Surly Questions: Emmie Mears

Today I’m happy to bring you an interview with Emmie Mears, former fellow Missoulian, outspoken feminist, overall badass, and an author I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future. Emmie just released her first book, and was kind enough to answer some questions about her process, her writing trials, and what it’s like to suddenly become a Big Five author. And when you’re done reading, you can pick up a copy for a song. See what I did there? Thanks, Emmie!

gYokKB26 When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I always just sort of was. I wrote constantly as a kid. Journaled every day, started novels all the time — it never really occurred to me though that that was a career I could have until university though. We were really poor, and for whatever reason, I never made the connection that my favorite authors spun my favorite worlds for a living.

What, for you, is the hardest part about being a writer?

Right now it’s juggling a day job and deadlines. I work long hours and when I come home I’m physically and mentally exhausted to the point where I just want to eat gelato out of the pint and watch Buffy or Supernatural over from the beginning (again). I’m at a stage where I’m trying to find a schedule that works for me in the midst of a lot of upheaval and life change, and I’ve had varying degrees of success with that. It’s kind of a work in progress.


THE MASKED SONGBIRD, at its core, is a story about how strength is not something you’re born with: it’s something you build. I wanted to write a deeply flawed hero who really wasn’t a hero at the beginning, but show that qualities she always possessed (compassion and determination) can be molded into true heroism.

What books or media inspired THE MASKED SONGBIRD?

We pitched it as Bridget Jones meets Spider-Man, and that about covers that. Gwen’s a mess, like Bridget. She’s also picked on, like Peter Parker. Ultimately I wanted her to find her value in herself.

What does your typical writing day look like?

I don’t think I have one at this point. When I’m in the throes of writerly big bang, I’ll wake up, putter around the internet for a while, usually write a few thousand words, and then fizzle back into an internet slug.

How do you juggle the challenges of daily life and writing?

Right now…I don’t. I’m trying really hard to get used to a new home, a new life situation, deadlines, a day job, a commute that grew by about 300%, and myriad other things. As chaotic as it’s been, it’s really the start of something positive, I think.

When do you know a book is done?

That’s a tough one. I almost feel like they’re never done. Even with THE MASKED SONGBIRD hitting shelves, I still feel like it’s not done. It’s an odd feeling, but maybe that’s just the nature of a creative profession: our styles evolve, our voice can change, and publishing often moves so slowly that when something comes out, you wrote it two years ago and are a different writer come pub day.

Eventually, though, if you want anyone to ever see them, you DO have to be able to let go.

What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

Oh, man. I met one of my best friends through WordPress, Kristin McFarland. Three years ago I was just starting out my little author blog and we became friends, but it wasn’t until that winter when my cousin very suddenly and tragically passed away that we became close. She emailed me because she’d experienced a similar loss and understood. Since then we’ve talked almost every day, and she flew out here last October for Capclave. I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be the writer I am without the wonderful, zany, exciting, driven people I’ve been able to connect with on social media. Including you, O Esteemed Host of Mine. 🙂

It seems like you unexpectedly went from just another querying writer to Big Five author. Want to tell us a little bit about that journey?

Yeah, that was weird. LOL. When I finished THE MASKED SONGBIRD, I knew it was going to be a hard sell. Superheroes are tough. Urban fantasy right now is tough. The timeline was tough. It was just sort of stacked against me and my little book. I got so fortunate. My fabulous agent, Jessica Negrón from Talcott-Notch, was an assistant at the time I sent her boss my book. She plucked it out of the slushpile and LOVED it…a few weeks later, I had an R&R from Gina and was getting personalized rejections across the board from agents who loved it, but didn’t think they could sell it.

When Jes got promoted to agent in January of 2013, she begged Gina to be allowed to take me on, and Gina gave her blessing. I became Jes’s first client. We got a lot of requests from editors for the book, but the timeline and content made it tough. It made it to acquisitions two or three times at Big Five publishers, but ultimately garnered passes because the content and timeline were seen as a little too risky. That’s where we got super fortunate again — Mary-Theresa Hussey at Harlequin had the book and was getting ready to help launch Harlequin’s new e-imprint, Harlequin E. Their goal was to be able to publish books that didn’t quite fit into their other imprints, and it ended up being exactly what we needed. They’ve been fantastic, working with us on the timeline and busting butts to get THE MASKED SONGBIRD in reader hands before the referendum against which it’s set. I’ve been really blown away.

Then this spring, the announcement hit that Harper Collins had bought Harlequin, and I got a message from Jes one morning saying I was now a Harper Collins author. It was literally the first thing I saw when I grabbed my phone that morning, which probably didn’t help my ability to comprehend it. Ha. So that happened.

That might be more than “a little bit.” But it’s kind of a long story in general. 🙂

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

It’s actually not even writing related, but it’s a Dolly Parton quote I adore: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” It just fits so much about writing. You can’t be the next Jo Rowling. You can’t be the next Stephen King or John Scalzi or Diana Gabaldon. You can just be you, and it takes time and self-engagement to find out who you the writer really is.

Who inspires you?

Many, many people. The writers I’m surrounded with on social media who keep at it day in and day out. People like Eve Ensler who take the pain of the world into themselves and still manage to give out kindness, empathy, and compassion instead of letting it hollow them out into poison and toxicity. People like Maya Angelou whose long lives were not long enough. People like Josh Groban for creating beautiful, moving art and at the same time enjoying absurdity and earthy humor. People like Misha Collins for finding the zany and joyful in the world and using it to offset sadness and poverty. Lots of people.

