: The Big Winners!

Okay, so last time I showed you the very excellent entries that really blew my mind.  But these next two just about made the fragments of my poor, erupted brain ooze out of my ears and puddle upon the floor in pure joy.

First up, Chanh has sent in this tremendously awesome interpretation of Asper.


Not going to lie, I spent a good ten minutes rolling around on the floor when mega-reader Chanh sent me this.

I’ve always been a colossal fan of the aesthetics of JRPGs: the intricate costumery, the little details, the wild fashions.  And Chanh’s interpretation hit me in all the right ways on this one.  I more or less spent a lot of time squealing over the buckles on her shoes.

It’s a weird thing that does that to me.

Chanh wins a copy of The City Stained Red and many other prizes!  You can find more of her awesome work on twitter here.

And while that’s hard to top, my favorite entry came from a recent turbo-reader: Jenna.

Who did this…




The coat!  The lightning!  The breeches!  The gigantic book attached at the hip!  The messy hair!

Nova managed to pull off the best Dreadaeleon cosplay I have ever seen.  She looks fantastic in her dedication to the character and her costuming!  I’ve always been in awe of cosplayers for their immense talent and patience in creating wearable works of art and Nova’s kind of stepped the game up to a level of game I didn’t even know existed.

Prizes will be sent out soon!  And that concludes this year’s fanart contest.  Thank you so, so much everyone for participating and for thinking enough of my work to put your own talents out there.  I absolutely adored all the entries I got and wholeheartedly applaud your efforts.  You guys are one of the best reasons I do this.

And I hope you who didn’t participate enjoyed their work as much as I did!


Fanart Contest Winners: Round One!

Now, I know I’m very late with this, having announced this game back in October, but with so many good newses happening around the world I was compelled to put it on pause.

However, now that everything is done for now, I have a chance to post this!  The initial winners of the Fanart Contest!  Each of them shall receive a comic book and three fancy bookplates!  Hooray!


First up, Mia C. has offered this awesome version of Kataria doll, complete with packing, bow and smelly, dreadful hair!

doll 1 feathers on hair front packaging


Legitimately cool!

Next up, a good friend to this blog, Sarah has sent in this picture of Lenk looking battle-damaged and groin-tastic!


And one of my very favorite posters sent me this ear-twitchy .gif of Kataria!  You can see the animated version here!  Thank you, Crispin!


And finally, here’s a genuine favorite of mine that I really enjoyed.  From the short story Name the Beast, it’s a portrait by Megan of Kataria and her mother, Kalindris.


One thing I have always appreciated about fanart is the new and interesting ways people interpret my characters.  Kataria, especially, is popular for this reason.  Some people see her as more of an orc, some people see her as more of an elf, and sometimes you get really interesting, almost fairy-tale like interpretations, such as this one, which I positively adore.

Tune in next week for our two big winners!

A Man In Search of Trails

Maybe you couldn’t tell from my constant tweets about sex scenes and the numerous, vulgarity-strewn fight scenes in my books, but I’m a guy who puts a high priority on fun.

I have a number of philosophical reasons for this.  Chief among which is that I believe that people absorb meaning much more effectively on a subconscious level, so I think it’s better to let the moral of a story be deduced and interpreted rather than hamfistedly shoved down a throat.  Another important reason is that I believe we engage through entertainment and it’s become a primary means of explanation.  Also, I think fart and poop jokes are extremely funny.  That’s another hugely important reason.

I believe it’s a beautiful thing to pursue things you find fun.  And I am at a fortunate place in my life where I can focus primarily on things that I find to be fun.

Hence, when the people at Paizo asked me to do a novel for their Pathfinder series, I was intrigued.

For those not in the know, Pathfinder is a tabletop RPG system that uses d20 rules to allow various people who shun the light of day to cluster together and weave out elaborate adventures full of monsters and magics and cheetohs atop tables.  The tops of tables.

