You Can Write That Novel — Even if it Feels Like You Can’t

I am participating in the Writing Contest You Are Enough, hosted by Positive Writer.

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret:

Bounty FinalFor the most part, I tend to not believe in myself. Not just as a writer, but in general. That’s just how I’ve always been. I tend to be hard on myself, to think I can’t accomplish something, that I’m not good enough — even when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.

As I type this, there are five full-length novels on my bookshelf with my pen name on the spine. Those same five novels are also loaded onto my Kindle, as is the short story I re-published back in late April. If there’s one thing I shouldn’t experience self-doubt over, it’s my ability to write a book.

And yet…

The human mind is a strange, fickle thing. Sometimes, it doesn’t work properly. Sometimes, it works against you. One day, I’ll wake up completely content with my station in life; the next, I might wake up desperate to quit my job, go back to bed, and tell all my problems I’ll deal with them later.

I have a ton of book ideas that are in various stages of development. Incomplete manuscripts. Half-baked ideas that haven’t quite gelled into something publishable yet. The inklings of a book plot that refuse to develop into something more substantial. It’s simultaneously invigorating and overwhelming. But here’s the thing to remember:

It can be done. I know because I’ve done it before.

Bounty and Notna are characters and stories I originally created when I was in middle 36384932school (let’s just ignore the fact that was over 20 years ago). They were originally meant to be comic books; I was going to be the next Jim Lee, the next Todd McFarlane. But along the way, I fell out of love with art — then writing.

I eventually got the writing bug back, but not the art bug. Oh, the art bug tried making its return, several times. But the magic was never quite there, even if the stories I mentioned above were. So I began the arduous process of trading in my panels and word balloons for prose.

I won’t lie; it was a difficult process. There were plenty of false starts. There were a lot of sleepless nights where I wondered if maybe these stories weren’t meant to be. But — and if you take nothing else away from this post, this is the important part — I kept plugging away. I kept trying.

And on June 1, 2015, I published Bounty.

Six months later, Blood Ties went live. Six months after that, Behind the Badge. In the span of a little more than a year, I went from unpublished, boy-I’d-love-to-write-a-book-someday to an author with three novels to his name.

This past October, I published Notna, meaning both of my childhood stories were finally out there for the world to see.

I’m not a bestseller. Far from it. But I am published. I’ve introduced characters who have been a major part of my life to the world. There are people who love these characters as much as I do. My series has a long way to go — I can’t envision a day in which I’m no longer writing a Jill Andersen book — and there are plenty of other books that need to be written.

There’s even a second series poking around in my head.

I’m not saying all of this is easy. There are still days when I’m blocked. There are still days in which I can’t bring myself to actually put words on the page, no matter how desperately I want to. There are even days when I just don’t want to. But I imagine that’s true of just about any job, and the fact is, whenever I doubt myself, all I have to do is look at my bookshelf.

If you have a story (or several) in you, let them out. Even if it takes years. Don’t compare yourself to other writers, even your favorites. Write your story, tell your tale. Worry about publication and sales and all that later; for now, today, focus solely on putting those words on that page. Even if it’s just a sentence, a paragraph.

You can do this. Trust me. There’s nothing stopping you.

After all, my dream came true. Why can’t yours?

 

Official SealBounty has been nominated for a TopShelf magazine Indie Book Award!

It’s a big deal for my debut novel to even be nominated — and there are plenty of perks therein — but if by some stroke of luck I actually win, then there’s no end to the awesomeness that would ensue. Mostly I’m just jacked that someone thought enough of my work to nominate it. That’s pretty damn cool.

Anyway, check it out!

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

On Joss Whedon and Feminism

Be careful who you anoint as a hero.

On Sunday, Kai Cole — Joss Whedon’s ex-wife (who you may recall from Much Ado About Nothing and her hand in “Once More With Feeling,” the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode) — penned an article detailing Whedon’s mistreatment of her over the years and how he’s basically a big, fat hypocrite for riding his faux feminist credentials to fame and larger projects.

