Another Indie in Paper!

20130830-191938.jpgA nice quick post this afternoon–just wanted to share the further success of one of my favourite Indie writers, J. M. Ney-Grimm.

Savvy readers will know Ney-Grimm from the several reviews I’ve done of her work. If you haven’t read any of her stories yet, go check them out–they’re set in a Nordic fantasy world, often based on fairy tales (or such tropes), and have a very characteristic “effervescent” style. Well written, fun stories.

One of those stories, Sarvet’s Wanderyar, has been on my plate for a while. I’ll be reviewing it coming up soon on the blog, but wanted to share her good news now: she’s published it in paperback! You can get the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and CreateSpace. You can read about her release here.

And while you’re at it, why don’t you check out her work on Amazon and Kobo? Trust me, they’re great books.

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Of Books and Beer

My first home made beer

My first home made beer

We’re going to do something fun today. As I’ve maintained this blog over the past several months, I’ve thought about what it means to be Indie. Indie publishing; Indie music; Indie film…they all have to do with not moving beyond consumption of a product toward developing it yourself. Putting your own stamp on it, as it were, outside the regulations, cultural mores, or “supposed-to-haves” of the traditional model.

And as I thought about this, it occurred to me that I’m doing something similar with my newest hobby–making beer.

I’ve wanted to try home brewing for quite a while, and after pulling out my first batch this past weekend, I can say it was a really fun experience. I enjoy a good beer, but there’s nothing quite like sipping your own brew. A satisfaction not altogether unlike seeing your book in the Amazon store. In fact, home brewing isn’t that different from writing and publishing your own work, once you get past the malt and yeast.

So, for a bit of fun, here’s a few reasons why Home Brewing is like Indie Publishing:

The recipes vary, but you always start with the same ingredients
The great thing I’m learning about beer is that once you get past the Budweisers and Coors and Alexander Kieth’s (previously my favourite), there’s an enormous variety out there. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown tastes like hazlenut and chocolate; Weihenstephaner makes a dunkel that’s like buttered and toasted rye; the Vermont Pub and Brewery makes their own sour beer that’s like a mix between cider and brandy. But when you get down to it, this incredible variety comes down to four ingredients: malt, yeast, hops and water.

Likewise, there’s as many different types of fiction as there are writers. Our trade defines variety by way of our creativity. And yet, any good story has essential ingredients like plot, character, conflict, a call to action, and so on. As with great beer, the variety comes with how those ingredients play off each other, and how well you use them.

You have to know the rules before you break them
In beer making, sanitising is paramount. It’s so easy for your beer to become infected from the tools you use, not washing your hands, even yeast that’s gone off. The result is a lot of bad flavours in the beer–or worse, a bacterial infection. But there’s an exception to every rule: sour beer is, quite literally, beer that’s become infected and been allowed to develop “off flavours.” It’s an aquired taste, but much sought after in the craft brew world. The thing is, you can’t just infect your beer and hope it will turn out–you have to know what you’re doing, and where it’s appropriate to introduce an infection that might otherwise kill your brew.

The best writers know when to follow the rules, and when to break them. They can tell instead of showing and get away with it. They can add pages of flat exposition with such flair that the reader doesn’t care. Star Wars has some of the most tired and overused tropes in storytelling–but it works, because Lucas knew how to make those cliches work for him. Anyone can break all the rules and try to be revolutionary–only an artist can pull it off.

It’s not impossible, but it’s not simple
The first thing that surprised me when learning how to make beer was how easy it looked. The second thing was how difficult is really was. Beer making really comes down to balancing your ingredients properly, adding things at the right times, and making sure everything is clean. You can pick up a brew kit as a complete novice and brew a decent batch in six weeks with no experience or hand holding. But if you want to be good at it, you have to hone your craft. I’ve talked to people who’ve gone deep enough to grow their own malt, hops, and yeast. It’s one of those things where you’re going to get out of it what you put into it.
Writing’s much the same. Anyone can put a plot on the page, but that’s not really writing. It seems easy, and on the surface, it is–many writers plonk down their first draft without breaking a sweat. But it’s the crafting of that story that’s hard, and I’d venture to say that few people become absolute masters. The really good writers are the ones who make it look easy, knowing full well just how difficult it really is. But on the other hand, it’s not an unapproachable craft–just pick up a pen, put it to the page, and see where it takes you. Like beer making, you can go as deep as you want.