If that were all I knew about the setting, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to do a book for them.

As fortune would have it, though, I happened to pick up a copy of Visions of Warby artist Wayne Reynolds, who did a lot of the artwork for the setting.  I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really have friends that could play a tabletop RPG with me, so I usually pick up books primarily for the art and something about Reynolds’ work struck a chord with me.  And being the visual creature that I was, I asked for more information.

So the good folk at Paizo sent me a few books, including a copy of their Inner Sea World Guide, the hefty tome into which the Pathfinder setting’s world and ecologies are written.

And I found myself voraciously devouring it.

Some cynical part of me, I think, expected to find a few instances of Not-Europe and, if I was lucky, maybe Not-Scandinavia and Not-Middle East, too.  I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

A country in perpetual revolution, seized by a grip of terror and the eternal falling of guillotines.  An empire controlled by infernal agents who work hand-in-hand with the monarchy to further it in a believable way.  Two warring countries of wizards who annihilated each other into undead bastions and spell-scarred oblivions.  Collapsing empires, savagely capitalist market-countries, icy lands alternately controlled by bizarre witches and giant frost wyrms, a jungle empire ruled by a Gorilla King.

A fucking Gorilla King, guys.



Yeah, I was intrigued, basically.  I actually liked the idea of having a world all prepared for me to go mess around in, a place where I could create a story driven by a character that I could focus solely on.  While I’ve come to really enjoy worldbuilding, it’s characters that are my true talents.  And the Pathfinder setting has a lot of uncharted territory (I probably wouldn’t do a book in a setting that was so fleshed out that I couldn’t leave my own individual mark on it).

Some authors are hesitant to do tie-in fiction.  I guess that’s understandable.  I don’t really worry about it, though, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, this is a Sam Sykes novel.  It’s going to have everything you love about a Sam Sykes novel: humor, action, adventure, awkward romances, people filled with horrible emotional damage and relentless fun.  All that and maybe a Gorilla King, if I can swing it (a fucking Gorilla King, guys).

But I mentioned philosophy earlier, didn’t I?  That’s where the second reason comes in.

It’s 2015.  Comicons sprawl across the landscape.  Fandom organizes itself from varying tribes into tight battle-squares.  Books co-exist alongside all kinds of media: video games, comics, movies, etc.  We once (fallaciously, I think) believed that books would be competing with these other media.

I think books blend with them.

I feel the reader of today is becoming increasingly platform-agnostic.  People who read novels are also people who read comics are also people who play video games are also people who play tabletop RPGs.  Books aren’t on their way out, they’re strengthened by every form of media they come into contact with.  And I think it’s a very interesting opportunity to test this theory.

But above all else?  The main reason I’m doing this?

It looks fun.

I’m in a position to have the means of pursuing things I think are fun.  I might not always be in that position.  I’d rather not be in my old age, regretting the chance I could one day write about a Gorilla King.

A fucking Gorilla King, guys.

A Caring Hand on a Tense Buttock

About a week ago, as I was finishing the first draft of The Mortal Tally, second book in the Bring Down Heaven trilogy, I stopped at the end of the last sentence on the last page on the second to last chapter.  I stared at the blinking cursor for a moment, reading the words it had just regurgitated, like a frail man projectile vomiting his way across a white page, and I thought.

Well, maybe that’s too sad.

The ideal goal of a second book in a trilogy is to maintain or increase audience investment and interest until you can get to the resolution in the third.  A not insignificant number of authors flounder on this and the graveyards of review sites are littered with the carcasses of second books.  I was determined not to lose my audience and, thus, reluctant to put them through anything they may consider too traumatic.

That was one reason for my hesitation.  Another lingered, nameless and shapeless, at the periphery of my mind: a nervous itch I couldn’t quite reach.

I tried to put it out of my mind and returned to my other great passion: making out with a variety of weird and interesting races in Dragon Age Inquisition.