The Masked Songbird_FC (2)What’s next for you after THE MASKED SONGBIRD?

A nap.

No, seriously. I need one. I’ll be working on the sequel to THE MASKED SONGBIRD this summer and then come my August deadline, probably hibernating for a few days.

Thanks so much for having me, Dan!


Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally–and most mysteriously–she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends–even her country.


Emmie Mears was born in Austin, Texas, where the Lone Star state promptly spat her out at the tender age of three months. After a childhood spent mostly in Alaska, Oregon, and Montana, she became a proper vagabond and spent most of her time at university devising ways to leave the country.

Except for an ill-fated space opera she attempted at age nine, most of Emmie’s childhood was spent reading books instead of writing them. Growing up she yearned to see girls in books doing awesome things, and struggled to find stories in her beloved fantasy genre that showed female heroes saving people and hunting things. Mid-way through high school, she decided the best way to see those stories was to write them herself. She now scribbles her way through the fantasy genre, most loving to pen stories about flawed characters and gritty situations lightened with the occasional quirky humor.

Emmie now lives in her eighth US state, still yearning for a return to Scotland. She inhabits a cozy domicile outside DC with two felines who think they’re lions and tigers.

You can order THE MASKED SONGBIRD here! Released in a box set, you get four great paranormal and urban fantasy books for less than $4!

Follow Emmie on Twitter and join her on Facebook!

Orison Release and Lessons From First Novels

Square-OrisonHi! In case you haven’t heard, Orison’s release date is today! It’s available on Amazon and BN, as well as directly from the Nine Muse Press store, in ebook format. (Paperback coming soon!)

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been blogging much at Surly Muse lately. I was working hard on making Orison the best book I could make it, and that took all the time and energy I had to do so. Flash fiction, blogging, and even supporting other authors as much as I wished to all went by the wayside. But it’s over now, and in the breath between this book and the next, I’d like to tell you a few of the things I learned along the way.

Between June and now, I’ve felt much less prescriptive about writing advice, so take them as my experience, nothing more. Here are the lessons I learned from my first book:

You must sacrifice. For over a month, I did almost nothing but edit. I managed to keep up with my day job, but only barely. Friendships, social gatherings, games and TV all had to go. I needed every ounce of focus and drive to get this book out the door. The book ate my life. I looked back on the lackadaisical months and years I spent procrastinating and stalling on previous books and realized just how wrong I’d been doing it. This is a lot of work. That first draft you’re so proud of? Only the beginning. It’s like Frodo and company getting to that little house at Buckland and having a beer. You’ve still got Mordor to go, and the road is long and hard. So get moving.

Revisions can take all your energy. On the up side, I have never enjoyed such black and dreamless sleep as when I was in the throes of edits. I would shuffle to bed at the end of each day and collapse, my brain utterly exhausted. It made me grouchy and terse. Few noticed, because I’m always grouchy and terse, but that’s beside the point. People ask “hey, how are the edits coming along?” and I would grown and slam the phone handset back into the cradle, or would have if I still had a landline, or if people called me on the phone.

Planning and detail are key. Finishing Orison made me less of a pantser than ever before. Why? Because every detail needs to be consistent, every plot needs to come together, every foible and behavior of every character must add up. If they don’t, readers will notice, and the more planning you do ahead of time, the more intimately you know your characters and your plot, the less work you’ll have to do on the back end. No disrespect to anyone who can just improvise their way through a novel. But I’ll never write that way again.

You need people. Beta readers, reviewers, artists, and friends — you’ll need them. Remember that Lord of the Rings analogy I was making earlier? Yeah. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam. You’ll need support, and advice, and caution, and praise, and someone to hold your hair while you throw up. Okay, maybe not so much that last one.

When you think you’re done, you’re not done. I sent the “final” draft of Orison to my publisher with the thought that it was really close to done! Nope. It was still so very far from done, and I didn’t even realize just how not-done it was until the third round of revisions. After a full rewrite. Revisions will bring to light new and exciting flaws you’d never noticed before! Thrill as you realize your plot has a huge hole! Marvel at the way your characters change without said change being evident to the readers! Dread fixing it! Know you can’t avoid it! Throw away passages you loved because they no longer work! No time for tears, it’s revisions!

“The best you can make it” and “the best it can be” are two different things. This was a tough one. More than once, I hit a dark patch in my revisions where I considered rewriting the entire book from scratch. (I also considered setting my computer on fire, but I’m fairly certain I wasn’t serious about that). There were still a few problems. The themes weren’t quite as resonant as I wanted. The supporting characters could use more development. The scope could be a bit bigger. More, and better, and this change and that change, and soon I was looking another rewrite in the eye, and I couldn’t face it. I realized it’s terrifyingly easy to just tweak and edit a book forever because you want it to be perfect, and it never will be.

When you hate your book, it’s finished. Before it was over, I all but loathed poor little Orison. I wanted it, and all the characters in it, to die. Mostly because I was tired. Tired of trying to perfect every moment and nuance, tired of trying to bring every emotion and note to the page. When I finally finished my revisions, I had a really solid book… but boy, was I ever sick of looking at it. That’s how I knew it was done. I still loved it, of course, but in the way you love a child who has been playing a game called How Loud Can I Scream for two months solid.

Marketing can bruise. Promoting your book can be rough. Getting attention is difficult. You worry about irritating people. And guess what, you’ll almost certainly irritate somebody. And if your release has taken a long time (like this one has) even the well-meaning jokes can start feeling a bit face-slappy. You just have to get through it. Thick skin, and all that. But remember to retreat and take some time out when you need to.

