Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Reflecting back from halfway done

So last month, just before my son was born, I put the last round of edits down on the first draft of World of Myth #9, The Fortress of Ruin. I've received it back from my alpha readers, and the only complaint they have, really, is that that they now have to wait for the next one. Although my editor has yet to touch it, I still feel happy that the hardest part is done.

I'm officially halfway.

When I first started this series, I didn't have any idea how many books I'd write, Perhaps it was two, maybe seven, but once I got to book #3, I realized quite suddenly that eighteen was the magic number. I can't tell you why, of course, because that would ruin the story, but it all made sense at that time. What this means is that at the conclusion of Book #9, I've now reached the halfway point, and in my line of thinking, that calls for a reflection. More specifically, I need a place to write down just why in the freaking hell it took me nine damned books to finally get it right.

It's no secret. Anyone who has read more than one of my books soon realizes that, contrary to most stories out there, my books improve as the story goes on. Without a doubt, the first book is the worst (which is the most devastating thing a writer can do, but what's done is done), but there is a wild ride ahead of anyone who pushes on from there. This is not by design, necessarily, but the reason is obvious. The story improves because I improved, and I'm going to use this post to explain just how, why, and where because I really want to and this my blog and you can't stop me!

If you haven't figured it out yet, this is going to be a long post.

When I started Book #1, Beyond the Plains, it was 2010 and I was a broke recent college graduate who worked two part-time jobs just to pay for my student loans. With no money and too much time, I went to the bookstore looking for a particular fantasy book, couldn't find it, and so decided to write that book myself.

I really only had one goal in mind when I set out to write what was then my 2nd book written ever. I wanted to paint the world in as much detail as I could. I'd spent weeks (years in a sense) researching all these myths and legends, and I wanted to put them all down with the same sense of wonder and astonishment I felt about them. With no plan or outline, I put my fingers to the keyboard and bled out onto the screen. I didn't invent the entire overarching plot until a third of the way through the book, and the characters I chose to lead the story were naive from the start, and thus lacking in today's world of hyper conflicted personalities. However, I got what I aimed for: a beautifully described and detailed world, vivid and alive to any imagination. Unfortunately, my story lacked in all the things I chose to neglect: Weak plot with a predictable story and some prose that leaned on the purple side. I would eventually return to re-write this story because, honestly, the first draft released could be painfully predictable.

But I forged on, determined to do better. Blind to my real problems, I selected a new aspect of my writing to improve upon: action. Taking all the world-building I'd used from Book #1, I set out to repeat the same wonder in Book #2, but add in a fast and action-packed story that never tired or dulled. True to form, I got what I aimed for. The Forest of Angor has some wickedly long combat scenes, sometimes chapters long, which are usually the first things to be complimented on. However, also true to form, the things I chose to neglect once again dulled the story. The plot was simply just too predictable for any mainstream audience. By this time, my books were hitting enough of an audience that I was finally aware of this problem, but I just wasn't sure how to fix it quite yet.

And then it was on to Book #3. I felt confident in my world-building and action themes, but now realized my . . . how do I say this . . . "political intrigue" needed some polishing. If there's anything I've come to realize, it's that just about any action and combat is exciting, but true authors can make even the most mundane of conversations interesting. So once again, I set to task, bringing my previously well-done things whilst working on something new. Book #3 was deliberately slower, with more talking and quiet moving, and more focused on character morality than the previous two. I believe I did well, because when presented to my readers, no one commented on the book's slower pace in comparison to #2. Basically, no news was good news, as what I set out to do, no one should have noticed unless I did it wrong. I also did a halfway decent job of not making the story so predictable, though I used a stop-gap sort of solution. I simply just removed nearly all foreshadowing, and therefor neglected the possibility of any kind of twist. It was a band aid solution, but it worked for now.

By the time I moved onto writing Book #4, I'd received only about 10 online reviews on Goodreads, and I did my first AMA on Reddit, which turned into a massive success. I had some 10k free downloads in a single day, which blew my F'in mind at the time. From this, I received LOADS of much-needed criticism, many of which pointed out in resounding detail the issues I was aware of in my own writing. Book's 1 & 2 were simply too predictable to be enjoyed by many, though nearly all loved the other aspects of my writing, such as the attention to detail, my voice, and the action. I knew I'd have to go back and re-write the first two books, because it was just embarrassingly bad at this point, and I was getting tired of hearing the same thing over and over.