First thing: I have no reason not to believe Cole. The only reason to summarily dismiss her article is to further perpetuate Whedon’s undeserved reputation and/or further advance the very patriarchy we were led to believe Whedon was against.

Now, the main point…

This doesn’t surprise me, because honestly, I never bought into the narrative of Joss Whedon, Feminist God (TM). Sure, I enjoyed a lot of his work; I’ve spoken on that at length on this page before. But to elevate a white cisgender male to such a status was always destined to be a fool’s errand.

Spoiler alert: white men — even the well-meaning ones — are poor role models.

The proof of Whedon’s lack of feminist bonafides is clear as day for anyone willing to see it. There was how he treated actress Charisma Carpenter when she became pregnant leading up to season 4 of Angel. There was a reported storyline for a potential season 2 of Firefly that involved Inara, Reavers, rape, and potential suicide. There was the entire premise behind Dollhouse (a show that was fantastic at times, but the premise was… yeeeeah).

The fact that Whedon is friends with Adam “Tea Party shitlord” Baldwin.

The fact that Avengers: Age of Ultron featured a contrived romance between Bruce and Natasha (written as a way to keep Bruce from losing control) and that Natasha considered herself a “monster” because of her inability to have children. Claim studio interference all you want, but Whedon was that film’s writer and director — and he had the name and the geek cred to push back against the studio if he really wanted.

And come on, did you see the snippets of that Wonder Woman script he penned several years ago? Let’s all be glad that’s not the version that wound up on the screen — and hope he doesn’t screw up Batgirl (though he probably will).

The fact is… people claimed Whedon to be a feminist icon because in 1997, he helmed a genre TV show with a female lead when such shows were still a rarity. And he just… ran with it.

Some of his work will always be important to me — how Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel saved my life cannot be erased by any of this — but to sit there and hold up a white male geek as an icon for feminism when there are so many better role models — female, of color, of different sexual orientations and genders — speaks to everything wrong with geek culture and America as a whole.

Generally speaking, a white male is overly vocal about how much of a feminist he is likely isn’t much of a feminist.

My opinion of Whedon was a human being has taken a hit, but not as much as some other people because I didn’t believe the hype. I’ll always love BuffyAngel, and Firefly, but I think it’s time we start being more careful and more aware of who we put on pedestals — and start demanding receipts from those who boast about just how good an ally they are.

Bounty and Comic Books: An Origin Story

Before we get started, look at this awesomeness.

I commissBounty-Smallioned comic book artist Kendall Goode (@kendallgoode on Twitter) to draw a piece depicting Bounty, the hero of my Jill Andersen series of novels, and as soon as I saw the finished product in my inbox… well, I’m not sure there are words for the sound I made. But suffice it to say, I love the piece, and it perfectly exemplifies what I think of when I write this character.

I’ve made no secret of the influence comic books have had on my work. Nor have I hid the fact that Bounty, when I first created her back in 1997, was a comic book character. She was supposed to be on your local comic book shop every month, not available on Amazon.

But life is funny sometimes.

These days, I’m a novelist. Not because I’ve outgrown comic books — I still collect them, after all — but because I’ve become a much better writer than artist. It’s an evolution borne out of necessity (as most evolution is), but even as I have morphed Jill and her world into prose, the panels and word balloons are never far from my mind.

As I type this, I’m toying with the plot for a potential Bounty graphic novel. I have no timetable for this project, but I do want to see it through — and the above image is all the motivation and inspiration I need. I love the Jill Andersen books; I love that I’ve matured enough, as a writer and as a person, that I can write these stories. I love that readers love Jill as much as I do.

But I want to bring Jill home. She deserves to be immortalized in a graphic novel. That was where she started. Hell, that’s where I started. Without discovering and getting hooked on comic books when I was in middle school, I doubt I’m a storyteller right now. I don’t know what I’d be, but I don’t think I’d have “published author” among the things about which I can brag.

Who would draw a Bounty graphic novel? Well, that’s one of the hang-ups.

