The Descent: an Innovative Contest Where the Indies Win

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Kobo fanboy. Kobo was my introduction to e-books, and I’ve never tried another platform (beyond installing other companies’ apps on my Kobo), and I don’t really care to. I’ve found a nice home there, and that works for me.

One thing I really like about Kobo as a company is that they truly support their Indie Writers. Kobo Writing Life is a great program, as many Indies can attest. But for the most part (and this is just my opinion), Indie books are still somewhat underground–someone has to point them out to you. Fortunately, that’s changing quickly–and Kobo has an innovative way to help bring about that change.

J.F. Penn is well known enough in the Indie world that she doesn’t need an introduction. Suffice it to say that the author of the Arcane series is at the forefront of our industry, and an incredible representative of the Indie Community. She’s a powerhouse, to be sure, and a concrete example of how writers like us can make this work.  Now, Penn is working with Kobo to present a truly unique contest: The Decent.

The short of it is this: for three weeks, Kobo will release a short story written by Penn. Within those stories is a series of clues which the reader has to ferret out and assemble. This will lead the reader to a secret web page where they can enter to win a grand prize of $5000. Sounds like fun, right? Well, here’s the best part: all of this is part of a promotion for Dan brown’s coming novel, Inferno.

Okay, hear me out before you browse away from me. I can hear you now: this blog is about the Indie community, why are you writing about a contest for a Dan Brown book? Believe me, I had my own reservations at first. I enjoy Brown’s novels, but let’s be honest–they’re not the pinnacle of English Literature. And he’s about the furthest thing away from an Indie writer you could imagine. So why write about it here?

The reason is that this puts Indie writers squarely in the spotlight. Well, one writer in particular, but this is important: J.F. Penn, a voice of the Indie Community, is being advertised alongside Dan Brown. People who are lusting after Brown’s book will learn about Penn–and when they learn about Penn and her self-publishing success, they may explore more Indie writers. Even better, it validates our industry; if Dan Brown is in the big leagues and Penn is playing ball with him, it reflects very well on the rest of us.

Now, to be honest, there are those who will read Penn’s stories, click through to the contest without realizing who she is in the Community, and never give Indies a second thought. But there will be those who are intrigued enough by her work to explore her other books; they’ll see that she operates under her own imprint, The Creative Penn, and isn’t attached to a large publishing house; they’ll visit her webpage and see that she offers marketing advice for people wanting to publish their own books. And that is a direct open door to the Indie Community. And besides all that, the very fact that Kobo is associating Brown with an Indie writer in this way is very telling: it shows that they have a stake in the Indie community, and are willing to invest in us in a real way. This contest might be going out to the world, but really, I think the Indie Community has already won.

I thought about reviewing Sins of Temptation, the first of Penn’s three stories, but have decided against it. I wouldn’t want to inadvertently give spoilers that turn out to be clues. If someone wants to enter this contest, they should run the gamut themselves. I will say this about it: it’s decent, and left me wanting more. It’s rather short, though it’s intended to be. And it has a distinct flavour to it that is more than reminiscent of Brown’s novels. Which, I should add, I think is a good thing.

But don’t take my word for it. You can find the first entry here, and it’s free! The second entry was supposed to be released today, but was available online Wednesday–you can find Sins of Violence here. The third and final story will be released next week. This contest is exclusive to Kobo, however, so if you don’t have an account you’ll have to make one. The account is free too, and Kobo has a great store, so you won’t be disappointed.  Finally, if you don’t have a Kobo, keep in mind that they have several apps that can be run on different devices, or even on your computer.

So go out, pick up the books (supporting a fellow Indie) and spread the word–the more people who see this, the better it is for all of us. Happy sleuthing!

This contest is run and operated by Kobo Inc. You can find the full rules and conditions here.

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Indie Review: Two by Brian Rathbone

Brian Rathbone was one of the first Indie Writers I happened to come across. He’s very active on twitter, and has a good philosophy about it: interact, and they will come. He’s a good example of the Indie Writer’s Community, in that he truly encourages it to be a community.

But I digress. Rathbone has a series called The Dawning of Power; it’s a trilogy about the young Caitrin Volker, who discovers a power unknown to the world–a power that could tear her world apart. It was followed up by another trilogy, The Balance of Power–but I’m not going to write about those today, as I’ve only read the first out of six, and don’t feel I could do it justice.

Instead, I want to touch on a couple of short stories by Rathbone. I found these after reading Call of the Herald, (the first in his series), and think they’re a good introduction to his writing style. They’re both free on his website, and on Kobo.

First up is Redtooth. This one is quick, (only twenty or so pages), and an absolute pleasure to read. I wasn’t sure what to make it it until I was well invested in the story–and I mean that in a good way. It starts out with a man tinkering with a delicate piece of technology because he doesn’t want to upgrade (the characterization in the opening paragraphs alone is enough to grasp your attention), then turns into a sort of high-tension chase. The ending turns everything on its head. Normally, if I were to read a book like this I’d say that it jumped around too much, or was unfocused–but Rathbone pulls it off so well that it doesn’t seem that way at all. It’s fast paced, but that’s the way it should be.
The real star of this story, of course, is the protagonist Bob. He has a beloved bluetooth headset–very obsolete–that he can’t bring himself to give up. It’s falling apart, but he insists on buying new parts to continue repairing it, rather than upgrading. The way he’s presented is endearing, and though he’s something of a doddering middle aged man, we love him for it. He always seems a step behind, but that’s what makes his story so entertaining as he’s put on a wild adventure through the city.
The plot is simple: Bob goes to the pawn shop to buy some spare parts to repair his bluetooth, and is “coerced” instead into buying the newest gadget: Redtooth. This is when the real fun begins. As soon as he puts the device into his ear, the reader is treated to an absurdly delightful (and deadpan) conversation with the virtual assistant in the device. What follows is best described as a ridiculous romp, as the assistant sends him on a mission well against his wishes. Bob is baffled the whole way through, adding to the absurdity of the story.
And all of that is wonderful. This story is just plain fun. But there’s a subtle subtext as well–Rathbone seems to be commenting on the technological obsession we’re in the grips of today; innovation for the sake of innovation–or capitalism. Sometimes the tools we have are good enough as they are, and we should leave them that way.

