05 April 2021

Sweet & Salty Reviews: Whispers in the Dark by K.B. Elijah

The Dish
Whispers in the Dark is a novella written by K.B. Elijah and published by Black Hare Press as part of a run of ‘underground’ themed short reads.

The Sauce
Shawn Torosian is trapped for decades in a timeless, deathless prison called the Void. One day, a voice begins to speak to him and Shawn’s mind turns to escape for the first time in twenty years. What follows is a detailed account of his escape.

The Sweet
Right off the bat, it is easy to feel sympathy for Shawn Torosian. He’s a political prisoner of a war he played only a minor part in, subjected to unthinkable horrors and a mind-numbing eternity in the Void. The fact that he wasn’t just executed is actually instrumental to the plot of this novella. Actually, most of the small details of this story are instrumental to the plot. K.B. Elijah has done an excellent job of leaving breadcrumbs throughout that an eagle-eyed reader will connect to the eventual twists.

The world-building is solid and there’s a lot to like about the universe outside of the Void. The ‘cyber-fantasy’ setting reminds me just a little of Sega’s old Shining Force series, which I have a sizeable soft spot for. It’s great to see it again.

It’s also amazing the depth of feeling I got from Shawn towards his former lover, Merrigold. Despite never appearing in person, Merri is a fully-drawn character and I can absolutely believe Shawn’s love for her as both a driving force and a source of constant grief.

Avoiding spoilers, the ending of the story is both well-signposted while also being surprising (because there is an unforeseen double twist). However, this is a Black Hare Press horror novella, so you have been warned.

The Salty
My most major criticism of this story is that it’s short. I mean, duh, because it’s a novella. But K.B. Elijah has constructed a deep and intriguing universe in this novella that screams to be given a more grandiose stage to stand upon. The war between the Empire and the Brotherhood could fill the pages of two or three full novels. The incidents leading to Shawn’s arrest ALONE would be worth a book. While this work does stand well enough alone, I feel the potential of this universe keenly and I’d like to see it drawn in greater detail in additional volumes.

Other than that, there is not a lot here to criticise. There is the occasional typo, but I am usually more forgiving of this in indie publications than in traditionally-published manuscripts. And, while Shawn does spend a lot of time in introspection, this isn’t so much a flaw in the writing as it is simply expected of a character who’s spent twenty years alone, living in either a fantasy of his own creation or a dark, featureless box.

The Aftertaste
For someone looking for a short, engaging read set in a detailed universe with a character you can both connect to and feel for, K.B. Elijah’s Whispers in the Dark is for you. It won’t take you long to finish but the ending will probably leave you feeling as hollowed out as the Void. Here’s hoping for more from both this world and the author.

26 February 2021

Sweet & Salty Reviews: Nite Fire: Flashpoint by C.L. Schneider

The Dish
Flashpoint is the first book in the Nite Fire trilogy by C.L. Schneider, an urban fantasy series told in first-person from the perspective of human-dragon hybrid, Dahlia Nate. The book is a good, long length but doesn’t really feel long. The majority of events occur on modern day earth, with some short trips to ‘Drimera’, Dahlia’s homeworld and home of the dragons.

When Blackthorn Book Tours announced they were doing a tour for this book, I decided I had to read it. It’s been awhile since I read a good, old-fashioned urban fantasy and that is exactly what Flashpoint delivers.

The Sauce
Dragons are real. They rule the multiverse and govern the travel and interaction of all species. Their willing servants are the lyrriken, human-dragon hybrids, who are capable of shifting into scaled demi-dragon forms with magical abilities (flame, water, etc.) They are totally awesome. This is the gist of it, but the book has a lot more going on than just that.

The Sweet
There’s a lot to like about Flashpoint. Dahlia is a tough, no-nonsense protagonist. Her strengths are believable of her character. She’s physically strong because she’s combat-trained (and inhuman); she’s intuitive because she’s lived over a hundred years; she’s casually deceptive because she lives a life based on lies. Her flaws are also well-drawn - her empathy honestly does feel like a curse, her powers don’t work in every situation just because it’s convenient for her and she is torn throughout the book by a desire to settle and a need to keep moving. She’s paranoid and distrustful but also, in places, quite noble. As a central character, she fits the bill quite nicely. She also does a pretty good line in trash talk.

The supporting cast are also solid. Casey Evans, Alex Creed, Brynne, Ronan, Oren, Sal, all brought out different sides of Dahlia at different key moments in the story, allowing us to see every facet of her personality. Character wrangling might be C.L. Schneider’s author superpower because honestly I didn’t feel like a single interaction in this book was misplaced. Everything seemed to serve a purpose and, once I got started, this book just flew by.

There are some attempts to tie unexplainable phenomena to the dragons’ interference in Earth’s history but the book doesn’t overburden this concept. Mostly, it is just accepted that spontaneous human combustion is struggling as a catch-all explanation for dragon immolation in the modern era and I like that. It shows progression in the fictional world that mirrors the progress we have made in our own and it’s a nice touch.

People who know me will also know that I have a soft-spot for psycho ex-girlfriends, so I was particularly taken with Brynne as a character. In particular, I enjoyed the sense of unease around her. Do we feel sorry for her because of all the terrible things that happened to her? Or do we keep in perspective that, actually, she was always just a little bit cracked? I felt that the duality of sympathy versus disgust at her actions was a prime strength of the book.

As a first book in a series, Flashpoint does an excellent job of wrapping up certain plot points by the end of the novel while leaving others open for the sequel. It is pretty clear that this isn’t a stand-alone and anyone approaching it as such will probably be disappointed. But the connections to the second book are strong and I feel like there is enough here to make this a satisfying read, while still leaving the reader eager for more.

The Salty
Dahlia has a major problem that is common in many urban fantasy protagonists, male and female. Most of the men, and a good portion of the women, have the hots for her. She is surrounded by a circle of good-looking men and women who all want to sleep with her. Her somewhat-more-platonic relationships with Casey Evans and Alex Creed are a nice change of pace, though the fact that they are both handsome is still hammered home pretty conclusively. While I get that urban fantasy does have certain genre conventions, I did start to get kind of weary of all the exceptionally pretty people. In fact, there literally isn’t a single plain-looking or overweight person in this book.

