Books on Writing: Worth It?

Before we begin, a disclaimer:

The following is my opinion and my opinion alone. Your mileage may vary, and that’s okay.

Now, with that out of the way…

I’ve said it before, but for the purposes of this essay, it bears repeating: books on writing, en masse, do nothing for me. The vast majority of them either bore me to tears or make the act of writing sound so intimidating that part of me wants to never see another keyboard.

There are a few exceptions—Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story and Stephen King’s On Writing are personal writing bibles, tomes I revisit when I need a creative boost—but for the most part, this sub-genre of the ‘how-to’ is a waste of space.

In my experience, most books on writing suffer from the same flaw: they typically act as if whatever writing wisdom they’re imparting is gospel. As if whatever they have to say is the only real right way to do things. Which…no.

Writing doesn’t work that way. No creative endeavor does.

You would never tell a painter there’s only one right way to paint. Same for a sculptor or an actor. The artist’s process is as personal as it is vital, and those who act like they know the one true way how to create are, more often than not, trying to sell you something. Something you’re better off without.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is guilty of this, on top of being a slog of a read. Remember what I said above about these things being boring? Same goes for Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey. I won’t begrudge anyone who gained something of value from these books, but they suffer from the same flaws in my eyes.

One of the reasons I enjoyed Damn Fine Story so much was because Wendig made it clear—early and repeatedly—that the vast majority of writing advice is bull. Even a lot of what he has to say. Wendig’s goal in Damn Fine Story was less telling you how to write and more getting the gears turning in your head.

Think less how-to and more make-you-want-to.

On Writing is largely the same way. Sure, King has his hard-and-fast rules—no adverbs (I disagree) and writers need to be readers (wholeheartedly agree)—but much of what he says about his own writing, he couches in terms of “this works for me, but it might not necessarily work for you, and that’s okay.”

The cardinal rule of writing is that there are no cardinal rules of writing. Aside from this:

Get the words on the page.

That’s it. It doesn’t matter how you do it. How often you do it. How well you do it. As long as you’re sitting in front of your manuscript, putting one word after another, your process doesn’t matter.

Writing isn’t a math equation. It’s not some paint-by-numbers or connect-the-dots exercise where you’re supposed to go from Point A to Point B to Point…you get the idea. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing, and you’re better off wandering with one of those old-school folding maps than your smartphone’s GPS.

There is some value in books on writing that focus more on the structure, the nuts and bolts of writing. Story structure, character creation, the three-act format…there is educational value in that, but at the same time, I find most writers already know those things. Intrinsically. Without even realizing they know it.

Whether it’s something we absorb in reading or watching TV shows and movies, most writers already have some deep-seeded understanding of how stories are supposed to work.

Still, there is value in seeing those “rules” laid out (even if it feels occasionally intimidating). Especially if you’re one of those writers who likes to play with convention and subvert the reader’s expectations. After all, you have to know what the rules are before you break them, right?

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether books on writing are worth your time. Most of us are strapped for time, what with day jobs and writing and other interests…you should never waste your time with a book that doesn’t speak to you. And that includes this particular sub-genre.

Ultimately, these books are largely unnecessary, because the answer to the question “How do I write?” is deceptively simple:

You just do it.

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 and art, 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.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

2022 Writing Snippet #5

A periodic look at some of the passages and lines I’m most proud of. For this one, a passage from the forthcoming Bitter End (Jill Andersen #6). Pretty proud of this character moment for Det. Stevens.

Earl Stevens couldn’t remember the last time he was this angry.

Maybe when he was a linebacker at Nebraska and had been called for a facemask penalty that cost his team a spot in the Big 12 championship game (well before that nonsensical decision to join the Big Ten). It had been third-and-long late in the fourth quarter, with the Cornhuskers leading by two. He had sniffed out a slant route and tackled the receiver two yards shy of the first down — but his fingers had gotten tangled in the other player’s helmet, and he had twisted his head just so to give the refs the visual of the ball carrier’s head yanking to the side.

Whistle.

Yellow flag.

Fifteen yards and an automatic first down.

Seconds later, the football sailed through the uprights and Nebraska’s hopes for a national championship were done.

That night was the only time Stevens had ever felt the need to hit someone outside the confines of the gridiron. It hadn’t been his proudest moment, even as he did and said all the right things in the immediate aftermath. But merely thinking of lashing out against the referee had embarrassed Stevens, even though no one else ever knew what had been in his head. He had carried that memory throughout his law enforcement career, using it to keep him calm when dealing with uncooperative suspects or departmental red tape.