But first, I wanted to take a stab at Book #4, and use that book as my training ground for yet another aspect of my writing I felt needed improvement: my tendency to think for the reader. You may notice in the first 3 books, I have a tendency to point things out, as if the reader can't be trusted to notice deeper aspects on their own. I had far too much "telling" basically, and I needed more "showing." I went for this in Book #4, intentionally avoiding saying things to the reader that screamed 'this is the bad guy, and you should think this about him.' I introduced more shades of grey morality, whilst still focusing on world-building, action, and political intrigue. I also got more involved in Emily as a character, putting her on her own and letting her shine as the true star she should have been from the start. Judging from my readers, I freaking did it, too. The response I got back from my (now) much broader audience was overwhelmingly positive. People loved the story, the characters, the writing, the setting, and I felt confident enough to go back and re-write book's 1 & 2.

About this time, it was 2013, and I also realized I needed an editor. Actually, more specifically, it was about this time I realized I could actually afford an editor. I had a good job with a steady income, and among all the criticism I received from my AMA, this one was most apparent, that there were just too many little errors to be ignored. I found an editor I enjoyed working with, and whilst she went to work editing book #4, I went to work polishing books 1 & 2, removing the ridiculously heavy foreshadowing I'd done that ruined any opportunity for a surprise. Although those books are still predictable to this day, at least they aren't annoyingly so, and people can enjoy them without heavy foreshadowing beating them in the face. I then moved onto Book #5.

At this point, I realized there was one seriously big problem with my writing. I had roughly zero twists. I decided it was about time I wrote a damned good book, and so poured everything I'd learned into Book #5 whilst also adding in new concepts. I brought my world-building, action, political intrigue, and lack-of-purple-prose, then added in one or two twists and also a small love-story for good measure. I got it edited before I released it this time, and then sent it out to the world.

The response was awesome.

People loved it! And they let me know, too! I was told over and over how they just couldn't put it down, how they didn't see that coming, and how everything they loved before continued to come out in my stories. I felt like I finally did it! I felt like I'd finally wrote a book worthy of a wide audience.

Too bad it was 5 books into a series, though.

However, I wasn't put down much. I loved what fans I had, and I felt good enough about my work (and had enough money) to finally get a cover artist. I paired with a gentlemanly fellow who had the style I was looking for and made great covers for each my books. Up until this point, I'd just had my wife drawing some images by hand, which just weren't cutting it for the audience I wanted to grow.

And then I moved onto Book #6 and took on a new challenge once again: a good ending. Up until this point, I'd never had to worry about that. I always knew the story was moving on, so there was no need to wrap up loose ends. However, for Book #6, I wanted to do something kind of tricky. I wanted to write a story that could both end and leave open the possibilities for others. Although I wanted to write 18 books, I wasn't sure if I was ever going to, because I didn't know if my books would get popular enough for it. Perhaps my talents were better suited to starting a new series rather than continue this old one?

I finished Book #6 and accomplished my task. I brought all my learned skills from before and added another, working on my ending so that it was both open-ended and conclusive in its own way. I received feedback that was equal parts "Ended well, but there has to be more right?" which is what I wanted. I then threw my possibly-last cast of the die. I was strongly considering ending my journey with The World of Myth at Book #6, but wanted to give it one more go to see if people wanted to see more. In 2016, I did another giveaway on Reddit, this time with the complete Emily's Saga, and the response was awesome.

Thousands of downloads, many private messages asking for more, requests to be put on a mailing list, and over 200 ratings on Goodreads plus a good chunk of editing-reimbursement from so many generous people. I felt relieved.

I took a step back and realized I just couldn't stop here. I loved writing this story too much. It was fun, I loved doing it, and this was enough of a response to push on. Although I didn't receive the funds I needed to edit the next books, I decided it was worth it to me.