There is only the next work. People kept asking what I had planned for the big release day. The truth? I just want to work on the next book. Turns out sitting back and reflecting on my accomplishment (singular) isn’t really my style. I couldn’t make Orison perfect, but I think I did make it damn good, and now I’m excited to make the next book even better. I hope you’ll come with me on that journey. After all, Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t have gotten here without the help of Anna Loy, Gina Swensen, Angela Goff, Ruth Long, Eric Martell, Tracy McCusker, Khairul Hisham, Lisa Tomecek-Bias, Aaron Engler, Matt Kessen, Christina Ramey, Paul Ramey, and many more. Thank you all.

(P.S. my book bears little resemblance to Lord of the Rings. Just wanted to be clear about that.)

Surly Questions: Rachel Desilets

Surly Questions is back again with YA author Rachel Desilets. Her recently released novelette, Hipstopia, is available now! Thanks for taking the time, Rachel!

author headshot bw smaller

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I wrote my first short story in 4th grade.  I didn’t understand how dialogue worked, so I ended up with a giant block of text and quotes everywhere.  My mother saw it and (as the English teacher in the family) corrected everything I was doing wrong.  I’ve written a lot of beginnings, never to visit the story again.

In 2011, I decided it was now or never and wrote a novel in a week. During NaNoWriMo, I finished novel number two.  They were both terrible, but the fact is: I finished.  That’s when I knew I could actually do it.  That’s when I started taking myself more seriously as a writer.

Tell us about your debut YA novelette, Hipstopia.

Hipstopia originally started out as a joke through a twitter conversation.  But once I started to think about it, I couldn’t get the characters out of my head.

Hipstopia is the city that formed after the Hipster uprising.  Murphy led the revolution, kicking out everyone who believed in corporate personhood.  It’s told from Jay’s perspective – and he tries to be the perfect hipster, the right-hand man to Murphy.  It’s a coming-of-age story, where Jay makes plenty of realizations about himself, Murphy, and Hipstopia.

You write about Young Adult literature for the Examiner. What is it that drew you to YA, as compared to other genres?

Most young adult books, no matter what genre, tend to focus on relationships.  When I grew up, friendships and relationships taught me who I was.  I love that YA explores these bonds that change us, and I love how young adult forces main characters to find themselves – for better or worse.  This isn’t definitive of all young adult, but it is pertinent in most.

What does your typical writing day look like?

In between projects, my writing days are non-existent.  I have a really hard time getting focused after I self-publish.  When I am actively writing, I set aside time every single day.  I’m very goal oriented, so I usually go by word count, anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000.  Usually if I reach 500 words, the rest comes easy – getting into can be hard.  Sometimes it requires lots and lots of tea.

What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

Actually finishing my first book!  Seriously, G+ and my husband saved my writing life.  Connecting with writers before NaNoWriMo was perfect, because all of us were charged to write more, write faster, and write every day.  It was such a treat to do something so solitary in a writing hangout, taking breaks to chat, before getting back into it.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

To just do it.  My husband was a huge supporter of my writing – he saw me start and abandon projects.  He knew I had a huge problem with finishing what I started, partly because I was scared of failure.  He knew I needed to convince myself I could do it and remove my self-doubts.  I know now that perfection comes with editing, not with the first draft.  If you never finish the first draft, you’ll never finish the book.

18141626Tell us about your other project, The Unanswerable.

The Unanswerable is the first in a conquel series called The UnSeries.  Matthew is trapped in New York City during a mutated ebola outbreak with his wife and son.  They have to try to navigate the city, which has devolved into absolute chaos.  It’s dark with just a sliver of hope.

It’s currently being edited, with the release date to be determined (hopefully this year).

Who inspires you?

I’ve already explained how my husband has been instrumental to my writing life – so I’m going to say other authors.  I read a lot, which has improved my writing and keeps me motivated.  It forces me to come up with new, original ideas.

Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

I have the sequel to Hipstopia (currently untitled) that I have to write, edit, and publish by the end of next year, which is good since I needed a NaNoWriMo project!  I recently finished No Sugar Coating, a young adult magical realism novel, which will be released sometime in the beginning of next year.

What are your top five “desert island” books?

Oh boy… This is almost impossible to choose, but I’ll try.  The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton because it had such an impact on me when I first read it.  This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers because it has all the feelings and zombies.  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green because of the emotions portrayed. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness because he writes a darn good story, even though I would hate not having the sequels with me.
Then, if I was allowed to bring the whole series, it would be a toss up between Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien for an amazing dystopian/sci-fi series and The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken for intense emotions.  But I don’t think I could bring either of those if I can’t bring the sequels… So I might settle on The Child Thief by Brom for an awesome depiction of evil Peter Pan.
You can find Rachel on Goodreads or at her website,

Lessons From Dead Books

photo credit: alancleaver
photo credit: alancleaver

As I write this, ORISON is in the hands of my editor at Nine Muse Press. While there is still no official release date, we are officially in the home stretch, and I am as anxious as anyone to get my book in the hands of readers.

Even a year ago, this is not where I expected to be. I recently came across an unpublished interview from 2011 I did for another blogger (we mutually decided to wait until I had a book out before posting it) and I was amazed at how much had changed between the time I answered the questions and now. In said interview, I say, and I quote:

I like Orison, but it’s really just an action-adventure novella. I think it’s an entertaining read, but not what I’d call thought-provoking. It’s basically a big gumball. Fun for a little while, and then you’re done.