But right now? There was a dead body in a hospital within his precinct’s jurisdiction, and someone with the FBI wasn’t letting him by.

The FBI was keeping Earl Stevens from doing his job.

That was unacceptable. He didn’t care if federal law enforcement was around. He didn’t care if the body in question was an FBI agent, as was rumored. Stevens was a homicide detective, and the burly agent standing in front of the hospital room in question was not letting him through to do what he did best. He wondered how many years he would get if he simply drove the guy to the floor. His knees were shot, but Stevens figured he had one more tackle left in him.

What was that song Juanita said reminded her of Stevens? I ain’t as good as I once was…

“See this, hoss?” Stevens smacked his lips and waved his badge in the FBI agent’s face. Again. “This means I get to go in that room and poke the dead body.”

The agent, whose own badge read Bryant, stood motionless. Bulging eyes were hidden by black sunglasses, and his upper lip curled into a sneer. His shoulders lifted, then fell, and he stretched out his hands, fingers interlocked, until knuckles cracked in unison. “See this?” he asked, smacking his large thumb against the badge protruding from his breast pocket. “This means I’m FBI, which means I outrank you.”

“Yeah, but see…” Ramon Gutierrez seemed to appear out of nowhere, placing a gloved hand on Stevens’ shoulder before he could respond. “I’ve got one of those too, and as the lead investigator here, mine says the good detective here can poke away.”

Writing Snippet #1 | Writing Snippet #2 Writing Snippet #3 | Writing Snippet #4

February 2022: Month in Review

An end-of-the-month look back at the last…however many days it’s been.

What? Math’s not my strength.

I Review Books Because Throwing Them at People is Frowned Upon
My second batch of book reviews for 2022 highlights a fantastic yet disturbing entry from Halo Scot, an entertaining, if forgettable, read from V.E. Schwab, and a re-read of one of the new Stephen King books I’ve read.

Progress! I’m Making Actual Progress!
Hey! I’m doing the writing thing again! No, really. I sent one of my manuscripts to an editor and hired a cover artist and everything. Plus, the other stuff I’m working on. Read about them here (warning: lesbians and assassins and lesbian assassins await).

Nikki Heat? That’s a Stripper Name!
From the “never underestimate the motivational power of spite” files, I detail how the television show Castle gave me the final push I needed to become a published author. And it’s not the way you might think.

There’s a Country Song in Here Somewhere
Last week, I re-posted an older essay I had written for Medium, in which I detailed the five things I wish I had known when I started this indie author journey. I’m glad I know these things now, but they would’ve saved me a lot of grief back then.

Remembering Kobe
Yes, I know this was posted in January. It still counts, and the message still resonates. Even for this decidedly unathletic author who has all the basketball skills of a sea urchin.

To Apologize or Not to Apologize?

Wares for Sale
I didn’t do any real heavy promotional work in February. Partly to study what I did in January and partly because the main focus was getting the manuscript for Bitter End (Jill Andersen #6) ready to be sent off. I’ll pick things up again in March.

Come On, Don’t You Guys Read? Redux
I pledged to read 35 books in 2022, and while I haven’t finished any books yet in February (how can a month with only 28 days be so freaking long?!), I am currently invested in two books:

Echoes of Blood by Halo Scot
A Dangerous Game by Madeline Dyer

Fresh Off the Press!
Congratulations to two of my author friends who had new releases in February: Halo Scot with the sci-fi/superhero novella The Heartbeat of a Million Dreams and S.E. Anderson with Dreadknot, the eighth entry in her hilarious Starstruck sci-fi series. I highly recommend picking up these new releases.

You Like Free Stuff, Don’t You?
Have you subscribed to my newsletter yet?

No?

Did you know that if you do, you’ll receive a free novella? Specifically, the Bounty prequel Boundless?

I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now

NOTE: This piece originally published on Medium’s Writers’ Blokke.

It’s been quite the journey since Bounty went live on Amazon in 2015.

I call it a journey because of how much I’ve learned in the six years I’ve been able to add the word published in front of author. Not just about the craft of writing, of storytelling itself, but the ins and outs of publishing. Self-publishing, to be specific.

See, the stereotype among the “self-publishing is bad” crowd is that we crank out any old dribble we please and upload it to Amazon without any care for spelling, grammar, or human decency. Nothing could be further from the truth, as we self- and independently-published authors put plenty of time, effort, and work into our stories far beyond the words on the page.