I was also of two minds about Dahlia’s attitude towards Brynne. While, yes, Brynne might always have been crazy and badly behaved, Dahlia is a lot harsher with her than she is with Ronan, who betrayed her just as many times and, while he may not be a psycho killer, is at least as unsympathetic. Obviously, there is a very real, very troubling precedent of women forgiving their cheating partners but not the other women (even though the other women owe them nothing), it did diminish my respect for Dahlia that she was constantly willing to forgive Ronan for all his wrong-doings but remained generally unsympathetic towards Brynne throughout. The only difference, for me, is that Ronan could conceivably have been allowed to live, while Brynne needed to be put down for her own good as well as everyone else’s. A little sympathy on Dahlia’s part wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Also, honestly, if you’re trying to describe the ethereal majesty of the centuries-old queen of dragons’ human form, maybe don’t compare her to a stripper. There’s an issue of using the appropriate language for a scene and I feel like that really diminished Naalish as a character and as a presence. I couldn’t really take her seriously after that. Oddly enough, the same didn’t happen with the male dragon-shifters.

The Aftertaste
On the whole, Flashpoint is a good urban fantasy novel. Dahlia is a balanced character, she has a strong supporting cast to play off and the villain is perfect both in terms of her personal grudge against Dahlia and her connection to the wider universe. The cast’s unrelenting sexiness did become a little tiring after the first few chapters but it didn’t distract too much from what was, in essence, a well-plotted, fast-paced, action-packed tale with a number of unique and interesting takes on classic genre conventions. The world-building is smooth, the magic system is robust and versatile and there are surprises galore.

One thing is for sure. Whether they’re hot or not, lyrriken are definitely cool.

05 February 2021

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

The Dish
Lovecraft Country is a supernatural/eldritch horror novel written by Matt Ruff. In actuality, the book is more a collection of short stories. It weighs in at 372 pages in length and was published by Picador. It’s also now a major HBO series. Fans of Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids will probably really like because it’s in a similar vein - a kind of ‘extended universe’ Lovecraft story set in mid-century USA.

The Sauce
Atticus Turner returns from military service in the Korean war to find that a shady, eldritch cult has set its sights on him. What follows are eight tales of Atticus, his family and friends and their brushes with the cult and its sinister leaders. To make matters worse, the protagonists must contend with the prejudice endemic to the era, a proposition that is sometimes far more daunting than the lurking horrors of the supernatural world.

The Sweet
Ruff’s prose is elegant and stylish. He has constructed his stories cleverly, slotting each encounter with the cult together so that every tale builds neatly to a unified conclusion. His characters are charming and maintain a fine balance between down-to-earth and philosophical. It’s difficult to pick out a favourite because they are all so well-drawn, so multi-dimensional. Even the ‘villain’, Caleb Braithwhite, is perfectly charming and a lot of fun to watch in action.

What appealed to me most about Lovecraft Country was just how big a fanboy of H.P. Lovecraft Matt Ruff is. Reflected in Atticus’s thoughts on Lovecraft’s work, it’s clear that Ruff embraces the lore while still being painfully aware of its flaws. As such, there are wonderfully clever moments where he lampoons or straight-up mocks Lovecraft’s ignorance of his subject matter. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this book for fans of the Mythos.

Another thing this book does excellently is convey the danger experienced by black Americans during that era. The clenching fear that comes from encountering a mob of racists or a corrupt police officer, or the frustration of operating within a society that proclaims equality while enforcing segregation, often eclipses that of the stories’ supernatural elements. The first few stories, in particular, really hammered this ever-present terror and distrust home.

What I found most commendable about Ruff’s writing was that he chose not to divide the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters by colour. Included in this book are white people who suffered for their racially tolerant views, black people whose hard-line views polarise even their family members. Ruff gives a balanced account throughout and Caleb Braithwhite is the perfect antagonist for this book because he isn’t a racist. It places this book in a context where the ultimate conflict is a battle between good and evil, not black and white.

All the same, the aspect of racial tension, the new lens, really makes Lovecraft Country shine. The collision of pre-Civil Rights black culture and the Mythos provides an unusual context to the cults and hauntings and betentacled horrors that turns this book into something truly unique. It even raises some interesting questions about the original Mythos itself. Were the shoggoths in ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ really the villains, considering they were slaves who’d overthrown their masters? The challenge to Lovecraft’s presuppositions in his original works is both clear and apt.

I literally don’t love anything more than a self-aware novel and Matt Ruff delivers on that score. This is a book that is patently aware of the limitations of its source material and exploits it to great effect.

The Salty
There isn’t a lot to dislike in Lovecraft Country. My only real criticism is that the tension that Ruff spun out so beautifully in the early chapters started to flag in the last couple of stories. However, there is a reason for that, owing to the characters and events portrayed in those stories. It’s difficult to explain without giving spoilers but I think it makes sense.

Another issue, I suppose, is the note it ends on. Lovecraft didn’t exactly specialise in happy endings but, on the whole, Lovecraft Country’s tales tend towards being upbeat and hopeful. But you know what? Why the hell not? I really liked all the characters in this book and I’d probably have felt cheated if they didn’t get a happy ending. After all, they deserved it.

The Aftertaste
Lovecraft Country is a clever, well-crafted, funny and thoughtful read. I can say, with some certainty, that there isn’t really another book like it. I didn’t just enjoy reading it; it made me thoughtful too. At a time of civil unrest and with the BLM movement still in focus, this book has a lot of relevance, despite its mid-century setting.

14 January 2021

How Not to Write - Write Place, Write Time

A fellow writer recently asked me how I find so much time to write. There are a lot of factors that go into finding that time and some of them are easier than others to duplicate.

The most important is finances. If you work full-time, you’ll always have less time than someone who works part-time. That’s just math. But since “work less hours” is crap advice, I thought I’d dedicate this post to unpacking my best advice for how to maximise your writing time and output.

1. Decide on Your Priorities
The main reason I have so much time to write is because there mostly isn’t anything else I want to do more. I don’t care much about TV, I don’t play video games quite as much as I used to and my social life is minimal (my girlfriend socialises enough for both of us). I deliberately limit my time online and, while I do cook, I don’t make much with excessive prep time. One method for maximising your writing time is just to ask yourself, “do I really enjoy what I’m currently doing or find it useful?” and then cutting it out if the answer is, “no”.

