Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category

How to Help an Author

I don’t know if I ever mentioned this, but I’m going to be featured in a short story anthology.

Shawn Speakman, who previously coagulated a number of virulent authors in paper format in the anthology Unfetteredhas decided to do the same thing in a new anthology, Unbound.

Said anthology features a number of fine and sassy authors, including myself.  I’ll be contributing a short story about the origins of everyone’s favorite angry boy wizard, Dreadaeleon, and it’ll be pretty great.  If you feel strongly about it, you can buy it when it comes out.  And if you feel very strongly, you can preorder one of our signed and numbered limited editions of the anthology.

And you can find those right here.

Either way helps me, really.

And, in fact, that convenient plug is the segue I needed into today’s topic.

If you’re following me on twitter, you know by now that I’m not shy about promoting myself.  You can’t really afford to be modest about your own work unless you have a big publicity budget who can be immodest on your behalf (my publishers do a great job for me, but I can connect with readers on a more personal level, I think).  I wrote a blog post on exactly why I don’t mind self-promoting; I stand by it and don’t intend to discuss it much further than this sentence.

Rather, I want to talk about a question I receive often from readers.

“Okay, I’ve decided to read your book,” they say.  “What can I do to best help you out?”

Actually, that’s a pretty good question that I, myself, didn’t have a great answer for.  When I was young and foolish, I thought that just buying the book was enough.

And don’t get me wrong, buying the book is a pretty huge deal.

So huge, in fact, that I wanted this post to be a collaboration with fellow Orbit author Brian McClellan.  Brian’s deeply interested in the business nitty gritty of bookselling and bookbuying and has written up a blog post of his own as to the many ways a book can be purchased and how much of an impact each of those ways has on the author.

Read it here.  Do it now.

What I’m here to talk about is what happens after you buy the book and how that helps.  But before I go further, I want to preface this blog post with a foreword.

The best thing you can possibly do for an author is whatever you feel comfortable doing.

In no way does your buying my book enter you in a contract that demands additional labor, nor does anything you choose not to do make you a “bad” or “lesser” fan of my work.  Once you pay for the book, it is yours and I hope you enjoy it, but there are no obligations beyond that.

This blog post is for those people who really like an author’s book.  Like, really like an author’s book and want to help them succeed but don’t quite know how.

So let’s talk a bit about the importance of Word of Mouth.

It’s super fun to bash Twilight.  Everyone does it.  We love pointing at its bland main character, we love laughing about its ridiculous plot, we love throwing popcorn at its heavy-handed romance.  We love cackling and hooting and saying “this is the worst thing ever!”

Until we have to explain its massive success.

If not Twilight, you’ve probably seen a book that you didn’t enjoy and stared at it, puzzled, and asked yourself “how did this get so big?”

Now, it’s a pretty inexact science to figure out why something gets huge.  Some people say it’s a matter of hitting the right subject with the right audience and the right time.  Some people say it’s appealing to a sensibility that everyone feels but rarely acknowledges.  But pretty much everyone agrees that word of mouth is how it all happens.

We’re a funny species, humans.  We always trust the people closest to us above anyone else.  We could go to the doctor with a gaping head wound and the doctor could say “wow, you should get surgery for that massive head wound you’ve got.”  And we might think them right, unless our beloved old grandpa spits and says: “pah!  I had a head wound once.  That ain’t a head wound you got.  That’s a goose egg, at best.”  And we’ll probably believe our grandpa.

The same thing goes for books.

A book could have won every award possible.  A book could be hailed as a true culture-changing phenomenon by critics.  A book could be blessed by ten religious leaders, christened by the Queen of England and given a good, long smooch by the President of the United States.

And still, if your friend says: “Yeah, I read it.  I dunno.  It sucked, I guess.”

You probably won’t read it.

Likewise, a book with massive critical backlash and negative press can still find huge success if your friend shows up and says: “Dude, I loved this!  You have to read it!”

That’s word of mouth.  It’s pretty great.

Honestly, that’s about the best thing you can do for a book.  Be enthusiastic about it, share your enthusiasm for it (share the book, too), and generally talk about it.