That said, I made a lot of mistakes early on. Chances are, I’m still making mistakes today. Truth is, being a self-published author is a never-ending exercise in learning. We hone our craft, we study market trends, we discover why even the prettiest cover might not work for our book and why the most expensive editor might be the worst one to read your manuscript.

So here are five lessons I’ve learned in the process of publishing six full-length novels, a collection of short stories, a non-fiction book, and submitting three short stories that wound up in published anthologies. Five things I wish I knew before I even started.

These seem obvious in hindsight, but…

You need to market your book before it’s published.

Remember what I said above about some things seeming obvious?

Yeah, well, I published Bounty with no announcement. No fanfare. No website. No social media posts. Nothing. I was on Twitter and Facebook at the time, but those weren’t outlets to plug my writing. I was just a rando with an @. I published Bounty on a whim, mostly to prove to myself I could do it…then I sat there wondering why no one was flocking to Amazon to grab their copy.

(Spoiler alert: it was largely because no one knew about it.)

This has obviously gotten better and easier as I’ve published more books and built up a fanbase of sorts (comparatively meager, though it may be), but it’s not as simple as “if you write it, they will come.” They will only come if they know about it, and hitting Publish in the dark of night and then going to bed isn’t gonna get the word out.

In hindsight, the website and social media should’ve come first. I should’ve set up my newsletter first. I should’ve worked out a marketing strategy of sorts to drum up interest for Bounty before it went live — rather than put it up for sale and try to play catch-up afterward. It wouldn’t have guaranteed anything, but my brand as an author would’ve been stronger if I’d put in the effort to build it beforehand.

Artistic purists won’t like to hear this, but the brand is just as important as the art. It needs just as much attention, if not more at times.

Do not neglect your cover. Repeat: Do NOT neglect your cover!

That old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” sounds great in theory, but in practice, everyone judges books by their covers. Even those of us who say we don’t…we actually do.

Part of the rush job I mentioned above in publishing Bounty included a last-second, thrown-together cover that looked terrible, gave no clue as to what kind of book I’d written, and no one could tell what the image on the cover actually was (and that image will never again see the light of day). My sales reflected this reality because, frankly, I didn’t know any better until I started talking to other self-published authors.

Personal photo from 2018 Tidewater Comicon — These covers looked good, but they weren’t right for my series.

Bounty has gone through three covers, because it took me entirely too long to realize that looking good isn’t enough. The cover has to also say something about what’s on the pages inside, and if you’re writing a series, then each cover has to be consistent enough visually that readers can tell it’s one of yours with just a glance.

Mine didn’t get right until I hired a cover artist who’s also a fan of the series. Sarah Anderson knows what makes my books tic, and she’s a great cover artist to begin with, so it’s a partnership I should’ve struck way sooner than I did.

Like it or not, the cover can make or break your book.

In marketing your book, less sometimes means more.

It can be tempting to shout your Amazon link to the world 15 times a day, every day, for an entire calendar year. Sometimes, it might even feel like that’s what you have to do. But that’s not necessarily true, especially on social media. In fact, social media users (and the ever-nebulous algorithms) detest that sort of thing; Twitter will actually suppress tweets that include links (this isn’t because the little blue bird hates you — it’s likely an attempt to get you to use Twitter’s [paid] advertising service).

Fact is, social media posts actively selling your work only work a small fraction of the time. The bulk of my success, marketing-wise, has come from 1) newsletters (mine and in paying newsletter services to have my work added to their content), 2) actually connecting with potential readers beyond simply plugging my book, and 3) creating more content (i.e., writing more books…keep this one in mind for later).

Endless hashtags won’t sell books. Endlessly posting your link in #writerslift threads might actually hurt your engagements. Even those who follow you because they like your books won’t want to see you hawking your wares 24/7.

Make sure you’re still presenting yourself as a person, not just someone desperate for a sale (even if you are, in fact, desperate for a sale).

Immerse yourself in the indie author community.

There are several reasons to do this. First and foremost, the vast majority of indie authors are kickass people, and who wouldn’t want to surround themselves with kickass people? You’ll also likely find a treasure trove of great books to read on top of all that. What’s not to like?!

Don’t expect all these other authors to buy your work, though. Some will, and some might become huge fans of yours, but consider anything like that a bonus.