2. Enjoy It
Nothing feels more laborious than trying to churn out a story you don’t find interesting. Worse, it’s wasteful. You’ll spend longer trying to write that story than one you love, which will just fly by. That’s why it’s important to focus on the projects that speak to you personally. Your word output per hour will shoot up if you’re writing something you love. Just be aware it might take some experimentation to figure out what that is.

3. Seize Your Opportunities
How many times have you found yourself with a loose ten or twenty minutes while you’re waiting on something else? And how many times have you used that time to check Facebook? Now, I understand for most people it’s going to be hard to get into the writing mindset in just ten minutes but believe me when I say it gets quicker the more you practice. Maybe you don’t have time to start up the PC or laptop, but could you write a passage on your phone? On your tablet? On a piece of paper? Personally, it’s why I love my AlphaSmart. I hit one button and there I am, ready to type. It comes with me everywhere, just in case I find myself with ten minutes.

4. Make a Plan
Okay, so this one won’t be for everyone. I’m a planner. It’s how INTJs do. Everything I write, I plan. Usually, I start with a synopsis so that I know the beginning, middle and end. From the synopsis, I expand into a blow-by-blow summary of the story’s events. I write the dialogue out in script format and make vague mentions of things I want to describe. Then, I expand this bare bones summary into a full story. It stops me from meandering by giving me a thread to follow and gives me an idea of what kind of word count to expect. How does this give me more time to write? Simple. I’m not wasting time flailing around in the dark because I don’t know where the story’s going. I already know so I’m just going there.

5. Practice
How long have I been writing? Anyone who looks at my list of publications might say a year, maybe two. Actually, it’s more than twenty. Some people write when they’re kids or teens and then pick it back up in later life. I never stopped. I have literally been writing more than half my life.

My point? The more you practice something, the quicker you will get at it. It’s mechanically true and its creatively true. The more you type, the quicker typing becomes. This means you can write more in an hour. Again, math. Additionally, the more you think creatively, the easier creativity will come to you. I like to read books and watch movies and try to imagine how I would make them “better”. I used to write a lot of fan fiction and finding creative ways to use the source material is half the fun. It’s good practice for imagining, and so are hobbies like roleplay gaming. Yes, though I never thought I would be that nerd, I play Dungeons & Dragons now too.

There’s an important connection to make here. While learning to think creatively isn’t necessarily tied to word count, you can’t write if you don’t have any ideas. The more ideas you have, the more stories you have to write, the higher your output will be. That’s... Crap, is that math again? God damn it.

6. Let It Go
Here’s where I contradict everything I’ve just said. Sometimes, you’re not going to be in the right mindset to write. You’ll have had a bad day, you’ll be tired, you’ll be irritated. Just the idea of writing feels like a chore. In those moments, sitting down to type might actually be detrimental to you. You’ll spend that time writing nothing or, worse, writing something you hate. Your confidence will take a knock. You might not want to go back to it. On those nights, you need to pull the ripcord. Watch a movie. Read a book. If you must put words into something, work on a plan. Don’t try to write as your best self. Take a night off and come back refreshed (and maybe even with a plan) for next time.

And that’s a six-point plan to help maximise your writing time and output. While finding time is important (obviously), output is more vital, in my opinion. There’s no point having five hours of writing time if you only write one word an hour. One thousand words, on the other hand, gives you a full short story in the same amount of time.

In brief, here’s what I suggest:
1. Put limits on activities that aren’t writing. Let writing be as unfettered as possible.
2. Write stories that interest and excite you.
3. Write whenever the opportunity presents itself.
4. Plan extensively to maximise output and minimise meandering.
5. Write a lot so you can get quicker and better at it.
6. Give yourself a break so you don’t start to hate it.

Hopefully, you’ll find something on this list helpful. Do you have any advice of your own? What helps you maximise your time and output? Let me know!

30 December 2020

Simone’s Achievements and Lessons Learned in 2020

It’s been a weird year. On the one hand, global pandemic, perpetual uncertainty, civil unrest and the looming weirdness of 2021. On the other, I’ve experienced a lot of personal success and so I’ve felt a strange disconnect from the horrors being reported in the media.

Early this year, my GF put forward the idea that we had to make the very best of 2020. A lot of people were suffering or losing things and we were quite privileged to be making gains on life goals we’d been pursuing for a couple of years. We’d be squandering our opportunities if we didn’t make the best of them and didn’t show gratitude for what we’d been given.

So what, exactly, did I achieve in 2020?
+ I wrote approximately 1,020,000 words from January to December.
+ I wrote a novella in 20 days.
+ I landed over 40 stories in 10 different publications just this past year.
+ Appeared as the first story in the anthology ‘Reach for the Sky’ from Rogue Blades Entertainment.
+ I placed in 5 different contests.
+ I was asked by a publisher to turn a short story into a full novel to be considered for publication.
+ I was invited to 5 different invitation-only projects.
+ I’ve been interviewed by companies who’ve published my work for their sites.
+ I joined the beta and read team of a small press I work with for a taste of how the other half live.
+ I’ve met some amazing writers and received signed copies of their work.
+ And more, which I can’t bring myself to divulge right now.

Note: This is equal parts bragging and blessing-counting, because I’m proud of what I’ve achieved but also just kind of astounded. This time last year, I didn’t have an author Facebook page (I didn’t even use Facebook), this blog didn’t exist, my Twitter didn’t exist and my previous writing credits numbered exactly 3. That’s quite a jump in just one year.

Of course, all this gloating is kind of pointless if I can’t explain HOW I achieved any of this. So this is the part of the blog where I try to unpack the behaviours that led to these successes:

1. Leave social media alone
One of the biggest drains on productivity has to be using social media. You can waste hours and hours on Facebook and Twitter and feel like you’re really achieving something but, the truth is, you’re not. Follower count is just a number. It doesn’t equate to book sales.

I’ve long held the opinion that social media makes everyone feel like the world moves faster than it really does. The ability to check throughout the day just means disappointment throughout the day.

