Tuesday, May 28, 2019

#SPFBO Interview: Steven McKinnon, Author of Raincatcher's Ballad

With the winner of SPFBO '18 recently announced, I feel now's the perfect time to take a second look at last year's finalists and get the inside scoop on their books! Ranging from YA to satire to high fantasy, there's a real range of stories and a phenomenal cast of authors who've made the cut. For our first guest, I'd like to welcome Steven McKinnin, author of the airship-focused, high-flying fantasy novel Raincatcher's Ballad!

MARTIN: Glad to have you on, Steve! So first things first, the introduction. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your fiction?

STEVEN: Hello! I live in Glasgow and work as an Advising Support Administrator within the School of Law at the University of Glasgow. I’ve been writing in some way or another since forever, at first trying (and failing) to emulate Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. My first book, Boldly Going Nowhere, is a creative non-fiction title about my attempts at online dating and confronting my own mental illness.…It’s funnier than it sounds. (I didn’t know it at the time, but I have a form of OCD called “Pure O”).

My most recent effort is Symphony of the Wind, the first volume of The Raincatcher’s Ballad (and its companion prequel novella, The Fury Yet To Come.) Fantasy is my favourite genre, especially fantasy with a bit of grit, so after writing a personal story and injecting a lot of humour into it, I wanted to go in the other direction and tell something huge, sprawling and action-packed – something similar to the kind of books I read and the kind of movies I rush to the cinema for.

MARTIN: Raincatcher's Ballad is a series that's both epic in scope, and seemingly inspired by Steampunk. It heavily features airships, pirates, and a lot of other stuff not commonly seen in the typical medieval fare. So what inspired your setting? Cogs and goggles, Final Fantasy, or something else entirely?

STEVEN: You’ve hit the nail on the head with Final Fantasy! I didn’t set out to write a Steampunk novel, purely because I don’t know much about the sub-genre. I don’t think of it as Steampunk, I consider it Epic Fantasy, but if people want to refer to it as Steampunk, then I have no problem with that!

I’d say computer games inspired the setting more than anything else. I enjoy the Final Fantasy games where technology stands alongside magic – I liked the worlds where swords and guns co-exist, and where industry thrives but monsters are never far away. There’s a line on the blurb of the PlayStation One UK version of Final Fantasy VII that always struck a chord with me: “An intense adventure where science and sorcery collide!” I liked that a lot.

The Uncharted games are also an influence, especially with the character Tyson Gallows. I love the popcorn action-adventure tone of those games, but I wanted to up the grit and darkness, whilst still keeping the edge-of-your-seat, skin-of-your-teeth feeling that those games thrust upon the player.
MARTIN: Two of my favorite things about fantasy books are the unique magic systems, locations and monsters. These can often be the most iconic parts of a book or series, such as allomancy in Mistborn, or the trollocs and myrddraal from The Wheel of Time. So what unique elements like these can we expect in Raincatcher?

STEVEN: Agreed! I think Brandon Sanderson really broke the mould with allomancy, that’s probably the coolest magic system in all of Fantasy!

I think the world is the most iconic element in The Raincatcher’s Ballad book(s). While we see more of the world in subsequent books, Symphonytakes place in Dalthea, a small kingdom that happens to have particularly potent ignicite reserves. Ignicite is the foremost source of fuel in the world, and it’s led to all sorts of possibilities. Naturally, the powerful in society haven’t all harnessed ignicite’s potential for the purposes of good…

So that kick-started an industrial revolution, resulting in fewer people believing in the Gods and institutions like the Mages’ Guild fading from significance. Some events of the past have slipped into myth – and if magic does indeed exist, then perhaps the secret is separating truth from fiction…
Going back to the setting, I liked the idea of an area of the world that was tough to inhabit, and that no-one would even bother trying to, if it wasn’t for the presence of a naturally-regenerating resource and source of income. So, the entire kingdom was built during an ignicite “gold rush”, luring people from across the world.

So that’s the background of the city, and the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” from Star Wars (and the movie Casablanca) set the tone for what Dalthea is like now. I like the melting pot dynamic in Casablanca, where exiles from different backgrounds and cultures dwell in a paranoid and potentially hostile environment during World War 2. If you don’t belong anywhere, you belong there.

MARTIN: Right now the Fantasy genre's exploding on indie platforms. As this Forbes article from last year states, "genre is king on indie platforms." So how are you setting yourself apart from the crowd?

STEVEN: I guess the short answer is I’m not – at least, I don’t intentionally look at what other indie fantasy writers are doing and think “How can I do something different?”. I don’t know, maybe I should be. I’m not great at writing to market – I write the stories I want to write, then ask myself: How can I make this book the best it can possibly be? How do I improve as a writer?

While I hope my books offer something unique, I really enjoy being part of the crowd of indie Fantasy authors – albeit as a small fish in a large pond! It’s encouraging that genre fiction is booming on indie platforms – they’re the books I enjoy reading the most, and readers only benefit from as much choice is possible. It might be a crowded market, but the way I see it, there’s always going to be more books than anyone can possibly read in their lifetime, so just focus on making yours the best it can be.

MARTIN: Earlier you mentioned Final Fantasy as an inspiration, which is something that recent breakout star Nicholas Eames has also claimed. Not too long ago I did a breakdown of an anime series called Rising of the Shield Hero, which I picked as an example of both japanese fantasy and LitRPGs. In it, I suggested that western perceptions of fantasy (especially among the latter half of Millenials and the emerging Gen Z) are increasingly being shaped not by Tolkien and Howard -- but by distinctly Japanese and even Polish and/or Russian media. As an author, do you feel these sorts of stories also influence your work? And where do you see the future of the genre going in the following years?

STEVEN: Great question. I think because I’m quite visual when I work, I lean more towards movies, games and TV shows when I think of the kind of feeling or emotion I’m trying to evoke. (That’s not to say I’m not influenced by books, too – I absolutely am, and reading trumps other forms of media in so many ways.) I’ve only played a handful of Japanese RPG games – and only Final Fantasy ones at that – so I’m probably still primarily influenced by Western media.

Sticking to computer games, Uncharted is a big influence on The Raincatcher’s Ballad. That series’ protagonist, Nathan Drake, has been criticized for being an everyman, loveable-rogue archetype who reels of jokes and one-liners – whilst slaughtering hundreds of people throughout the course of the game. I’m not sure how much I buy into that particular criticism, but I was interested in writing this archetype, but have him be more damaged from his life- and war-time experiences. And that’s how Tyson Gallows, one of Symphony of the Wind’s protagonists, was born!

MARTIN: Aside from video games and fantasy novels, what other elements (especially unconventional ones!) inspired your works? Were there any particular life experiences or trips that made you want to write a story about airships?

STEVEN: I can’t say I’ve ever been on a trip that inspired me to write about airships, but music influences my writing - specifically the songs and stories of Iron Maiden. They have a massive, 18-minute epic song called Empire of the Clouds, which is about an airship disaster (the R101). The song puts the human emotion in the heart of it, the ambition and the sorrow. (The title of the Raincatcher’s Ballad prequel story, The Fury Yet To Come, takes its name from a lyric in this song.)
Being a working class lad from Glasgow has influenced much of the world in Symphony of the Wind. The Raincatchers toil and labour for the greater good and put in hard graft, all the while exchanging banter to make the shift go easier, which I think is a universal experience – I’ve worked jobs that required early starts, long hours and a lot of heavy lifting, and it’s the people working alongside you that make it more bearable. I hope that sense of camaraderie is apparent in the writing.

MARTIN: I've talked a lot about settings and inspirations, but let's talk characters for a bit! You mentioned Tyson Gallows being one of Symphony's protagonists, but what about the other POV characters? How'd you come up with them and (without spoilers) do you have a favorite, and why?

STEVEN: Haha, is it too much of a cop-out to say they’re all my favourite?

I came up with Gallows and Damien through my experiences with mental illness, such as the intrusive thoughts that come with “Pure O” OCD. I wanted to write “strong” male characters who were also vulnerable in some pretty serious ways, or whose internal struggles negatively impacted their day to day life.

For Fitz, Tiera and Veronica, I wanted characters who still struggle, but who’ve made their peace with their role in the world and realise that things could be much, much worse. (Which, of course, invariably happens.)

MARTIN: Last question! Let's say you got transported to a fantasy world in mere seconds. There's no way back, and you have a wealth of knowledge from the real world you can bring to this new place. What do you do?

STEVEN: Honestly? I’d probably dick around with people and fashion myself as some kind of genius trickster-god for my own amusement.

Interested in some swashbuckling action? Then head on over to Steven's Amazon page to check out Raincatcher's Ballad and other books! And if you've already read his works, consider leaving a Goodreads review if you haven't already. Also, please consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about writing, authors and other topics related to genre writing!