Note the key word above: community.

Indie authors don’t have large publishing houses supporting us; most of what we do is all on our own. That can be great in many ways, but it can also be a pain. An expensive pain. Immersing yourself in the indie community can help with that; you might find a cover artist willing to work for a discount or an editor who accepts payment plans or you might find an author you can trade services with (i.e., I’ll edit your manuscript if you do my cover art).

I offer freelance editing services for a fraction of what other editors charge for just this reason; I want to help other indie authors get their stories out in the world.

Who would know your struggles as an indie author better than other indie authors? We don’t view each other as competition, and the vast majority of us are glad to help out any way we can (even if it’s something small, like retweeting your book link).

Sometimes, your best marketing tool is to keep writing.

There’s a saying that the best way to promote your first book is to release your second. There’s a nugget of truth to that, because from what I can tell, the authors with the largest libraries tend to be some of the most popular.

Imagine you stumbled upon a book you loved. You tore through it in a day and then you went to find the author on Amazon, only to discover…what you read was all they had, and there was no sign that they were working on anything else (even worse if that book was supposed to be the start of a series).

Before publishing Betrayal in April 2020, I had gone nearly three years between releases, and I truly think that was part of my issue. I wasn’t putting out enough content at a consistent rate, and with my series in limbo because of this…

Some writers will complete several books before releasing any of them; that way, they have a backlog of content they can release at whatever interval they choose without worrying about what happens if the words suddenly dry up for no reason. Whether you do that is up to you (that’s the beauty of the indie author game), but keep in mind productivity might be your best friend from a marketing perspective.

That’s not to say you need to release something every month. But whatever schedule you choose — a new book every six months, one new release a year — try to keep that consistent, so your fans know what to expect.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but if I had known these five things before I published Bounty, I think that book launch would’ve been much more successful and I might be a better, more popular author today.

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 and art, 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.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Project Updates: February 2022

Progress! Is being made! It’s a thing! Promise!

Exclamation points!

(Okay, I’ll stop. Maybe.)

Bitter End (Jill Andersen #6)
Revisions are complete, and the manuscript will shortly be in the hands of my series editor once logistics and payment are sorted out. I’ve also solicited the outstanding Sarah Anderson for the cover, so be on the lookout in the coming weeks and months for a cover reveal, a blurb, and possibly even a release date. All signs point to the longest, most intense, and violent book in this series hitting (virtual) shelves sometime in 2022. Then work will start on book 7 in the series, tentatively titled Big Apple, and the plan is to not wait two or three years before that one’s out.

Summertime, Assassins, and Other Skullduggeries
I’ve begun my third attempt at a full first draft of the closest thing I will ever write to a true love story. My 2020 NaNoWriMo project had a lot of potential, and most of the words from that go-round have survived (largely) intact, but I think I’ve found a much more streamlined way to tell this story of lesbian assassins and all the naughty things they do (maybe so streamlined that this will become a standalone novel, rather than a duology or trilogy). There may or may not also be a cover of sorts in the works, but I’m going to keep the lid on that at least until I have a completed first draft. I’m excited for this project, have been since the day it first popped into my head. Now I just have to, you know, write it.

Prelude to Hellion
This short story collection, meant to launch a brand-new series, is roughly 3/4 done (in fact, newsletter subscribers have been receiving an exclusive sneak peek into one of the stories that will be in this collection; if you want in on goodies like that, just sign up for my newsletter). The stories within will set the stage for the new series, while taking concepts from both Notna and the Jill Andersen series, and some of these stories, on top of being fun to write, will also be crucial building blocks to the world these characters–new and familiar–inhabit.

Land of the Free (Hellion #1)
The first book in a series I’m dubbing West Wing meets Supernatural began as my 2021 NaNoWriMo project, and while I fell way short of the 50,000-word goal, it’s not because I didn’t know what to write. The story is there, the characters are there, it’s simply a matter of me putting together all the puzzle pieces in a way that will satisfy those who’ve been with me from the beginning, while also enticing new readers. I’m really excited by the potential this series has, even as time is making parts of this series far more relevant than I’d like.

Y’all have no idea how great it feels to have actual progress to share. I came into 2022 with the intent of getting back on the proverbial horse, and so far, that effort is bearing fruit. Maybe not fruit that’s edible any time soon, Bitter End aside, but rest assured the words are being typed and the creative juices are flowing.

Which, after the past two years, is all I can ask for.