My solution is to check social media once a day, at most, and only for an hour. Take the apps off your phone, do it at the PC/laptop and limit yourself. Not only will you enjoy that hour more, look forward to checking for new messages with less disappointment, you’ll also get more done around it.

Next time you think to yourself: “I’ll just check Facebook”, why not say: “I’ll just type another couple hundred words” instead.

2. Get yourself a burner project
It’s hard writing quality all the time. When you want everything you write to be perfect enough to be published first time, you’re going to get performance anxiety eventually and it’s going to be hard to write through. The solution? Get yourself a project that doesn’t need to be perfect.

Whenever you’re having a hard time writing your professional pieces, write a couple thousand words of your fan fiction, your self-indulgent nonsense, and feel better. It doesn’t just clear the dross out of your brain. It’s also good practice. And who knows? It might help you thrash out some concepts and make a good basis for a professional story at some point. Think of it like drafting without the burden of actually having to edit.

Trust me, if my word count for this year is anything to judge by, the more you relax and just write, the more “real” writing you’ll get done.

3. Become a reviewer
Stephen King said that every writer needs to also be a reader. Without reading, he said, you don’t have the tools to write. I would go one step further and suggest becoming a reviewer.

Reviewing is a good way to give back to the community. A review on Amazon can help independent and self-published authors my giving their work more spotlight. It also just means a lot more to people who don’t get many reviews. Being a reviewer has also opened a few doors for me. Since the start of this year, I’ve worked on virtual book tours, joined an ARC team and become a beta reader. Hopefully, I’ve also spread a little love to people just like me.

4. It’s not a rejection, it’s a miss
Rejection is the wrong word for what happens in this industry. Since joining a reading team towards the end of this year, I’ve realised that picking stories for an anthology is a carefully weighted and painstaking process. It’s really hard. And sometimes a story that you love just doesn’t make the cut for any number of reasons.

So it hasn’t been rejected. It’s been loved. It’s been desired. But reality has gotten in the way. Personally, I tend to look at this more as a “miss”. Yeah, it’s a great story but it doesn’t fit the theme as well as some others or it doesn’t have the right tone or the genre’s a little off. The good thing about missing with an arrow you fire is that you can put it back in the quiver for later. This year, I refired over half a dozen missed arrows and they all hit. It’s just about finding the right target.

5. Forget your darlings
You wrote a novel and you love it. Now that you’ve written it, reread it, drafted it, fixed it, edited it, had it beta-read, you want to find an agent and get published. That’s the process, right?

Well, maybe not. Querying takes forever because the traditional publishing industry has no agility whatsoever, despite technology having made everything more rapid. Yes, it’s where the money is, but if you haven’t demonstrated that you can get published, how are you going to get published?

My success level climbed significantly when I gave up on landing the big one (for the time being). I’d say I probably look like a more appealing candidate as an author with 40+ acceptances under my belt but I’d never have achieved that if I’d doggedly pursued that one goal everyone else in the industry is also pursuing.

So, yeah, I’ve put a pin in finding an agent for the time being. Maybe I’ll try again in 2021. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll wait until I hit 100 before I try it again.

6. Get the right tools

Microsoft Word is great but it comes with a lot of unpleasant distractions. The internet is always just a task bar button away. You need the right music, you need to research something, you need to play a couple of games of solitaire or something on Steam before you can get writing. There are too many things on a PC that aren’t just writing.

That’s why I have an Alphasmart. Specifically, an Alphasmart Neo. It’s basically a calculator screen with a QWERTY keyboard attached, slightly smaller than a laptop. It doesn’t have a backlight and it certainly doesn’t have an internet browser. What it does have is enough space to write a novel.

I do all my writing on the Alphasmart. All of it. I write in the car (when I’m not driving). I have a little reading light so I can write in the dark. I write in caf├ęs and restaurants. I even wrote this on the Alphasmart. It doesn’t need to boot up. It just switches on. It takes AA batteries and lasts for MONTHS. When I’m done, I connect it to the PC with Ye Olde Printer Cable and hit “Send”. It types the story into Word for me and I can go and make brownies. When I come back, it’s ready to save and edit.

The Alphasmart’s grotesque lack of features is its primary selling point. Literally all you can do with it is type. There are no formatting options, no music player, not even a spell check (not one that works anyway). And it’s faster and easier on the wrists than trying to write it out in long hand.

7. Appreciate your fans
If someone takes the time to tell you that they loved your work, take the time to say thank you. We are past the days of anonymised authors in ivory towers unreachable to the general public. If you keep a wall erected between you and your fans, they’ll likely just go and find someone who they can connect with instead. If you can say nothing else about this red ocean we’re paddling in, there are always more fish in the sea.

I’m fortunate enough to live with my biggest fan. She is part of my process, part of my life, part of me. I would wish everyone that happiness in whatever form it comes in: a good friend, a regular reviewer, a contributor or beta reader, or any combination thereof.

The thing I’m most thankful for, the thing I’m most proud of, is being with her through this trying time, and continuing on with her into next year. That’s the note I want to end on.

Whatever it looks like for you, Happy New Year. I hope that maybe 2021 is for you what 2020 has been for me.

30 November 2020

5 Reasons Until Dawn is a Master Class in Writing Craft

Five years is the usual distance I like to keep between myself and the current trend in gaming. My heart has been broken too many times by full-price release titles. I’ll sometimes make an exception if something interesting darts into my field of vision. This being said, it should come as no surprise that I’ve only just started playing Until Dawn, a game many people became acquainted with quite a few years ago. 

Yeah, I knew it existed. I contemplated playing it a couple of times. I think something about the concept rankled on me. It was only this year, with a subscription to Playstation Now and a sense of wanting to play a game that wasn’t a 100-hour RPG or another FPS that the idea of an interactive movie started to appeal.

Let me tell you I regret waiting so long. Anyone who hasn’t played Until Dawn should avail themselves of at least a Let’s Play on YouTube before reading this article because I am going to spoil the hell out of it.

This isn’t a review necessarily. I’m looking at it from the perspective of what we, as writers, can learn about the craft from the game. Here are five reasons Until Dawn is a master class of the writing craft.

