Review: Death Masks

So here’s the thing about Jim Butcher. He’s not a great writer. Jim uses phrases and vocabulary choices out of workshops for how not to imitate pulp writers. He’s straight-up B to B+ on a good day. Uses adverbs when simple description would be better. Chooses overly dramatic words like “gaze” and “horrific.” Tags his dialog with Tom Swifties, even when he’s not making a joke.

But.

His pacing keeps me reading, piling on the tension and the fun. His characters are deep and interesting, even though sometimes archetypical. He uses legend — ancient and urban — in a way that adds texture and meaning to his books. I like Harry Dresden. A lot.

In this particular episode, he’s up against the Forces of Evil in the form of fallen angels. Fights along side some bad-ass knights and ends up shutting down O’Hare Airport for a few hours. A romp through mythology and mayhem you just don’t see so much anymore. Jim’s having fun. I’m having fun. So what it it isn’t Shakespeare?

Death Masks ranks between Bite Me and Ned the Seal  on this year’s fiction reading list, coming it at #4 for the year. It’s likely I’ll binge read the next few Harrys, so in fairness I’ll probably treat the series as one entry going forward.

If you’re new to Harry Dresden, start with Fool Moon. The basic premise is as follows. Imagine the world posited in Harry Potter, with all its magic and supernatural skulduggery. Imagine an adult wizard living in that world. Imagine he’s a pulp noir P.I. in Chicago.

That’s all you need to know.

Fiction Reviews

Schlock Mercenary author Howard Tayler posts short reviews of the movies he watches, in the context of a totally subjective “Top Ten Movies I’ve Watched This Year” list. He updates it in real time, so you can see the changes as movies break current records, or slide off the bottom of the list.

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how writers must read incessantly. If you don’t read, you won’t see what others are doing. You won’t stay current. You won’t succeed — and you won’t deserve to. So, for no reason other than I think it will be fun, I’ll be taking a page from Mr. Tayler and do a Top Ten Fiction Novels I’ve Read This Year list. I read about one a month, along with my podcasts, nonfiction, blogs, reports and ebooks.

For now, I’ll post the books I’ve read so far, in subjective order based on how much I enjoyed them. If I enjoyed books equally, I’ll fall back on craftsmanship as a tie breaker. Going forward, I’ll be doing reviews — and will soon post detailed reviews of the ones that have already made the list. As of today, I’ve read 9 fiction books since the new year.

#1: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I touched on this earlier. Best fantasy I’ve read in a decade, and I re-read Lord of the Rings in 2002.

#2: The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Young adult fiction. A hilarious romp through an apocalyptic earth during the weeks between two alien invasions. Twisted humor, and an interesting weave between narrative prose and graphic novel. Had me laughing out loud.

#3: Bite Me. Christopher Moore’s newest in his San Francisco Vampire series. Competent, funny and sometimes poignant. It would have ranked higher if Wind and Smekday weren’t so damn good — and if Moore hadn’t written this book twice before.

#4: The Adventures of Ned the Seal, an early effort of Joe R. Lansdale, is a weird masterpiece of steampunk alternative history starring Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, Dr. Moreau, Frankenstein, Mark Twain, Jules Verne and martians.

#5: Sixkill. The late Robert B. Parker can be fairly accused of phoning in some of the later titles from his acclaimed Spenser series…but this isn’t one of them. It’s good for all the same reasons as the best Spenser, and puts Our Favorite Guy in a mentorship role again — one of the places I like him most. A fine finish to Parker’s career — though I would have liked to have seen Hawk and Paul one last time.

#6: Bad Blood, by John Sandford. I like Virgil Flowers, the protagonist in this book and several others in Sandford’s newest series. Good, tangled mystery with stellar dialog and plenty of violence. Like Bite Me, it would have scored higher if Sandford hadn’t written this story so many times.

#7: Devil Red. Ye mead-swilling gods, but I love me a Hap and Leonard novel. This is a recent addition to the Joe R. Lansdale series, complete with humor, introspection and copious kicking of ass. A weaker effort than Mucho Mojo, but still readable start to finish.

#8: Dexter Series, by Jeff Lindsay. I spent most of March working on home projects listening to the first four as audiobooks. I like the protagonist, and loved the series. Quirky and creepy, but weak on tension for a thriller…and I’ve kind of been over the serial killer thing since Thomas Harris ruined it for me with Hannibal.

#9: Rebel Island by Rick Riordan. I read this adult detective novel because of how much I loved Riordan’s Olympians series, and was disappointed. It’s on the top ten only because I haven’t read 11 novels yet this year.

Product Review: Author 2.0

I wrote once before about the New Pulp Era , about how the ease of access to publishing means we can all publish our work for an audience of billions. Writer Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn is not only using an intriguing model for making her living in this era, but offers a free eBook on exactly how you can do it, too.

You can sign up for a free subscription and receive her book Author 2.0 at this website. The book describes in broad strokes how her model works, how it contrasts to traditional routes of publishing, and what 21st century authors must do to build an internet platform.