It sure as hell won’t be me (see above). Right now, Goode is my choice… but then there’s the issue of payment. I would never ask an artist to work with me without proper compensation — to say nothing of how much money we’d agree to split on any potential sales. In a perfect world, a comic publisher would pick up my script and all of that would take care of itself. But a Plan B would be nice.

So for that reason alone, the Bounty graphic novel might be way down the road. But it is something I want to do, it is something I’m writing. But for the time being, Jill will have to stick to prose, with only glimpses like the above image keeping the dream of her going back to her roots to spur me onward.

Some readers have compared Jill to Daredevil — a comparison I find flattering after having watched at least some of the latter’s Netflix series. One reader said Jill was like a cross between Lara Croft and Deadpool, and my fans are well aware of all the Batman references I throw into these books. Jill is a comic book character in a novel world — and as great as superhero novels are (there really should be more of them), just once I’d love to sell someone a Bounty comic or graphic novel.

One day, that will happen. One day…

A Female Doctor: Perspective from a Non-Whovian

Geek confession: I am not a Whovian.

I’ve never seen an episode of Doctor Who. Haven’t even wanted to, really.

The premise seemed weird. I didn’t get it. Steven Moffat was a thing.

Mostly the last one.

But now there’s news that the next Doctor — the 13th — will be a woman. After 12 straight white dudes, Whovians will finally see a woman — Jodie Whittaker, to be exact — emerge from the TARDIS.

That’s a big deal, no two ways about it. And to be perfectly frank, I’m now interested enough in Doctor Who as a property that I might give the show a try once the new Doctor starts. What some would call novelty, I call opportunity.

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I love female protagonists; for the most part, I prefer them to their male counterparts. Part of it is, historically, the latter was all we had. For so many decades, the white male hero has been so prevalent in genre fiction that he was ubiquitous.

Even with the deviations from that norm of late, the white male hero still outnumbers all of the other gender and racial identities multiple times over — so keep that in mind the next time some “true fan” gets all whiny on social media about how PC culture and the SJWs are ruining genre fiction.

I don’t need stories that affirm my life experiences anymore. I want stories that push me, make me think and feel in different ways. Protagonists that aren’t the “default” (read: white and male) do that in ways the “default” never can. I’ve been so well represented in genre fiction in my almost 36 years on this planet that I’m… kinda over it.

When I first created Bounty, back in the late 1990s, I did so because I didn’t see a ton of comic books at the time starring female leads. There were plenty of female superheroes, but most of them, from what I could tell, were part of ensemble casts. Other than Wonder Woman and Witchblade, I didn’t see many solo female-led books.

So I decided to change that.

I don’t need to be represented anymore. But there are so many who do, and I want to devour their stories. That means greater diversity in character — but also in writer, in creator, in director.

A female Doctor has so many possibilities. Imagine how much more plentiful those possibilities are if the writing team and those directing each episode are also more diverse.

Diversity is not a dirty word. It is a necessity when it comes to understanding the complicated, ever-changing world in which we live. If a British TV show about a time-traveling alien with two hearts can now contribute to that, then I say all the better.

 

Follow J.D. Cunegan on: Amazon | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Patreon

 

On Passion

“Passion. It lies in all of us. Sleeping… waiting… and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir… open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us… guides us. Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love… the clarity of hatred… the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”

The above passage, a speech from the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Passion,” is but one interpretation of passion itself. It’s an admittedly dark take, fitting in perfectly with a TV show in which the titular character’s boyfriend had just gone evil and began exacting his unique brand of treachery in a personal way. But I think passion is more than all that.

Though it does bear asking: without passion, what are we?

DSCN1724I have two true passions in life: auto racing and writing. Everything beyond that never really evolves past “interest.” Baseball is an interest. Video games are an interest. They’re great, they bring me happiness, but if I had to go the rest of my life without them, I could do it. Racing and writing? Without those two things, I’m not me. Without those two things, I might as well be little more than a name carved into a hunk of stone.