1. Characters You Can’t Help But Care About

We’ve all watched the movie about the college kids on spring break. We all know the college kids are irritating as hell and they’re mostly fodder for whatever cool-looking monster/machete-wielding maniac is chasing them. Actually, I wrote an article about this phenomenon a short while ago.

Until Dawn has the college kids too. At first, I wasn’t impressed by any of them (except possibly Sam, who was conscientious and kind from the outset). But, when things start to get real, layers peel off these guys like dry onions. Whether it’s Chris’s moral dilemma of choosing between Josh and Ashley, Mike’s (absolutely thrilling) chase after Jessica is abducted, Sam’s towel-clad badassery or Matt and Emily’s mission to save the day, I thawed on these characters quicker than that mountain during the summertime.

By showing these characters pulling together, showing strength and backbone, succeeding against the (frankly overwhelming) odds, you really start to feel for these guys. And that makes it even more painful when they start to die. It’s a perfect study of how to turn potentially irritating characters into actual protagonists whose lives matter and I recommend it for anyone wanting to study this subject in more detail.

2. Consistency Across Alternates

Until Dawn’s most attractive feature is its multiple paths. Denoted by ‘butterfly effect’ markers that pop up pretty regularly throughout, you can influence events and relationships that constantly change dialogue and events, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in irrevocably major ways. 

The writing staff really took pains to ensure character consistency across these branching paths. Even when you are the one making the decisions for them, they still feel like they are within the field of possibilities for that character.

Let’s say Chris chooses to save Ashley instead of Josh. Does he then turn the gun on Ashley rather than himself because he blames her for what he ultimately did to his best friend? Mike chases after Jessica to rescue her even if she resists his advances, so it makes sense he’d charge headlong into the asylum to save the others. Even his decision to shoot (or not shoot) Emily makes sense considering he doesn’t want anybody else to die.

It’s a brilliant example of character consistency when you are given two completely opposite courses of action but can still justify those behaviours by a character’s personality.

3. Even the Characters Can Build a Narrative

It’s not just the writers of Until Dawn who can tell a compelling story. Josh does exactly the same thing when he concocts his ‘psychopath stalker’ game. He leaves little clues dotted around the location for the characters to find. Yes, these are collectibles in-game but, when you find enough of them, you’re treated to a little conjecture between Chris and Ashley during one of the early chapters.

The way Josh gets the characters to believe in the fake psychopath is exactly how writers will wrong-foot a reader into thinking someone is a villain who isn’t, that the murderer is a different suspect, that a character can be trusted when they can’t. They’re also a prime example of what happens when you let people draw their own conclusions from disparate clues rather than state things explicitly.

This confusion works particularly well for long-form horror, thriller and crime novels, where the outcome needs to be less obvious to be really satisfying.

4. The Pincer Attack is Powerful

One of my favourite story builds is the ‘protagonists caught between two villains’ framework. The creator of MTV’s Teen Wolf, Jeff Davis, did this exceptionally throughout the run of the show, even as early as season 1, with the alpha werewolf and werewolf hunters butting heads, while Scott and his friends were caught in the middle. 

Until Dawn makes superb use of this method by pitting the protagonists against both Josh’s fake psychopath and the eventual villains, the wendigo. The confusion caused by Josh’s hardcore lunatic pranking means that the group are in complete disarray by the time the wendigo have begun to make their presence seriously felt.

Despite only being a red herring, Josh manages to still feel like a villain right up until the final chapter of the game. This push-and-pull between two malevolent forces is a great way of stacking the odds against characters, as well as giving interesting opportunities for alliances, betrayals and surprising twists.

5. The Butterfly Effect is Layered as Hell

I remember it being said that, if a character is to be shot in the third act, the gun should be introduced in the first act. This is the approach that Until Dawn takes with its butterfly effect. Choices made early in the game have lasting effects later. Chris’s choice between Josh and Ashley, Mike’s experience with the bear trap, Matt and Emily’s ability to stay on the same page, all have major repercussions for their lives and well-being.

For writers, it’s worth remembering that small details often make a story. An offhand comment that one character makes to another can foreshadow something major. A seemingly pointless item can crop up to play a huge role later. One of the reasons why it’s always important to draft a story, even a short one, is to connect the ending to the beginning. Draw from the final chapter, the final thousand words, and feed them back into the opening so that the story really feels like it was building to that ending all along.

And those are my five reasons why Until Dawn is a master class in writing craft. Do you agree with the points I’ve raised? Have your own examples of excellent writing craft from video games, TV shows, movies or books? Leave me a comment! Let’s get a dialogue going.

23 November 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

The Dish 
A Darker Shade of Magic is the first in a dark(er) fantasy trilogy by V.E. Schwab, published by Titan Books. The book is 384 pages long, a medium-sized paperback, and the chapters are cut up nice and small for ease of reading (something I’ve really come to appreciate this last year). The book is positively swathed in praise, inside and out, and it is (mostly) well-deserved.

The Sauce

There are four worlds, all different, but with one bizarre similarity. Every single one has a city called London in them. Magic is real, a living entity that exists in symbiosis with humanity. Kell, an Antari, is able to travel between the worlds, which are otherwise shut off from one another.

The Sweet
V.E. Schwab’s greatest talent lies in creating interesting and charismatic genre characters. She leans on some tropes and steers away from others to create a cast who are familiar yet strikingly unique. Kell, Lila, Rhy, Holland and the Danes are all very entertaining to watch and it’s easy to believe V.E. Schwab had a lot of fun writing their different interactions. The hardest part of writing this book was probably curbing their personalities to get the story written.

A lot happens in A Darker Shade of Magic. The book is never dull. There are fires, explosions, lots of stabbing, magic fights and, when the characters aren’t trying to kill one another, amusing and engaging banter. V.E. Schwab does an excellent line in ‘never a dull moment’ genre fiction and the good thing is that she’s building up quite a bibliography for anyone who might be hungry for more.

My favourite character, by a Grey London mile, is Lila. Anyone who knows me will probably have been able to see that coming. Not that Kell isn’t still a great character. In fact, I warmed to him thoroughly after the first few chapters and magnanimously decided that, yes, he could be the protagonist if he wanted. But Lila has the rough edges that I really appreciate in a character. She’s violent and sarcastic but still possesses a glimmer of charity and a hidden core of insecurity. I liked Lila a lot and, if I buy the second book in the series, it will probably be to see how she gets on.