I dearly love this game.  But halfway through my playthrough, my love evolved.  See, early on in my playthrough, I became smitten with the gruff, no-nonsense, duty-obsessed Cassandra, a sword-and-shield-carrying warrior who loves the Maker only slightly more than she loves protocol.  She collided in all the right ways with my plucky rogue heroine, a smart-arsed, freedom-loving jerk of a woman who rattled Cassandra’s cage perfectly.  I had it all planned out: we were going to butt heads on important points, then slowly come to appreciate each other and ultimately fall in love and live happily ever after (after we had killed thousands).

And then I found out that Cassandra was straight.

It sounds weird to say that this threw me for a loop.  It is, after all, a video game.  And what’s more, it’s a testament to the writing abilities of Bioware that I got mad over a waifu.  To date, I’m still not sure if I approve of flirtation options for characters you can’t romance.  In fact, I was very close to tweeting my friend, Patrick Weekes (who is a very accomplished author himself), and expressing my annoyance.

Then I came to my goddamn senses.

Beyond the rather iffy grounds of dictating a character’s sexual orientation (something I’m not prepared to discuss here), I realized I couldn’t very well go demanding the story conform to my ideas of what it could do.  And slowly, my playthrough went from nursing a childish crush to a bittersweet companionship.  It was kind of sweet.  I was still kind of irritated that it didn’t work out exactly how I wanted, but I was left with something that made that particular arc (which I had concocted in my own damn head) unique from every other perfect love story.

But I don’t think I realized the significance of that aspect until I read this tumblr post from Joel Watson, creator of the webcomic Hijinks Ensue.  You can read it for yourself, but the summary of it is pretty straightforward: a fan made a statement expressing disappointment in the direction of the story and Mr. Watson replied with a statement I mostly agree with.  I might have responded differently, but then, it’s not my creation being discussed there nor is this going to be a discussion of Mr. Watson’s reaction.

Rather, I want to talk about the phenomenon of creative closeness.

Fans and creators have always enjoyed a special relationship.  Fans are an immense boon.  People that go from casually perusing to actively consuming are a godsend for creators.  I actively squeal every time I get a piece of fan art and someone dropping by to tell me they loved my book brightens my entire day.  They are pillars who uphold struggling creative endeavors and build solid foundations for that endeavor to grow.  Any creator with any sense at all can and should be grateful to their fans.

But should they be beholden to them?

This question has been around for awhile.  People who express dissatisfaction with a story and input on how it should progress have been sending their opinions to authors for ages now.  At first, by beating them with sticks.  And then, by sending them letters.  And then, by posting on message boards.  And now with the explosion of social media platforms giving everyone instant and unfettered access to each other, we are back at beating them with sticks.

That might sound dramatically martyr-like and I don’t mean to imply that fans should never voice their opinion, but I do notice that as we go on, we see a number of tweets, blog posts, tumblr posts, instagram photos and facebook threads wedged neatly between the cat videos and grandma’s conspiracy theories that are directed at authors with input that sometimes borders on demands or blackmail.

Sometimes, they’re a little less direct, like the tumblr post I linked above.

Sometimes, they’re very direct.

I don’t find myself totally unsympathetic to these fans.  I have had to bid farewell to many, many webcomics and other creative works who took a direction where I simply couldn’t follow.  With webcomics, this is a bit more prevalent as it’s a much more immediate format and thus, so many strips are influenced by what’s going on in the creator’s lives.  Sometimes this means parenting humor.  Sometimes this means exploring an avenue of a character that doesn’t interest me.  But when they go down that creative path, I can’t follow.

I have yet to send them letters to this effect.

For one, it would serve no purpose but to inform them that I am no longer interested, which sounds a bit like being rejected by someone without ever asking them out in the first place.  It would nothing but ruin their day.  But more importantly, I realize that what I fell in love was their voice, their passion, their vision.  It didn’t matter that they were talking about video games or geek culture or ferocious women fighting monsters, it mattered that they were talking about them.  I loved those voices.