But how does one differentiate between interest and passion? Well, think about when you get up in the morning. When you crawl your achy, sweaty carcass out of bed, scratching at that itch buried in your dirty, unkempt hair, what’s the first thing that brings a smile to your face? What’s the one thing you have to do? Not in the “if I don’t do this, I don’t get paid” sense; I mean in the “if I don’t do this, I feel incomplete” sense.

The truly lucky among us have the same answer to both questions. I’m not quite there yet, but I’d like to think I’m on my way.

It became clear to me a long time ago that I could never actually be a race car driver or work for a race team. Despite my love for racing, I’m not what you’d consider a car guy. I can’t take apart an engine or change a transmission; I just love watching the competition and immersing myself in the sensory overload that is being at a race. Hearing the roar of the engines, feeling that powerful purr in my ribcage, smelling the burnt rubber and the fuel, feeling the wind rush by as 40 of those ad-splashed suckers roar by at 200 miles an hour… there’s nothing like it, and I’m not sure I can adequately put it into words.

Probably why I haven’t written a story about racing. Yet.

NASCAR is my vehicular poison of choice, though I’m also partial to IndyCar, Formula 1, drag racing, sports car racing… if it’s got four wheels and an engine, chances are I have at least a passing (natch) fascination with it. I can’t go through a weekend without watching a race, nor can I go a NASCAR season without attending at least a couple races. Racing is in my blood, and it will be until the day I die.

As for writing… well, I have a visceral need to tell stories. To take in stories, realize how Me at Comiconthey make me feel, then do everything I can to make others feel the same way. I’ve been a writer, in one way or another, since I was in middle school; by now, writing is such an intrinsic part of who I am that not writing would be an affront to everything I’ve built for the last… almost 36 years.

Every time I read a comic book or a really good novel, or I see an engrossing TV show or movie, I come away with this jolt of adrenaline, this need to plunk my pasty ass down in front of my laptop and make with the typey-type. Every time I write a book, or a short story, or even a blog post like this, I’m scratching an itch buried deep under my skin that never truly goes away.

Every morning, I wake up with one thought: what am I going to write today?

Rarely, the answer is “nothing.” Those days are rough.

I say all that to ask that you all find your passion in life and pursue that. For there lies the route to happiness. If you don’t know what your passion is, that’s okay. If your answer changes over time, that’s fine too. We all grow and change. What you loved at 15 and what you love at 35 doesn’t have to be the same thing. Sometimes, finding your passion boils down to realizing there are only but so many hours in the day, and you have to give up something.

That thing you can’t give up? That thing you refuse to let go of? That’s your passion.

If there’s one piece of writing advice I could give (and only one), it’s to follow your passion. If you’re in the middle of a story you’re not passionate about, stop writing it. Set it aside (but never get rid of it entirely). Find what you are passionate about, and work on that. Time is too fleeting to waste it on something you don’t feel.

Share your passion with others. There is comfort and happiness in numbers. I understand how that sounds, coming from an introverted hermit like me, but few things bring me as much happiness as sharing my joy with like-minded individuals. I don’t even just mean selling books (though that it a kickass feeling, I won’t lie). Fanboying/fangirling over a favorite book, sharing tricks of the publishing trade that worked (or didn’t)… that sense of community only fuels my passion further.

If writing’s your passion, write. If it’s art, then paint or draw or sculpt. If it’s tinkering with the innards of a computer or a 1967 Pontiac GTO, then tinker away. But don’t let the hours and days pass you by without your passion. If there’s one thing you have permission to be selfish about in life, it’s your passion. Indulging in your passion is what gives you the strength and the drive to handle the parts of life you aren’t that jazzed about.

Got a full-time job that stresses you out? Make time before or after for whatever you love. Stressful family life? Tuck yourself away in solitude and take in whatever it is that makes you tick.

Because at the end of the day, Angelus was right. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.

An Ode to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

So it’s come to my attention that Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and by extension, the Buffyverse as a whole — is now 20 years old.

First of all, no. I’m not that old.

Am I?

Alright, I am…

Secondly, this seems like an appropriate moment for me to sing the virtues of the Buffyverse, not just on its merits as a fictional universe that spawned two fantastic television shows and lives on in a series of hit-or-miss comic books, but as a creative entity that is almost singlehandedly responsible for where I am today.