Artist Spotlight: Travis Anderson

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(Originally Posted on March 9, 2019)

So recently I revealed the cover art for my upcoming book. That art was done by Travis Anderson, an artist who's worked on many projects, including the Dragobourne TCG, SYFY's Deadly Class,  and the VR title Gadgeteer, which you can grab here on Steam.  He's also the lead artist at indie board game studio Tabula, creators of the card game Volfyirion.

I chose Travis due to his stunning and strange art, which blends the fantastical, alien and dreamlike into something truly unique. Because of the eclectic gene mix I was looking for, I felt he was the perfect artist to bring Argos to life for the cover for City of Tombs.

Book Reveal: Warglaive Volume 1: The City of Tombs

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A couple months back, I mentioned I was working on two books to be released this year. The first one I revealed was The Shrouded Emperor, an epic flintlock fantasy book I'm aiming for a Q4 2019 release. However, I also mentioned a then-unnamed sword & sorcery novel that I'd be releasing earlier this year. And I'm very excited to announce the title and concept of said series today.
So without further ado...allow me to introduce Warglaive Volume 1: The City of Tombs!
WHAT IS WARGLAIVE?
Warglaive is a fantasy series inspired by sword and sorcery pulps, tabletop RPGs and retro sci-fi books. I wanted to evoke that feeling readers in the 1920s first felt when cracking open Weird Tales for the first time. That sense of swashbuckling action, dramatic twists and the discovery of strange and wonderful new worlds. At the same time, I wanted to update the formula for 2019, focusing on world-building, magic systems, and more character-driven storytelling. As well newer fantasy elements such as "progression" storytelling a la Andre Rowe.

STORY SYNOPSIS
Betrayed and marked as a sacrifice, Argos awakens in a long-forgotten city miles beneath the world's surface. Braving gore-stained horrors, forbidden sorcery and daemonic machines, the warrior soon finds others like him who've been marked as offering for the Lord of the Deep. With not only his life, but the lives of his newfound allies at stake, Argos must rise and become the hero he's always aspired to be, or die trying. But in these dark and perilous depths, one question remains...
What can mortal men do against the hunger of a god?
A dark, sci-fantasy story inspired by classic Sword & Sorcery pulps, City of Tombs marks the first action-packed volume in the strange and savage world of WARGLAIVE.
SO WHO'S THE MAIN CHARACTER?
That would be Argos, a “professional hero” who travels across the world of Ryve, fighting villains and slaying monsters for the right price. The problem? He's essentially a noblebright character in a grimdark setting of corrupt emperors, cosmic horrors and ancient snake-cults. In this world, there's no such thing as heroes...but that not exactly stopping Argos from trying!

WARGLAIVE VOLUME 1: THE CITY OF TOMBS marks the first installment in my new sword-and-sorcery progression fantasy series. These “volumes” will be short, serialized works released in between my bigger books like Shrouded. Expect updates on the book in the coming weeks, as I work on the last couple drafts before the official launch.

In the mean time, I'll be writing a bit about Sword and Socrery as a genre, balancing "classic pulp" with "new fantasy," and the influences behind the book. This has been a setting I've been dying to share, and one that I hope both seasoned and new fans of Sci-fi and Fantasy will come to enjoy.

ARTSTREAM - A Sneak Preview of My New Book's Cover by Artist Travis Anderson

(Originally Posted on March 9, 2019)

Just a heads-up, folks. Artist Travis Anderson is live streaming the creation process of my sword-and-sorcery novel's cover art. I'll be revealing the title and synopsis very soon, but for now, here's a sneak peek at what's to come!


https://www.twitch.tv/travisandersonart

Rising of the Shield Hero Watch-Through Episode 5 & 6: "Filo" and "A New Comrade"

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(Originally Published on Feb 14, 2019)

So last week, I had to take a break from Shield Hero reviews, and had to deal with some personal stuff. This week I'm playing catch-up however, and giving you guys a two-for-one special!

For those who are new to these breakdowns, I’m covering each episode of “Rising of the Shield Hero” and looking at Japanese fantasy and light novel adaptations from a western writer's perspective. You can check out my prior watch-through articles here, and if you want to check out the story yourself, you can buy the novel on Amazon, or watch it for free on Crunchyroll. With all that out of the way, let's dive into these breakdowns and meet the latest addition to Naofumi's party, Filo!

EPISODE 5 AND 6 SUMMARY

Episode 5 starts off with the world's Queen, who's doing recon with some spies seen in earlier episodes. Apparently she's aware of what her daughter's done, and is relived that Naofumi's making progress and has a party member. Why she's away and what role she'll play in the future episodes remains to be seen, but at least she seems fairly sane, unlike the other royals.
Back at the Melomarc castle, each of the Cardinal Heroes are being handed out payments by the King. Spear Hero gets the largest amount, and Naofumi predictably gets shafted. He initially is only given 500 silvers (compared to Spear Hero's 4000, and the other two's 3,800) but the King claims the cost of removing Raphtalia's brand means he can't pay Naofumi anything. This is of course, such flagrant BS that the Bow and Sword hero speak out immediately. Naofumi angrily takes the silvers, and Raphtalia sasses the King because she's just that good.

We cut to Raphalia getting the slave crest tattooed on her again, which was apparently her idea, possibly as a giant middle finger to the royals. She sees it as a sign of her faith in him, indicating that she'd never lie or betray Naofumi. And also as a sneaky way for her to attempt flirting with Naofumi, as after it's been applied, she asks him "what do you think?" Naofumi doesn't seem to take the hint, and ignores her, instead noticing he's gained a "slave user's shield" ability. Monopoly Man then suggests he sell Raphtalia, and Naofumi jokingly considers it, much to Raphtalia's dismay. Naofumi is distracted by a bunch of eggs which the slaver informs him hold different sorts of monsters. Basically, they're old timey loot boxes, as each one has a mount hatchling, with the possibility of a cool dragon. Naofumi decides to plink down his money for one of the loot boxes, despite Raphtalia's protestations.

After this, Naofumi does the rounds, going to various shopkeepers who all seem to be much, much cooler with him then they used to be. Though it's not explicitly shown, it seems that word's going round about how Myne's accusations basically amounted to "Fake News." And after meeting with a witch who offers him grimoires and thanks him for saving a relative in Lute Village, Naofumi notes how people are actually thanking him for once. Naofumi decides he needs to learn how to read this world's language so he can learn magic, and Raphtalia says she can help. They focus on that for a bit, but the next day, Naofumi wakes up to find his loot box hatching. And...

It's a
chocobofilolial. No cool dragon, no rare mount, just the fantasy equivalent of getting a ratty skin in CSGO. He decides he needs a mount anyway, and takes her with her as he hunts. It seems she's growing quite fast under his care, and in no time at all, "Filo" as he so un-creatively dubs her, grows to be a pretty big birdy. As well as super fast. But as he notes how Filo's grown, Naofumi notices a commotion in the village. As it turns out, Myne is causing a scene, as she declares the Spear Hero is the lord of this village, and also that the taxes are going way, WAY up. Naofumi can't help but butt in, and points out that the taxes are literally more than a HUNDRED TIMES MORE EXPENSIVE than a night at the inn. The townies are (understandably) pissed, and before anyone can do anything, the same cloaked figures who met with the Queen appear in front of Myne, offering her a letter from Mommy Dearest, no doubt telling her to cease her bullshit. We don't see the contents, but whatever it is enrages Myne to the point where she challenges Naofumi to a race to determine the fate of the village. If Spear Hero wins, her rule is law. But if Naofumi wins, things go back to normal.
After some protestations, Naofumi accepts, and Raphtalia notices that Filo is giving a nearby dragon mount the stink-eye. As it turns out, this is Spear Hero's mount, and when he arrives to mock Naofumi and Filo, Filo responds with a swift kick to the dick. Which is apparently so bad it required healing magic.

So yeah, I like Filo. If for nothing else, than for that.

After the sausage repair's been administered, Naofumi and Spear Hero race. Myne, being the psychotic individual she is, pays some of her knights to lay Mario Kart-esque spells and traps on the track. Despite this, they seem to have about as much effect as ACME gadgets have on the road runner, and she and Naofumi win in the end. After this, Filo seems to undergo yet another change, as she becomes a Fat
ChocoboFilolial, and Myne accuses him of having a special mount and thus, cheating. But just the, the queen's agents point out that Myne seems to be the one who cheated, and she leaves in a huff. The thankful villagers hand Naofumi a wagon and a trader's pass as thanks, which'll allow him to enter any city without paying the toll.

The episode ends with everyone nodding off after a long day, and seemingly everything's back to normal...until Naofumi wakes up, only to find a small, suspiciously winged human child where Filo once was, who knows Naofumi's name and demands to be fed.