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 and art, 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.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Richard Castle and the Motivational Power of Spite

Promotional image for Castle season 2 (ABC Studios)

NOTE: This post was originally published on Medium’s Writers’ Blokke.

Richard Castle is a New York Times bestselling author, responsible for such memorable characters as Derrick Storm and Nikki Heat.

Richard Castle is ruggedly handsome (in his own mind, at least). Looks an awful lot like that actor from the short-lived space cowboy show. You know, the one Fox showed out of order on Friday nights and then canned.

Richard Castle is a consultant with the New York Police Department, helping the Homicide unit solve some of New York City’s most bizarre murders.

Richard Castle is also…not real.

That’s right. Mr. “Is that Nathan Fillion or Jason Bateman?” is a fictional character, the namesake of an ABC police procedural titled, appropriately enough, Castle. For eight seasons, Richard Castle shadowed NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), solving cases while gathering material for his next series of novels.

Oh, and along the way, they fell in love. Because beyond the murder and the humor, Castle was a love story. For seven of its eight seasons, anyway (we don’t talk about season 8).

So, imagine my shock several years ago when, while browsing the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble, I saw a copy of Heat Wave. As in, Richard Castle’s Heat Wave, the first book in his Nikki Heat series. His name, Nathan Fillion’s mug on the dust jacket. An actual author bio and an honest-to-goodness actual story within.

These books…actually exist?!

Yep, it’s real.

To say I was incredulous would be putting it mildly. The Barnes & Noble associate’s reaction told me I wasn’t the first to react that way.

As it turns out, ABC churned out the novels in real life as they came out on the show (12 novels and three short stories in total, between Nikki Heat and Derrick Storm) to help promote the series. The books are, for the most part, entertaining enough. Solid fare (most of the time), but not necessarily something you’ll remember once you’ve finished. Half the fun of those books came from spotting the TV references.

But think about what I’m saying here: a fictional character has books out. In the real world.

A fake person was writing and publishing real books.

That more than anything contributed to me finally finishing the manuscript for Bounty and publishing it in 2015. I tell people all the time Castle was an influence on my own mystery series, and it was…but not for the reasons people think. Yes, there are similarities between Jill Andersen and Kate Beckett, but those are the product of coincidence and the female cop archetype more than anything.

No, Castle’s true inspiration came about because I could not believe someone who doesn’t even exist was out there, writing and selling books. Selling well, too, by all accounts.

So if nothing else, I wanted my books out in the world because I was not about to be outdone by a fictional character. Not in my world. Not in the land of People Who Actually Exist. If Nathan Fillion’s second most famous role could churn out actual books, then dammit, so could I.

Never underestimate the motivational power of spite.

Spite can take many forms; most people assume it involves proving the doubters wrong. Giving the haters the middle finger and doing the thing they’re convinced you couldn’t do. But that’s micro spite — there’s also macro spite. Where you direct your middle finger not at a person, but at the entire world.

Because I would be damned if I got outdone by a fictional character.

(Granted, Richard Castle still outsells me by leaps and bounds. But he had Disney [parent company of ABC and, presumably, the companies publishing the Richard Castle books] in his corner — not to mention a TV show starring the space cowboy guy and the pretty cop lady. I have…none of those things.)

Still, I had a creative epiphany that day, standing in the middle of Barnes & Noble.

If a fictional character could churn out relatively decent fiction at semi-regular intervals, then what the hell was my excuse? I had none. I’m real. He’s not. So if he’s sitting there writing novels for actual public consumption, then why couldn’t I?

Answer: I can. So I did. And I have. To the tune of six novels, a short story collection, three anthology contributions, and a non-fiction book.

I’m not quite as prolific as the dude who had a bulletproof vest custom-made that read WRITER, but that’s not the point. I don’t need Richard Castle’s storybook life or only-in-TV romance. I just need to sit down and write books, because that’s what I’m good at, and dammit, Nathan Fillion is not going to be better than me at that.

Have you ever read a book, and while reading it thought to yourself, I can do better than this? My attitude upon discovering Richard Castle’s books actually exist was a lot like that. It was the slow-dawning realization that whatever excuses I had made for myself didn’t matter. Here was proof that literally anyone could write and publish a book.