To explain, a trip down Memory Lane…

When I was in college, I hit a rough patch. Between 2003 and 2004, my life turned to a dark place… so dark that I was almost a shell of myself. I was barely attending class, I wasn’t spending time with friends, I wasn’t really doing much of anything. I certainly wasn’t writing, and that fact didn’t bother me in the slightest. The days were just passing by, and I cared little for what they brought with them.

But in a fit of boredom one night, I didn’t change the channel after Smallville went off the air… and next thing I knew, I was watching this vampire (with a soul) setting up shop in a law firm, along with his friends — one of whom was a green-skinned demon with better fashion sense than I’ll ever hope to have. And even though I had no idea what was going on… I was hooked.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I was late to the Buffy party. Or maybe it was a shindig. Or was it a hootenanny?

Anyway…

You can thank/blame the movie for that. I saw the 1992 film when I was a kid, and I hated it. So when I heard they were gonna make a TV show based on that property, my first — and only — thought was, “Ugh, pass.” Even as friends kept trying to get me to watch the show, I refused… there was no way in hell I was watching that show.

To this day, I still get the I told you so‘s.

Anyway, I’m hooked. First Angel, then Buffy. I’m devouring these two shows as quickly as the DVD boxset releases will allow me (Netflix and Hulu weren’t quite a thing yet). I fell in love with these characters, I devoured whatever content I could find online. I spoiled the hell out of myself on everything, and yet seeing it unfold on the screen was still an incredibly powerful, moving experience.

I’d never had a TV show make me cry before. These two shows did — repeatedly.

But most importantly… I began living again. I started looking forward to doing stuff. I started going to class more. I began slowly dipping my toe back into the social waters. I eventually got up the courage to start going to therapy. And, slowly but surely, I began writing again.

It started off innocently enough; a friend had invited me to join an online Buffy RPG (or “online writing community,” as we called it) called Birthright. It was set years after the end of both shows, and the vast majority of the cast featured original characters, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I started off with a Watcher in mourning, and before I knew it, I was juggling six characters.

Eventually, Birthright turned into City Limits. New location, new storyline, same great writing and community. Those of you who have read Blood Ties might recall hearing about this community from the Acknowledgments section, and I mention that without this experience, I’m probably not here today with three published books to my name and several more on the way.

That’s not hyperbole. Without the Buffyverse, without the creative kick in the ass Joss Whedon and company inadvertently gave me, I eventually gathered the courage and desire needed to resurrect my long-neglected stories. I’m not quite sure what it was about Buffy and Angel that reignited my creative spark, but they did, and I am forever grateful.

That’s not to say I worship at the altar of Whedon; he’s not the feminist god people make him out to be (seriously, read up on what he did to Charisma Carpenter during Angel season 4), and his work isn’t as unassailable as some might suggest (Agents of SHIELD bored me to death and Avengers: Age of Ultron was one big bag of WTF), but without the shows for which he is best known (Honorable Mention to Firefly), I probably don’t start creating again.

I try to infuse a little of the Buffyverse in everything I write anymore, as my homage to one of popular culture’s most enduring properties and the fictional universe that, on its own, is responsible for the fact that I’m even here typing this. Two decades later, these shows are still personal favorites, and though I’ve seen plenty of great TV shows over the years, nothing has compared to — or inspired me as much as — Buffy and Angel.

(PS: If you’re a Buffy fan and you’re not watching this YouTube channel… you’re missing out.)

Why I Self-Publish

It seems like every time I hop onto social media, I see some version of the traditional-versus-self-publishing debate. People are wondering which route they should take, and others on either side of the debate state their case. I think part of it stems from the stigma that’s still attached to being self-published — a stigma that, while diminished, still exists.

Now, I will say this: the decision of which publication method to pursue is up to each individual author. Different people have different aspirations and expectations, and ultimately, the decision as to which path to follow is up to you and you alone.

But I can offer insight as to why I chose the self-publishing route.