Episode 6 picks off where 5 left off, as it turns out Filo is in fact, a super-rare Filolial Queen, with magical abilities that include wind and shape shifting into a humanoid form (aka the aforementioned child). Her shape-shifting proves problematic however, as she goes through clothes like Bruce Banner on Tax Day. Fed up with having to constantly buy her clothes, Naofumi goes to see a magic textiles merchant, who apparently is in love with how cute Filo is. In classic RPG fashion, she says she can make magic clothes that change shape with Filo if he can get a special gemstone that can help her convert raw mana into wearable thread. Naofumi then sets off to get it, as Filo pulls his cart cheerily, singing a little song about how she'll kick Spear Hero in the dick if she ever sees him again. It's precious. That alone brought her up a few notches in my personal character ranking for this show.
On the way to town however, Naofumi comes across a man who's travelling on foot to heal his sick mother. Naofumi decides to unhook Filo from his wagon (in bird form, obviously) and give the man a ride on her back. After healing the sick woman, he makes a habit of acting as a doctor to each village he travels, using his prior medical knowledge to heal and make some money on the side. Shortly after this, a new reputation begins to spread, one of the Shield Hero being a healer of the people, riding a carriage pulled by a filolial goddess. Naofumi is blissfully ignorant of this, until he meets an "accessory trader" who tells him all this. Things soon turn south however, as a bunch of bandits attack the wagon and make some very untoward passes at Raphtalia. This turns out to be a terrible idea, as Filo and Raphtalia make short work of them. As they beg for their lives, Naofumi flips on Villain mode again, and threatens to feed them to Filo. When they plead for their lives, Naofumi agrees to spare them...after they give him all their belongings.

The trader is impressed by this, and through him, Naofumi gains access to traders' circles, where he begins to pick up information through the collective grapevine of merchants. Of particular note is that the Spear Hero found some miracle item that made plants grow in one village. He also learns how to craft magic gems, and eventually finds a location where he can grab a gem capable of extracting mana for Filo's dress. Unfortunately, said gems are only located in the abandoned lab of an evil alchemist. And after meeting with the old witch from Episode 5, she agrees to accompany them to recover the gem. When they first enter, things seem pretty low-key, and the only thing of note is a pedestal bearing a plaque that warns that the item here is an "evil seed that must not be disturbed." Ominously, it seems it's been taken from its box, and Naofumi ignores it for now, instead going toward s the source of the gems. After encountering some monsters, Naofumi makes it to the "Boss Room," where a fearsome Nue guards the treasure. This is actually a pretty bad-ass monster, almost like the Chimera from Greek mythology. And as it turns out, it's highly perceptive, and has lightning elemental magic to boot.

Though the Nue proves tough, Filo and Raphtalia's new magical abilities prove quite useful in this fight, and showcase how far they've come. Raphtalia in particular has an affinity for illusion and shadow magic, making her a sort of ninja/rogue fighter that compliment's Naofumi's shield tanking. Filo on the other hand, has really strong kicks that are literally capable of shattering a monster's skull.
And on that note, a bit of an aside. In order to get my point across, I'd like to share a personal anecdote with you all. I was at a grocery store at one point, and I met a guy who had this big half-wolf dog on a leash. I'd never seen a wolfdog in person before, and was curious what they were like. So being a dog person, I said he was a beautiful dog, and asked if I could give him a quick pet.
"Sure thing, he's a good boy. He loves making new friends.""

So I pet him on the head, and the first thing I noted was how ROCK SOLID his skull was. Like, it felt like it was actually made of granite or something. And at that moment, I realized this thing could easily kill me in a matter of seconds if I so much as moved the wrong way. But as the owner said, he was a good boy and loved making new friends. Which is why I'm not currently in a box six feet under the ground.

What's the point of this story, you ask? Well, looking back, I realized that this was the closest I'd ever gotten to what was biologically speaking, a wild predator animal. And given that the Nue in this story was even bigger than that, can you imagine how hard that thing's skull is? With that in mind, think about how much force it required for Filo to shatter that thing's skull. Probably several tons of force delivered at lightning speed, right?

Now consider this. The force required to shatter that rock-solid, murderous skull of a wild animal was what was unleashed at full force onto the Spear Hero's dick. It was enough force to send him flying several feet in the air, and required actual healing magic to fix his shattered pelvis and groin. This has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but I feel it's worth mentioning all the same, because that sparkly douchebag had it coming.

Anyway, they kill the nue and obtain the gemstone. Filo gets her transforming dress, and will no doubt look adorable as she delivers untold carnage to the Spear Hero's nether regions should their paths cross again. So yeah, these were fantastic episodes, if for no other reason than that.

SUMMARY

I missed my watch-through post last week, but given how both episodes are short and focused on Filo, it made sense to group them together.

I'm not entirely sure what to think of Filo, because her entire purpose seems to be "annoying and cute," and I guess to have a mascot character in the show. I feel like Raphtalia fills all those niches (minus the "annoying") part, and does them better. That said, I was expecting her to be almost Jar Jar esque for some reason (The Filolial designs look really annoying, I dunno) and while she is a little like that, she's also not unbearably horrible either. She just seems kind of bland compared to everyone's favorite trash panda lady, though seeing adult Raphtaila get jealous whenever Naofumi pays any attention to Filo is just hysterical.

One thing I do find really funny is their relationship dynamic. Filo is basically just a baby chick with shapeshifting powers, so because she sees Naofumi as her dad she takes the form of a little girl. But Naofumi already sees himself as a father figure to Raphtaila, who's apparently SHOCKED AND DISTRESSED upon hearing this. So both Filo and Raphtalia low-key hate each other because they both want Naofumi's attention, albeit in very different ways. I've seen some folks on social media saying Trash Panda literally got "daughter-zoned," and the fact that that's even a thing is very, very funny to me.

Also, grumpy dad Naofumi is still best Naofumi. Again, characterization is where the show really shines, and I feel that the metamorphosis of Naofumi's character from vengeful and angry to kind of surly and grouchy yet caring is one of the show's most fun aspects. He still plays the villain card when it suits him though, but it seems he's warmed up to commoners at the very least. In the early episodes, he was a dickweed to pretty much anyone, but now most of that hate is reserved for Spear Hero, Myne/Malty and that geriatric asshole king, who's probably my least favorite character in this entire thing.
Speaking of Spear Hero, let's dial it back a bit to Episode 5. One big criticism I have of the show as it goes on, is that I feel Spear Hero is kind of becoming a sucky antagonist. I was expecting him to play more of a Gaston-esque role, and Episode 4 was the closest we ever got to seeing that. But in "Filo," he just kind of seems like an idiot who's being manipulated by Myne. He literally stands there as villagers protest to being taxed out the hoo-hah, and just kind of smiles like a giant jagoff, completely oblivious to the damage he's caused. Granted, it makes Myne out to be an even worse person than we thought (apparently that's possible), and if it wasn't blatantly obvious by now, she's clearly a sociopath who enjoys harming those of "lesser status," be they the Shield Hero or defenseless commoners. At first I thought she just wanted to target Naofumi, but that isn't the case at all. Anyone and everyone is fair game to her, men women and children alike. As long as she can get away with crimes against vulnerable people, she gets her kicks out of it. It's really sick, and if that "evil seed" happens to be the same item Spear Hero got to "replenish the crops" or whatever, she's even more blatantly evil than I thought.

Interestingly though, Myne/Malty's increasingly terrible actions are beginning to get noticed. And it seems more and more people aren't treating Naofumi like an actual monster. I think as time goes on and word gets around, people have begun to realize that Myne's full of it. Shieldbro's saved multiple lives at this point, going out of his way to heal the sick, fight bandits and show a level of care that most Cardinal Heroes wouldn't bother with. Granted, he still demands payment for all this and puts on a "surly hardass" routine all the while. But it goes back to what I feel is the show's main theme, "actions speak louder than words."

Though these two episodes were pretty laid-back, I feel they're setting up for something really, really big. Everything seems almost too relaxed, and the hints they've given so far are pretty ominous. I expect the next few episodes to have some major revelations, and possibly some more Snidely Whiplash-ing from Myne. In any case, I'm excited to see what come next, especially as Wave Two draws ever nearer...

Like this episode? If so, please like and share, and tell us who's the better party member! Is it Trash Panda Girl, or Bird Child? Leave a comment and let me know who's your favorite!

EDIT: THE SHIELD HERO WATCH-THROUGH IS OVER

So first off, I'd like to thank all the folks who enjoyed my blog posts on this show. They've gotten, and are still getting a good deal of traffic, and people really seem to like them.

Seeing the fantasy genre through a different cultural lens is really neat, and I think the subject of Japan's influence on the western fantasy genre is a topic worth exploring. But as of now, I'm afraid I'll be ceasing the weekly episode breakdown due to me starting the second draft of my Sword and Sorcery novel. With that underway, my free time is now 100% focused on getting the damn book done.