Ouch. I’m kind of horrified at that sentiment now, because that’s not how I feel about Orison at all these days. Shaking the book to its foundations, then rebuilding it Steve Austin-style from the wreckage, entirely changed its character and direction, and to me, it’s far from a “big gumball.” It’s now the best thing I’ve ever written, and I’m damn proud of it.

There’s something to be said about humble-bragging and self-deprecation in regards to the answer quoted above, and how it can lead us to devalue our own work, but really, re-reading my own words got me thinking about the lessons we learn from our failed projects.

Fail, Learn, Repeat

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being among other writers, it’s that everybody fails. Projects stall out. Plans fall through. Collaborations blow up in your face. Writers get exhausted, because rewrites and revisions can be an ongoing struggle. Blogs enjoy a strong start and then languish for weeks at a time. (Cough.) Sometimes, the project we think is The Big Thing turns out to be something small, or sometimes nothing at all.

But we can learn a lot from our failures. In fact, we must, if we’re ever going to get anywhere.

When I wrote the answer above, I was working on an epic fantasy called Daughters of the Moon (at the time, I had not bothered Googling to see if the title was taken; it very much is). Daughters is the story of a young woman getting revenge on the murder and kidnapping of her family by making a pact with dark gods. She learns to wield terrible destructive power that gives her the ability to rescue her family, but alienates and terrifies them in the process. The novel was set against the backdrop of an encroaching invasion by foreign powers, and had an ever-growing stable of characters and a rich, complex storyline. I liked it. The people I gave the draft to liked it. It had problems, sure, but it was a good story.

So I kept working on it. It grew in size and complexity. It grew so large it became the first book of a trilogy. I couldn’t wrap it up in the space of a single book, so after finishing and revising the first volume, I wrote a sequel (for Nanowrimo 2011, I believe).

The story grew larger and more complex still. It turned into something majestic and sweeping.

I worked on it some more.

Then I scrapped it.

It wasn’t an easy decision. It hurt like hell, in fact. But the original story had some huge, ground-level problems that I just couldn’t get past, even if my loyal beta readers could. I had written entire subplots to distract myself from my lack of a coherent ending. I had run circles around the story problems, perhaps in the hope that they would grow dizzy and fall down. And, finally, I decided that it just wasn’t Daughter‘s time.

So I put it to rest. Then I picked through its corpse and took some shiny bits for Orison, dressing my new darling up in my dead darling’s prose. Ghoulish and merciless, but that’s show biz, sweetheart. Sometimes fiction is a form of necrophilia. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

I still love Daughters of the Moon. I may revisit it someday, under a title that’s not taken. Or it may just become part of the writer’s compost heap, slowly decaying as the best bits of it float away to become part of something else.

The circle of life, or something.

Love Your Dead Books

So what’s the lesson here? Sometimes, you have to know when a project just can’t be salvaged. Even something that’s actually pretty good. Editing and revision is hard, necessary, vital work, but sometimes, a story is better off being torn apart for scrap than held together with baling wire and solder so it can limp across the finish line.

Knowing where to draw that line is a deeply personal thing, so I have no real advice for you there. I believe that inspiration is, at times, overrated; that we as writers often hope that our hearts will always sing with joy for the stories we tell, but that ain’t always the case. Some days, we’re just going to wake up, look at our manuscript, and be this far from throwing it in the trash.

And sometimes, that’s what needs to be done. But the question is, what did you learn from it?

For me, I learned that I’m an outliner, not a pantser. That I damn well better know the ending before I start, or I’ll just keep writing while I search for one. I learned that I can inflate my word count to enormous proportions while I flail about for an arc, and then later I’ll despair as I must stalk my darlings and shoot them in the back of the head, one by one. And if that sounds morbid, believe me, it is. So I learned to write a leaner cut of story from the beginning, and save those poor orphans from a terrible fate in the cemetery of prose.

I learned that sometimes you have to walk away, instead of continuing to tinker.

And that sometimes, that can be a beautiful thing.


Song of Nice and Ire: The Subversion Becomes the Trope

Today, I’m going to spare a post to talk about Game of Thrones, because why not? The rest of the Internet certainly can’t stop talking about it right now.

Photo by  horslips5.
Photo by horslips5.

For that meager handful of you who haven’t read the books, watched the show, or somehow missed the inundation of memes and reactions that followed the most recent episode of the HBO program — I can only offer my green-eyed envy. Briefly, the “Red Wedding” has arrived on television — a scene in which several beloved characters die horribly, in a fashion that should be familiar to all GRRM fans, and yet is somehow a big surprise.

If you don’t yet know all about the Red Wedding, some spoilers follow, and names of dead characters are named.

Before we start, I will say I have read four of the Game of Thrones books, and the entirety of the Wild Cards series before that. I am pretty much done with it, and Martin in general. I have no real quarrel with him as a writer. He just doesn’t write the kind of thing I enjoy. Just so we’re clear that I’m not trying to smear Martin. He’s fine. We’re fine. You may continue to enjoy his work, or not, as before.

So anyway, Martin killin’ characters. That’s a thing. A very well-known thing. Probably the thing for which Martin is most well-known, at this point, and yet people continue to be shocked by the brutal deaths of their favorite characters. The range of reactions varies, from horror to anger to glee to self-important proclamations about how everyone else should have seen it coming. I’ve even seen some people angrily lecture about how feeling shocked was, in fact, the reader’s fault for having the temerity and naiveté to engage with Song of Ice and Fire in good faith. That’ll teach you, you big dummies!