Mostly, it boils down to something I don’t have: patience. I’m not a patient person; I never have been, and I likely never will be. As such, the traditional route holds little appeal to me. I don’t have it in me to submit a manuscript to an agent or publisher, only to wait weeks — if not months — for a response (which, let’s face it, would likely be no). That’s a lot of time wasted on… what, exactly?

As a self-published author, I operate on my own time frame. Yes, I have more responsibilities; as a self-published author, I have to worry about editors and formatting and cover design and marketing — all things a traditional publisher would (probably) take care of for me. But that added responsibility also brings with it a sort of freedom. I have control over the entire process. I control the content, and I control the time table.

By self-publishing, I’m able to tell the stories I want, the way I want to tell them, when I want to tell them. That freedom holds a great deal of appeal to me, particularly as I write stories that are just on the outside of what a mainstream publisher might be willing to publish.

Someday, I might pursue traditional publishing; there’s something to be said for receiving advances, writing stories, and letting the publisher handle all of the other stuff. But I see self-publishing as a trade-off, and it’s one I’m willing to make right now. Yes, I have to secure my own editor and I have to format my manuscripts myself. Yes, I have to either hire a cover designer or find my own cover another way. Yes, I’m the one who has to blow up Goodreads and social media to tell people about my work.

But I get to do all that on my own time. I decide when my books come out. I decide what gets published and what doesn’t. And because of this, if I publish a book, then you know damn well it’s something I really wanted to be out there.

Again, it’s your call which way you go. I just wanted to give you all a glimpse as to why I chose the path I did.

Character vs. Plot

It’s an argument that’s probably as old as storytelling itself: which is more important, character or plot?

More often than not, the answer boils down to personal preference. And I suppose, at the end of the day, there’s no wrong answer. You obviously need both; no story I know of has ever existed solely on the basis of character or plot (if I’m wrong, please let me know; I’d be curious to see how such a story gets told). The question then becomes… how much of each do you use? A 50-50 split? Do you go 70-30 plot? 60-40 character?

I like to think of plot as the backbone of a story, while the characters are the heart, brain, and nervous system. It’s generally true that we need a backbone in order to live, but it’s all of those other things that truly give us life. To me, the character-vs.-plot dynamic is no different.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a character guy. For me, character takes precedence over all else. If you get me emotionally invested in your characters, if you get me caring about them one way or another, then I’ll follow them — and you — pretty much everywhere. You can craft the most carefully nuanced, perfectly paced plot in the history of plotting, but if your characters are as flat and flavorful as cardboard, I’m not gonna stick around for long.

When writing, I always keep my characters in mind. Not just my protagonist or antagonist, either; this is as true for the supporting characters as anyone else. Every decision I make story-wise, I do so only with the characters in mind. How will this affect my protagonist? How will my supporting character handle this scenario? How will Character A react to Character B’s betrayal? My characters are never far from my mind, because to me, they are the pillars that hold up everything else.

Prime example: Cordelia Chase from the Buffyverse. When she moved from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angel, she blossomed. In the first three seasons of Angel, Cordelia grew in so many ways, because the writers always made sure that character took precedence over plot. Whether she was dealing with the consequences of Doyle’s death or deciding to make herself half-demon to keep the visions or slowly falling in love with Angel, everything Cordelia did, every change she underwent, was always with her character in mind.

This is part of why her ascension as a higher power — which coincided with Angel being tossed into the bottom of the ocean by his own son — so controversial. Prior to that, Angel had been the perfect example of character over plot. But by that point, the plot took over, and a memorable character took a backseat to a turgid supernatural soap opera that we’re still not really sure how to take.

Think of it this way: if character is Bruce Wayne, then plot is Alfred. They’re both important, in their own ways, and while they both can exist on their own, it’s their relationship to each other that truly makes things work. And to me, the specific way in which character and plot interact is of paramount importance. Plot is important, no question, but if it starts taking over your story, it might behoove you to reexamine things.