If you haven't checked out Rising of the Shield Hero yet, wholeheartedly recommend it, as it's a fairly good look at trends in Japanese fantasy fiction, warts and all. The warts aren't too bad though, and I had (and am having) a blast watching this show. You can read my prior episode breakdowns here, complete with links to legally stream the show or buy the books.

But at the end of the day, this is not an anime review blog, it's an author/writing blog, and I have news and announcements regarding my current project. So yes, while I'm still watching and enjoying the show, the weekly blogs are over. I'll be doing a review of the first season though, as well as a post on what Western authors can learn from J-Fantasy and Light Novels. But there's author interviews, book marketing research, and writing that needs to be done, and my time is limited.

Still, thanks for joining me on this short but fun journey. Maybe sometime later we can do a Witcher Play-Through, or Moorcock Read-through or something.

SPFBO '18 Finalists: Where to Start With New Self-Published Fantasy

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(Originally posted on Feb 7, 2019)

So Self-published Fantasy Blog-Off 2018 wrapped up not too long ago, and I recently realized I never put a list together! Yes, I've been meaning to do this, but some personal stuff's been eating away at my time as of late, and I've only now put together my summary of the finalists. There's a lot of cool stuff to be found here though, and If you're a new reader looking to dive into indie fantasy, these fresh new picks are a good way to get started!

For ease of browsing, I've separated all these into different genres. Links go to the books' Amazon pages, and you can check out a list of the reviews and scores at Mark Lawrence's blog. Speaking of Mark Larence, you can check out the quick interview I did with him if you're curious about #SPFBO and how it came to be.

And with that out of the way, here's our list of last year's finalists!

EPIC/HIGH FANTASY

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We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson -- Grim, Asian-inspired worlds of horseriders and swordslingers. There's a preview up online that I read, and it reminds me a bit of the Dothraki bits from early Song of Fire and Ice. Devin Madson is again, no newbie when it comes to writing, and if you like Asian fantasy, she's written other books with that theming.


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Symphony of the Wind by Steve McKinnon -- Vast worldbuilding, multiple POVs and some light steampunk elements. If you're looking for another deep, rich world to sink your teeth into, this novel's worth a read!

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The Anointed by Keith Ward -- Some really interesting concepts here! Immortality, proxy-bodies, dragonriders and water that things cannot float on (meaning no boats -- and probably no Pennywise either). This one seems to be almost a lost breed of epic fantasy, one which has almost sci-fi-esque concepts in worldbuilding.

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The Gods of Men by Barbra Kloss -- Epic fantasy with bits of Romance, this book is highly lauded, and Kloss is already a proven author witha good track record in adult and YA lit. If you enjoy both those things, as well as fantasy in the Sanderson mold, this book's for you.


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Aching God by Mike Shel -- Epic Fantasy series witha  grim and gritty edge. Seems to have a paranormal bent, with haunted places and creepy tombs. The series seems to borrow a bit from hack-and-slash RPG sessions, and gamers will probably enjoy this one a lot.

YOUNG ADULT
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Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe -- First in a YA series about magicians living in our world. It's described as essentially similar to the best of late Harry Potter, but with a darker edge. As someone who got fed up with the Chocolate Frogs and Whimsy-Dimsy in Harry Potter, this seems like it draws from the cooler bits. Dementors, Aurors, etc. If you like YA and Urban Fantasy, give this one a go.


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Sowing by Angie Grigaliunas -- Dystopian YA in a secondary fantasy setting. A lot of YA takes place in our world, but I find I enjoy it more when you add a unique setting to the mix. This one I personally find really intriguing! There's some real hype here for Angie's world, and I'm curious to see what it's all about. Supposedly has a Hunger Games feel, but with more fun fantasy worldbuilding elements.

URBAN FANTASY
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Sworn to the Night by Craig Schaefer -- Urban fantasy with other worlds, witches, NYPD officers and other bizarro elements that set it aside from the "Anita Blake Leather-Hunter" type stories. Urban fantasy is one of those things that I feel needs a really strong and unique hook to work. Something like Fables or I Was a Teenage Weredeer. If you like the weirder, dreamlike side of Urban Fantasy, give this one a go.

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Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc -- Urban fantasy about an immortal "healer" who acts as a paramedic. Upon healing the wrong person, his life and the life of those he loves is put into jeopardy. The author himself is a paramedic, so the novel comes with a real sense of authenticity, kind of like a John Grisham law novel. Concept seems like Highlander meets Grey's Anatomy, which is a huge deviation from regular Urban Fantasy. Probably the biggest curveball in this entire group.

OTHER
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Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike -- Biting social satire meets RPG tropes. If you enjoy the Discworld series, give this series a read. There aren't enough comedic western fantasy novels of this sort out there, but Pike seems to be making a name for himself quite rapidly in that space.

THOUGHTS: Epic/High Fantasy is a genre that continues to get a lot of love in the self-pub space. To the point where even a lot of trad Epic Fantasy has its roots in indie (Licanus, Books of Babel, et cetera). What's really cool though is the emergence of stuff like We Ride the Storm, which is a far cry from the medieval European settings of many books. Also, much like Andrew Rowe before him, we see a former writer from the gaming space (Keith Ward) going the indie route to tell his own story.
YA also had a really strong showing this year, with some titles that seemingly learned a lot from the big names (Harry Potter, Mortal Bones, Hunger Games, etc) but go in interesting and unique directions. Sowing in particular is something I've heard nothing but rave reviews for. I've even heard some folks claim it's the next Throne of Glass, which is high praise coming from the YA crowd.
Lastly, we got some really strange but cool additions in Urban Fantasy and "Other". Orconomics has sort of a "Discworldy" feel to it, which is quite unique in a field awash with lots of Epic and Urban stuff. And speaking of the latter, our two Urban entries are strikingly unique and a far cry from the Anita Blakes and Twilights of the genre. All in all, another really exciting year!

PERSONAL PICKS: YA isn't really my thing, but Sowing has me intrigued. Among the Epic Fantasy books, We Ride the Storm and Aching God look the most intriguing. And while it wasn't a finalist, D.P. Prior's Carnifex has me intrigued. I like dwarves, especially the berserk, Warhammer Fantasy-style dwarves, so that has me intrigued. Plus, the title is bad-ass.

Also, while I'm focusing on the finalists, there's a lot of really good books that made it to second or third place in the contest. Michael R. Baker's The Thousand Scars gets brought up a lot by fans of grimdark, and I have that one on Kindle on my TBR list. While it didn't make it to the finals, it does have a lot of fans, and there's a few more books that are similarly liked that didn't make the finalist place. If you know of any, feel free to comment below and share your thoughts!

Why I'm Self-Publishing my Fantasy Novels

(Originally Posted on Feb 2, 2018)

So back when I started this blog and began the first draft of The Shrouded Emperor, my intent was to go the traditional route. Pitch to agents, cross my fingers and hope my manuscript didn't find a home in File 13.

However, as I began joining author communities, I began to notice something very interesting. A lot of self-published authors were very active members, mingling with traditionally-published names and promoting each others' work. Up until this point, I'd always considered self-publishing to be a repository of sorts for bargain-bin trash, Twilight knock-offs and ideas too weird to be mainstream. Sure, you'd get a Wool or Riyria Chronicles, but those were exceptions to the rules, right?

More and more I find that's simply not the case. There's bad books too, and the werewolf/Santa romance novels are still inexplicably being made by some madman/woman I pray I'll never meet. There's also some more indie-centric genres like LitRPGs that I'm personally not super into. But there's also some really, really unique and exciting stuff out there. And given the decline of brick-and-mortar retailers and the rise of Amazon as a hub for books, it's a shift that makes sense. Even New York Times bestsellers like Brian McClellan are jumping on the bandwagon, and self-publishing stars like Rob Hayes get featured by Barnes and Noble's website. The landscape is changing rapidly, and after weighing all my options, I decided a while back, that going the independent route is what makes the most sense for me.

So on that note, I'd like to address some common criticisms of self-pub, and why it makes sense for me personally.

But don't you want to be in bookstores? Go on book tours?
You mean those same chain bookstores that are rapidly going out of business? The ones  stock loads and loads of geeky film & TV merch and Magic the Gathering cards just to stay afloat? The bookstores where many bestsellers in the non-licensed and non-legacy SFF section were originally self-pubs?

The dark day of chain bookstores' demise draws nearer and nearer, and while it saddens me to no end, that's simply how things are going. Almost every book I buy, trad and self-pub alike, I get through Amazon. It's simply more convenient (and cheaper) than getting in the car, burning gas, stopping to get a single book and then stopping to get something to eat on the way back. And look – I love the aesthetic and smell and experience of stepping into Barnes and Noble, scrolling through the SFF section and looking at all the books. I love grabbing a Tazo tea and a sugar cookie and leafing through the stuff I find. It's a relaxing and wonderful atmosphere, but the future of publishing draws ever nearer. And it looks less like a coffee house and more like Print-On-Demand.