Cartoons and memes and Twitter posts abound regarding Martin’s bloodthirst. Martin himself is on record as saying that he writes to keep his readers in suspense, and he’s killed off specific characters specifically to be unpredictable:

I knew it almost from the beginning. Not the first day, but very soon. I’ve said in many interviews that I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do.

So Martin kills off beloved characters in order to subvert reader expectations. But after the first two times, what does the reader actually expect? What if you’ve read Wild Cards and find Martin’s debasement and slaughter of protagonists not only not surprising, but pretty much Martin’s stock in trade? Are reader expectations still being subverted then? I’m not trying to make the case that the massacre of fan favorites is all SoIaF has going for it. That’s hardly the case. But it is the thing people tend to talk about most often.

And that, to me, is the trap of “shocking” writing and unpredictability for its own sake. The same thing has happened to Joss Whedon, whose fans start ticking off the lifespan of a character the moment they get in a relationship, because they’ve seen them end badly so many times. Joss Whedon killing off characters in love is no longer a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time with his work. The subversion becomes the trope.

I think writers can also run into trouble when they try to double back and super-double-secret subvert reader expectations by letting characters live, or taking a break from the grim darkness to let certain characters off the hook. When you specifically raise the stakes through brutality, easing off can be seen as the calm before the storm, or it can just be interpreted as a sign you’ve gone soft.

Books on craft tell us that when we tell a story, we enter into a promise with the reader. We introduce a protagonist, set up a conflict, and make a pact that by the end of the book, there will be resolution — favorable, unfavorable, satisfying or infuriating, but met with integrity and consistency. We can be reasonably sure that SoIaF won’t end with flying saucers bombing King’s Landing. The series ending with every character the readers ever cared about dead, though, that’s another story.

It does raise the question of what the promise of a book is, when the storytelling rails are removed and the writer leaves the reader catapulting along an uncertain track. To some readers, this is exquisite agony; to others, a good time to jump off and board another train. I’ve parted ways with Game of Thrones, but it will be interesting to see if his series fulfills whatever promise it’s made to readers, and whether the next “shocking” death will still carry any real shock.

Thanks to Michael Hansen for correcting this post and pointing out that it was not actually the season finale!

How Goodreads Saved (and Ruined) My Reading Habits

Image by stilfoto on Flickr.
Image by stijlfoto on Flickr.

First of all, just so you know, I am not going to talk about Amazon buying Goodreads. That’s a conversation I am totally enthusiastic about… never having again. With anyone. At this point, my position can best be summed up with the words “don’t come crying to me.”

Now, if you’re not familiar with Goodreads (or, like Anna Meade, are frightened and confused by it), let me take a moment to poorly summarize it. Goodreads is Facebook for books. No, that’s terrible. Let me try again. Goodreads is a social media site for readers that allows you to add, rate, review, and share your reading experiences with others. Why would you want to do this? I don’t know. Ask the people who built it.

Now then. I am here not to bury Goodreads, but to praise it. And then bury it. You see, thanks to Goodreads, I went from a horrible, sloppy reading habit of one or two books a year to over fifty. Fifty! That’s ever so much more than one or two, yet a pittance compared to these people I see on Goodreads who go through like fourteen hundred books a year or something. What is with these people? Are they posting from some future cyberpunk utopia where they ram needles into their frontal lobes and experience all of Dostoevsky first-hand in a matter of seconds, like “The Inner Light,” but with screams and chainsaws instead of a little flute?

Well, anyway. The point is, I’m reading a lot more these days. And that’s good! Except when it’s bad. How can reading be bad, you ask? Well, it’s not. So, I admit I lied just now. It’s not so much the reading that’s bad as how Goodreads changed my reading habits — both for better and worse. Let’s examine this in detail, won’t we?

The Good(reads)

Goodreads makes it easy to discover new books. Thanks to having eleventy-billion friends on Goodreads (okay, 412 and counting, close enough), I constantly get recommendations on new books. My reading list just keeps growing. So many great new books to read!

Goodreads lets me share what I’m reading with my friends. I just finished a book and now I can share this super-important knowledge with everyone! “Like” button! Sweet validation! Virtual cookies for doing something I like doing anyway! I’m like a mouse in a lab who just got the cheese! Wait.

I can rate, review, organize and tag books! It’s like some kind of beautiful dream. If I wanted to know how much steampunk I read in 2012 for some reason, I no longer have to rely on my faulty memory. Remembering things is hard. Thank god for voluntarily submitting to data mining.

The Reading Challenge encourages me to meet a yearly reading goal. Finally, a way to feel superior to everyone else. It’s like a marathon without having to get up off my ass! Twenty books? Why not fifty? Why only fifty, Freddie, why not a hundred? Imagine the sweet Schadenfreude when all my friends fail and I metaphorically sail across the finish line… of reading… some stuff? /Chariots of Fire theme

The Bad(reads)

Goodreads makes it easy to discover new books. Thanks to having 412 friends and counting on Goodreads (feels more like eleventy billion), my reading list is growing faster than I will ever be able to read. I am going to die with thousands of books unread. Glancing at my Goodreads feed is now a terrifying gaze into the black heart of my own mortality. Now I’m reading Emotional Structure for Screenwriters. Now I sink into an alcoholic haze in a blind idiot universe that punishes and rewards without reason or mercy. I think I’ll polish off an entire bottle of wine and go watch Charmed or something.