And those voices haven’t changed.  They just changed interests.  They are still as passionate as they ever were, just about different things.

Sometimes, it’s even worse than that.  Sometimes, we’re passionate about the same things and in love with their voice, but we just disagree on fundamental things.  The internet, for example, blew the fuck up over the season finale to The Legend of Korra (and by that, I mean those who wanted her to end up with someone who they also felt nearly and dearly to.  The people who objected to Korra ending up with who she did on moral, religious or political grounds can go eat sand).

Again, this is not new.  We’ve been doing this forever.  Authors you know who have been getting published since the 60’s have been getting angry letters for just as long over who put whose hand on whose butt.  It’s understandable.  When someone goes from reader to fan, they become invested.  It’s no longer a one-way consumption.  They are putting their hearts and their emotions into what they read and it makes them the best possible readers.

But we’re no longer asking them to read.  We’re asking them to enter a relationship with us.

And that means we’re going to have to accept the fact that we’re going to break each other’s hearts sometimes.

I mean, it’s not like creators don’t get upset by losing readers, either.  Few things hurt more than a formerly devoted fan deciding you can’t be together anymore.  But they know what if they pursued that guy who wrote the breakup letter, they’d lose that girl who was interested in the direction they were taking.  And if they pursued that girl, they’d lose someone else.  It’d quickly become a game of Jenga that no one could win.

So they can only do what they were doing to attract them: staying true to their voice.

They can’t ask for anything else.  They can’t give anything else.

So I went back to my draft of The Mortal Tally (which is now finished, by the way) and left the sad chapter the way it was and moved onto the next.

And I went back into Dragon Age Inquisition and Josephine and my Inquisitor are very charming together.

And I continued to do me.

And hopefully, that will be enough.

Updates for Jerks

Were you to compare my blog to a movie right now, it would be like I Am Legend: one man wandering through a forgotten wasteland whose demons lurk in the darkness as deer and wildlife prosper in the ruins of its former greatness.  Also, there’s an angry guy wearing a fedora in the back complaining that the book was better.

That is to say: hello.  I have not posted here in awhile.

Part of that is due to my hurrying like a madman to finish The Mortal Tally, the next book in the Bring Down Heaven trilogy.  It’s going pretty great.  I have just finished the Kataria versus Karnerians fight, if that tantalizes you at all (spoiler: it involves a bag of tarantulas.)

Another part of that is me getting ready for the print release of The City Stained Red next week!
Sykes_TheCityStainedRed-TP (2)

As you may remember, we’ll be throwing a book launch party at the Poisoned Pen in downtown Scottsdale next Saturday, January 31st at 2 PM!

But wait.  There’s more.

This particular booksigning will feature special guest Nika Harper!


If you’re not familiar with Nika’s vlog Wordplay, I highly advise checking it out.  This lady knows a thing or two about writing.

And if you’re not familiar with Nika’s books, I highly advise coming to the Poisoned Pen on Saturday, where she’ll have some to impart unto your face area.

Basically, I am promising you a good time.  I might even bring you cookies.


See you Saturday!

The City Stained Red Launch Party!

If you are in, around or near Scottsdale, Arizona (and by near, I mean like maybe within 1000 miles), I want you to clear your goddamn calendars because I’m having a launch party, motherfuggas!

January 31st, at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, I will be signing copies of The City Stained Red, which will be out in print.

The Poisoned Pen is my absolute favorite independent bookstore.  They have been exceedingly good to me throughout my career and I am absolutely thrilled that I’ll be able to launch my best book yet within their hallowed walls.  Copies will be available for purchase and you can bring me absolutely anything to sign: comics, other books, infants, what have you.