As for indie bookstores – well, many of them are doing alright, and some of them even feature authors like me for book signings and other events. Tours on the other hand – are best done digitally these days, unless you're a huge celebrity who rakes in a ton of money from appearances. I'd personally rather invest in audio gear and tour digitally on podcasts, blogs and Youtube channels I know'll get the word out. It also frees me up to pursue more platforms that might otherwise get overlooked. And granted, even with all that, bigger publishers generally have the upper hand right now. But like I said, the landscape is changing. And going indie allows me to react to said changes and keep the rights to my IP, manuscripts and cover art so I can adapt to said changes as they happen.

But what are the odds you'll make any money?
Who knows, man? Some folks I've seen like Daniel Arenson have made a good deal off of self-published books. Others make an income, but not enough to go full-time. And many, many more simply don't get a return on their investment. This however, is simply a risk of writing any sort of book, as many traditionally-published books never make back their advance. So when you get down to it, ALL publishing is gambling. ALL writers are dreamers pulling on the slot machine with the hopes of scoring a big payout. And the vast majority aren't “big winners.”

The difference is that with self-publishing, I can at least blow on the dice a little, and in the astronomical off chance I win big, my payout is larger than most of the other guys. Also hedging things in my favor is the fact that:

A) I'm not a new writer, but have been doing comic book short stories, game writing (traditional and video), film scripts, and more for about 3+ years now.

B) I've gone through the submission process for all the above and have been accepted on a good deal. Most of those were for indie projects, so take that how you will. I've always kind of preferred indie things though, so that sort of factors into these decisions a bit

C) I've also worked with artists, and understand how to make a visually-compelling character for cover art and interior illustrations. Specifically in my gamedev work, I'm actually very active with the art team despite hardly being able to draw a straight line myself. I've worked with some folks who've done work even for major tabletop and gaming companies (as in, possibly some of the first ones that came to your head when i said those things), so at this point I'm confident that I can help put together cover branding for myself that doesn't suck paint.

D) I've talked at length to various book industry professionals both trad and indie, and I have an “inside baseball” view on what sells and what doesn't in the current market, both in trad and in self-publishing. That's not to say I'm an expert, or the Grand Poohbah of book sales, but I do have an inkling of how it all shakes out.

In short, I have a leg up on a lot of other people who are diving in dry to the slippery pits of Kindle Direct Publishing. I'd rather carve out my own destiny in publishing knowing what I know, then potentially have my book get saddled with really generic cover art, or not sell to markets I know'll buy the book.

Granted, there's still massive success stories like Ed Mcdonald and Nicholas Eames, both of whom are newcomers (and totally cool guys to boot) and doing marvelously well in the current trad fantasy space. And were it not for certain people I know and certain skills I have, I'd still hedge my bets on trad publishing as being the best option. And let me be frank here to any potential authors reading this – for 99% of writers, it probably still is. If you don't have experience working with concept artists, or know Photoshop well enough to make a pro book cover, I suggest you bite the bullet and take whatever cover's given to you by a publisher who knows their stuff. It's better than say, getting cover art that looks like this. If you haven't talked with editors who've worked for some truly big writers, then it's probably best to go through the submission process and take whatever edits are given to you.
I have done those things though, and I also have knowledge of platforms like Youtube, which are criminally underused by booksellers and publishers. There's also Discord, which is a really amazing tool for building communities of folks interested in your work. Going indie means I have the freedom to experiment with these new platforms, as well as utilize platforms like Youtube Live/Twitch, blogging networks, and more. In other words, I can afford to move at a speed the rest of publishing can't, at the expense of not getting as much “traditional” coverage as other authors.

But what about the self-pub stigma?
Oh gee, you mean that thing that doesn't actually exist in 2019?
Yes, long ago, there was a time back when the Amazon store was flooded with quite a bit of vampire novels and cheap monster smut. Everyone had a nice hearty chuckle at them...but then something interesting began to happen. Books like Wool and The Martian got critical acclaim, and more serious authors began considering it as a viable alternative. Come 2018, some of SFF's boldest voices are coming from the self-published scene, and are winning real awards. Even the covers on some of these books are significantly better than many trad offerings, even those of NYT bestsellers.

And when you get down to brass tacks, Sturgeon's Law is a thing even in trad publishing. A stroll down Barnes and Noble's shelves will yield not only some really solid and great books, but terrible-looking Urban Fantasy novels, and even secondary world fantasy that doesn't look that far off from dollar store romance novels. On the other hand, nobody's turning their noses up at The Crimson Queen, Paternus, Arcane Ascension or Manifest Delusions. ALL these books get high marks among core fantasy readers, and I when I talk to people about interesting worlds, magic systems or other fantasy elements, I see these books get brought up with increasing frequency.

I think in the end, it all boils down to making a quality product. Cover, internal formatting, editing, the whole nine yards. There isn't really self-pub stigma now so much as there is bad book stigma. And trust me, there's plenty of (if not necessarily more) trad published books that miss the mark in spectacular fashion. Editorial weeds many of these out, but as of now, Self-Pub has proven to be a perfectly adequate vehicle for good SFF in recent years. It's not an editorial and commercial greenlight per se, but it's also not a death sentence either.

Part of the reason I chose to self-publish is because I have the means to control many of these quality elements, and have a product I know will be both what I want, and optimized for the market.
Okay, but didn't you say curation was a problem for indies?
Eyup. And sadly, that's gonna be one of the big issues I face going forward. For those of you who don't know, I wrote a post about self-publishing a while back. In it, I said the biggest problem with the self-pub space was the lack of “curation” or “brands” that people could associate with different products. So for example, TOR is well known for their epic fantasy series, while Baen has a loyal fanbase of gun enthusiasts, veterans, engineers and hard sci-fi fanatics. Their logos aren't just mindless branding, they're an assurance to said fans of a certain quality and expectation.

So when people go through the fiery hoops of agents, publishers and editors, they're not just doing it to “appease gatekeepers” or gain a fat paycheck. They're doing so to help get their book to a publisher that'll act as a curator and promoter for their content. And one of the big, gaping problems with independent books, is that you're going out there without that curation. Orbit books are different than TOR books, which are different than Baen books. But when you join Amazon KDP, you're thrown in with vary flavors of whatever genre you've chosen.

There is one major element of curation you're seeing more of though, and that's book blogs and Booktube (aka book Youtubers). These independent reviewers, as well as larger sites like Kirkus and Fantasy Faction, are responsible for driving many sales and informing the wider market of new and hot books. And in may cases, a good self-published novel can get as much coverage and care as a trad book. That said, self-publishing actually opens some doors into markets that otherwise might not be explored, while many of the big review sites might still review my stuff.

...But You'd Still Accept a Publishing Deal if Offered, Right?
Actually...yes! Though perhaps not in the way you'd think...

You see, I want creative and editorial control (to a certain degree, anyway) of the two fantasy series I'm working on currently. It's deeply important to me, and not just something I'm writing for cash (although cash is a wonderful thing to have). However, if there's interest in my work from traditional publishers, I'd be more than happy to work on exclusive books specifically for that market, or translations of my indie books into other languages. If there's territories that might enjoy my work but don't speak much English for instance, I'd strongly consider a foreign publishing deal if I was hypothetically approached. And while the chances of that are very slim, it is something I've still considered nonetheless.

That said, I still want control over my IPs whenever possible. So in most cases, the answer would still be no, unless it was a deal no sane person could refuse. I love indie art, indie films and indie fiction. More and more I find myself reading indie fantasy, which is increasingly topping the bestseller lists of Amazon. And while there's no guarantee I'll be successful or popular with my work...hey, it's worth a shot.

Rising of the Shield Hero Watch-Through Episode 4: Lullaby at Dawn

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(Originally Posted on Jan 30, 2019)

Episode 4 is here, and this one's a doozy! And probably my favorite since Episode 2. Possibly Naofumi's lowest low, and the introduction of the "curse series" abilities, one of which threatens to destroy him.

For those who are new to these breakdowns, I’m covering each episode of “Rising of the Shield Hero” and explaining what western SFF writers and readers can learn from Japanese “Light Novels”. If you’re not a writer, and simply want my thoughts on the show, then gain, feel free to skip the last bit. You can check out my prior watch-through articles here, and if you want to check out the story yourself, you can buy the novel on Amazon, or watch it for free on Crunchyroll. So without further ado, let’s dig into the summary! Also, spoiler warning.