Carelessness can ruin the batch
Remember what I said about sterilization? I’d say at least 70% of the time it took to brew my first batch was taken up with cleaning. It took me fully an hour and a half to properly clean all the bottles before I was able to prime my beer–filling them took about twenty minutes. Fortunately, there are tools to help cut down that time, but it’s still crucially important. And it’s not just proper cleaning–if you add your hops at the wrong time, you’ll introduce an oily bitter taste; too much malt can make it overly sweet; not allowing it to ferment long enough can produce exploding bottles that sends glass through drywall. There’s an adage in the craft brew world that it’s really hard to completely ruin a batch, but by the same token, if you don’t watch what you’re doing, it’s not going to turn out as you like.
You can probably see where I’m going with this one. The Indie Publishing oeuvre is rife with badly edited or composed books. I’ve read some that had a decent story, but were nearly impossible to get through because of paper thin characters and ridiculous spelling mistakes. These are people who haven’t made full use of the resources available to them, or have simply sent out a book they wanted to publish in a hurry, long before it was ready. It might not take an English major to write a good novel, but a writer at least needs to take good care of their story. Otherwise, like bad beer, it’s just hard to swallow. Which leads to…

Patience, patience, patience!
This last one is probably the most important, and it’s easy to fall victim to it on both fronts. A hastily published book–without proper editing, cover art, formatting and so on–is pretty obvious. It turns readers off, and can damage your platform. And a lot of writing is about getting those fine details right–not just spelling and white space, but asking if your character arcs make sense, or if your continuity’s off. These are things that can’t be accomplished on your first draft–you need to be patient as you work them out.

Likewise, patience is the absolute key when brewing beer. One of the biggest reasons a batch can fail is because it was rushed–and in fact, many first time brewers dump a batch that would have been perfectly fine, given time to condition properly.
I’m experiencing this right now, actually. My first batch was scheduled to finish last Friday, so I put a couple bottles in the fridge. After more than six weeks of anxiously waiting to tip back the first bottle, I was chomping at the bit–but the first glass (pictured above) tasted watery and thin. The flavour was there, but something was missing.
I did some research, and found that this is pretty common–it just means it hasn’t had enough time to carbonate. Notice that it’s got a thick head but almost no bubbles in the beer? The carbonation is coming out of the beer too fast; it hasn’t had time to properly dissolve in the liquid. So I’m leaving it for now, and will try another bottle each week until it’s ready–be patient!

Okay, a bit longer than usual, but I had some fun writing this post. If you enjoy beer and haven’t thought about making it, pop over to Home Brew Talk to learn more. Or visit your local home brew store–usually they’ll sell wine kits too. There is an initial investment, but honestly it’s not hard to do–and what beer aficionado wouldn’t love to quaff his own hand made brew?

Indie Interview: Ryan Casey

As a follow up to my review of his book Killing Freedom last week, today we’re being visited by Ryan Casey! I was impressed on a few levels with his book, and so I invited him to come here for another interview. As usual, my questions are in bold, his answers in regular text. Enjoy!

1. One thing that impressed me about this book is the amount of research you must have put into it. Can you tell us about your research process?

I’m going to throw an immediate spanner in the works and admit that I’m probably the worst researcher on the planet. Researching tends to bog down my first drafting process, and sucks the life out of the details. However, you’re right — I did have to research Killing Freedom, mainly because of a lot of technicalities with regards to all sorts of upbeat things, such as the correct lifting of dead bodies, and such.

That said, all of this research tended to come later in the process. After I finish a first draft, I go through it and make notes on areas that I know I need to elaborate on. Something I did have to try and account for was how Jared had managed to evade the police for so many years, but I think with the gang/government overarching narrative, I did a pretty decent job on it.
So, yes. Research can be a pain, but I think it’s about finding what works for you as a writer, then sticking with that.