Goodreads lets me share what I’m reading with my friends. Thanks, Goodreads, now everyone knows I abandoned that indie book I promised I’d read and the author is probably crying and defriending me on Facebook as we speak and then without meaning to I publicly admitted to liking a Dragonlance novel and now my author cred totally lies in ruins somehow only nobody actually cares so why am I thinking about this?

I can rate, review, organize and tag books! Yeah, because I totally wasn’t OCD enough to begin with. How will I know if I’m enjoying this book unless I properly categorize it by painfully specific minutiae?

The Reading Challenge encourages me to meet a yearly reading goal. Yes, thanks to Goodreads, I have totally  turned my own reading into some kind of perverse commodity. I think twice about reading anything if it doesn’t contribute to my abstract and totally meaningless Reading Challenge goal. Beta read your manuscript? That’s valuable time I could be putting toward collecting more Goodreads brownie points! Disappear into that thousand-page epic novel? We can’t do that, dude, it messes up the averages. I could fall behind schedule, committing to a long book like that. Are you crazy? Go outside? See people? I’M IN THE GOODREADS CHALLENGE HERE PEOPLE.

Of course, none of this is the fault of Goodreads. This is a prime example of digging a hole, throwing oneself in it, and then complaining about this hole somebody dug that one is now stuck in. And then clicking “Share” so everyone knows you’re miserable about being in this hole. I could walk away from Goodreads tomorrow and make my reading habits less pathological almost instantly. Reading challenge? Sir or madam, I submit to you, schmeading challenge. I can quit anytime I want. I just don’t want to.

So what do you think, reader? Goodreads! Balm or scourge? Threat or menace? Chicken or fish?

Why I Gender-Flipped My Protagonist

Cover art by Tracy McCusker.

Hey, everybody. Today, I want to talk about my upcoming novel, Orison. I’m finally in a position where I have something to blog about. Namely, a completed draft in the hands of the editor. I didn’t see much point in talking about the process until I was certain I’d actually learned something along the way. Turns out I did. This is the first of what will be a series of posts on what I learned from my book.

I’m slightly apprehensive that what follows might be considered controversial, although I see no reason for it to be. It’s about my decisions about my own creative work, and what led me there. There is no chastisement or polemic intended, although if you choose to take it that way, I certainly can’t stop you.

That said, let me tell you about Randoval.

Randoval’s been with me for decades. He first appeared as a protagonist in my first and never-to-be-published space opera, Free Enterprise, a novel about a lovable but slightly bumbling thief who ends up involved in a sprawling galactic war when he steals a vital piece of military intelligence. Yes, it was a slightly warmed-over version of Star Wars, and this guy was a slightly warmed-over Han Solo. No two ways about it. He even had the brown hair and sarcastic demeanor. There was even a princess. And they hated each other and then fell in love. It’s embarrassing to think about now. What can I say, except I was around nineteen when I wrote it.

All the same, I liked Randoval. I have a real fondness for slightly hapless characters who get in more trouble than they can handle.  I found Randoval charming and rooted for him when he got in way over his head. Even though Free Enterprise turned out to be an unholy mess that I’d never inflict on an unsuspecting world, he as a character always stuck with me. He would crop up in other works of fiction, sometimes subtly (or not-so-subtly) renamed. My old friend Aaron Engler even played him in an RPG campaign I ran, because, you know, nerds.

So years later, when I penned the first draft of Orison, I decided to port Randoval over to a fantasy world and put him in the same situation: a common thief unwittingly steals something earth-shattering, and gets in way over his head. That draft was really only my second foray into a novel-length tale, and I aimed low, going for a wahoo, “medieval heist” adventure. On that level, I think I succeeded, and I think Randoval fit right into his assigned role.

Then there was a long interlude where I worked on some other things for awhile (read: years), then abandoned them, then came back to Orison. After a long period of agonizing, I decided I wanted Orison to be my first published novel — once it had undergone a serious overhaul.

In the midst of my rewrite, though, something began to feel wrong. Staid. Boring. Randoval as a protagonist just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. There was nothing wrong with him, he was still the same charming guy, but something had been sticking in my craw ever since I’d written it. I had exactly two female characters. One was little more than a sexualized cameo, and the other, to quote a good friend and reader, was “a bit of a tight leather corset.” And he was right. It was all white guys, doing white guy things, chasing other white guys around. The girls were mostly there to look hot, and occasionally kick ass, but mostly to look hot.

Now, is there anything inherently wrong with that? Not necessarily. But I didn’t like that my only female characters were basically love interests. That’s precisely the kind of thing I don’t like in the fiction I consume, so why was I writing it? I realized my fiction was pulling stunts I occasionally tended to razz other authors for: lingering on the female’s clothes, putting them in situations the male character’s wouldn’t be in, adding sexualized nuances that the male characters didn’t have.

I’d see stuff like this in other people’s fiction and think, why don’t writers just treat the female characters with the same set of dramatic standards? Why can’t we have a female character who doesn’t have to be captured or rescued by a man, whose life doesn’t center on her romantic interest in a male? How about some damn variety?

And then it hit me. I could stop griping and just put my money where my mouth was. If I wanted to make a female character who didn’t get marginalized for being female, why not just make my protagonist female?