Rising of the Shield Hero Watch-Through Episode 3: "Wave of Catastrophe"



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(Originally Published on Jan 29, 2019)

So here we are, three episodes in. These summaries are pretty meaty, but folks seem to enjoy them, and the show's given me quite a bit to cover in these posts. For those who are new to these breakdowns, I'm covering each episode of "Rising of the Shield Hero" and explaining how western SFF writers and readers can learn from Japanese "Light Novels". If you're not a writer, and simply want my thoughts on the show, then gain, feel free to skip the last bit. Also, you can read episode summary one and two with the links.

If you want to check out the story, you can buy the novel on Amazonor watch it for free on Crunchyroll. So without further ado, let's dig into the summary! Also, spoiler warning.

Beware the Red Ripper! My Horror Short Story is Coming Soon From Gray Haven Comics (The Gathering: Horror V)

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(Originally Published on Nov 6, 2018)

So a while back, before I decided to write prose, I took a stab at writing comics. I made it into a couple of anthologies, and it's largely thanks to these that I got my start as a writer.

The story is a riff on the classic "teenage boy becomes superhero" story, only said superpowers turn him into a slasher killer! Can Raul Garcia stave off the slow but inevitable transformation into a masked monster? Or can he save a piece of his humanity?

It's worth noting here that I'm credited as "Alex Moya," which...is my real name. Yes, Martin J. Ashwood is a pen name. Not for anonymity's sake, but because I designed some mockup (novel) book covers and the name "Alex Moya" looked like garbage on all of them. Not exactly the most exciting Secret Origin of my author superhero name, but it is what it is.

The Gathering: Horror V will hit comic store shelves soon, so keep an eye peeled for the Red Ripper if you enjoy some horror/urban fantasy goodness. And check out the Gray Haven Facebook page for more info on Horror V and all their other comics anthologies!

The Tide is Turning in Indie SFF Publishing, #SPFBO


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(Originally Published on Nov 11, 2018)

When I first posted my Self-Published Fantasy Guide, I had no idea just how far self-published and indie SFF lit has come. I still remember a time when "self-published" was synonymous with horrible paranormal romance books and...stranger things.

As of 2018 however, we're seeing some major authors and titles emerging from the self-published and indie scene. Books with stories and covers comparable to (or better than) traditional offerings. This trend has increased to the point where the Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog revealed the cover art for Rob J. Hayes' Never Die.

Yes, this is real. The genre promotion blog of America's biggest book chain just featured a self-published book. I remember talking to a fairly well-known author who'll remain anonymous, and having him mention that "indie is the future." That was not even a year ago, and as far as I can tell, we're reaching that future at a shockingly rapid pace.

So yeah. The tide has definitely turned, and indie is getting bigger and bigger. I was told by the author Rob J. Hayes that some folks "took notice" of his SPFBO win, which goes to show what a useful tool that is for curating these titles. Which is something to keep in mind if any of you are planning books of your own.

If you haven't bought any of his books yet, you can check out Rob J. Hayes' Amazon page here. I recommend his piratical Best Laid Plans books, as they're fairly unique in the fantasy space. Which is a trend Never Die seems to continue with its chanbara influences. It's a book I think looks really kickass, and I'm glad Barnes and Noble seems to think so too!

Monday, May 27, 2019

#SPFBO Interview: Mark Lawrence, Author of Prince of Thorns


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(Originally Published on Dec 29, 2018)

Mark Lawrence. If you're familiar with the "grimdark" subgenre of fantasy, you're probably well aware of his work, most notably the international bestseller Prince of Thorns. He's up there with some of the best and most well-known fantasy authors out there. However, as I got into the indie fantasy scene, I noticed him being brought up with even more frequency.

As it turns out, Mark doesn't just work in the trad publishing space, but also hosts the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, a contest for indie genre authors. Having covered the SPFBO a bit in prior posts, I was curious to see what inspired Mark to start it, as well as his thoughts on other related topics.
MARTIN: So for those who are new to all this, what exactly is SPFBO?

MARK: The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is a contest that exists to shine a light on self-published fantasy. Ten blogs judge 300 books each year to find ten finalists and one winner. It exists to find excellent books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It aims to help readers select, from the enormous range of options, books that have a better chance of entertaining them than a random choice, thereby increasing reader faith in finding a quality self-published read.

MARTIN: As most fantasy readers are no doubt aware, you're traditionally-published, and an international bestseller. So what got you into the indie scene?

MARK: I think it arose through a combination of survivor’s guilt and the fact that I enjoy competitions. I always felt traditional publishing to be a lottery and, when I got a “big” book deal, I never believed it to be because I was somehow head and shoulders better than all the others striving to be in the same place. I encountered a number of self-published authors after being published myself and, before being published I interacted with many unpublished writers on critique forums, so I knew that the reservoir of top class talent out there was huge. I also saw how hard it is for a book, regardless of quality, to somehow show itself above the noise barrier when so many titles are competing for attention. A brilliant book can fail utterly, but that same book, with even a modest publicity push can take off.

The SPFBO was just a small way of offering an extra chance, a way to find great books irrespective of the author’s personal marketing skills and to bring them to a wider audience. It’s also a method to filter some excellence from the sea of self-published offerings so that readers could feel more confidence when committing to them – which then steps toward giving self-published titles in general a better reputation and helps all of them engage new readers.

MARTIN:  So onto your books! You latest novel, Grey Sister, came out this April. For those of us who are new to your books, can you give us a quick pitch of the series?

MARK: Gay murder nuns. You said quick.

MARTIN: Short and to the point. I like it! But now, on to the books you're a fan of. Are there any indie titles in particular you'd recommend to self-pub fantasy newbs, SPFBO or otherwise?

MARK: I'm a slow reader with limited spare time so I've really not read many self-published fantasy books, and almost all of those are SPFBO finalists. My big favourite is Senlin Ascends (now traditionally published). The three winners so far all have much to recommend them. The Grey Bastards (also now traditionally published) is excellent.

MARTIN: What advice would you give any readers here who might be considering a SPFBO submission of their own next year?

MARK: I don't think any advice other than "do it" is required. Otherwise it's the same things you would do if you weren't entering. Write a great book.

MARTIN: And for our last question...you're well-known for fantasy books classified as "Grimdark." As many SFF and gaming fans know, the term had its origins in the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. So I'm curious...do you have a favorite Space Marine Chapter?

MARK: I've never read a Warhammer book and know nothing about them. Though, oddly, I was invited to write for them recently.

Mark Lawrence's next book, Holy Sister, arrives March of next year, and is available for pre-order. You can also check out his Amazon Page to get caught up on his prior work, or his blog for updates on SPFBO and other topics. Also, please consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about writing, authors and other topics related to genre writing!

An Interview with Alec Hutson, Author of "The Crimson Queen"

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(Originally Published on Oct 6, 2018)

 Alec Hutson is a Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off '17 finalist, and the author of the critically acclaimed Raveling series. While a new face in the SFF community, his work is already making waves as a bold new example of Epic Fantasy's rise in independent fiction. I sat down with him recently to discuss self-published fantasy, his experience living in China, and the shifting landscape of SFF fiction.


MARTIN: Alec, Your Raveling series has garnered quite a bit of buzz as of late! Not too long ago, all the positive feedback surrounding the first book in the series (The Crimson Queen) convinced me to buy a paperback copy of my own. And I have to say, I've been enjoying the heck out of this world you've created! So as a newer writer, and a self-published one at that, what's your reaction to all the positive feedback?


ALEC: Well, thank you for the kind words. I have to say the success of Queen caught me pretty much completely off guard. I'd always wanted to write a fantasy book, but I never really seriously entertained the notion that my writing would resonate with others or that my book would achieve a small measure of success. When the positive reviews started coming in and the book began selling at a reasonable clip I was pretty shocked. It was like I was in a dream, to be honest. Along with the surprise, I did feel a small measure of satisfaction regarding the nature of The Crimson Queen - I would consider it very much a book in the mold of a classic high / epic fantasy, and a kind of book that it appears to me that traditional publishers have almost stopped publishing. One of the reasons I self-published was because I simply didn't see many debut books in the mold of Jordan or Feist being trad published today . . . with the exception that sometimes a book like this does so well self-published that it is eventually picked up (like The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington) Queen's success in self-publishing *I think* is partly due to the fact that there is a large number of readers who still love classic fantasy, and their reading needs are no longer being well met by the big houses.


MARTIN: So for those here who haven't yet read the first book, what can they expect from this world you've created? What sort of realms, magic systems, monsters and civilizations lie waiting for the curious reader?


ALEC: It's a classic high fantasy world, with parts of it modeled after different Earth-analogous cultures. For example, one of the main empires is based off of Tang dynasty China (or, at least, the romanticized version that exists today in modern Chinese media), another is a more Classical-era Mediterranean empire, and others are cobbled from several different civilizations. For magic, I really prefer a 'soft' magic system - no formulas or complicated explanations. Hopefully, this preserves some of the wonder. Monsters also exist in the world, though they don't run rampant over the country-side like in D&D. I have a race of ancient creatures called the Ancients who slumber in the deep places in the world, and I was going there for a Lovecraftian vibe. I tried to create my own creatures rather than rely on some of the fantasy archetypes. Basically, I wanted to pay homage to all the classic aspects of fantasy that I love - the magic, the world, the monsters - but put my own little spin on it. Comfort food, but filling.