2. Jared is a great example of how a character shouldn’t rely on the plot–his occupation is a convention that could be changed without damaging the character. Which came first–the moral conundrum or the story?

It’s the old ‘chicken or the egg?’ question, reframed for a twenty-first century audience! But that’s interesting because with Killing Freedom, I knew I wanted to write a hitman novel of some form, but I wasn’t initially aware of the dilemma. It was only when I started digging into Jared’s backstory — asking questions, writing down stream-of-consciousness thoughts — that I understood his dilemma. I think any character with a strong enough dilemma is enough to create a good story. Jared’s dilemma is that he wants to be free, but he can’t be free because he’s a career hitman. The main source of transformation in the book, without spoiling too much, revolves around Jared reframing his relationship to that goal of freedom, which hopefully makes for an interesting read. I don’t always write my books like this, but it definitely worked in the case of Jared. He’s a fascinating character.

3. There were some moments in this book that seemed inevitable, but were still shocking–one character’s fate in particular. Are the twists and turns in your writing planned, or do they surprise even you? 

Thank you — that’s one of the biggest compliments I can receive. I always try to surprise readers, but I keep it within reason. I love creating suspense around the inevitable, if that make sense? As for that particular moment (slight spoiler alert) I was a little worried I’d make a villain out of Jared, but I think there’s something so sad and tragic about that scene too. Initially, it was a little bit lengthier, but I like ending the scene on that image of the indentation in the long grass on the horizon. It’s a really sparse, really lonely moment, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. I teared up writing it, I’m not gonna lie. It’s sinister, but it’s so, so sad, because that moment is Jared realising that everything he’s ever wanted is impossible. I’m pleased it worked for you, as a reader.

4. This book is violent, but never seems gratuitous when it easily could have been. Where do you draw the line between violence for the plot and violence for it’s own sake?

Thanks. I was worried Killing Freedom might go a little over the top in terms of violence because I was watching a lot of films like Drive and some Grindhouse stuff at the time. The reason I didn’t make the violence gratuitous is because I actually believe that it’s the smaller, more relatable pains that affect us more, as readers. If I wrote a scene where loads of people blew up in an explosion, then sure, that’s violent, but we can’t relate to that. However, our skin being cut by a sharp knife, or some rusty scissors? That’s real. It’s domestic items causing a lot of pain. The sequel (which I’m working on at the moment) also has some violent scenes, and again, I’m trying to find that line between necessary/unnecessary violence. I like to think that all violence should have a purpose — to advance the plot. I like to think that in Killing Freedom, it really does.

5. Everyone loves an anti-hero–what’s it like getting inside the head of a killer?

A lot of fun! Jared’s an interesting character because the sense is that deep down, he’s not all that bad a person. He’s sympathetic, despite all the terrible things he’s done in the name of somebody else. Killing Freedom really explores Jared’s relationship with killing for somebody else, and his realisation of whether he is truly comfortable with that. The sequel will explore another emotion, that I don’t want to go into too much yet, but it’s the natural and logical progression from book one.
And there we have it. If you haven’t had a chance, you can pick up Casey’s newest novel here. And of course, you can find him online at his blog, and on Twitter. Stay tuned for more reviews and interviews coming up!

Indie Review: Killing Freedom by Ryan Casey

There’s precisely one thing I don’t like about reading–plowing through a book so quickly you lose the chance to savour it. Now, if it’s a good book, I don’t mind too much, but it’s always a tad disappointing when you get to the end and realize you swallowed it whole. You can never go back and chew it slowly, wondering what the next mouthful will bring.

Although I’m a fast reader, it’s not often that I finish a book in one or two sittings. But with Ryan Casey, it’s becoming something of a habit. I devoured his newest novel, Killing Freedom, reading most of it while waiting for my plane at the airport; his trademark tension and the breakneck pace of the book was too much for my palate to resist–down the hatch!

In all seriousness, Killing Freedom is yet another success for Casey. I’m quite fond of him as a writer–there’s a youthful exuberance  behind his words that belies his passion for the art, but it’s tempered with a very mature voice. He feels like a seasoned author, despite releasing his first novel only last year. And while this newest offering is–in my opinion–not quite as well honed as What We Saw, it’s by no means the Curse of the Second Book. It’s an excellent offering, and well worth the $3.98 price tag.