The Salty
Unfortunately, A Darker Shade of Magic does suffer from Vengeful-syndrome. The story is rollicking along at a blistering pace, full of excitement and twists and turns and the anticipation is rising to a fever pitch and then... Stuff kind of just tapers off.

The ending leaves a lot to be desired. I try not to leave spoilers in these reviews now so I won’t mention specifics, but several characters don’t get enough page space considering how major their roles are. The final battles are also over horribly quickly and result in less of a bang and more of a whimper after how massively they were built up through the rest of the story.

There were also some characters/plot lines who vanished during the story and nothing was ever made of them again. I feel like these really should have been trimmed back in editing rather than just left as loose ends.

For that matter, there are a surprising number of typos in this professionally edited manuscript, some of which are actually kind of major (like, three or four words mangled in what I assume must have been an edit-introduced error, which I saw a couple of times). While I hold traditionally-published authors to a higher standard than the self-published, I actually don’t mind the errors. It might just be the wannabe in me, delighting in the idea that I don’t need to be perfect to be a professional. Though, naturally, I will still try.

The Aftertaste
A Darker Shade of Magic is a good read. It’s got a solid, pacy story with thoroughly interesting characters and the build of tension throughout is sensational. The magic use is thrilling. The rules are simple and flexible enough to produce a lot of interesting results while still allowing the story to move along. Kell and Lila’s relationship was superbly drawn from start to finish and helped drive the major plot points home one after another.

But the ending seems half-baked. Rushed. The ways in which the final obstacles are overcome is a little too abrupt, too easy, to be satisfying. After the tremendous book I’d read, I had hoped for more from the finale.

That isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth reading. I’d say it very much is. And it has probably interested me enough to buy and read A Gathering of Shadows at some point.

I suppose, ultimately, no matter how harsh my criticisms sometimes are, V.E. Schwab’s work still hooks me deeply enough to keep bringing me back. And really, as an author, is there a greater compliment to receive?

18 November 2020

How Not to Write: Modernity in Traditional Fantasy

(Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Swears)

There’s a fallacy in traditional fantasy, which is that, in the Tolkien-esque fantasy settings we are all familiar with, everyone needs to speak in that oddly stilted manner, verging on thou and verily in every other sentence. I understand it. It seems more like the way folks from the medieval world would talk, doesn’t it?

The problem is, it isn’t how folks from the medieval world spoke. In fact, the way they did talk is probably so far removed from the English we speak nowadays as to make it near-impossible to read for those of us living in the modern world. I mean, have you ever read Shakespeare? That’s more modern than the world of Lord of the Rings and even it’s borderline unreadable in places.

Tolkien wrote his dialogue that way because it was natural for him to do so. He was a rich, white man who grew up in Victorian England. Of course everyone sounds polite and poetic. But Tolkien also wrote his seminal works some eighty years ago. It’s probably time we moved on. A modern writer would seem pretty out of touch writing a novel like Lord of the Rings in this day and age.

I resisted the notion of bringing modern speech into fantasy settings for a long time. Two minutes of watching an episode of Spartacus: Blood & Sand and its absolutely cringe-worthy dialogue put me off the idea of adding cuss-laden modern language to traditional fantasy for nearly ten years. Then I read Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames and I felt myself being talked around to the idea.

The reason why Bloody Rose is such an inspirational book for me is because it marks the moment when I started to consider traditional fantasy to be a valid genre again. (Yeah, it verges more on grimdark, but I don’t strike those same distinctions, because a fantasy world without dark elements is just straight-up deluded about human nature).

Eames brings the fantasy genre up-to-date by threading a rock-and-roll sensibility through it. Bands of heroes are more like bands of musicians, touring, full of vice, conflicted and ultimately bound to self-destruction, but lauded all the same. He used fantasy tropes to examine issues of identity, addiction, grudging maternity, sexuality, unwise hero worship and self-harm and this, to me, was a more rewarding and emotive experience than The Lord of the Rings ever was.

Part of that was due to the language Eames used. By leaning more on a modernised vocabulary, I think he made the thoughts and feelings of the characters more accessible to modern readers. Reading Tolkien’s work, the one thing that never happened was a connection. I did, however, connect with Tam and Cura and Brune and, yes, even Rose. I think it was Eames that opened the door for me to start interpreting fantasy worlds through a modern lens.

I never wanted to write fantasy. I’d read too many books where everything was too stilted, too posh-sounding. It just didn’t do anything for me and I started to drift from the fantasy genre as a whole. Since reading Bloody Rose, I’ve landed a fantasy piece, ‘The Dragon’s Heart’, in Fairytale Dragons by Dragon Soul Press. This story was probably the first time I dipped into a fantasy world with my 21st Century head on. (Spoiler Alert! Not the last).

Writing is meant to be read. Writing craft is all about picking the best tools to make your work accessible and interesting to the reader. Yeah, you can write for the love of it, but you wouldn’t try to publish if you didn’t want to connect with someone out there, right?

Writing fantasy with a modern sensibility, a modern vocabulary, isn’t inappropriate. It’s simply understanding that you can’t actually write authentic dialogue for your ancient setting without verging on absurdity. It’s also a stylistic choice. Maybe my characters don’t live in the modern world, but they’re going to be connecting with people who do. I don’t want a language barrier occluding my message.

Ultimately, I’m choosing to write this way because I like it. Traditional fantasy never really caught my imagination, but a nuanced, modern approach has. And don’t they always say, “write the book you want to read”?

If you want to read that book too, you can pre-order a copy of Fairytale Dragons now. I think it came out pretty well actually.

03 November 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

The Dish
Sometimes, I think that the staff at my local Waterstones buy in copies of Edgar Cantero’s work because they know I’m going to come in and buy it. Imagine my surprise when I found The Supernatural Enhancements sitting on a shelf waiting for me upon my last visit, in more or less the same position as Meddling Kids and This Body before it.

The Supernatural Enhancements is a supernatural (whaaaaat?!) thriller/ghost story told in epistolary format published by Del Ray. It’s a tidy little paperback at 353 pages long.