MARTIN:  It's interesting you bring up unique creatures and worldbuilding elements, because I kind of feel that this is the path fantasy as a whole is taking. Hero's journey stories are obviously never going to go away, but the way we tell Epic Fantasy is bound to change over time. And I notice in more modern fiction that there's a shift away from the Dungeons and Dragons mold of "oh look, here's these archetypes you can find in the Handbook/Monster Manual," and more of a focus on new and unique creatures and worlds. I even talked with some editors in trad on this, and they seem to agree. How do you as a writer, feel about this genre shift?


ALEC: I think it's a good thing. Personally, anytime I browse a fantasy book and see 'elves' or 'orcs' it's a pretty good bet I'm not interested in picking it up. Usually, it shows a paucity of imagination, and if the same recycled races are in a book, most likely the plot isn't going to surprise me. That said, there are exceptions. Two of the best books I've read this year included archetypal fantasy races - The Gray Bastards, which had orcs and centaurs and elves, and The Kings of the Wyld, which was a great nostalgia trip with basically every entry in the old Monster Manual.


MARTIN: It's also worth noting that you participated in the SPFBO last year, and made it as a finalist. As a self-published author, how does it feel knowing that resources and awards like that exist? Do you feel that the self-publishing landscape is improving for SFF authors, and what advantages do you feel they have over trad publishing?


ALEC: It's fantastic knowing that something like the SPFBO exists. Mark Lawrence is a saint for putting up with the headache it must be to herd those cats every year. And yes, I do feel like the SFF self-publishing landscape is improving. I'm seeing more and more authors choosing to self publish good books and ignoring trad publishing entirely. And it has massive advantages. Perhaps the biggest reason I self-published was that I looked at trad publishing and I saw virtually no classic high fantasy debuts being published, despite my feeling that there was still a massive market for it. This was back in 2016 when every new debut competed to claim the title of darkest grimdark. I do believe that the big houses decide 'this' is popular this year or this season and group-think publish only a few types of books - perhaps the kinds of books that the editors and agents want to read, and I don't really think they represent the average fantasy reader. Or, at the very least, there are massive groups of readers undeserved by the books coming out of New York and London. Which is why we're seeing self-published taking a larger and larger chunk of the overall reading market - I believe the most recent numbers put self-published fantasy at something like 35% of the entire pie, which is pretty incredible if you ask me. There's also, of course, the advantage of speed, and that self-published writers can earn a more fair percentage of the money their work brings in.


MARTIN: That's something I've taken note of as well, and while you and I both love a lot of what's coming out of established publishing (I too own Kings of the Wyld!), I kind of feel the same way about the Epic Fantasy genre in particular. The self-pub scene has seen some fairly big releases that are Epic fantasy, with Queen being one of those. As a fan of fantasy -- not necessarily a writer -- what would you ideally like to see coming from that scene in the future? Are there any sort of cultures, myths or Epic Fantasy subgenres you feel are under-served by trad that could see a rise in self-pub? Wuxia, or Space Fantasy (ie Star Wars), something like that?


ALEC: WuXia is actually the perfect example, and more particularly - I believe I'm getting the term right - Xianxia. I think with the rise of gaming readers today have an attachment to the idea of character progression or leveling, and we can see this is LitRPG, which is another subgenre that trad seems blind to. In Chinese Xianxia books the main character starts out weak, but through a cultivation of qi or another internal energy they eventually develop into powerful warriors. They go from losing fights to the schoolyard bully to throwing mountains at the gods. There are a few websites of poorly translated versions of the popular Chinese stories, and they have a growing following. Will Wight's excellent Cradle series (this is the most addictive self-published fantasy I've read) is, I think, a really great version of a Xianxia story, and shows how it can translate to the West. I'm toying with some ideas along this line for my series after The Raveling. I live in Shanghai and have met several Chinese SFF writers, and one of them is keen to collaborate on a project together. I'm not sure if it will happen, but co-writing a Xianxia style-story that's aimed at both a Chinese and Western audience with a local Chinese writer could be pretty cool, and it might be the first such collaboration ever in fantasy fiction.


MARTIN: So your most recent book, The Silver Sorceress, was recently released. Without spoiling anything, were there any cool elements you enjoyed writing in that one? Maybe a sneak peek for those of us who read/are reading Queen?


ALEC: As in Queen, my favorite chapters in Sorceress were those written from the villains' perspective. I like stepping inside the heads of the antagonists because it both humanizes them for the readers and perhaps provides context or justification for some of their actions. And villains are just fun to write.


MARTIN: On your Amazon page, you mention you live in Shanghai, and grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore? I mean, that right there kinda sounds like something from a novel! Do you feel any interesting events or places from your life helped with worldbuilding?


ALEC: Probably not my early life, as that was spent in a quiet Northeast coastal town. Though there is a fair bit of history where I live - my family has lived on the same land since 1600 or so, and the family farm where my cousin and her family now reside has been in the family since 1641. According to an old copy of Ripley's Believe It Or Not it's the oldest continuously owned family farm in America. Also, my hometown - Newburyport - was mentioned in an HP Lovecraft story. So perhaps I've always had an affinity for cosmic horror having grown up there. The biggest influence on worldbuilding for me was living in Asia for the past 15 years and traveling around to places like Angkor and Bagan and Tibet. There's so much rich culture here, and it all becomes grist for the worldbuilding mill.


MARTIN: So normally this is the part where I ask a crazy question to see what creative response my interviewee comes up with...but right now? I'm just curious about the food in China! What are some of your favorite regional dishes and street foods? The intersection of food and culture is always one of those things that really fascinates me, and I'm just dying to know what's out there!


ALEC: Oh, good question! As most folk know, American Chinese is completely different than real Chinese food. Real Chinese food is absolutely terrific and quite varied. It's hard to choose individual dishes, so I'll run through my favorite cuisines.


1. Sichuan. This is the most popular cuisine in China. Famous for its numbing peppercorns and fiery dishes. I suggest everyone eating at an authentic Sichuan restaurant once in your life.

2. Hunan. The really spicy stuff. More hot than numbing. 

3. Xinjiang. This cuisine is from the northwest area of China, and the people here are actually Turkish. Lots of lamb and fried bread. 


4. Dong Bei. Comfort food. Heart dumplings and noodles. The northeast of China.


5. Cantonese. Fresh ingredients and natural flavors, and dim sum is amazing. Dim sum in Hong Kong from one of the Michelin starred cheap restaurants will change your life.


My favorite street food is called jian bing. It's kind of a breakfast crepe - here's a very accurate video of what you'd see on just about every street-corner in China in the morning:


MARTIN: And as an added bonus, what would your main protagonist's favorite Chinese dish be?


ALEC: I think he (Keilan) would like something hearty and rustic, maybe some di san qian (potatoes, peppers, and eggplant in a garlic sauce). Or for a special occasion some guo bao rou (fried pork in sweet sauce).


Alec Hutson's latest book, The Silver Sorceress, is now available on Amazon. For more of his work, please visit his Amazon page and website. For those of you who've already read his books, please be sure to leave a Goodreads review if you haven't already. Also, consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about great SFF, writing and more cool stuff!

Overcoming Your Novel's First Draft

So at long last, I finished my first draft. It was a long process, messy, unbearably dull and frustrating, but I finished it at long last! So the celebrate this milestone, I decided to share some of what I've learned through this process. I'll also be writing a follow-up to this specifically geared towards writers of speculative fiction, which goes into more detail about worldbuilding and such. I assume most of my readers are here for fantasy, but I've tried to make this post as general as possible, so writers of all stripes can hopefully find something useful.

So here's what I learned while writing the first draft of my fantasy novel!

Stick to it, no Matter What
Okay, so I get it. This is like, the bog-standard advice one is given when looking for first draft tips. It's almost as generic as the phrase "just believe in yourself," or those dry-ass Cheerios you give to babies.

The thing is though, as someone who's gone through like, four different first drafts that never made it because I gave up halfway through, I understand the appeal of looking at a barely-coherent trainwreck of a manuscript and saying "egh screw it, the next one I write will be better."
Will that actually be the case though? Perhaps, but in all likelihood, by the midpoint of that "better" draft, you'll be hatin' life all over again, and repeat the cycle anew. Because no matter how objectively good your first draft really is, in your mind, it'll still be Son-of-the-Mask-tier-bad.

Everyone's
like this, even Hemingway and he was better than you'll ever be.