If I have a criticism about this story, it’s that there’s a hint of something sinister throughout that’s never really followed up on. Perhaps I was reading that tone into the story–it’s clearly written to be funny, not sinister–but I felt that angle of the story could have been explored. Of course, if it had been, the humour would likely have been lost to an extent. It’s probably best left alone as well.

Next we have Beyond the Veil. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Redtooth, but it’s a very different kind of story. I read them back to back, and perhaps this story would have benefited from a sort of palate cleanser. But that’s besides the point, and a purely personal observation–it doesn’t reflect on the story itself.

Beyond the Veil tackles a delicate and provocative question: just how thin is the barrier between the living and the dead? And: which side of that veil is more real? There’s a real jarring dichotomy in this story as our main character–Vincent Pels–explores either side. The ‘living world’ is presented as very real and concrete, while the ‘other side’ is fantastical and wonderous. When I say jarring, I mean it in the best way–it should be disorienting for the reader to travel between these worlds, the more so the better. It serves the story, and the point I think Rathbone is trying to get across. We don’t spend a lot of time in the real world, but it leaves an indelible mark on the reader. There’s some very real tragedy here, so it’s almost a relief when we move to the other side of the veil. Here, we’re treated to a fantasy world where Vincent finds himself as an armour-clad knight on a quest to slay a horrible creature–though it’s not quite as simple as that.

This is where things get more complicated. I have to admit that I got a bit lost; the ‘other side’ seems muddled, and jumps around a lot. Landscapes merge into one another and characters are ephemeral. It suits the tone of this world, but I found it confusing. The disorientation could have been intentional–again, it serves the story–but there were a few times when I was left wondering just what happened. It wasn’t until reflecting on the story after I’d finished that it began to make sense.
I’m a bit torn on this. On the one hand (and the more I think about it), it’s exactly what should happen. The veil between worlds is presented as effervescent, porous, and fantastical, and so when we cross over we shouldn’t be surprised that what we see doesn’t always flow as naturally as the ‘real world.’ But as a reader, it was disorienting enough that it left me wanting a more clear explanation. It’s like waking in the morning and only remembering parts of your dream–enough that it’s tantalizingly interesting, but leaving you with something you can never grasp, and which ultimately fades beyond memory anyway.

Of course, it’s quite likely that this is exactly the author’s intent. Not every story should be cut and dried, spelled out for the reader–in fact, the best stories are those that leave enough to the reader’s interpretation that they can make their own personal observations, thus making a stronger connection to the narrative than if the writer did it for them. Ultimately, I think it begs for a second reading, and I may eventually explore it again on this blog. After this first read, though, I would recommend it–as long as you’re interested in some open questions. As a book you need to think about, it certainly fits the bill.

Brian Rathbone is the author of the Godland Series. You can find his books on Amazon and Kobo. Brian is also on twitter, and I’d definately reccomend following him–of only for his ruminations on how much animals can teach us. 🙂

Indie Review: The God King by James A West

It seems that most of the Indie books I’m reading are fantasy–and there’s a reason for that. I enjoy writing fantasy, but I admit it’s not my favourite genre to read. Apart from Tolkein and Robert E. Howard, I don’t read a lot of it. Mostly, that’s because I find a lot of fantasy to be ponderous and overwrought. Epic. The great thing about Indie writers, though, is that they write fantasy because they love it. They write what they want to write, not what the publisher thinks will sell. And because of this, the writing (in my opinion) tends to be better.

Enter James A. West. I came across The God King while browsing for free books, and got hooked early on. This is Epic Fantasy at its best. The concept is simple, but captivating: a prince wants more power than he has, and is willing to go to any lengths for it. Of course, he gets more than he’s bargained for–but the nicer twist is that an Everyman Character is granted that power too, and must act as a counterpart to the prince, with precisely zero will to do so. This sets up a satisfying and complex conflict that flavours the book and saves it from being just another ponderous fantasy adventure tale.

We have three main characters; the aforementioned Prince Varis, his Everyman counterpart Kian, and the wonderfully named Ellonlef, Kian’s love interest. This is a nice triad that works well with the conflict posed in the book; while Kian and Ellonlef are obviously on the same side, Varis is much more powerful than either of them. What should be an unstable “two against one” handicap is actually very well balanced. I felt that our protagonists were up against insurmountable odds–which should absolutely be the case in a good story–but that their friendship gave them an edge that Varis lacks.
What’s more, this isn’t a clear good vs evil story. Kian is obviously on the side of right, while Varis is not–but our villain isn’t as much of one as you’d think.  He’s certainly not the stereotype who wants power just because, and to a certain extent he even has a good reason for what he’s doing. He’s not evil for the sake of being evil–he’s evil because his desires run amok and he has no choice but to move forward. Of course, he’s set up as an antagonist, and so Kian and Ellonlef seem convinced that he is completely evil, and must be stopped at all costs. I always talk about stakes: they’re certainly here, as far as our protagonists are concerned.
The really great thing about this, though, is that we as readers get an insight our heroes don’t. We see the foibles Varis has, the very human mistake he makes. We see him shake in fear with the powers he’s unleashed, and his insecurity as to just what he should do with his powers. He’s definitely bitten off more than he can chew, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it now. I got the impression that but for the grace of god, he would have been the hero of the story. A villain of circumstance.