Two last thoughts:

-Do not mistake emotional investment for liking a character; I can hate a character and still be emotionally invested in what they do and what happens to them. Distaste, hate, and disgust are just as valuable and important as fondness and empathy.

-Don’t plot your story by the philosophy of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” That’s plot over character. Instead, try asking yourself such questions as “How would my protagonist react if…?” or “What would my villain do if…?” Center your story-related questions around your characters, and you’ll find that many of your story issues will resolve themselves.

I’m sure some of you will read this and be able to craft a wonderful response arguing why plot is more important. And I welcome that; we all bring different things to the creative table, and even if I wind up disagreeing with your point, I do want to read what others have to say and get an insight into how other writers practice their craft. That’s part of the beauty of writing: there’s no one right way to do it.

But in the age-old debate, I’m solidly in the characters’ corner.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

In many ways, 2016 has been a crap year. So many of our beloved pop culture icons and celebrities passed away. America somehow managed to wind up with an inexperienced reality TV star Nazi as its next president. A personal favorite of TV declined in quality before ultimately being canceled.

But there were some good things about 2016. I published two books, Blood Ties and Behind the Badge. I got the ball rolling on Behind the MaskBetrayed, and the fantasy epic Notna. And I read some damn good books.

Whittling down to the five best books was no easy feat; you’ll see why once we reach the Honorable Mention portion of this post. Note that this list encompasses the five best books I read in 2016, not necessarily the five best books that came out in 2016.

Now, without further ado…

5. Grave Measures by R.R. Virdi

Grave MeasuresWhat do you get when you combine ColumboConstantine, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You probably get something a lot like Virdi’s Grave Report novels. Virdi’s urban fantasy detective series is fast-paced, whimsical, and dangerous, and Grave Measures is every bit as good as its predecessor, Grave Beginnings.

Vincent Graves finds himself in a mental hospital this time around, and he only has but so much time to figure out whose body he is inhabiting and what was responsible for that body’s demise. All of the snark and mystery of Grave Beginnings is back in Grave Measures, and along the way, we’re treated to a much larger, richer world than what we saw in the first novel.

I feel like this is the sort of story Joss Whedon would be proud of, and as Virdi continues to establish himself as one of urban fantasy’s best writers, I’m in love with the fact that he’s filling the void left by the Buffyverse. Nothing will ever top the Slayer, but Vincent Graves has certainly carved his own niche in a genre that sometimes feels a bit overcrowded.

Grave Measures is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

4. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneErnest Cline’s geek opus is a fantastic romp through the bastions of popular culture and geekdom over the past 50 or so years, and if that was all Ready Player One had going for it, it would still be a damn fine book. Fortunately, Ready Player One manages to pack enough excitement, adventure, and heart into the story surrounding the plethora of pop culture references that Ready Player One becomes a modern-day classic.

The MMO world Cline created for this book would put World of Warcraft to shame, and Wade is a fantastic protagonist. But more than anything, this book is fun. It’s adrenaline-soaked, nostalgia-fueled entertainment — and ultimately, isn’t entertainment one of the biggest reasons we read? The sort of escapism we often seek is at the core of Ready Player One, and Cline never loses sight of that essential fact.

You cannot divorce the narrative from geek culture; without one or the other, the entire thing wouldn’t work. But it does work, and it is easily one of the best books I’ve read — not just in 2016, but overall.

Ready Player One is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and Audible.

3. No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeThe romance The Only One might have been Head’s first novel, but No Safe Place was clearly her true labor of love. A fast-paced thriller that follows FBI agent David Cole as he works to rescue his kidnapped daughter Hannah, No Safe Place was published through the Kindle Scout program — and whereas most books of this nature focus far more on what is done to the victim and leave the other details lying in atrophy, Head succeeds in diving into the heart of the story.

Hannah’s kidnapping is not the focus of this tale; instead, we are treated to the way her kidnapping affected not just her father, but characters who are close to both David and Hannah. We’re concerned less with what is being done to Hannah and more with what she does and how she handles herself during the ordeal. No Safe Place is such a subtle twist on the damsel-in-distress trope that you might not notice it until after the fact, but once you do, the story will be all the richer for it.