The Sauce
Our protagonist, A, has just inherited a house from his second cousin twice removed. Along with his protector, Niamh, a mute, Irish teenager, he sets out to unravel the mysteries of the house and its ‘supernatural enhancements’.

The Sweet
I can never review one of Edgar Cantero’s books without taking a moment to pontificate about his prose. Cantero has a unique voice that sits somewhere between Lovecraft gothic and a pop culture columnist. His ease with language leads to a lot of evocative imagery interspersed with delightful wink-nudge 90s references (including one about a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle that I adored). Even in epistolary form, Cantero’s mastery of language still shines through and it’s a pleasure to read.

Cantero has a lot of fun with the epistolary format during the course of the book. There’s a brilliant gag at the transition between Act 1 and Act 2 involving the receipt for a swimming pool. In Meddling Kids, Cantero played around with the fourth wall in immensely satisfying ways and it’s clear he was doing that even when he was writing The Enhancements.

The stand-out character of the story is Niamh. Cantero has taken pains to pepper her with interesting quirks but these are secondary to the strong, capable way she performs in the course of the story. She puts me in mind of Conseil from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, who, when faced with Monsieur Aronnax’s fall from the ship, chose to dive in after him rather than leave his side for a moment. Niamh joins Andy and Zooey in Cantero’s rogue’s gallery of characters I’d love to see running into one another at some point.

The Salty
One of my only issues with The Supernatural Enhancements is that it’s too clever for its own good. Cantero obviously went to great lengths to research ciphers and cryptographs for the story and one section of the book involves A. describing the logic he used to crack a coded letter, except that puzzles are easier to work out when you already have the solution. Still, we marvel at Holmes’ genius, even when we know that Conan Doyle already knew who the criminal was.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to marvel at A. I didn’t care for him as a character. I suspect Cantero knew that A. might not be as popular as Niamh, thus his decision to double-down on Niamh’s interesting quirks. And, reading into the psychological profile drawn up by Doctor Belknap, it’s not hard to tell who A. is probably based on.

There’s also an issue with the epistolary format going AWOL in the last Act. I tend to take an epistolary fiction as a promise to the author not to break format, but towards the end of the book there are two scenes told as standard, third-person narrative. While Cantero does play around with format a lot, this felt more like a blip of laziness.

And, for the record, no one likes Scully.

The Aftertaste
The strongest part of The Supernatural Enhancements is its concept. Without giving too much away, this novel gives only a glimpse of a much wider potential universe. There is a lot that could be done with a world like the one hinted at in this book. Indeed, the most interesting character by far in this book is only seen in the last couple of pages.

It’s a good book, worth reading for no other reason than to see Cantero disassembling and reassembling the craft into new and interesting shapes. However, it isn’t as good as Meddling Kids, which isn’t as good as This Body. I would definitely recommend reading either of those first, then picking up The Enhancements if they speak to you.

On the bright side, Cantero’s ability seems to be improving over time, which means his next novel should be sublime. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long.

08 October 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - It Calls From the Sky by Eerie River Publishing

The Dish
It Calls from the Sky is the third instalment in Eerie River Publishing’s ‘It Calls From’ series of horror anthologies. The book contains 23 short stories from several names that’ll be familiar if you’ve read Eerie’s other offerings, as well as some new names that pleasantly vary the content. The team at Eerie River, Michelle River and Alanna Webb, have done another excellent job picking the tales for this amazing collection.

The Sauce
Eerie’s contributors have really gone to town on this concept. It was already an impressive feat to have gotten so many varied stories out of two volumes of Forest. Sky is even more impressive with the mix of work within its pages. Flying monsters, killer rain, fallen gods, floating heads, voices from the sky, storms, aliens and vampire bats all make appearances, and more besides.

The Sweet
If Forest 2 was an overall improvement on Forest 1, Sky is an improvement on both. The strength of the writing is evident here, right from the off. ‘Ascension’ by R.L. Meza plunges you immediately into full-on horror. It’s shocking, it’s sinister, in places it’s absolutely disgusting, but it’s compelling and frightening and the pace marches to the same powerfully inevitable end as the characters themselves. It’s a great start and sets the tone nicely for the rest of the book.

Matthew Brady’s ‘Head in the Clouds’ is another strong piece. It starts out like historical fiction but spirals rapidly with the appearance of Mother Diamante into something surreal and grotesque. Like ‘Ascension’, the sense of foreboding builds to something truly terrible and leaves a strong impression. Edith’s reaction to seeing her brother again is perhaps the most powerful aspect of the story.

You know I have to talk about ‘Tenure’ by V.A. Vazquez, who won my pick of the anthology for Forest 2. Told from the perspective of that guy who appears in every urban fantasy story to advise the heroes of exactly how boned they are against their supernatural adversary, the ‘action’ in the story is relayed via phone while Milo Banerjee struggles with his tenure application. It’s a delightful twist on every similar horror story you’ve read, complete with a strong female character and a frightening, uncertain twist. V.A. Vazquez continues to impress. Additional points for use of the futakuchi-onna, which is a demon I’m personally quite fond of.

Christopher Bond’s ‘Follow You Into the Dark’ stands out to me because of its characters. Bobby and Darlene are, on the surface of things, the kind of white trash characters you see in a lot of horror stories, usually depicted as being dumb, greedy or downright evil. Instead, these two are drawn as loving and kind and it amps up the horror of the story significantly. I mentioned in a recent blog post about the importance of humanism in horror stories and this is a prime example. The horror in this strikes so much harder for how nice the characters are. A brilliant read.

‘The Forgotten Prince’ by Elizabeth Nettleton is another excellent example of this. Pim’s willingness to help a stranger in need makes the terrible events of the story so much worse. This tale’s core concept is how frightening a spoiled child can be when they have exceptional power. The only thing more terrifying than a god with unknowable motives is one that acts like the very worst human beings we know and the threat implied in the ending is chilling.

‘Flying Home’ by Joel R. Hunt is one of those stories that just fits right in here at the Basement. Trapped aboard an aeroplane with a sinister creature, Emma engages in a battle of wills, unable to rely on anyone but herself. I love this kind of story so much and this is a brilliant example of the genre-without-a-name. Emma’s eventual ‘victory’ over the creature is what made this story so compelling for me. Exactly my cup of tea and one of the main reasons I loved Sky so much.