The prose of this book is very good. West has a talent for excellent description–though almost too good in places. He’s got an impressive vocabulary, which is great for any writer, but there were points where it seemed that every noun was coupled with an adjective. It ran against the old writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell;” in being overly descriptive it becomes difficult for the reader to experience the world on their own. This isn’t really a large issue, however; after the opening pages, it fades into the background and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.
And the reason for that is the wonderful World West has created for this book. It’s incredibly vibrant, and I had no trouble nestling into to it even in the opening pages. There are several cultures in the World that are well rounded, even if we only see hints of them; castes and kingdoms which aren’t explored but are still described well enough that they seem complete. There’s also a detailed history that’s hinted at here and there, but feels complete without any gaps. And best of all, the religion of the World is well crafted. Competing beliefs make the world seem real, and the characters more human. I particularly like the way he’s able to combine religious dogma and science; for example, there are three moons in the sky, and the people believe they represent three gods. When the moons are destroyed, it has a crippling effect on the faiths of the people. This kind of chthonic religion is natural and realistic. At the same time, West makes it clear that this has a very real scientific effect on the world; you can’t remove the gravitational effect of a moon and be surprised when the sky starts falling.

There’s a lot to like about this book–but on the other hand, there’s something flat underlying it all. It’s nothing I can put my finger on, but I think it has something to do with the well developed World and Characters as opposed to the relatively simple plot. The story involves Varis reaching for this insurmountable power, then trying to take over the realm, while Kian and company chase him down to defeat him. Aside from some setbacks our heroes suffer along the way, it’s pretty straight forward. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course–it’s still an engaging story–but there’s a clear contrast here. The World and Characters are great examples of how fantasy should be done, while the plot is a pretty straight line from beginning to end. It’s also a rather lengthy book, and although there were parts that could probably have been left out without much trouble, it wasn’t padded, and there wasn’t anything that seemed gratuitous. One thing I really enjoyed about the was the book was written was that the last several chapters are significantly shorter than the preceding ones; this gives the climax of the book a nice staccato feel, and really serves the action well. A nice trick, and a great narrative choice.

All in all, this is a fun book. It’s the first book in a series, and though the next book doesn’t seem to expand on these characters, it’s sure to flesh out the world even more–I’m quite looking forward to it. You can find it on Amazon for $0.99, or on Kobo for free. James A. West is on Twitter, and keeps a blog as well. If you like epic fantasy, this is an Indie Writer to watch out for!

Indie Review: Emperor’s Edge

I’m going to cheat a bit today–this Indie Review features not one, but five books. And, as this is going to be something of an overview, I’ll probably revisit each of them in time. But seeing as Lindsay Buroker is a large part of why I got into the Indie Writer’s community in the first place, I thought it was high time to review some of her work in depth (though I’ve touched on one of her short stories before).

Last summer, I received a free book from Kobo: a collection of short stories and excerpts from Indie writers designed to entice people into their new Kobo Writing Life publishing program. Buroker’s Ice Cracker II was the second story, and was easily the most memorable of the bunch. I found that the first book in the Emperor’s Edge series was free, so I picked it up and gave it a read. Making this book free is a stroke of brilliance on her part–it does a great job of drawing you into the story, and clearly sets up the next book–which explains the fervor of her fans, who wait with baited breath for each new entry.

The series concerns Amaranthe Lockdon, an Enforcer for the empire of Turgonia who finds herself on the wrong side of the law–not by choice, but by circumstance. She spends the series trying not only to redeem herself, but the names of her rag-tag teammates–not an easy feat considering one of them is the legendary and universally feared assassin, Sicarius. This quest for redemption is the overall arc of the series, but each book of course has its own unique plot.
There’s a common enemy too, though I won’t go into too much detail for the sake of spoilers. They’re known as Forge, and Buroker is great at giving just enough information about them book to book to keep the reader guessing–and wondering when it will all be revealed. What’s more, there’s no let down when much of it is revealed in book five, Blood and Betrayal. In the hands of a lesser writer, the revelation would have fallen flat with such a drawn out buildup; here, it’s satisfying and actually left me wanting to know even more. Which won’t be a problem for the work-in-progress book six, as book five lays down some tantalizing clues for what comes next.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t want to give a book-by-book blow-by-blow; suffice it to say that it’s a great series, and well worth reading. Buroker is one of those Indie Writers who serves as an example to others–she’s made a comfortable name for herself already, and her stock is only going up. She’s one that new Indie Writers should be looking up to.

Back to the series. There’s a lot to like about these books, though I find them difficult to define. Most people would tell you they’re Steampunk/fantasy, but there are a lot of elements of detective/crime, romance, sci-fi and pulp adventure (in a good way) as well. And yet despite the mixing of genres, they don’t seem piecemeal at all; in fact, this diversity is a strength for the books. It shows that Amaranthe and company are adept as many different situations, and that Buroker is good at not writing her characters into pigeon holes. They’re versatile and always fresh–as is her writing style–and this versatility is a hallmark of the series as a whole. If I hesitate to categorize these books into a genre, I can safely say that whether you’re a fan of sword and sorcery, rom-coms, or 1950’s pulp scifi/adventure, you’ll find something to like here.