I feel like this is less obvious to some people because we’re in genre and, for a very long time, we felt it was kind of taboo to acknowledge we liked geeky things.  We played it cool with our enthusiasms, lest we be branded overzealous or nerdy.  Twilight did not have this problem; its fans were perfectly okay with saying they liked sexy vampire romances.

And we are living in a blessed age, where nerd shit is actually kind of cool.  So revel in your enthusiasm and make up for lost time.  It helps immensely.

So having established that, let’s talk a bit about Reviews.

Again, if you’ve seen me on twitter, you’ll have seen me occasionally implore my readers to leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon.  I always tell them that reviews help me not to die and it’s definitely true because, outside of beating down your neighbor’s door to tell them how much you liked The City Stained Red, this is the best way to help an author out.

Now, I don’t have the numbers over which format of review helps more (that’s something Brian might do in the near future), and it’s true that how much reviews impact sales is also an inexact science.  But it’s generally acknowledged that reviews, positive or negative, really help a book.  It’s when a book has little to no reviews or extremely underwhelming reviews that things get dire.

I want to reiterate that the best possible way to help an author first falls on me to write a book you love.  If I make you feel nothing, then I haven’t done my job.

But if you like my work enough to want to help and aren’t sure how, these are pretty much the best ways to do it.

Be enthusiastic.

Be vocal.

Be happy.

Do all these things and I promise to stop rooting around in your trash cans at night.

Second Verse, Unlike the First

Last Monday, March 23, at around 1:20 AM, I finished the first draft of the second book in the Bring Down Heaven series: The Mortal Tally.

MortalTally-3-3b

Currently, it’s with the editors at Orbit and Gollancz, being read through with great attentiveness.

Eventually, it will come back with notes.  I will go back and forth on these notes with the editors, fixing what needs to be fixed, improving upon what needs to be improved upon, changing what needs to be changed, preserving as many fart jokes as I possibly can.

Finally, after all this is done, it will be printed, put out in stores and placed in your hot little hands so you can ferociously devour it with the same vigor you devoured The City Stained Red (and devour you did, as my editor tells me, to my immense gratitude).

But between “currently” and “finally,” there’s a lot of time to fill.  Most of that will be filled writing the third book, tending to other writing projects like comic scripts and the Pathfinder novel, tweeting stupid things into the aether, getting mad at video games and occasionally leaning out my window to scream at passersby, just to keep them on their toes.

…but since I’m not doing any of those right now, we might as well talk about what makes a good middle book.

I actually don’t mean to sound that flippant.  This is a discussion that has actually been weighing on me over the past few days, as I’m not sure anyone in my particular social circles has taken the time to talk about it.

Sure, ages ago, there was a brief musing on whether trilogies were necessary before we all largely decided that it was a tradition that was mostly awesome, but we never really we went much further than that.  And these days, a lot of series are expanding from three books to five, six, ten, twenty, whatever.

I don’t think this discussion will be any less cogent to larger series, but for the purposes of this blog, we’ll be talking about trilogies.  Specifically, my trilogies.

This will be my second middle novel in my second trilogy, the first being Black Halo from The Aeons’ Gate trilogy.

I’ve spoken before about lessons I’ve learned from my first trilogy–pacing, plotting, worldbuilding, traditional stuff I was pretty intent on spurning when I was younger and brasher–but few things rankled me quite like the way I handled Black Halo.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still quite pleased with it.  It does what I wanted it to at the time: provide an exciting adventure, develop the characters further, make a couple of coarse remarks.  But there were a number of things it failed to do that I wish I had concerned myself with because I think it’s the second novel that is oft-overlooked in discussions about a trilogy.

The first book opens up this massive new world for people to explore.  The third book brings to a satisfying conclusion all that you know and love about the people you’ve met along the way.  The second book…well, it does a few things.

Sometimes, it fleshes everything out that you didn’t have time for in the first book.  Sometimes, it sets up the pins that need to be knocked down in the third book.  Sometimes, it just kind of treads water between the books.  Sometimes, it’s just…there.