Where: The Poisoned Pen Bookstore

4014 N Goldwater Blvd #101

Scottsdale, AZ 85251

When: January 31st, Saturday

2:00 PM to 3:00 PM

Why: Because I’ll freaking beat you with a dead marmot if you don’t come.

See you there, everybody!

Speakers of the Claus

Ho ho ho there, friends!

The holiday season is upon us and people are doubtless busy buying presents, wrapping presents, putting presents under the tree and drinking excessive amounts of eggnog to drown out the little voice in the back of their head that shrieks “why so much material wealth, why so many presents, this was supposed to be about family, why am I so alone.”

And I don’t want to distract from that too much, so I’ve just got a few short (but important) announcements to make!


And they are awesome.

Like, I got so many amazing entries this time that it’s genuinely hard to make up my mind.  I will be spending a lot of time in deliberation over who gets the coveted scented candle, but I hope to have all entries spoken a little after Christmas.

And speaking of Christmas…


What does that have to do with Christmas?  Well, to be frank, if you wanted to get a gift for yourself, your opportunity to do so is quickly running out!

Right now, The City Stained Red in eBook format is only $1.99 because I love you.  But that won’t last much longer.  Around the time the print version debuts, the price will be returning to normal because I need to eat.  So, if you’re looking for a good reason to buy it, there you go.

You can find buy links on the right hand side of my front page (or any page on this site, really).  We’ve made it exceptionally easy for you to go buying stuff, so you should go buy it!

In addition, the buy links will also lead you to places you can pre-order the print version, if you’re so inclined!

I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback from fans so far, so I hope you will continue to enjoy it!

Have a happy holiday and try not to be eaten by snow yetis!


Your Mother Rolls Natural 20s

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but have you ever read Zen Pencils?

Created by Gavin Aung Than, it’s a pretty inoffensive inspirational comic that revolves around artistic interpretations of words of wisdom touted by people who are well-known enough to get artistic interpretations made about them.  Most of the time, I don’t really mind the comic because they all have a singular message that forms the foundation of their creations.  And I usually agree with that message: art takes work, art takes sacrifice, art takes support.  That’s all true, all encouraged and all for the better.

Beyond a few questionable strips and a peculiar statement toward the hilarious Dril Pencils, Zen Pencils is pretty inoffensive.  And this blog post is not intended to criticize Zen Pencils or even talk about it beyond a paragraph or more.  The only reason I bring it up is this.

Set over the course of four strips or so, it details the effect of criticism on the artist.  I’m not quite so sure I agree.

I mean, I understand where the strip is coming from.  It’s hard to be an artist or writer these days where the essential nature of the internet means you are closer than ever to your critics and anonymous dickwipes can and will easily use that closeness to try and hurt you.  And given that creative works are, by their definition, something deeply personal, it’s incredibly easy to see how any criticism might be taken as a personal insult.

After all, very few artists create something they don’t feel strongly about on some level.  And when people criticize, derogate or demean that, it usually feels like they’re attacking those feelings.  Hence, I’m not often surprised when authors get personal or irritated or outright weepy when they get bad reviews.

Seriously.  I got a shitty review that basically made me inert for three weeks or so.  We all have that one review that just punched us straight in the nards.  In the bars at conventions, huddled around high top tables with around three to six glasses on the table with just a few flecks of foam at the bottom, we talk about them often.

Everyone eventually finds a way to cope with criticism.

I’m usually content to leave it there, but the reason I bring this strip up is the same reason I’m bringing up this next article.  You probably read about a prominent author who sought out and confronted an online critic in real life.  It was all over the twitters for a bit.  If you missed it, you can find a pretty apt summary here.  But I won’t go into that any more than I did Zen Pencils.  I bring up both for a singular reason.

We seem to be moving toward a rather unhealthy way of interacting with criticism.

This, too, is not a huge surprise.  The internet is generally extremely personable these days, with everyone getting very excited over every thing and every thing that happens is an instant scandal that demands the attentions of the known world (or at least, the attentions of 10-200 retweets).  So it’s hardly amazing that a personal product criticized in an environment where things are personal should be taken so personally.