The setting is decidedly Steampunk, and this is probably the easiest way to define the books if you want to do that. Turgonia is a militaristic empire with a long Imperial history of war and conquest, which has taken precedence over the arts, business, or scientific advancement. But that’s changing. A new Emperor–Sespian–has been crowned, and though he’s too young to officially take the throne, he’s established a new paradigm that many of the more conservative people of the Empire find hard to swallow. While this conflict isn’t really at the heart of the series, it plays a large part, and serves nicely as a sort of “dynamic backdrop.” It causes ripples that affect the characters indirectly, and as the series progresses, those ripples get larger–or, rather, we start to see the turbulence beneath the waves.
The science of Turgonia is based, of course, on steam; you have trolleys that require a furnace, mechanical beasts guarding enemy hideouts, and stream trains galore. There’s also a healthy helping of the other trimmings one would associate with steampunk; swashbuckling fops, a system of magic that borders on science, great costumes, urchins and aristocrats. And did I mention a kraken? In addition to this, there’s an undercurrent of a mysterious alien technology. All of it makes for a vibrant and simply fun setting.

But the real strength of these books are the characters. Amaranthe is the perfect example of the type of female hero so desperately needed in fiction. She’s not helpless eye candy always in need of rescue, and she doesn’t depend on the male figures for her strength; in fact, the men in the books look to her for guidance, without her asking for such reverence. It’s simply earned, because she’s a strong, intelligent presence, and she knows what she’s doing. She has her faults, too, but even these turn into strengths in terms of the way she’s written. She’s impulsive, takes unneeded risks, and has been known to let her emotions get in the way of the mission. But none of these faults are because she’s a woman, like so many other women in fiction–they’re because she’s human. I have a lot of respect for Buroker for writing such a strong female character, and I hope to see a lot of writers follow in her footsteps.
Amaranthe’s counterpoint is the brooding and dangerous Sicarius, long ago the Emperor’s personal assassin, but now exiled with the coming of the new regime. He, too, is looking for redemption, though he doesn’t know it until Amaranthe comes along–or at least doesn’t believe it’s possible. Their relationship–and yes, there’s a certain romantic spark–is convoluted, mostly because Sicarius is so reluctant to express himself. He comes across as a cold, unfeeling killing machine, but the scenes he shares in private with Amaranthe are touching and sweet. The great thing about Sicarius is that he’s a well textured character–but only Amaranthe and the reader know it. He’s easily my favourite character in the series because of this, and I delight in every snippet of information we’re tossed as readers. The mystery is what drives his character, and that’s something I always enjoy–but there’s another layer here because despite the mystery, we get a clearer view of him than the other characters.

On a side note, I can’t help but imagine Sicarius as Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Which, I suppose, would make Basilard the giant Fezzik, with Maldynaldo cast as Inigo Montoya.

Which brings me to Amaranthe’s band of misfit teammates. As supporting characters, they’re remarkably well rounded, and they serve as a further counterpoint to Amaranthe and Sicarius. Akstyr is a young street kid with a criminal past who’s teaching himself the “mental sciences” (magic); Books is the…uh, bookish librarian who excels at research, but not so much in fighting; Maldynaldo is an unapologetic womanizing fop with a heart of gold (and knows it); and Bassilard is the mute muscle, erstwhile bouncer, and surprisingly good chef. There are other companions introduced in later books, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. All of them make a great team; they’re diverse enough that they stand well enough alone, but together their skills combine in surprising ways to get the job done.
The best part is how they relate to one another–Bassilard is a friend to all, though he distrusts Sicarius more than some; Maldynaldo makes a show of teasing everyone, including Amaranthe, though he’s not as shallow as he puts on; Akstyr refuses to show how much he cares, or how much he appreciates that others care, but hides it so poorly that everyone can see through him; and Books always seems uncomfortable, though you can tell there’s no place he’d rather be than at Amaranthe’s side. It’s a wonderful cast, and reading about them bickering or teasing or performing mundane tasks is half the fun of the series.
One of the things I like most about this series is that each book centers on one of these secondary characters, sharing the Point of View with Amaranthe. In their featured book, we get to see into that character’s thoughts and background in a much more intimate way, elevating them from secondary character to front runner. This has the result of making all of them seem like fully realized main characters, which is no small feat. It’s rare (George R. R. Martin and Stephen King being the only examples that come to mind) that a writer can have so many compelling characters sharing the spotlight without any of them seeming washed out. Characterization is certainly one of Buroker’s great strengths as a writer.

There’s an added bonus to these books–Buroker has started a second series based in the same “world,” 20 years earlier. I’ve only read the first book, Encrypted, which is about Tikaya Komitopis, a cryptographer (and another strong female character) who is sent on a mission to decrypt an alien artifact. This one focuses a bit more on romance, but there’s a fair amount of action and fun in the same vein as the Emperor’s Edge novels. And, a certain young assassin makes an appearance as well. Recently another novella–Enigma–was published in this series, and a sequel to Encrypted is coming soon.
I love it when writers visit their world through different characters and viewpoints because it gives the reader a much more rounded view of the setting. Any story has to concentrate on something “world changing,” otherwise it’s not worth telling–but this can throw a pair of blinders on the reader as they concentrate on the only story being told. When a writer examines the other side of the story, the world suddenly becomes much more real. David Alastair Hayden and J. M. Ney-Grimm are other examples of writers who do this well.

So there you have it. It’s only touching the surface of these wonderful books, but as I said, I hope to revisit them individually here for a more thoughtful review. In the meantime, I hope this serves as a decent overview, enough at least to convince you to check them out if you haven’t already.

You can find Lindsay Buroker at her blog, or on Twitter. Her books are on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords,  and Kobo–and the first book, The Emperor’s Edge, is free!

Indie Review: Who Walks in Flame

Flame-Project-Transparent1-813826_600x480As an avid reader, I tend to keep to certain types of books–and, honestly, certain authors. Reading Indie Fiction is changing that;there’s so much wonderful work out there that it would be almost irresponsible not to test new waters. And my favourite part about reading Indie work is finding that occasional diamond in the rough, an example of writing that’s so good you wonder why you didn’t find it sooner. Who Walks in Flame by David Alastair Hayden is such a book.