Author 2.0 describes a line of demarcation between free content you use to build readership — such as blogging, newsletters and expert interviews — and the content you charge for, like speaking engagements and full-length books.  It’s a simple structure, and one you can make work for you if you have the hours available in your week.

Pros of Author 2.0 are its simplicity and the truth of what Joanna is saying. This is the model she’s using, and that others have used, to make a full-time living as a professional writer. It’s a strong primer to introduce you to what may be the best opportunity for lifestyle design as a writer.

The biggest con of Author 2.0 is that it’s a fairly typical eBook. It’s long on rah-rah, and short on details. Like other promotional free eBooks, its purpose is to give you just enough information to want to hear more from its creator. Folks who have been paying attention won’t learn anything new from it, but they might still benefit from the clarity of its organization.

Bottom line Author 2.0 is worth every penny Joanna charges for it. I’d probably even pay a few bucks. New and aspiring writers will definitely benefit from giving it a look. Folks with more experience can still get some value — though much of it will be from inspiration and organization, rather than information.

Joanna’s website and content are full of deeper insights and more actionably advice. Whether or not you sign up for the subscription and book, I recommend taking a look and listen.

Thanks for listening.

Customer Service: Doing it Wrong

I have recently changed one of my utilities from one option to another, meaning that I signed up with company A, and cancelled service with company B. Company A has been great. Personable, professional, punctual. The guy who came in to install my new equipment even took time to start interesting conversation as he worked.

Company B has left something to be desired. A quick timeline.

D (Decision) Day: I call company B and tell them to shut of my service in two days. They describe the process, which includes shutoff on D+2, and them shipping me a box to send them back their modem.

D+1: Company A’s chatty representative comes to my house and sets up my new service.

D+9: A sales rep from company B calls and asks if I really intend to shut down service with them (note that this is a week after the day they were instructed to). I say no thank you.

D+13: I get a call from the collections department of company A, asking — I’ll admit politely — why I haven’t turned in the modem. I tell them I was waiting for the box, which the rep says they never said they’d send. They arrange to send a courier out to pick it up in two days.

D+14: Courier shows up in the middle of my day, a day early. I give him the modem and collect my receipt.

D+16 (yesterday): I get another collections call asking where their modem is. I read them the receipt number from the courier.

I’m not just writing this to vent. Learning from other peoples’ mistakes is one of the best things we can do as professionals in any field. I’m not worried that these guys are going to torch my credit, or that I won’t get a full refund for the extra week they kept me on.  Big companies usually make these things right. That’s not the problem here.

The problem here is that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and neither of them are in touch with the foot they’re subcontracting part of the job to. It’s a problem of organization and communication.

As freelance writers, it’s easy to fall into the habit of “remembering” all of our deadlines and urgent communications. Heck, my rule for years was “if I’m tempted to buy a calendar, it’s time to simplify my life.” But if you want to make a full-time living, you need to keep your tasks and contacts organized.

There’s all manner of ways to make and keep that organization. I’d love to hear some of your ideas and methods. Doesn’t really matter how you meet your deadlines and keep your promises…

…but it matters a lot that you do so.

Thanks for listening.

Friday Fun: Beat the Reaper

Published in 2009, Josh Bazell’s first novel is some of the most fun I’ve had with fiction this decade. It’s popcorn fiction — nothing deep or philosophically challenging, just a good adventure yarn.

It has a few things to teach budding writers. The structure builds and maintains suspense. The prose is engaging and distinctive. Better still from a professional standpoint, the website for the book is very, very clever.

Click here for the website, and click “Excerpt” for print and audio samples from the book.  Be sure to check out the games and video trailer. These are great ideas for promoting our own work in a memorable way.

Warning. Beat the Reaper is not for children, not work safe and not for the easily offended. By the end of the excerpt, you will have been exposed to grossly vulgar language, casual sex, explicit violence, drug use and “fact” about the medical profession that will make you cringe every time you see a hospital for the rest of your life.

Not for the faint of heart, but wow is it fun.

Thanks for listening

Friday Fun: Folsom’s 93

Alert readers might recognize April Moore’s name from the comments on this very blog. She’s another writer — and illustrator — and occasionally stops in to drop her two cents into our wishing well.

April has finished a novel, and you can find her short fiction and art here and there. One of her darker — and more fascinating — projects is her blog. Folsom’s 93 is an episodic history of the men executed at Folsom prison. Some of the stories are gratifying accounts of society doing what it must to punish unthinkable crimes. Others are sadder, tales of undereducated men caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of them are interesting, and told with a professional’s turn of phrase. Moore takes time along the way to tell us about other facets of life in Folsom, ranging from details of daily prison life to a discussion of a newly introduced parole system.

This is a well-done blog on a fascinating topic, and deserves a look. Find the front page here, then browse around. You’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for listening.