You can read a few reviews of stories that will damn a second book for these, but a lot of times these reviews will just kind of be met with “meh” reactions.  Readers seem content to hold their breaths until the big finale.  Authors seem content to hold in their best stuff for the third book.  Everyone seems kind of content to take a second book for what it is and then wait to pass judgment on a whole.

Which seems kind of insane to me.  Readership in a new series tends to drop off around the second book.  Part of that is just market trend, but I think part of it is also that second books are straight up hard to do.  You need to keep track of a lot of plot threads, evolve them all adequately, set them all up for satisfying conclusions while also being sure that you’re paying heed to what you did in the first book; it’s less like spinning plates and more like keeping track of Pokemon.

Except your Pokemon have a lot of drinking problems and sexual hangups.

But that’s enough talking about what’s easy to go wrong with a middle book.  What are some things a middle book must do right?

I put together a list.

1. Grow the Characters

SW_-_Empire_Strikes_Back

I put this one first because I genuinely think this is the most important task a second book must accomplish.

If you fail at absolutely everything else, you absolutely must ensure that the characters possess individual motivations, display agency toward fulfilling those motivations, encounter conflict in their displaying of agency and adjusting their motivations accordingly.

That’s a bit of a mouthful, but really, that’s what we mean when we say characters must “grow.”  In the fantasy genre, we sometimes associate that growth with material developments: acquiring a new sword, learning a new spell, leveling up to Super Saiyajin 3, whatever.

Those are fine.  Hell, that’s part of the whole allure of fantasy as a genre.  Coming to terms with one’s troubled past is great and all, but if you can do that while also learning how to shoot lightning out of your dick, then so much the better.  That’s a trope in fantasy I adore and encourage the use of, wholeheartedly.

But you’ll notice in a lot of stories (particularly anime), the gain in material power is almost a bonus gained in addition to the true reward of learning something new about yourself.  That’s what needs to happen to characters, in general, but it’s especially true for middle books.

The middle act is where the character has had time in the first act to figure out what they want out of the story and now gets to go pursue it.  They encounter something that prevents them from getting it and have to figure out how to defeat it.  And when they do–or if they don’t–they have to figure out what’s changed at the end and if they still feel the same way about it.

Some people give The Empire Strikes Back shit, calling it their least favorite part of the Star Wars trilogy, but I adore it specifically because it’s all character building.  Luke, Han and Leia all have their established goals, then they encounter trouble realizing those goals.  And by the end of the movie, their goals have changed because their relationships with each other and themselves have changed.  Han realizes he likes being a good guy more than he thought he would.  Leia realizes she likes Han more than she thought she would.  Luke realizes that he can’t defeat Darth Vader the way he thought he could.

And he gets a pretty stylin’ lightsaber, too, so hey, purpose fulfilled, right?

2. Raise the Stakes

The_two_tower

Weirdly enough, while this might seem obvious, there are a whole lot of fantasy novels that fail at this.

I mentioned before that middle books sometimes fall into the problem where they “tread water.”  You’ve probably read a few books like this, in fact.  The good guys continue on their way to get the Goal, but don’t quite get there.  The bad guys are sort of chilling, either as much as a threat as they were or readying their big bad for a suitably dramatic final fight.  Things are definitely going to happen, you’re sure, but they aren’t happening just yet and the prose seems to conjure an image of the author standing in front of you, holding his hands up, hopping up and down and going: “Okay, so, I know this one went a little slow, but seriously guys, shit is about to get real.”

One thing a middle book needs to do is make sure that shit gets real.

The first book was all about setting expectations.  The second book needs to kick those expectations squarely in the anus.  The heroes have to realize that the quest is harder than they expected.  The bad guys have to make their move against the heroes and start treating them like threats.  People don’t necessarily have to die (but it’s nice if they do), but at the end of the day, someone should have some scars.

This is pretty much doing the same thing as point number one, except for the plot instead of the characters.  A satisfying conflict has a growth arc, just as a character does.  A conflict that stays as a perfectly even line (“the good guys set out, defeat a bad guy, defeat a slightly bigger bad guy, defeat the biggest bad guy, go home”) isn’t very interesting.  A conflict that is varied, that has the good guys on the back foot now and again, that has the bad guys stepping up their game, is interesting for a few reasons.