It’s a short story set in Hayden’s lush fantasy world of Pawan Kor. Bregissa the Skald is charged with leading an army to victory against an ancient nemesis–if she can hold her allies together long enough. There’s a Witch King, a host of reptilian infantry, and an enormous flame breathing dragon. What’s not to love?

When I read the blurb for this book, I knew it was right up my alley; I’ve had a couple of Hayden’s books on my reading list, unopened, for quite a while now, and Who Walks in Flame was a great excuse to finally get going. I approached this book eagerly, and wasn’t disappointed. It perfectly sets up his writing style and the feel of Pawan Kor–though I’ve found his newest novel, Chains of a Dark Goddess, to have a unique flair that keeps this world fresh.

The opening words of a book are crucially important; they not only set the tone of the book, they act as a litmus test for the reader. If you can’t grab their attention in the first pages, you’ll fight for their attention throughout. But it’s a special kind of writer who can do it in the first sentence. This book had me from the beginning, and never let go.
And this is what I loved about the story as a whole. Hayden does a tremendous job of creating a compelling story. The bones of the plot are pretty straight forward–Bregissa leads her army against the witch king Khuar-na and his Scorch Walker, accompanied by a faithful companion who has more to lose than he’s letting on–but Hayden is able to weave it into something that seems almost mythic. Better yet, as fantastical as some of the events and characters are, they’re completely believable and I never found myself having to suspend my disbelief. This is good fantasy.

Bregissa is at the heart of this story, taking even second place to her conflict with Khuar-na. Don’t get me wrong; the urgency of this conflict is well described and will obviously have repercussions for the world. For the people of Pawan Kor, it’s do or die. But Bregissa’s story is much deeper.
On the surface, we have a woman who’s not only willing, but more than capable of leading an army–yet has to earn the respect of the kings she’s gathered together before she can accomplish anything. There’s also the relationship with her lover Kerenthos, who would do anything for her, even at the risk of his own destiny. But the real story here is that Bregissa is a remarkably powerful person, more so than the others in her life know–and this power has come at a grave cost. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s say it involves a betrayal and an evil act that is (perhaps) justifiable. This act gives her character a satisfying depth, and she ceases to be the resolute and unfailing hero she”s presented as in the opening pages. She’s not an anti-hero–I found myself sympathizing with her easily–but neither is she  a spotless soul.
If there’s one thing I didn’t like about this story, it’s that Bregissa isn’t explored enough. I got invested in this character more than the others, and that makes me want to know more–but the story is under 50 pages, and we only get hints of her origins, potential, and the arc in between (save for what happens in the plot, of course). I thought that this story served as a backstory for some of Hayden’s other books in the Tales of Pawan Kor series, but none of the plots of those books seem to reference the events in this one. Of course, I haven’t read them yet, so I may be presently surprised; still, I was disappointed to not get to know Bregissa more in this story.

There’s more to tell of Khur-na and his giant dragon as well, and I hope that Hayden revisits this character. There are hints of a great empire in which he enslaved much of the world, and tremendous rebellion in which he was overthrown and imprisoned. I’d be interested to see a sort of prequel for this book that explores what’s sure to be an epic tale. But, unlike Bregissa’s story, hints and teases are enough for Khuar-na. The mystery adds some depth to his character that wouldn’t be diminished if left as is. Although he’s such a great villain that I wouldn’t hesitate to read more about him.

One more thing to note about this story is Khuar-na’s dragon, the Scorch Walker. This beast is massive, and nigh undefeatable. Talk about raising stakes–when Khuar-na rides the Scorch Walker into battle, they reach the stratosphere. The climactic battle with Bregissa and her army is just plain awesome–this is the reason I read this kind of book in the first place.

As I’ve gotten more involved in the Indie Community–and make no mistake, I’ve still just scratched the surface–I’ve definitely found a cadre of authors I’ve dedicated myself to following. Ryan Casey, J. M. Ney-Grimm and Lindsay Buroker were at the top of the list–but now David Alastair Hayden joins their ranks. Who Walks in Flame is a terrific quick read–and it’s free. If you haven’t read this gem yet, do yourself a favour and check it out.

David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame is available for free at Kobo, Amazon and Smashwords. He keeps a nice looking blog, and you can also find him on Twitter.

Last Minute Changes

The Astrologers

Update: It appears that something has gone amiss with either the uploading of the file or the conversion process Kobo puts the book through; when you turn the page all you see is the cover. The file debugged fine, but still isn’t working, so I’m de-listing it until we can fix the issue.

So we’re just over a week away from the release of my first official eBook–save the date on October 23, where you’ll be able to pick it up at the Kobo store and Amazon. I’m working on putting it through Smashwords as well, but that may take a bit longer–they have a different submission process, which we’ll talk about soon.

But! There’s been a slight change in plans.

A friend pointed out that the four stories I intended to put into the collection–one fantasy and three horror/weird fiction–don’t fit together thematically. I’d thought it wouldn’t matter, seeing as The Astrologers (my fantasy tale) would be offered separately anyway as a freebie. But her point was that it muddles the branding, which is a very important thing to consider when making a first impression on a reader.

It reminded me of an article I read recently about JK Rowling, and the release of her most recent book, The Casual Vacancy. The post on MarsDorian.com talked about the unfortunate mistake in branding; people bought it expecting more of the same YA fantasy fun–but got a raunchy book filled with sex, drugs, and profanity. It’s all very well and good for a writer to branch out, says Dorian, but Rowling’s foundation as a YA author was so solid that young people are buying the book without even reading the dust jacket.

Which is all besides the point for me. The point is, selling a fantasy story alongside a few horror stories doesn’t really make sense. So I’m going in another direction.