A sequel is in the offing, a book that will be light years different, but much like No Safe Place, I’m confident it will keep the heart of the characters intact — because after all, that heart was what made No Safe Place work to begin with.

No Safe Place is available in paperback and Kindle.

2. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightThe follow-up to the excellent An Ember in the AshesA Torch Against the Night builds upon Tahir’s dystopian world of Martials and Scholars. Whereas the first book introduced us to Elias, the newly-minted Mask with a heart, and Laia, the slave girl determined to save her brother, Torch builds on them both while also introducing us to the POV of Helene, the newly-named Blood Shrike who is now tasked with tracking down and executing her best friend.

Three different POVs could have been a mess, but Tahir does a great job of balancing them all and making sure Elias, Laia, and Helene each maintain their unique voices and perspectives. The Helene chapters alone make Torch a better, more complete tale than Ember, and this is how sequels are supposed to work: take what was great about the first book and build upon it.

Tahir’s battle scenes are exquisite, and the drama is so palpable that the pages fly by. There is plenty left on the table for future books in the series, and I will likely be at my local bookstore the day the third book comes out to get my copy.

A Torch Against the Night is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, Audible, and audio CD.

1. Dangerous Ways by R.R. Virdi

dangerous-waysI know, I know… the same author with two slots on this list? Well, when the books are that good, they’re that good. Dangerous Ways takes us to the same universe as the Grave Report novels, but it ups both the scales and the scope. Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters treat readers to a fantastic romp through the dimensions — and Virdi treats us to a tale that is at once intense, emotional, whimsical, and engaging.

Even though this opus comes in at a George R.R. Martin-esque 600 pages, it’s among the easiest reads I encountered in 2016. Pages flew by without my noticing it — which is probably the greatest indicator of how good a book can be. Some books that large can be a chore, but Dangerous Ways was anything but.

The amount of time and care Virdi put into Dangerous Ways is evident from the first page, and it is without hesitation that I consider this the best book I read in 2016.

Dangerous Ways is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

Honorable Mention: Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor, Dirty Deeds by Christy King, Untamed by Madeline Dyer, The Martian by Andy Weir, Bounty by Michael Byrnes, Sleeping Sands by C.A. King, Tomoiya’s Story: Escape to Darkness by C.A. King, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

BOUNTY Book Trivia!

Some random odds and ends about my books, just because:113526_1220471073309_full

-Ezekiel, one of the principle villains in Blood Ties, is based largely on System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian. Specifically, this look:

-I didn’t decide Paul Andersen’s ultimate fate until it was time to write that chapter of Blood Ties. My thinking was that by keeping it even from myself, it would add to the mystery within the narrative – and if it was surprising and emotional for me, it would be the same for my readers.

-I first created Bounty back in 1997, whebounty-colorn I was still in high school. Suffice it to say, she has changed quite a bit over the years. For one thing, she wears a lot more clothing.

-I created Detectives Watson, Blankenship, and Stevens for Blood Ties solely to make the book longer and give me more options for subplots.

Bounty was originally a spin-off from Notna. That’s obviously changed, but both stories inhabit the same fictional universe. In fact, there will be a few Bounty Easter Eggs in Notna (mid-2017).

-The main plot in Behind the Badge is based on the real-life case of Freddie Gray, the African-American Baltimore man who died from injuries he suffered while in police custody – where he was subjected to a “rough ride.”

-I chose Baltimore as the setting because I wanted a major metropolitan city that wasn’t New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles (all of which are overused, IMO). I like Baltimore’s location on the East Coast, and its proximity to Washington, D.C. gives me a lot of interesting plot options going forward.Beckett gun

-The similarities between Jill and Castle’s Kate Beckett are no accident; discovering that TV show and character were a big reason I was finally able to finish Bounty and get the series rolling.

-In her original incarnation,Jill had a bounty hunter aspect to her character – hence the name Bounty. That went away over the years, and now, her vigilante name comes courtesy of a writer for The Baltimore Sun (see the digital short Boundless).