‘Raindance’ by Kimberly Rei hooked me deep. A picture-perfect couple with a nasty, abusive undercurrent. The story teases apart the complicated emotions and conflicts of abuse, all the while delving into a delightful storm allegory. This story’s use of the Wild Hunt was a particularly interesting twist on quite a common piece of mythology, which Kimberly Rei acknowledges herself in Kara’s narrative. The overarching implication being that the Wild Hunt might actually be a similar phenomenon to the avenging Furies of European mythology. A powerful and moving tale.

The Salty
Look, you’re not going to hear me level this criticism at an anthology very often in my attempt at balanced reviews, but Sky has caused me serious problems while writing this. Very few of these stories aren’t exceptional and I found myself scrolling through my Kindle thinking, “I’m going to need to pick and choose here. I don’t have room in this review to talk about all 23 stories”. So what you’ve just read are my cherry-picked favourites, the ones that are more relevant or most appealing to me specifically.

I could wax lyrical about the poetic majesty of Rebecca Gomez Farrell’s ‘Thlush-a-Lum’, or the cathartic strength of Jay Sandlin’s ‘Hate Sky’, or the open-ended novel potential of the likes of ‘Thorn in My Side’ or ‘Keep One in the Chamber’. If I was writing an essay, I could maybe give all of these stories the attention that they deserved, but I’m not. All I will say is that, as I mentioned previously, the level of prose in Sky is an improvement on that in both volumes of Forest. Maybe it was the additional challenge of the anthology theme but I was blown away by the calibre of the stories in this book and the sheer variety of concepts.

The Aftertaste
My pick of the anthology this time goes to Joel R. Hunt for ‘Flying Home’. It has some very stiff competition but, in the end, I had to go with it for being so ‘on genre’ for me personally.

The ‘It Calls From...’ series has always been, in my opinion, good value for money. Sky is a particularly impressive collection and now I’m even more excited for Sea when it eventually arrives. In the meantime, buy your copy of Sky now!

18 September 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - The Drop by Jacy Morris

The Dish
The Drop by Jacy Morris is a globe-trotting jaunt around a ruined world ravaged by the boyband apocalypse. It’s a fusion of first-person memoir and epistolary in the vein of World War Z and Zombie Apocalypse. When Blackthorn Book Tours dropped this into my inbox, I knew I needed to learn more. How exactly does a boyband destroy the world anyway? Well, I found out.

The Sauce
Whoa-Town are the biggest pop music sensation since the Beatles. Their sound is ubiquitous. And that’s a shame, because their latest single, The Drop, causes a strange and fatal disease that brings the entire world to its knees. Living in the aftermath, Katherine Maddox sets out to learn the truth about the Drop and, hopefully, prevent it from ever happening again.

The Sweet
Jacy Morris loves to write. You only have to look at his bibliography to see that. It’s also evident in his sometimes ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style, pulling you into the head of Katherine Maddox as she lives through, and then seeks to learn from, the boyband apocalypse.

The Drop’s biggest draw is the mysterious disease it’s named for. Morris has carefully constructed a multi-stage disease and details its bizarre symptoms throughout the middle third of the book. Through the eyes of Katherine Maddox, journalism student, we see the sickness unfolding, first in her housemate, then her father. The use of inoperable cancer as a yardstick gives an easy frame of reference for the reader to understand Katherine’s pain, and the chaos and uncertainty that unfolds is eerily familiar in the context of current events.

The relationship between Katherine and her father is lovingly drawn and gives the book real backbone. It also gives Katherine a strong driving motivation to see out the rest of the story. Morris plants the seeds for the book’s reveal very early on and these bear fruit in the final section when the truth about the Drop is finally revealed. Morris has planned his novel well and the conclusion is a coherent endpoint that the rest of the story had clearly been leading to all along.

The Salty
My most major criticism of The Drop is that the epistolary sections don’t add much more than colour. Katherine’s first-person memoir and old journal entries tend to capture the essence of the story’s events and the chat room conversations, magazine articles and interview transcripts peppered throughout don’t do much more than reiterate what was already said. I will, however, give Morris credit for a particularly creepy chat room snippet showing Whoa-Town fans as emotionless dolls after they contract The Drop because it is actually quite chilling.

Morris has made an effort to nuance his characters. Katherine Maddox is the prime example and easily the strongest character in the book. However, despite attempts to juxtapose the members of Whoa-Town as members of a wholesome, accessible pop group on one hand and criminals, liars and sexual deviants on the other, this has led the character development down unfortunately stereotypical channels. The gay character hates women, the white trash character from Florida is in an incestuous relationship, the black character is a pimp, the trans character is manipulative, the nerdy kid is forgettable. Even Katherine herself is the diehard, ‘anything for a story’ reporter we’ve all seen many, many times before.

There’s also a minor issue with some of the characters not being as useful to the story as they could be. Ella, a deaf girl, would have been a perfect and justifiably diverse central character, but she parts ways with the story after only a chapter, and the introduction of the Merv character in the latter third doesn’t add much to the overall narrative. Unfortunately, other than Katherine and, to a lesser extent, Freddie, many of the characters in the book are there solely to deliver a payload of information to further the story before bowing out, never to return.

The Aftertaste
The Drop has the conceptual strength and emotional punch of a heavyweight post-apocalypse novel. Morris’s careful consideration of the symptoms of his boyband-induced pandemic, coupled with Katherine Maddox’s personal story of heartache and determination, drive the story relentlessly from one chilling or heart-wrenching revelation to the next, building to a conclusion that really couldn’t have played out any other way.

It's an admirably plotted tale that betrays Morris’s love of writing on every page as he digs into the motivations of his characters and the consequences of The Drop for the world. Morris digs deep into human nature, as well as social and economic issues, to create a rich tapestry of a world that can no longer trust music.

If you are looking for a different take on the apocalypse, one without the usual shambling ghouls, especially a story with heart and conviction, I’d recommend The Drop.

Thanks to the team at Blackthorn Book Tours for my review copy of this book.