The Astrologers will be released as early as tomorrow, and will remain a stand-alone short story. Instead of offering the horror stories alongside it, I’ve included a preview of Court of Sand, the first release of my upcoming Tapestry series–which takes place in the same world as The Astrologers, albeit a few centuries earlier. That makes a lot more sense.

(Update: There was apparently a mix-up at the Kobo Store; although I set the release date for October 16, it came out this morning. There’s no sense in taking it down, so you can get it here. Did I mention it’s free?)

But I’m not ditching the other stories!

The Ancestor and Other Stories will be released on October 23, as planned, for $1.99. This is a collection of three stories from the same genre, which makes it more cohesive. I still want to be writing in the horror/weird genre, but separating them from the fantasy books at least allows readers the choice between them, if they don’t like one or the other. Call it diversifying the product.

You’ve heard all about The Astrologers by now, perhaps even read the first draft on this blog. Over the course of this week, we’ll take a look at the stories in The Ancestor in anticipation of the release.

Finally, you may ask: what about the promise of a free copy of The Astrologers and Other Stories if you sign up for my Community List before October 23? You’ll still get them, but they’ll be two separate eBooks. Plus, you’ll receive the complete first draft of Court of Sand as an added bonus within the next couple weeks! But the offer will only last until the official release, so sign up now!

(Since the release of The Astrologers happened a bit earlier than anticipated, those of you who signed up for the list will receive their copy sometime within the next 24 hours).

Publishing on Kobo Books

Available at Kobo Books!

Now that I’m well on my way to publishing my first eBook, I decided to give myself a “dry run” through the e-publishing process. I’d hate for my first professional release to be fraught with issues as I learn how to do this, so I thought I’d put together a small collection of poems, work up a cover, and upload it, just to see how it’s done. You can find this attempt–Muzak for the Metro–at Kobo Books.

This is a bare bones release, and certainly isn’t perfect–which is why it’s free–but it served its purpose of walking me through the process. I found it to be a simple and painless operation, though it highlighted some areas I’ll have to learn more about.

Tomorrow I’ll take a more detailed look at the process, but for now, I’ll note two things:

I did this cover myself, just for the sake of having something besides a blank image to put in the store. It’s a photo I took in Paris several years ago, cut to size and doctored up in Paint.net. It was dead easy–but this isn’t the way to get a cover for your book. I admit it’s not great quality, but being a test of sorts, it’s not supposed to be. My upcoming collection will be a more professional job, which is important–despite the cliche to the contrary, many people will judge your book by the cover, so it should be a good one!

The second issue I had was with formatting the eBook. I used Scrivener to create the .epub file, and although it showed fine in Calibre, once I uploaded it to Kobo the line spacing changed. In Adobe Digital Editions, there are no line breaks at all except for between poems; on my Kobo device, there seem to be extra spaces and line breaks in random places. I think the issue has to do with the fact that it’s poetry, and so has abnormal spacing anyway; but I’ll obviously need to learn more about formatting.

Edit: I’ve read on other blogs that this formatting issue isn’t unique, and in fact is relatively common. One suggested solution is to upload the book in a .doc file, instead of an ePub.

So there we are: my first published work. I’m not really counting this, of course–in fact, I intend to take it down in a day or so, because I don’t want this example to seem indicative of my work. But all in all, I think it was a worthwhile experiment, and ‘m glad I cut my teeth on this, rather than fumbling through something I plan to sell.

You can find it at the Kobo store for a day or two, so check it out!

Writer’s Tools: Online

I unfortunately wasn’t able to post yesterday–good argument for not promising to post daily, not enough time for that–but fortunately was planning a piece on some cloud based technology that will work well with today’s post: tools you can find online.

Nowadays, the internet is ubiquitous. You have it on your phone; you can get information almost anywhere, at the touch of a button. With the increasing prevalence of wi-fi Hot Spots at restaurants, airports and coffee shops, you can even bring your laptop with you most places and plug in. Which makes writing on the go a lot easier.

When I was in University, I had a Palm Pilot with a little fold out keyboard, and everything folded up into a neat wallet sized bundle. I did all my writing on this device–creative and schoolwork–and it was a godsend. But the one thing I always missed was that it was only a place to get my thoughts out; I couldn’t do any decent editing because the word processor wasn’t great; there was no dictionary or encyclopedia on the device; and research was no more convenient than bringing a notepad to the library and writing by hand. Then I got a laptop, and would bring that everywhere; I had a lot more at my fingertips, but still couldn’t connect to the internet for research, and the battery life wasn’t all that great.

Today, your average phone has more processing power than my laptop did back then, and you have a plethora of tools available for you whenever you want them. In fact, information is so readily available that, interestingly, it’s holding us back; in his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr posits that having so much information so easily available is causing us to only skim it for what we want right now, rather than digging deeper. But that’s a topic for another day.

The internet has a wealth of tools for writers, from forums where other writers will discuss issues with you, to how to’s on publishing, eBook building, getting an agent and so on, to myriad contests writers can enter to get their work off the ground. Here are a few of the ones I visit regularly:

Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com are a must. Of course, nothing beats having a real Webster’s, but for quick reference, it’s a lot better than the options in Microsoft Word. The thing I like most about these online resources is that entries are hyperlinked, so you can click your way from one definition to the next very quickly. It might seem like cheating, but it’s a quick way to double check the spelling of your word or find an alternative to fit the story. You can also check out popular quotes on a variety of subjects.