Suddenly, it all clicked. Exit Randoval Sarvas, enter Story Kai Tann, so named because she makes her career as a “second-story girl”. And then I gave her brown skin instead of white. (Why? Well, why the hell not?  Where’s the inherent virtue in leaving all our fiction switches on the default settings?)

new-front-coverIt wasn’t actually that easy, of course. The fantasy world in which the novel is set remains rather patriarchal, and I had neither the ambition nor the inclination to try to challenge that my first time out. A few details had to be changed, but Story was still every bit as in-charge as Randoval had been. And it made the story better. Where Randoval often came off as just another Han Solo wannabe, Story felt fresh to me. She challenged my perspective. And because I’d originally written her as a guy, she did things she probably wouldn’t have done if I had originally written her as a woman. In short, she taught me things.

To be honest, I questioned this decision. I had readers who loved and identified Randoval. I questioned whether this was born of some sort of male guilt, or a need to be (get ready for one of my least favorite phrases) politically correct. But I realized I had a lot of very good reasons for doing this:

It got me out of my comfort zone. Rewriting the protagonist from a female perspective forced me to confront a few assumptions about my own fiction. It broadened up my horizons a little. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I learned a Valuable Lesson About Life (cue The More You Know music), because that’s not what I mean. But it did shake up the ride a little, and I enjoyed it all the more for that.

Most of my readers are actually female. The ones I engage with, anyway. A couple weeks before I made this decision, Brianna Sheldon made a thread on Google+ about good, capable female protagonists in fantasy fiction, and maybe I’m just not finding the right books, but my short list was really short. Aside from Tristan Tarwater‘s protagonist in Thieves at Heart, I was hard-pressed to come up with much of anything in what I’d read recently. I know tons of awesome female writers and readers. Why not put someone in the book they can relate to? I don’t mean that to sound pandering — it just seems like basic marketing to me.

It just worked. Neither of the above reasons would have mattered if changing the gender of the main character had somehow diminished the narrative, or if it had seemed dishonest or smarmy. But it did work. I liked Randoval a lot, but I love Story, and I love what she did for the novel. It changed Orison from a book I thought was merely okay to one I’m really quite proud of. Even my editor said, rather emphatically, “Story could never be a man! Story as a man = boring. Story as a woman = awesome.” While I think the character would be just great either way, I’m glad she’s as enthusiastic about the change as I am.

I want to linger over that last part a bit, because in writing this, I realize it might come across like I made my protagonist female out of some desire to get Magic Feminism Cookies or whatever. That’s not the case. The dearth of good female characters in fantasy fiction has bothered me for decades. The next novel I wrote (now in a sorry state of abandonment) was written in part to address that lack.

I’m not trying to teach the world to sing, or anything like that, I’m just writing the kind of book I’d like to read myself. I don’t for one instant consider Orison to be some sort of Important Feminist Work; it most emphatically is not. It’s just a good fantasy yarn, which happens to have a female protagonist who doesn’t get by on her bare midriff and her sexuality. And if that makes my novel out of the ordinary somehow, well, all I can say is, it shouldn’t. I think it should be both common and unremarkable.

Finally, I think there is a greater writing lesson here, entirely divorced from gender. It’s about questioning your own assumptions about why your book is or isn’t working, and the value of breaking away from your routine. They say you should write fiction that scares you or challenges you, but I think that’s often more difficult than it looks, because we don’t always know what we should challenge or why. I feel fortunate that in the case of Orison, my desire to shake things up and my long-standing gripes with fantasy fiction intersected, and I was able to make something cool from the result.

Still, I do want to find a home for Randoval one day, because I think he’s a good guy and a good character. I hope someday to meet him again. But I’m really hope that when Orison drops, some of you will take a chance and meet Story. Because I like her a lot.

Get BURN on Smashwords for Free!

Hi again, it’s me. Remember me? What’s up? Yeah, I’ve been writing. Speaking of which…

For those of you interested in my fiction, my short story Burn is available on Smashwords right now, for the price of zero dollars. I figure, if you find out if you like my writing style, you can pick up the next one.

Burn is best described as a superhero story without a hero. Here’s the cover blurb:

Alexa Bernell can do what no one else can — or so she thought, until the Omen Project found her. Shaped by drugs and brutal training, she was their weapon. Until she got loose. Haunted by the memories of what she’s done, Alexa ran. Now the Project is hunting her. They’ve sent Cav, her friend, her lover, and her only confidant. If she wants to be free, she has to kill him.

Cover art by the fine and talented Tracy McCusker.

Thanks, and if you do pick it up, I hope you’ll leave a review!


The Worst One-Star Amazon Reviews… Ever!

The Worst Amazon ReviewsNote: This is not a collection of hilarious one-star reviews, but rather a post on reviews that are not hilarious. Or useful. Or worth writing.

I generally try to remain positive on this blog. Today, however, I’m going to be as negative and sarcastic as your average one-star Amazon reviews.

I read a lot of reviews. A few are insightful. Many are quite funny. Most are worthless. I’ve often maintained that the three or four-star reviews are the only ones worth reading, because the fives and ones are often so hyperbolic that their credibility becomes suspect. Five-star reviews too often drip with fanboy/girl gushing. One-star reviews tend toward the same grab bag of tired gimmicks, none of which offer any useful information.

Now, I understand that most one-star Amazon reviews are not actually reviews. They’re rants. Someone reads a bad book and they’re angry. They’re hurting and they want to lash out. They want the world to share their pain, and so they unleash a couple paragraphs of mouth-foaming invective and consider it a public service. I get it.