But I’m not sure viewing criticism as a hostile force is the best way for authors to improve.

And rest assured, improvement should be at the very fore of your mind if you’re an author.

You should always be striving to improve.  You should be consuming media en masse to improve: books and movies and books and games and books and comics and books and books and books.  You should be identifying parts of your writing you aren’t happy with and parts of your writing that aren’t landing with your audience and parts of your writing that just don’t work and improving them.

And that means dealing with criticism.  Sometimes even embracing it.

I could say “grow thicker skin,” but that’s always been a bit of a psychotic statement to offer a writer.  You need thin skin to channel the emotions and to relate to people on the intimate level necessary to write characters well.  Hence, what I want to offer you is three facts about criticism that you can use to learn to use it to your advantage.

1. You don’t have to read it.

I don’t know a lot of authors who do read their own reviews, in fact.  At the beginning, everyone does it and every point cuts knife-deep.  You fume and anger over the unfairness of this author who clearly doesn’t understand your book and how their false review is going to sink sales.

Generally, bad reviews don’t sink sales.  If that were true, Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight wouldn’t be the phenomena they are.  Bad word of mouth can certainly sink sales.  But surprisingly, the worlds of reviews and word of mouth rarely seem to cross over.  Certainly, some reviewers build up communities around their critiques, but they don’t always translate into sales.

When someone hears a well-reasoned, rational critique from an educated voice that says “don’t buy this,” and their friend who says “dude, you have to buy this,” they will always listen to their friend.

The critique is not done for your sake.  Sometimes it’s for the reader’s sake, sometimes it’s for the critic’s sake, sometimes it’s for an audience.  You miss out on absolutely nothing by not looking at it.

Some critiques can be very helpful.  One critique of Tome of the Undergates took issue with the various crude sexual threats uttered by the Cragsmen.  I found that extremely helpful because I ultimately agreed with the critic.  I found them harder to justify as they were just ugly for ugliness’ sake, a biproduct of an edgier age.

But it had been years since I got over those first initial reviews and I was more prepared to handle harsh words about my work.  If you’re ever in doubt, err on the side of not looking.

2. Criticism is, ultimately, a force for good.

Possibly the most important thing to do when approaching criticism is to take it in the right mindset.  When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to be offended and reject it all out of hurt.  When you’re old and jaded, it’s easy to be weary and reject it all out of boredom.

But when reviewing, it helps to take a moment to realize what you’re looking for.

Consider what you wanted to accomplish in your story; if the review suggests you accomplished that, you can ignore it if they didn’t like it.  Consider what you’re concerned about; if the review touches on that, then maybe you have an identified problem.  Consider that you might be criticized for things you didn’t anticipate; if the review brings up things that you never even thought of, these are worth looking at.

3. Control is always in your hand.

The personal nature of a creative work and the personal responses we’ve discussed can sometimes make it seem like criticisms are demands: letters from magazines cut up and pasted to form a message and mailed to you with a polaroid of your book tied to a chair.  But rest assured, this is never the case.

As a work is personal, so is a criticism.  The critic will always be coming from their own experiences and points of view.  You can’t plan for that and you shouldn’t try.  Hence, when a critic criticizes a deliberate choice you made as a mistake, you are free to reject that.  You are free to reject any criticism, really.  There is wisdom in paying attention to people who are all saying the same thing, of course, but ultimately all control over the creation rests with you.

And this is the “zen” of this blog, if you will: you can only control the book.

You can’t control the reviewers; if they like it, then good, if not, then okay.  You can’t control the audience; if they reject it, then you must think of something else.  You can’t control the publishing industry; it’s basically like a cat who wallows in scotch.  You can’t control any of the thousands of other things out there that will affect your book.

You can only ever write the very best book you can.

And you should always be striving to do exactly that.

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