Wikipedia is another invaluable “quickie” resource. Now let’s get this out of the way first: it’s an open to all platform, where anyone who signs up can edit an entry. This means you’ll find a lot of obscure information that won’t be in Encyclopedia Britannica–but more importantly that you can’t rely on the truth of the information you find. I use Wikipedia as a starting point, looking up a topic I think is interesting and exploring it from there. Each entry should include source material, and that’s where you’ll find the proper books to do some real research. It’s a great place to get the tip of the iceberg–but for real research, you’ll have to dig deeper. As a side note, there are wikis made for pretty well any subject you can imagine, some of which will have much more specific information that Wikipedia, so do your Googling.

One of these separate wikis is TVTropes.com. It’s a compendium of various well used tropes and ideas from all media–the site is quick to point out the difference between a trope and a cliche. This is a place where you can look up, for example, character archetypes. Or your basic plots. Or one of my favourite Sci-Fi devices, The Watson. This is the kind of site that’s worth just wandering around in. You’ll get lost for hours, but there’s so much to learn about the nature of entertainment, and how and why we enjoy it. Getting to know some popular tropes–and how to use them properly–can definitely make you a better writer.

Speaking of becoming a better writer, you can’t go wrong with studying The Elements of Style. This is the seminal grammar text from Strunk and White, and is a must-read for any writer. That website (which includes the entire text), says it best on the front page: you have to know the rules before you can effectively break them. Grammar is important for a creative writer because you want to break it occasionally, whether it’s to fit the tone, alter a character’s dialogue, or create tension. But don’t do it blindly:here’s the road map.

Another way to improve your writing is to get in touch with your audience. That means building a fan base, but also paying attention to what others are writing in the same genres as you. Goodreads is a site where you can review books you’ve read, and see how others are reviewing the same books. By browning through the stacks, as it were, you can see which authors are acclaimed for what they do–and put them on your reading list. With some careful consideration about what types of books people seem to most enjoy, you can start thinking about elements you want to bring into your own work. Now, I’m not saying you need to write for the masses–that’s not what creative writing should be about–but it’s also not wise to write something nobody wants to read in the first place.

Almost any city, province, region or country is going to have a writer’s guild somewhere. Up here, we have the Writer’s Guild of Alberta. Any writer’s guild worth it’s salt is going to be a congregation of like minded–and geographically close to you–writers who can share their craft. You’ll find writing tips, editing services, constructive feedback, contest, and publishing information. If you haven’t already, find your nearest writer’s guild and sign up!

One of my favourite online resources is Sugarsync. Cloud based storage is the Next Big Thing, and Sugarsync got in early enough that’s they’ve got a really solid business model and great software. You can try Dropbox or iCloud or the new Google Drive; they’re all the same idea with different implementations. Now I admit that once I tried Sugarsync, I haven’t gone with anyone else–but that’s because I don’t need to. This program has everything I need–large storage space, easy access to the cloud, integration with Blackberry, and excellent customer service. There’s really no reason not to use them.

I find Sugarsync to be invaluable, not only because all my writing is safely secured in the cloud, but also because I can edit my work anywhere. I’m the kind of person who gets ideas out of the blue, normally when I’m not at my home computer. Sugarsync allows me to open up a document and edit it from wherever I am, even if the computer I’m using doesn’t have the software and isn’t hooked up to my own cloud. I can just go to their site and edit from there, and it’s the same on every other computer as soon as it’s synchronized.

And no, I’m not on their payroll. I just love this company.

So there’s a bunch of links for you to try out. It’s by no means an exhaustive list–there are dozens of great resources out there for writers. Share yours in the comments!

Bonus:

National Novel Writing Month is a website that encourages users to…well, write a novel in one month. Their term is from November 1 to 30, and they’ve got a strict set of rules to follow. The idea is to challenge yourself as a writer under these time constraints–and honestly, a month is a lot of time if you plan it well. Can you write a full novel in 30 days? I haven’t tried this out yet, but am considering signing up for this year’s trial. Hope to see all you other writers there!

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s Tools: Debrief Notes

Yesterday we focused on a way to get into the habit of writing every day–today we’ll look at another important aspect of creative writing: research.

Research is essential to creative writing. One of the first things you’re told as a writer is to “write what you know,” but even then, you should be doing research to back up your work. (And yes, this counts for fiction as well as non-fiction!)
The kind and extent of research you do will of course depend on your own style, and the content of your writing. Someone like George R. R. Martin has done an incredible amount of research to make the Song of Ice and Fire series so realistic; Shirley Jackson probably did less when writing The Lottery. But whatever your focus, it helps to be organized, and that’s where today’s tool comes in.

I came across Debrief Notes while looking for a tool to help with research, and it’s a powerful–yet simple–organizer program. It’s not necessarily meant for creative writers, but it serves that purpose well.
When you open the program, you see three panes with a couple toolbars. On the left there’s a folder tree where you can create

The basic editing panes.

new folders for each research item; directly below that is a list of which notes are in each folder; and to the right is an editing pane for the current note. It’s easy to see how well everything can be gathered in one place, and to get from one note to another quickly and easily–which is, in fact, the central philosophy behind the product.

You’re also able to create different “notebooks” for separate projects. In the upper right hand corner, you’ll see a drop down menu where you can choose your notebook. The one open in the screenshot is called Weird, and this is where I’ll keep notes for all my short stories in the weird fiction subgnere. This allows me to have notes from multiple different stories all in one place, which will help with creating a contiguous universe for my stories. I also have notebooks for various novel projects.

Another useful feature is the Daily Notepad, which opens by default when you open the program. This is a sort of general notepad where you can take notes you’ll organize later–for example, when you’re actively researching something and don’t want to move back and forth between folders in the program, you can take all your notes in this pane sort them when you’re done. The Standard and Professional versions of the program have a useful tool called Debrief, with which you can drag and drop text from the Daily Notepad into various notes for easy compilation.