I pushed onto book #7, and true to form, decided to work on yet another aspect of my writing. I wanted to brush up on my political intrigue, so to speak. I realized that books 1 through 6 heavily relied on lots of action to push the story along and be interesting, and I needed to be able to write non-combat books if I wanted to be a better writer. So I wrote a story with very little action, determined to make it interesting none-the-less. According to my alpha readers, I did okay in this regard, but my action scenes were sorely missed. I took the tip and went back to doing what I did best.

On Book #8, I decided to do something different. I realized that I'd been writing at too slow a pace (roughly 1 book a year), and I really needed to ramp up my speed. I set out to write 2k words per day no matter what. I got about 1/3 of the way through book #8, looked it over and realized I'd done the impossible: I missed my mark.

That first draft of book #8 was terrible. It was boring, unimaginative, no voice, little world-building, lack of character, just bad. At my breakneck pace, I'd lost so much of what made my stories unique, that it was a pain to read. I spent months trying to fix my mistake, but in the end, just deleted the entire thing and started from scratch. So much time wasted, and it took me a whole year to finish the story. But I did, and lesson learned.

So then I went to write book #9, and I still had the same goal. How in the world was I going to write this story fast and yet keep it good? I decided that, for the first time in my career, I needed an outline.

You see, up until this point, I operated with no written outline. Everything that ever was or would be was just in my head, floating around, connected in the web-like confines of my never-idle brain. I simply wrote as the characters would act, and it had worked thus far, but I realized this style had inherent flaws. For one, twists were harder to pull off. For two, I was limited by 'inspiration.' I needed time in between writing sessions to continue producing quality stuff, and that just wasn't going to work at any speed beyond 3k words per week (a terribly slow speed).

So I spent 1 month writing an outline, and then stuck to it. I wrote and edited Book #9 in five months, halving my previous times, and released it to my readers.

According to them, I've finally done it. I kept my previous quality earned from Book #5, and now brought it up to speed to compete on a grander schedule. I feel accomplished as a writer in this moment. I feel glad that I continued this story. I feel like I've finally developed a winning strategy for writing quality stuff at a professional speed.

So here I am, halfway in, 9 books written, and it's about damn time.

Just 9 more to go, and I'm ready to use everything I've learned. Wish me luck.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Book Review: The Millionaire Next Door

In a word, this book was fascinating. 5 out of 5.

In summary, this book was essentially a long stream of curated data distilled into a finely tuned narrative that I just couldn't put down.

At first glance, the title "The Millionaire Next Door" might sound like some trashy novel just begging for glamour and it's 15 minutes in the spotlight, but this couldn't be further from the truth. I assume most people, when they think of the world 'millionaire,' they think of a high class, high consumption lifestyle full of limitless indulgence. However, Thomas Stanley goes through great length in this book to show precisely why this isn't so. Through countless interviews and a vast list of data, Stanley pulls together that the average millionaire is anything but the cocaine-induced celebrity so often featured in mainstream media.

Quite the opposite, being an average millionaire is within reach of just about everyone. The American Dream is alive and well, but only for those who are willing to sacrifice.

It's kinda funny in a sense. This book put into words and data a lot of things I noticed growing up. I've always said that there are two ways to have more money: make more or spend less, and I prefer to do both. As it turns out, most millionaires feel the same way, and they invest their savings into appreciating assets rather than depreciating assets, like real estate and stocks/bonds as opposed to clothing and cars. The average millionaire doesn't reach such a status until late in life, and inheriting large sums of money more often than not dooms any developing child to a life of high-spending with few fulling achievements.

I could go on, but it's really pointless. In a way, Thomas is simply a messenger, presenting the data he found in an easy to follow format that drives home a list of bullet of points. However, despite this, I still found this book amazing and uplifting, because the message it presents is exceptionally hopeful and inspiring. Everyone should read this book, to help themselves and their finances, because there are no second chances when it comes to time and money.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice

I think this book was worth rating 5 stars.

Although I wasn't exactly enamored during my reads, I feel that was due to my lukewarm interest in the romance genre in general. Honestly, I can see why this novel's status as a timeless classic is well deserved.