However, as a writer, I’d like to know why someone hates my work — not colorful, over-the-top descriptions of how much they hate it. And if I’m reading a review to try to judge how much I’d like a book, I’m not interested in how clever the reviewer is (which, most of the time, is not very clever). Either way, I want some useful information about the book in question — and the following examples, my friends, do not qualify.

So with that in mind, I submit this list of things to stop writing in your Amazon reviews. Forever. Please.

1. “I wish I could give it zero stars.”

Okay, stop right there. You wish you could give it a rating lower than the worst possible rating? Say you could rate it zero stars — wouldn’t you then wish you could rate it negative one, or negative ten, or negative one quazillion? Negative super-double-infinity because you just hate it so damn much? Isn’t “the worst possible rating” low enough?

2. “Worse than [natural disaster / fascist dictatorship / war atrocity]”

Cheapening actual tragedies by comparing them to your sub-par reading experience is not how you establish credibility as a reviewer. All this tells me is that you have no real sense of perspective. Also, you’re not funny.

3. “I would rather be [tortured / disemboweled / eat broken glass, etc.] than read this again.”

Gosh, I’ll bet you would! When I read something like this, a tiny part of me wishes I were some kind of super-genius psychopath, so I could track these people down, tie them to a chair, make them eat some broken glass, and see how long it takes them to decide they’re pretty okay with reading Eragon a second time instead.

4. “I don’t understand [the positive reviews / any praise this book receives]”

That’s not an opinion on the book. That’s an opinion on other people’s opinions. I don’t care.

5. “It’s overrated and I’m [shocked / appalled / confused] that it’s popular.”

Oh, it’s so hard being so much smarter than everyone else! Why was I afflicted with this accursed genius?! If you’re such a braniac, maybe the popularity of mediocre, easily digestible books shouldn’t be all that shocking. Do you want a prize for disliking something popular? Again, this is meta-opinion, and usually dime-store snobbery into the bargain.

6. “Don’t waste your time and money. I’m saving you the trouble. You’re welcome!”

Thank God someone is around to save me from having my own opinion on things! And big thanks for not actually telling me why I’d dislike it, but instead, letting me just trust that you are the final arbiter of taste. You are my hero, J. Random Internet!

7. “I guess you’ll like this book if you’re an [idiot / housewife / redneck / sociopath]”

Once again, this is not a book review. This is a snotty ad hominem on imaginary people you think you’re better than. Big bonus for ugly stereotyping, and by “big bonus” I mean you’re a bit of a tool.

8. “I skimmed about half of this book and here’s my opinion!”

I skimmed the first three words of your review and dismissed it! Seriously, opinions on the Internet are ill-informed enough as it is. Why would I put any stock in someone who’s bragging about how little information they digested before making their argument?

9. “This book is proof that civilization is [doomed / declining / made up of big poo-poo-heads]”

Yup, not genocide, dwindling natural resources, ecological disaster or global food crises. It’s this sub-par sci-fi novel that’s the real trouble. You’ve really got your priorities in order.

10. “I just finished the first two pages and am stopping to tell you how awful this book is.”

Get a blog. Or a Twitter account. Asshole.

11. “[I / my fifth grader / my dog / a bit of rancid lemon peel] could write a better book in five minutes!”

Then please, do it. Or encourage your fifth grader, dog, or rotting fruit to do it. I’m not kidding. We could use more good books, especially the kind that can be written at such high speed. I look forward to reading your work. Oh, what’s that? You were just talking smack? Ah. Okay, then. I’ll be sure to lend your opinion a lot of weight in that case.

12. “My [husband / roommate / hetero life partner] hated this book!”

Is this person just too lazy to write their own review, or are you trying to establish credibility by invoking the unverified opinions of third parties? Either way, quit it.

13. “I read a lot of crap and this is the crappiest crap that ever crapped!”

I actually have some grudging respect for this argument. It’s still kind of useless, but at least the reviewer isn’t being pretentious. If someone reviews a movie and says “I’ve seen a lot of grade-Z movies, and sir, this is no Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone,” I’ll probably take them at least a little seriously.

NOT The Worst One-Star Amazon Review

And finally, the one-star review I’d like to see more of:

“I [didn’t like, hated, loathed, threw out, burned, defecated upon] this book. Here’s why.”

I’m not saying you have to like every book. I’m not even saying you have to be polite. I don’t mind some incendiary language, if it transmits some useful information. Were the characters flat as playing cards? The protagonists morally loathsome? The story so slow and plodding that you began to yearn for the breakneck pace of a Tarkovsky film? The plot clearly lifted from The Ghost and Mister Chicken starring Don Knotts? The prose so purple and garish that you could add it to Prince’s wardrobe? Okay, you’d be pushing it a little with that last one, but at least you’re telling me something about the book, and not just having your own anger-management therapy session.

Writing an online review — on Amazon or anywhere else — is not exactly a grave responsibility. Most reviews will probably not change hearts and minds. But that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to make it useful to someone.

Oh, and in my defense, when I wrote that review of “Stigmata,” I was really drunk.

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Imperium Giveaway Results

First of all, Merry Christmas to all my readers and the great writers and readers I’ve connected with on social media. You guys rock and have made a good year great.

Second, today is the day of the Imperium giveaway. I rolled the dice like a good gamer ought to, and the winners came out:

I’ll be sending out DMs and emails today. Congrats to the winners and thanks to everyone who commented — I wish I could get books for all of you! But hey — if you have a Kindle, I have a copy of Imperium I can loan out through Amazon, so drop me a line if you still want to read it.