The daily notepad

The program is available in three versions: Basic (which is available for free), Standard ($29.95) and Professional ($39.95). When you first download the program, you’re given a free 30 day trial, at the end of which you’ll be prompted to either stick with the Basic version or purchase a license key for another version. The difference between versions is in the features; Basic just allows you to make notes, Standard adds features like the aforementioned Debrief and Reference windows (basically allowing you to view multiple notes at once); and Professional includes password protection, reminders and to-dos, and tracking of a Reading List and Library.
The Standard version does add some good value, and I’d say it’s worth the price. The main attraction for the Professional version is the ability to keep track of the various books and periodicals you use for research–which can make it easy to go back and check on a source or quotation. So if you’re doing heavy research–say a historical novel–that would be the way to go. For most projects, though, the Basic version should do fine.

Another plus for this program is that you can get a Portable version, which can be run off a USB key. I can see this as being incredibly helpful, allowing you to take your research with you wherever you go, and to continue your research on any computer. I’ve been able to install the portable version to my Blackberry and run it from there once it’s hooked up to my computer. Because it needs a Windows environment to run, I doubt you could run the program in the native Blackberry OS, butWindows based tables and phones might be able to pull it off.

The one big drawback I see for this software is that it doesn’t appear to be supported any longer. Each time I start it up, I get a pop-up window that warns me that I’m using an older version, and that I should update it. Sadly, I have the most recent version of the program, and it’s from 2009. I don’t see any updates forthcoming, and this could also mean no support.
Fortunately, the program is simple and elegant–if you don’t mind an older looking UI–so it doesn’t really need to be updated. I could foresee an issue if the program crashes and you need tech support, but it’s a light program and I haven’t had any issues with it so far.

Keeping all your notes in one place is imperative for a writer who wants to do any amount of research. Scrivener, which we’ll get to later this week, has similar features, but I believe that Debreif does it better. Even if you’re just going with the basic package and $0 price tag, you’ll get a lot of use out of this program. Try it here, and let me know what you think!

eBooks and You, Part 2.

One of the things I’d like to do with this blog is offer book reviews. I read a lot, and I love sharing books–and I hope this will be a way to show off some lesser known titles, as well as books by some indie authors who are several steps of where I am now. To get started, I’ll focus on some quick notes on some books I’ve recently read.

All of these are available through the Kobo store (which I’ve linked to), and other eBook retailers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble.

Ice Cracker 2 (And Other Stories) by Lindsay Buroker is an excellent introduction to her Emperor’s Edge series (the first book of which is offered for free at her website). Amaranthe is a cunning heroine on the run from the Empire, having been wrongly accused of crimes against the throne. With the help of master assassin Sicarius, she wants to clear their names.

To be honest, I’ve only read the title story of this collection so far, but am instantly invested in these characters. I especially like Amaranthe, a great leader who doesn’t yet realize the impact she has on people, or realize that she has the potential to change the world. I’m looking forward to diving into the entire series.

Countdown: A Newsflesh Novella  by Mira Grant. If you haven’t read the Newsflesh books–about zombies unleashed in a world where bloggers are the news, the entertainment, and the heroes–do yourself a favour and go get them now. Zombie stories are a dime a dozen, but Grant has managed to make them fresh and exciting–not to mention based in some brilliant and accurate science. This novella was released in 2011, but reading it before the trilogy will put everything into perspective–though there are also lots of throwbacks to the books one wouldn’t understand until having read the trilogy.

It’s a short but very finely woven story that focuses much less on the horror of a zombie apocalypse, and more on the almost casual coincidence that makes t come to bear. It’s also very heartfelt and moving–especially the scenes with the dog. Definately a must–and keep an eye out for Grant, she’s a definite up and comer.

The Science Fiction Megapack by various authors. There are actually a lot of “megapacks” out there–just go to your favourite eBook store and search for them. There’s one for vampires, horror stories, the Cthulhu Mythos (a personal favourite), westerns, detective stories…and more. Best of all, they’re all only $0.95!

I picked the Sci-Fi one here because I’m partial to classic science fiction stories. Across the four megapacks they offer, you’ll find stories by Issac Asimov, Ben Bova, Phillip K Dick, Murray Leinster, and dozens more. How can you pass that up for a buck?

Siddhartha: The Prince who Became Buddha by Hermann Hesse. This has been one of my favourite books for years. It’s not as short as the others in this list, but I wanted to include it because it’s just such a great book–and the Kobo store offers an epub for free!

This is the story, obviously, of the man who would become The Buddha. For those who don’t know about Buddhism, the Buddha wasn’t, and never has been, considered a deity. He was just a man who came to some startling revelations about the disparities in his life, and strove to become a better person. Struggling between hedonism and strict asceticism, he finds enlightenment in neither, but keeps pursuing it. It’s a breathtaking book.

Don’t Eat Cat: by Jess Walter. This short story is ostensibly about zombies (see a theme?) But really, like any good speculative fiction, the horror is only a convenient frame to hold a great human story. Owen has just received some bad news, and it’s gotten to him harder than he’d want to admit. Trying to come to terms with it, he seeks out his girlfriend–who left him years before after becoming addicted to a party drug that literally turned her into a zombie.

The first few pages read like a tongue-in-cheek parody of the very concept of a zombie thriller, but it quickly turns into one of the most touching short stories I’ve read in recent years (and like I said, I read a lot). Again, for only a dollar, you really can’t go wrong with this one.

And there you have it. Not the most in depth (or, admittedly, objective) reviews, but there you go. If you’ve been reading eBooks for years, you may have already seen some of these. If you’re new to this whole thing, these are great introductions…and cheap, too.

But, as LeVar himself would say…you don’t have to take my word for it!

And once again, stay tuned next week for five days of Writer’s Tools!