On Work Habits

Howard Tayler is the author of the Schlock Mercenary webcomic and co-host of the Writing Excuses podcast. In his blog, he talks about everything from his family to the business or writing to movie reviews to his con schedule. He’s also got a good handle on using Twitter to stay in touch with fans.

A recent post on his blog celebrates a milestone in his life as an author, and also serves as a great example of how professional work habits and a disciplined approach are ingredients in success as a professional writer. Check it out, then stick around for more than 10 years worth of his body of work.

Thanks for listening.

Review: “The Name of the Wind”

A couple of weeks ago, two people whose opinions I trust recommended Patrick Rothfus’ The Name of the Wind to me, independently of each other in separate conversations.

I don’t love fantasy, especially 800-page fantasy tomes that would make Larry McMurty weep. But I tried it….and it’s the best fantasy novel I’ve read in the last ten years. I could go on about details of character, voice, style, tone, the world, the magic system, but for today I want to focus on his action.

When we think of action in a work of fiction, we think of violence: epic battles, wrestling on rooftops, chase scenes. The Name of the Wind has all of these, but Rothfus brings the tension and conflict of a good battle to surprising venues.

  • He makes a musical performance a nail-biting chapter by giving it important stakes.
  • He captures the narrow margin of living above your means, turning a simple shopping trips into perilous excursions.
  • He adds time pressure to journeys so as to make each step feel like winning a fight against time.
I’m not a very successful fiction writer, but for aspiring writers of fiction — myself included — this book is one to learn from. He manages to pace a 750+ page book so tightly that I would have read it in one sitting, were I still capable of staying awake for 48 straight hours.
Actually, I probably would have done it anyway if it weren’t for my meddling kids. Seriously, borrow this book and read it. If you love it, buy a copy to support Rothfus’ efforts. He’s a genuine talent, and we should encourage him.
Thanks for listening.

Friday Fun: She Don’t Like Firefly

I’ve mentioned Firefly in the past. With just 16 episodes and a movie, it deserved to live far longer than it did. Geek comic Mikey Mason has this to say about it:

The story of Firefly is a cautionary tale for writers. Despite its cult popularity, extreme quality and potential for crossover sales, it ended up cancelled in the middle of its first season. A lot of factors went into this, but a lot of it has to do with moving time slots, poor promotion and minimal support from its network.

If you have a brilliant project, it will not succeed without promotional support from the distributor. More than one author has been disappointed after signing a deal with starts in his eyes, only to watch the project “wither on the vine.”

It’s hard, but you can leave an offer on the table if a publisher isn’t willing to work to sell your book. You’ll have to do a lot of promotion on your own, but they must meet you halfway. This may mean waiting a year or more for another offer — but your writing deserves the best offer, not the first.

Thanks for listening.

Getting Paid

Captain Mal of the oft-lamented, early-cancelled, just about perfect Firefly said “I do the job, and then I get paid.”

Freelancers need to take this attitude, although we should think a little longer than the Captain when it comes to the subject of shooting people who are slow to make good. I mention this today because I’ve come across a small hitch that’s all too common in the freelancing world: the gap between acceptance of work and payment for that work.

My accountability post on Sunday noted that I’m $130 behind — don’t worry, I’ve already caught up. But further troubles have reared their heads.

  • One client asked for revisions on $120 worth of articles, which I’ll need to do without further payment. Revisions are part of the job for a freelance writer.
  • One client received $180 worth of work last week and still hasn’t gotten around to reading for approval. Lags like this are part of the job for a freelance writer.
  • Another client has amassed a $470 bill for my work, but won’t be able to pay until May. This kind of payment cycle is part of the job for a freelance writer.
As another example, two weeks ago I got a check for an article that was originally accepted in 2007. You read that right. Accepted in 2007, paid in 2011.
I don’t post this to complain. The operative phrase from the above list is part of the job for a freelance writer. I post this to share a facet of your worklife if you think you want to take on this as a career. For the most part, money you earn this month should be earmarked for spending next quarter. If it comes in early, great — let it earn some interest until you need it. Budgeting, planning and strict personal discipline are absolute necessities if you’re going to go full time in this field.
That’s not to say I’m an expert at any of those three things, just that they’re important.
This payment lag presents a special problem for people who want to break in as freelance writers. You’re looking at a four to six month gap between the first month that you make your living expenses and the first month you can pay for them — and we’re not even talking yet about how long it will take you to land that much work. There are several different ways to make this work.
The way I did it was I worked a job I disliked, writing for extra money when I could. When I landed a long-term gig with a client who paid promptly and reliably, I pulled the trigger. That client won’t last forever — although they’re still going strong two years later — so I make it a priority to pursue other gigs as aggressively as possible.
Bottom line: expect to get paid late. Expect to get stiffed on occasion. Plan your finances so you’re always living off money already in the bank, not waiting for a payment to come in just so you can cover your mortgage.  Understand that this isn’t a special hardship — businesses face this payment cycle problem every day. It’s part of the price you pay for the privilege of owning your time.
Thanks for listening.