Ostensibly, the book is about a hired killer who’s having a change of heart–but really, it’s the characterization of Jared that drives it. He’s in a tough spot: he kills people for a living but yearns to be free. As several characters in the book point out, it’s not the kind of job you just walk away from. But he feels he owes it to himself (and his sister) to at least try. This kind of character driven plot can be challenging to do well because you need to be sure your character is strong, well developed, and easy to sympathize with. This is doubly difficult if your character is an anti-hero like Jared.
But Casey pulls it off. He does a great job of making the reader care about Jared’s predicament, despite the evil things he does. There’s another hitman in the book, Frank, that acts as a nice character foil–he does the same job as Jared, but takes perverse pleasure in it. Best of all, Jared’s better at the job. The first scene they share is a great moment in the book because it demonstrates what Jared could have been, but for the grace of God, if you will. It’s that subtle difference that makes Jared believable, and makes the book work. 

As I read the book, I noticed a very quick change in Jared–no spoilers, but he’s sent to kill a family, and starts to doubt whether it’s the right choice. His early interactions with the family is the only thing that didn’t work well for me. Jared’s change of heart seems almost too quick–though looking back on his arc, I think that’s more because I was blowing through the book so quickly. Moreover, he seems a bit naive in his thinking that things can change, that this family will be the difference. He also seems to worry a lot about getting caught, making him seem unconfident in his own abilities. Of course, Jared needs this dilemma and second guessing to move his character along, and I don’t fault Casey for the way it’s written. It’s just that Jared seems to take a few things at face value which perhaps–as a seasoned killer and man or the world–he should be more cautious about.

Of course, there’s another way to look at it too: Jared’s simply so desperate to get out that he can’t see the forest for the trees. When all you can see is that one glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it’s easy to miss the dangers that lurk on the way there. This interpretation works better for the book, though in all honesty it’s only something that became apparent to me after I finished reading.

All of the “set up” for the character development takes place in the first third or so of the novel–then there’s an Incident, including the scene with Frank, and everything goes to…well, there’s trouble. This scene is very disturbing, but not because of the violence (which is there in spades). It’s due to that difference between Frank and Jared, and how they respond to violence against the innocent. It perfectly highlights why Jared needs to change–his call to action, as it were. It’s a riveting scene, all the more so because you get a sinking feeling that it won’t end well.

From here on, the book is a roller coaster of circumstance as Jared tries to keep ahead of his choices. I don’t think I’m spoiling it by saying there are more failures than successes, because that’s what makes Jared’s journey so believable–he just can’t catch a break. This in turn informs the pace of the book, which gets more and more intense as it builds to a climax I almost saw coming, but desperately didn’t want to read. I won’t even touch on that scene for fear of ruining it for the reader–but suffice it to say a choice is made that upset me enough I had to put down the book and take a bit of a walk. And yet, Casey made exactly the right move–it’s the defining moment of Jared’s character, and justifies the entire story.

On that note, I should mention the book’s violence. It’s not gratuitous, which is admirable because it easily could have been a very bloody book. And while there is a good deal of violence, it never feels out of place, serving to further the plot as well it should. It;s the characters reactions to violence that make the impact here; the blood is secondary.

I haven’t touched much on the plot specifically because, to my mind, it doesn’t really matter. Of course it’s the plot that makes the story, but in the case of Killing Freedom, it’s the character that makes the book.

I’m going to use an odd analogy here, so bear with me: Star Trek is such a great series because, despite it being science fiction, the science part of it doesn’t really matter. You could take a good Star Trek episode and wash it clean of all mention of science and technology and space utopia, and it would still be a good story. The science fiction part is just a convention, a consequence of the genre, and while it certainly helps put those stories into context, they don’t rely on it.
In much the same way, Jared has hard choices to make, and he’s in a difficult situation, but that situation could be something different from hitman and the character would work just as well. What Casey has done here is create an Everyman, a universal figure we can relate to, even though his occupation is something we’d never have direct experience with. It’s not common that you find such a character in a book, and while the way he’s written isn’t perfect, it’s really damn good.