For one, it keeps things tense.  We’re reading ahead with the desperate hope that everyone will make it out okay.  For two, it makes us invest more in the characters if they’re actively changing to better deal with their circumstances (which lets them grow as characters, as well).  And finally, it lets us know how dire things are for the third book.

In The Two Towers, some shit goes right–Rohan gets its king back, the Uruk-Hai are repelled at Helm’s Deep–but the stakes are raised, considerably.  Sauron realizes he has to rip out the heart of man, Smeagol begins to fall sway under the Ring’s power, Frodo starts to doubt himself.  The characters grow and the stakes are high for the third act.

3. Tell A Complete Story

pirates-of-the-caribbean-2-dead-mans-chest.10847

This one’s a little trickier.

Because on the one hand, it should be fairly obvious, right?  So obvious that you might think I could be forgiven for leaving it to the end.  But that implies that telling a complete story is not a totally important thing, when it totally is.  And yet, personally, I’m inclined to give a little leeway to the idea of not leaving everything cut and dry.

Let me start addressing those by working backwards.

I feel like a lot of authors are compelled to try to recap the story of the first act right off the bat.  This works well, when done succinctly, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending a significant amount of time rehashing what the audience already knows.  You don’t want readers to come in and be confused, and yet it feels somewhat reasonable to assume that readers will have come from the first book (the vast majority of readers I’ve met greatly prefer, if not outright demand, to start with the first book).  So I feel you can get away with hitting the ground running, so to speak.

Likewise, I feel like it’s okay to leave some plot threads dangling.  But it’s important to note the difference between a dangling plot thread and a cliffhanger.  They are not necessarily the same thing!  Whereas a cliffhanger ends in the middle of a conflict, a dangling plot thread is more of a conflict that has been fomented and has yet to be picked up.  Mind you, I’m not entirely against cliffhangers (I’ve used a few of them), but I prefer doing things the other way.

A middle act should present a new conflict that is still pertinent to the conflict originating in the first act.  A growth, if you will: something new and distinct, but evolved from the original format.  It should have its own story that is created and resolved within the time frame of the act.  New characters and conflicts should be introduced, explored and resolved (or evolved) in the time it takes to finish the act.

By the end of the story, the main conflict of the middle act should be resolved, while the main conflict of the trilogy persists.  It is good if the middle act’s conflict created new conflicts that haven’t yet been or just barely been activated (it’s folly to start six different conflicts and settle none of them).  And like I said, cliffhangers can be used to immense effect.  But I’m quickly coming to appreciate the satisfaction of finishing one plot before moving on to the next.

I used Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest up there for reasons not readily apparent.  I actually really liked this movie (though a lot of people loathed it), and while I liked a lot of what it did, I can’t really deny that it goes against a lot of what we just talked about.  It had the advantage of beginning a new conflict, but by the end of that movie, the conflict was unresolved.  And while the creation of that conflict brought about new conflicts that could exploited for the last movie, it still felt somewhat unfulfilling to see things end on something that wasn’t quite a cliffhanger and wasn’t quite a resolution.  It’s still well worth watching, just to see what it did wrong, but it’s also one hell of a movie.

These are all concepts I’ve had in mind as I wrote The Mortal Tally.  By the end of it, I was exceedingly happy with it.  Stakes are raised.  Characters grow.  Scars are earned.  People die.

But even with these, it was more important that I write it as I want it.  It’s still got wild humor, banter during sword fights, tensions among weird races, tulwar riding giant baboons into battle, a sentient, ambulatory plant that serves as a giant transport, hallucinations, shicts with schemes, humans with problems and a lot of awkward, angry romance.

You’re going to love it.

In The Tombs of Poets

This is 3 Ninjas.

3ninjas

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.

North-Korea-physical-map

 

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.

shinsangok

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!

Saturday

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!

 

Sunday

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.

Asper2

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…

dreadnova

 

Egad!

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!

Thanks!

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!

LET’S BEGIN SHALL WE.

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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

gorillaking

FUCKING SOLD.

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!

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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.

Maybe.

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.

DETAILS

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!

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