Pride and Prejudice has a lot going for it. Lively and witty language; a diverse cast of characters that range from sassy and smart to lovable but dimwitted to annoying yet crafty with plenty in between; a fiery romance rife with tension and constant ups and downs; not to mention a few twists and turns on occasion, though I saw all the "big ones" coming a mile away; and to top it all off, countless side-stories that were interesting enough all on their own yet complemented the main story at the same time. One thing is for sure, I'm impressed by Austen's plot weaving skills and will never doubt the legitimacy of her legacy. She's an amazing writer.

So, in short, I'm happy to report I've finally found a romance book I actually liked. Hell, I might even be tempted to try another.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Book Review: Horus Rising

The TLDR of this book review is that I went in hoping for one thing, got it in spades, and also got huge helpings of plenty more, and I enjoyed this book immensely.

So after eating the massive whale-of-a-book that was Moby Dick, I decided I needed to digest something light and fun to counter-balance such a heavy meal. I went looking for blood, guts, and glory, and I knew one could hardly go wrong with a Warhammer 40k book. For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40k is a universe in the far flung future where humanity knows only war. It's a soft, military scifi setting and death, destruction, and terror. Grimdark at it's best. The Horus Heresy series, which follows the story of where everything in the universe really went to hell, came highly recommended, so I sat down expecting a superficial read of a book-version of a shallow Hollywood summer action movie, only an R-rated one.

I was not prepared.

There was war, just so that's clear. Plenty of hacking, slashing, shooting, but in additional to all that, there was political intrigue, deep world-building, a huge cast of dynamic characters, and a subtle level of mystery and foreboding. The prose, too, matched my needs to a tee, with colorful and vibrant sentences that painted a picture, as harrowing as that picture might be. I could hardly believe my luck as I willingly dove into this story day after day, even cutting into my TV and video game time as I found myself more interested in following this story than doing anything else. It was a pleasant surprise, and I'm so glad to find all the high recommendations were not just correct, but perhaps even an understatement because this was honestly a fantastic book.

I'm already jumping into #2, and though it's written by a different author, I'm very hopeful.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Expand Your Horizons Reading Challenge

As 2016 draws to a close, and 2017 looms ahead, it's time everyone to start contemplating new goals to set for themselves. For me, I tend to think about Reading Challenges.

I've always been a spectator of Reading Challenges, but never a participant. The fact is, most Reading Challenges are simple "Read X number of books this year!", and I read far too slowly for any of that nonsense. However, that doesn't mean I don't challenge myself. Most of my goals, however, are personal. I like to expand my horizons and read new books in different genres and categories, attempting to push my expectation and knowledge of the world. Also, hopefully, such endeavors will make me a better person. (one can only hope)

So, with that in mind, I decided to create my own Reading Challenge. One tailored to suit me, but could also be adapted to suit anyone who wanted to expand their horizons and reach out of their comfort zone.

The way I see it, there are two ways to do this challenge:

1) Easy Mode: For every book you read, check off each item that applies. If you find a paperback Science Fiction Dystopia written by a woman pre-1950 featuring an LGBT character originally published in a foreign language, go ahead and mark all those off. This a great mode for slow readers, ensuring you'll still be well rounded in the end. This is the mode I will be doing, for sure.

2) Hard Mode: One book, one check. The only exception is #52, which you'll see why when you read it. That gives you 52 weeks to read 51 books, because life is hectic and we all need an extra week sometime. I think this is more than aggressive enough, though maybe some avid readers don't agree, but they can find their own damned challenges! 51 books a year is crazy to me, and I'll never be able to do that unless I read every day like a job.

Anyway, here's the list. The "Expand Your Horizons Reading Challenge" that can be applied to any year:

1. Read a book originally published in a language you do not know
2. Read a book by an author born in the same country as you
3. Read a book from the Horror genre
4. Read a Romance and/or Erotica book
5. Read a book written before 1950
6. Read a book written by a man
7. Read a book written by a woman
8. Read a book in the Science Fiction genre
9. Read a book in the Fantasy genre
10. Read a book labelled as Young Adult
11. Read a nonfiction book
12. Read a book with a contemporary setting
13. Read a book written after 1949
14. Read a book published this year
15. Read a popular book, with at least 1 million ratings on any one website
16. Read an unknown book, with no more than 100 ratings on any one website
17. Read a book that was turned into a movie
18. Finish a series
19. Read a History book, fiction or nonfiction
20. Read a short story, one with less than 5,000 words
21. Read a short book, one between 5,000 and 100,000 words
22. Read a long book, one between 100,000 and 250,000 words
23. Read an epic book, one with over 250,000 words
24. Read a self-published book
25. Read an indie book, where the publisher is a small or niche house and not one of the top 6 publishers
26. Read a book published under one of the Big 6 publishing houses
27. Read a Biography, whether normal, Auto, or Memoir.
28. Read a book labelled as a Best-Seller from this year
29. Read a book about Politics and/or Religion
30. Listen to an Audiobook
31. Read a book on paper
32. Read a book that was, or currently is, banned by a government
33. Read a book in the Thriller or Suspense genre
34. Read a Mystery book
35. Read a book labelled as Dystopian
36. Read a debut book from this year
37. Read a book by or featuring a character that is LGBT
38. Read a book in the Paranormal genre
39. Read a book with pictures in it
40. Read a book for the second time
41. Read a book that’s been on your to read-list for more than a year
42. Read a book that features animals
43. Read a book where the main character goes on a journey
44. Read a book where a stranger comes to town.
45. Read a book labelled as a Satire or Allegory
46. Read a book from the Self-Help, Health, Travel, or Guide category
47. Read a collection of poetry
48. Read the first book in a series
49. Read a book that won a literary award
50. Read a book set in your country
51. Read a book not set in your country, but exists today
52. Combining all the letters of all the titles of all the books you’ve read this year, complete the Alphabet

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

Finally finished this one. It took me until November 7th to reach 50% and then I killed the last 50% over the next 2 weeks. Once again, I blame the election cycle. I have troubles unplugging, which is something I intend to correct in the future.

But anyways, on to the book! 4 out of 5 stars for this one. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt tracks the first 3000 years of ancient Egypt's existence, basically from their conception to their time of being acquired by the Roman Empire. The author, Toby Wilkinson, makes clear that he knows this subject well, and he does a remarkable job of covering such a huge swath of time, switching up the pace to keep things moving forward. As a history book, it followed the normal timeline of the rise and fall of royalty, jumping from war to peace and back again. On the whole, I realized Egypt could actually be quite boring if not for Wilkinson's deft hand at explaining what makes this ancient world so unique.

As Wilkinson explains, Ancient Egypt essentially founded the concept of royalty as we know it today. They were the first "bully on the playground," rising to power while most of humanity was still trying to figure out how to survive the winter. The first royalty were in uncharted waters, and as such, they experimented and laid the groundwork for other empires to follow. They were the first demonstrate the need for evil to create an empire (subjecting the people with religion, placating the bureaucrats, dominating and exploiting foreign land), and then also demonstrating the great wonders the could be done with it (pyramids at Giza, Suez Canal), and yet also the great tragedies that could be done as well. Wilkinson shies from none of it.

It also showed me something about our world today. More than once, as Egypt rose and fell in power, Wilkinson would track and show the difference in mentality between those working the fields and never left their home town versus those who lived in the multi-cultural city centers. The difference between those with a local view of the world, and those with a global view. It showed me, quite starkly, that not much has changed from humanity in 5,000 years. Actually, this has been nothing more than a blink of eye, and we're every bit as noble or barbaric, knowledgeable or ignorant and those people were back then.

It would seem history truly does repeat itself, and knowing this, I've come to realize that America as I know it will perish, possibly in my own lifetime. There is no saving it, none, and any attempts to do so will only bring this country's doom closer at hand. Also, I've come to realize that we as a species are not yet beyond are archaic roots. 5,000 years ago, Ancient Egypt made light of slaying thousands just because they could. 70 years ago, Nazi Germany made light of slaying 6 million people who worshiped a different god. Mark my words, we are still capable of such atrocities, and somewhere, sometime, they will be done again.

But beyond that note, about the book. Let it be known that the middle of this book ran a tad dry, hence only 4 stars. However, it was still a great read and I'd recommend it to any fellow history buff looking for an introduction into Ancient Egypt.