You can pick up Killing Freedom on Amazon. Ryan Casey is online at his blog, and on Twitter. Visit the Amazon and Kobo stores for more of his library.

Mind Maps Done Right–Scapple for Windows is Here!

I didn’t intend to do a post today, but got an exciting announcement via Twitter this week–Scapple for Windows is in a free open beta!

Those of you who’ve followed this blog know I’m a fan of Literature and Latte’s word processing program Scrivener–most Indie writers use it, or have at least tried it. But, it’s a MAC OS program, and took a while to come to Windows. The ‘port is extremely useful, though it lacks a few of the features of the MAC version. If you haven’t already, you can check it out here.

Scapple is the much-touted companion program to Scrivener. It’s mind-mapping software–you can jot your ideas down on the virtual page, connect them, move them around, and generally brainstorm to your heart’s content. I’ve been using Microsoft OneNote for this, and it works fine…but it’s lacking. It doesn’t integrate with Scrivener, I’ve had issues synchronizing files across computers, and using it alongside Scrivener is counter-intuitive.
Scapple does integrate with Scrivener (well, sort of…keep reading), and being made by the same company, the two programs are designed to work in concert. But Windows users have had to wait patiently while MAC users reap the benefits of this robust program.

Until now. If you’re a Windows user, you can go here to download the open beta, and try it for yourself.

My first impression of this product is that it’s…impressive. There’s a unique simplicity to it–there’s zero pretense. It’s brainstorming software, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Some people may not like that it doesn’t have a billion features, but I rather prefer it–it’s like an extension of Scrivener, and that’s all it needs to be.

Here’s what you do: double click anywhere in the program window, type your note. Double click elsewhere to type another note–then drag that to the first one to create a connection. (Press the Alt key as you do this to create an arrow). Do it again to remove the connection.

And apart from a few tricks, that’s it. But really, it’s all that’s needed. Very nice. Here’s a screenshot after I fiddled with it for a few minutes:

Simple!

Simple!

Now, keep in mind that this is a beta. I noticed that the spellcheck doesn’t work correctly (it would insert the correct spelling into the middle of a word, creating an extra-wrong spelling). More importantly, the Scrivener integration doesn’t seem to have been added yet.* You can export your Scapple file and insert it into Scrivener, but the Drag and Drop feature doesn’t work–probably because it requires you to use Scrivener’s “Free Form Corkboard” feature, which isn’t available in Windows.

*Marta posted a workaround in the comments below. Simply create a Scapple file then add it as a Project Reference in Scrivener. Whenever you open Scrivener, you cal right click on the project reference and open in the default editor–bingo! It’s not exactly imported into Scrivener, but it’s as good as. I’ve tried it and it works like a charm. Thanks for the tip, Marta!

Still, it’s an excellent tool to complement an already excellent tool. Definitely recommended! I’m going to continue playing with it, and will probably post about it again soon–in the meantime, try it for yourself, and tell me what you think!

Scapple is available in open beta until September 15 2013. Once version 1.0 is ready, it will go on sale, probably for the same price as the MAC version at $14.99. Here’s a features page–but keep in mind it’s for the MAC version.

Still here, Still Reading!

Well.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve had lapses before here, but never so long as a month–for that, I apologize. I can’t say anything specific took me away from writing here, but there we are–and I’m back.

can say that I did quite a lot of reading in the last month, including a few Indie books (reviews coming!) and falling back in love with a favourite author I’d forgotten–Stephen King. I haven’t read a King book in years, and it was a pleasure to get back to his stark, conversational, downright creepy style. In fact, with his experimenting with eBooks early on in the format, I think there’s potential for a blog post there…

In the meantime, I have several posts planned for the next couple weeks. I’ll be reviewing books from some of my favourite Indies–Ryan Casey and David A Hayden coming soon, and J. M. Ney-Grimm and Lindsay Buroker on the horizon–and we’ll have an interview or two. I’ll also talk about popular iPhone apps for writers, creating systems of magic, and why self-publishing is like making your own beer.

So stay tuned, and keep reading–we’ll be back to our regular programming shortly.