I don’t mean that in the “Ugh, who gave Glenn Beck a book contract?!” sense, either. I mean that in the “Well, if this is happening, then I really have no reason not to do it, either” sense.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Castle (the first seven seasons, anyway). Kate Beckett is one of my all-time favorite characters, and I try to watch the show any time it’s on syndication. It’s one of the few love stories I can invest in, and as the product of a single-parent home, I appreciate the way the show depicted single-parent relationships.

But the entire concept of a fictional character publishing books in the real world, promo material for a TV show or not, rubbed me so wrong that I had no other choice than to finish my first book, publish it, and get to work writing the second one. And the third one. And the fourth one. And so on and so forth…

So, whoever really wrote Heat Wave and Storm Front and all the rest…thanks. Because of you, I got off my pasty butt and actually got to creating.

Because if Richard Castle can be an author in this world, then so can I.

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 and art, 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.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

2022 Writing Snippet #4

A periodic look at some of the passages and lines I’m most proud of. For this one, a passage from the forthcoming Prelude to Hellion. This is another one I get pretty chuffed over every time I read it.

“Are you two alright?”

“I…I think so.” Frances sighed and plopped herself onto Logan’s couch, which was when he saw the massive gash running along the back of her faded brown leather coat. There was no red to go with it, which was a relief, but Logan shuddered to think of all the creatures capable of that kind of cut. “Just…Dave and I were attacked across town. Found a nest of Skarlak demons and they were less that welcoming.”

“Those weren’t Skarlaks,” Dave muttered, his attention on Logan’s overstuffed bookshelf on the opposite end of the living room. It was a normal shelf, unremarkable in the fact that it was stuffed with Stephen King and James Patterson and volumes upon volumes of Marvel and DC collections.

Logan was never going to leave his real library out in the open.

“I know a fuckin’ Skarlak when I see one,” Frances snapped back. “The giant green horn on their forehead is a pretty big giveaway.”

Logan cleared his throat. “That, uh…that’s not a horn.”

Both Frances and Dave turned to stare at Logan. “What?” they said in unison.

Skarlaks don’t have horns,” Logan said, pursing his lips and choosing his words. “That…thing on their foreheads is actually their…you know…”

Logan’s eyes flicked downward; the teenagers’ gaze followed suit and their eyes widened when they realized what they were being told. Specifically, the fact that Skarlak demons were notorious for having their reproductive organs on their foreheads.

Dave went pale and he brought a hand up to his mouth. “You mean I grabbed that thing’s…?”

Logan nodded with a cringe, even as Frances buried his mouth in her hand to suppress a chuckle. She failed.

Dave swallowed hard. “Where’s your bathroom?”

The boy was gone down the hall before Logan could point the way with his bat. Frances bit back another smirk as the door slammed shut and the faint sound of retching came through the wall. “Well,” she said, “that explains why they all ganged up on him.”

Writing Snippet #1 | Writing Snippet #2 | Writing Snippet #3

Book Reviews XV

Edge of the Breach by Halo Scot

Edge of the Breach is a masterpiece.

It’s also a terribly uncomfortable read. Not because of the violence or the sex or the frank language (though there is one scene, late in the book, that prooooooobably should come with a warning); no, the discomfort comes from how much of myself I saw in both Rune and Kyder. Kyder, especially.

This book is sci-fi, arguably spec fic, but those aspects are but background elements. The true story is the shared tragedy of the two protagonists. This book is as thick with emotion as it is with the sex and the violence; the heartwrenching trajectory of Rune’s life, the helplessness with which Kyder’s true nature is revealed. They parallel in so many ways, and in just as many ways, they are diametrically opposed, and the delicate touch with which Halo Scot handles them both is remarkable.

Scot is a brilliant writer, both in terms of the words themselves and the overall narrative. Kyder is the sort of character to be reviled, to be truly despised, and yet. Rune is to be sympathized with, to be the “hero” of the tale, and yet. In the hands of a lesser writer, these characters would be absolutes, caricatures, two-dimensional archetypes.

In Scot’s hands, they are dynamic, complicated, the very heart and soul of this book.

Make no mistake: this is grimdark. Emphasis on dark. In every sense. And yet, there’s this stubbornly human persistence about the whole thing, both with Rune and Kyder and with the reader’s need to turn the page. Edge of the Breach toys ever so slightly with the “will they/won’t they” trope, and the beauty of this story is the co-leads.

If the rest of the series keeps the focus right there, I’m in for a treat. A bloody, graphic, titillating, disturbing treat.

Rating: *****

Edge of the Breach is available on Kindle and paperback.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

V.E. Schwab’s Vicious is entertaining enough. Fast-paced and action-packed.