On the other hand, if you stick with it, you'll at least have a basic framework that you can polish up and turn into something slightly readable for the second draft. For example, I once did a cyberpunk hard sci-fi short that I later rewrote as a high fantasy one. Almost nothing from the first version of the story made it into the second one, but having the basic skeletal framework of a narrative to work off of made writing the fantasy version a thousand times easier.

So just to recap here -- thanks to writing out a first draft, I was able to write a second draft that was a complete and total tonal, thematic and genre shift, and yet readers still liked it. It came out alright. If I can do that, then you can polish up your story, or even make a new one out of the flaming clown car wreckage of your old novel. Again, no matter how good it is, you will think it's horrible beyond repair while you write it. And chances are it is.

It's kind of like those rice crispy treats and pipes and wood planks the Cake Boss uses to support those monstrosities he creates (is Cake Boss still a thing? I only use Netflix, so I dunno). I mean, if Buddy just stopped there and left the rice-krispy-treat-and-plumbing-tape sculpture at some event, everyone would scream and run. But when you add the sponge cake, and the fondant, and the buttercream ribbons, a few hours later the rice cereal mound is now a beautiful Squig from Warhammer.

Your first draft is basically that rice crispy treat nightmare. It's unspeakably ugly, but if you don't prepare those foundations, you'll never finish your novel/pastry monster. Tell the Negative Nancy in your head to put a sock in it and trudge on anyway. Because heroes don't quit.

Outlines are Everything (ESPECIALLY in SFF)
You need an outline. There's no ifs or buts about it, you need outlines and supplementary notes, especially if you write Sci-fi & Fantasy fiction. Anything that involves even semi-rigorous worldbuilding requires notes, character profiles, a lengthy list of places that don't exist, magic or tech systems, the menu for that one diner on Vance-VII your scuzzy space-faring bounty hunter hangs at...the whole nine yards.

Now some of you who are "pantsers" are probably soiling said pants right now at the thought of all these outlines and notes. And again, I wanna stress that this is coming from the perspective of a fantasy novelist, so if you do cozy mysteries or middle grade science detective books, then maybe this doesn't apply to you as much. I doubt Chocolate Chipped: A Hawkinsville Bakery Murder Mystery requires anywhere near the amount of lore that The Wheel of Time does. But you still need to outline all your characters,the Hawkinsville Sweets n' Eats shop, Mrs. Darcy, our intrepid baker/PI, and why Sheriff Patters' body was found in a vat of cookie dough.

That doesn't mean you have to organize all your ideas like Martha Stewart and have neat little notes and index cards and all that jazz, though. If that sounds like Chinese water torture to you, then there's all sorts of alternate ways to outline. A quick google search will net you all manner of different ways you can visually organize your ideas, whether it's corkboards, flow charts, or complex Rube Goldberg machines involving hamster wheels and electric wires. You name it, someone's done it. And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how you do it as long as you get your plot structure and story elements written down and accessible.

Outline-wise, I came up with one simple rule a while back, and it's helped me a lot. Because I'm kind of an idea guy who's always coming up with new things a mile a minute. And left to my own devices, a settling's lore might drastically change for better or worse if I don't pin it down and get it written. So because I have this problem, and because this problem is more of an issue in SFF writing, I came up with a simple rule that's helped me ever since:

                                  Your ideas aren't real until you write them down.
Keeping this in mind has forced me to take notes when I come up with ideas I'll need later. To make visual concept boards of locations, armor, settings, foods and cultures so I can reference them as needed. And in the end, it's helped me stay organized and consistent with my work. Worldbuilding is hard stuff, and especially when you're writing genres that nerds like to read, you really need to put in that extra effort to make sure the make-believe logic of your world is consistent. Because not doing that could mean you get Red Letter Media'd by some blogger or youtuber who picks apart all the little inconsistencies in your book, and I wouldn't wish that upon my worst enemy.

Again, depending on what genre you pick and how much of an "enthusiast" market it has, your level of outlining may vary. Would-be Tolkiens will need stacks and stacks of notes, while thriller writers may just need some characters, locations and a basic beat sheet/chapter outline written down. But either way, you need to write stuff down. As much stuff as you can stomach, and maybe more. It's busywork and it can kind of suck at times (unless you're a massive dork like me and you find that stuff fun) but in the end, your homework, outlines and notes will pay off.

Manage your Influences
So this one might just be me, but I'm throwing it out there in case anyone else is like this. Personally, I find that the media I consume while writing fiction ends up impacting what I write. This includes video games, TV, movies, and other books.

Now again, this may just be me, and you might be fine watching Winnie the Pooh before writing a groady crime thriller. I cannot however, and I mention all this because maybe the media you consume might be affecting you without you realizing it. This also goes back to the "use an outline and stick to it," thing, because sticking to said outline is easier when you really get in the spirit of the thing. Now if you feel this doesn't apply -- then cool. By all means, ignore  everything in this section. But in the off chance you think it might...just try to manage what you watch and read, it might end up making a huge difference in how you write.

Write (Almost) Every Day
If you're just starting out writing, following through with it can be really difficult. And even as someone who's written in just about every other medium, I found myself struggling to finish my draft. The soul-crushing, brain-through-six-miles-of-broken-glass process of writing a story that's borderline unreadable and might be anywhere from 40%-80% scrapped is...well, a daunting one, to say the least.

As someone who's also been through this process at least 2-3 times, I can also safely say that it does NOT get easier the further along you are. If you can actually make it past the 2nd and 3rd draft, then yes. Based on my past experience with other mediums, I think once you acquire a knack for it, it gets easier to do. As of now, I could probably bang out a comic book script in my sleep, for example. But it actually gets harder and harder as time goes on, and the closer you get to your novel's end, the more tempted you'll be to simply half-ass it so you can be done forever with this nightmare of a story.
The only way you can reasonably keep this process up is to make it a habit. To type at least 2000 words every day into the word processor and only ever stop for bloody, screaming emergencies and birthday parties. Notice I didn't say holidays. Yes, I even write on Christmas, Halloween and the Fourth of July. I do so while working around the usual celebrations (I'm not a monster -- I celebrate with my family, but also work either really early or late after said celebrations are over).  If you fail to meet a deadline, you must punish yourself in a humane, but uncomfortable way. Maybe drink your morning coffee without sweetener, or do 200 push-ups, or sit through a full episode of Jerry Springer. Something to get you to think "oh yeah, writing that crappy first draft is at least better than this."
Also, try to keep yourself accountable to someone other than yourself. I tend to post my progress on drafts on my Facebook, and seeing other, published authors like and comment on these posts has helped keep me invested in the process. It's kind of a reminder that yeah, I'm not just doing this for me. You need to be like frickin' Goku training constantly to improve your craft, or else you'll end up like Gohan in Dragon Ball Super and stop being the Strongest Person in the Universe because you gave up like a frikkin' nerd. Or in your case, stop being an active writer. Which would suck. Like Yamcha Don't be Yamcha.

Go Get Some Pizza When Everything's Done
Okay, so maybe it doesn't have to be pizza. Or food at all. You know that Spider-Man game that came out on PS4? Congrats, go ahead and grab that now, and play it for a few days, or hit the movies if something good's out. Congrats, you earned it.
Writing fiction can be legitimately stressful, nail-biting or worse -- dull and boring at times. And most people who start writing never actually finish their projects. As of now, I've finished the first part -- the first draft, but that's just like, one third of climbing Everest. But helping yourself to little victories can make all the difference in wanting to continue. I heard once (I think in a podcast somewhere?) that Brandon Sanderson would open a MTG pack after completing an especially difficult chapter, as a sort of reward. And honestly, I can kinda see why. Anything that helps train your mind to associate writing with something good can help increase morale quite a bit. Granted, I wouldn't go so far as to eat an entire candy bar after every chapter (please don't), but doing something nice for yourself as a motivator can really help you move along, even through the bits that make you want to jump in the sea and die. It kind of ties in with the "punishments" in that this is the carrot and those are the "stick." When you do good, treat yourself within reason. When you mess up, or get lazy, correct yourself (again within reason).
Eventually you will start making a habit of it, and it'll come easier. At least it did for me. Which is not to say it still wasn't difficult at times (towards the end I had to force myself to get through it because it was such a flaming trash fire), but hey. Pizza. And if you don't pull your weight, no soup pizza for you!

Again, I get that some of this stuff is pretty basic, but at the end of the day, it worked. Which is why I decided to write this piece shortly after the draft was finished. All this stuff is still very fresh in my mind, and in the off chance it helps someone, anyone, I'll feel it was all worth it more so than it already is.

Anyway, that's all for now. I have another draft to begin soon, and that one's twice as long, I suspect.
On the one hand, I'm kinda excited. First Drafts are by nature, worse getting your teeth pulled by clowns. Clowns who use the laughing gas on themselves instead of on you. The second draft though, I hear is even worse than that, if you ask certain people. So