It’s just not all that memorable.

Which is fine, in the grand scheme of things. Not every book has to be a mind-blowing life changer. Sometimes, a story is just a story. It’s there to entertain, to liven things up for a few hours (or however long it takes you to read), and then you move on with your life. In that sense, Vicious is no different than a typical action movie.

There is a philosophical question being asked within Vicious‘s pages: are those with extraordinary powers (EOs, as the narrative calls them) an affront to nature, to God, or are they simply products of circumstance? But at some point, the argument gets lost in the plot, in Victor’s need to do away with Eli before Eli does away with…well, everyone.

Maybe the intellectual heft is there in the follow-up, Vengeful. But Vicious is an entertaining, violent, quality read. Just don’t expect to remember much about it once you’re finished.

Rating: ***1/2

Vicious is available on Kindle, hardcover, paperback, and audiobook.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (re-read)

I rarely re-read books. Who has the time?

But I do occasionally re-visit the few books on writing I can actually stand. I’ve read my share of books on writing over the years, and most of them have either bored me to death or intimidated me to the point where I no longer felt the urge to write.

But this book — the first Stephen King tome I ever read (seriously) — did neither of those things.

The opening portion of the book serves as memoir, and while it feels out of place at first, it adds to the book once the minutia of “how to” begins. I could feel myself becoming a better writer as I read this, and I’ve already seen the results in my own writing.

That’s not to say I agree with everything King says or consider his advice gospel. I don’t share his foam-at-the-mouth disdain for adverbs, for one thing. But this book is best treated as a tool; take what you can use from it, leave the rest be, and go about your writing life. Books on writing are not meant to be paint-by-numbers how-to’s.

At best, they’re guides. Fortunately, even King himself appears to realize this.

I hesitate to ever call any book on writing a “must read,” but On Writing is the closest thing to it.

Rating: ****

On Writing is available on Kindle, audiobook, hardcover, and paperback.

Revisiting: the Lesson of Kobe Bryant

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Jan. 26, 2020, when basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight others were killed in a helicopter crash in southern California. This past Wednesday marked two years since that day, and that grim anniversary reminded me of the points made below–points that are as true today as they were then.

I know, I know… what does a no-name author have to do with Kobe Bryant?

Kobe Bryant, basketball legend, was one of nine people killed in a helicopter crash in southern California on Sunday (reports are that one of the victims was his 13-year-old daughter Gianna). He was only 41, just three-plus years removed from the end of his playing career.

Forty-one is clearly too young to lose anyone, and the day was spent with countless people going on and on about how transcendent a talent Bryant was on the basketball court, the kind of person he was off of it, and why he was the sort of person whose death inspired mourning en masse, even outside the world of basketball.

But I’m looking at the Kobe Bryant news from a slightly different perspective. Set the sports angle aside for a bit…

Kobe Bryant was someone who found the one thing he loved in life, the one thing he breathed for, and he completely devoted himself to it (if you can, find his animated short film Dear Basketball, for which he won an Oscar). He poured everything he had into the game of basketball, and he was rewarded tenfold for it.

Sports or not, I think that’s something that speaks to us all.

Writing — the written word — is that thing for me. Has been as far back as I can remember. I’ve built so much of my life on writing. Newspapers. Magazines. Websites. And five novels. Even the years when I saw myself as the next Jim Lee, the next big comic book artist, writing still had a seat at the table.

But in recent years, I’ve slipped.

And I can’t help but think… what if that happens to me? What if my time comes and I’m left knowing that I didn’t devote myself as much as I could’ve? That I let the one thing I love more than anything slip like that?

My biggest fear in life is not being good enough. But it’s also what I mentioned above; having to leave this life not having given everything I possibly could to the only thing I’ve loved in all of my 38 years.

I’ve had other loves, other interests, but none have been as lifelong as writing. I have so many stories I want to tell still, so many lives I watch to touch with the written word. I truly believe that was what I was put on this planet to do.

I know video and all that are the big thing right now. But the written word is my gift. The one thing I have to give to this world, at my best and at my worst.

I am a writer. That’s who I am.

So if nothing else, let today’s tragedy remind me — remind all of us — to truly dedicate ourselves to whatever it is we love most in life. Whether that’s basketball. Or books. Or drawing. Or helping the less fortunate.

Whatever it is you love… dedicate yourself to it.

Because today, we lost a man who did just that, and we lost him far sooner than we should’ve.

I don’t wanna go saying, “I could’ve…” I wanna go saying, “I did.”

January 2022: Month in Review

An end-of-the-month look back at the last 30/31 days.

(Ish.)

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

First up…cheating a little bit to December 31, 2021. Because that’s when we looked back at the five best books I read in 2021. One author makes two appearances on this list.

You have to click the link to find out who.

I Love the Smell of Book Reviews in the Morning

And let’s not forget the first book reviews of the new year, in which I extoll the virtues of works by the likes of Lee Hall, Tom Lin, and Chuck Wendig.

Why Did You Say That Name?!

So, who the hell am I, and why should you care about all this yammering? I make my case here.

If the Apocalypse Comes, Text Me

I tried two different ad campaigns for Notna in January — one on BookBub and one on Facebook. The text for both ads compared Notna to both Indiana Jones and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — much like reviews of the book have done. For the sake of transparency, here’s how each one did.

With a budget of $200, I ran the BookBub ad from Jan. 8-24. Final numbers: 28,675 total impressions and 34 clicks.

Sales? Negligible.

For Facebook, the ad ran from Jan. 9-16 and had a budget of $14. I reached a total of 4,155 people and got 18 clicks. I reached nearly 2,800 people in England, and most of the time, the ad showed up on Facebook’s mobile app.

Sales? Also negligible.

Two things to note here: I did not lower the price of Notna prior to the start of each campaign. I’d be interested to see if that would change anything.

Also, I wonder if linking Notna to Buffy wound up doing more harm than good, considering all the (justifiable) anger toward series creator Joss Whedon of late. Maybe Buffy doesn’t have the cache in genre circles it once did. Maybe next time, I’ll swap out Buffy for Supernatural (another comparison readers have made).

Project Updates!

Bitter End (Jill Andersen #6) is in revisions, and I’m almost ready to send it to another editor. I’ve also solicited the cover, which will once again come courtesy of the fantastical Sarah Anderson.

Look for a cover reveal and release date in the coming months.

Also, I’m inching closer to completing the first draft of both Prelude to Hellion and Summertime, Assassins, and Other Skullduggeries. Words are being birthed!

Damn, that feels good to write.

Coming Soon…Ish

My favorite snippet from the past month:

It wasn’t long before the hotel in question came into view. The Hilton Midtown, a hotel that stretched for the sky and had undoubtedly hosted many a high-class affair over the years. There was no telling how many companies and organizations around the world had booked this hotel for their meetings and conferences and black-tie dinners—whatever excuse to visit New York City, get dressed up for a night, and pretend they were more important than they really were.

That was another thing this city was good at: making people think they were better, smarter, more consequential than they actually were. How else could a failed real estate tycoon with multiple bankruptcies on his resume end up in the White House?

Check out more of my writing snippets.

Marching Forward, Hypocritic and Hypnotic Computers

Metal isn’t just a headbanging good time. For me, it helps the creative process.

Toss a Coin to Your Witcher…After Rolling for Initiative

I may have put away the dice for good, but tabletop roleplaying still plays an important role in my life as a creator and author. Specifically, White Wolf’s World of Darkness imprint has long held a prominent spot on my bookshelf — even today.

Good thing, too. Those books weren’t cheap. Read the full piece on Medium’s ILLUMINATION page.

Come On, Don’t You Guys Read?

I pledged to read 35 books in 2022, and so far, I’m right on track. So far, I’ve finished:

Edge of the Breach by Halo Scot
Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Right now, I’m reading: On Writing by Stephen King (re-read), Echoes of Blood by Halo Scot, and A Dangerous Game by Madeline Dyer.

To Readers, With Love

February’s gonna be a good month for two of my favorite authors.

On Feb. 2, Halo Scot will release the sci-fi/superhero novella The Heartbeat of a Million Dreams.

Then, on Feb. 22, S.E. Anderson’s Dreadknot, the eighth book in her hilarious Starstruck series, drops.

Get on these!

You Like [My Book]! You Really, Really Like [My Book]!

And finally…thanks to the aforementioned Hall, who wrote this generous review of The Art of Reading.

I Am Such a Tease

Have you subscribed to my newsletter? If you have, you’d have been reading Higher Education, one of the short stories that will be in the forthcoming Prelude to Hellion. If not, what better time than now?

By the way, all newsletter subscribers get the novella Boundless for free.

Yes, free!