What I’ve Read: The Court of Broken Knives

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Brief Summary:

A company of mercenaries travel through a desert to a prosperous city to assassinate an Emperor. Among the mercs is a new recruit that shows his worth by killing a dragon, but boy oh boy, this kid has some baggage. The plan goes awry when the scheming lords out think themselves with twists galore. Elsewhere in the city, a High Priestess to a God that demands blood sacrifices grows weary from her chosen lot in life. During the attack on the Emperor, she escapes with the dragon-slaying boy and his surviving merc buddies. They set out toward his old home. Oh, not to mention, there is a metric sh*t-ton of killing in this book, blood galore.

My Thoughts:

Normally I do a breakdown of what works and what doesn’t but this story seriously doesn’t work for this process. There is so many things that just should flat out be wrong about this book, but, damn, it really does work. So the mold doesn’t work. Doesn’t work. The mold just doesn’t work…

I’ll be frank, the story itself isn’t that particularly groundbreaking, as it hits a ton of typical notes fantasy readers love. But that isn’t what makes this book special in my eyes. It’s the beauty in which the story is told.

Ok, so those last three lines of the first paragraph are a poor facsimile of the biggest thing that is “different” about this book. Most fantasy books, especially grimdark, (of which this book could be categorized) are written in a particular style – world-building, info dumps, and straightforward prose, along with some fascinating characters and magic systems. Not this book. TCoBK is written like a literary poem seen popular in the Transcendental Movement of the way-back-when. Sentences in Ms. Smith Spark’s book are not following grammar rules, rarely do sentences have both noun and verb, there are single sentences of emotions, and lots & lots of repetition.

It is really difficult to read at first because we are not accustomed to seeing that style within a SFF story (and most of us are not Lit Majors). But once you get into the story, (about 100 pages for me) the difficulty fades away and you start to appreciate how the beauty of the words magnify the events of the novel.

Here’s an example:

Marith sat and looked at his plate and felt their eyes on him. Pity. Mockery. Disgust.

Memories came to him. Sunshine on high moorland. Gray rocks tumbling into a gray sea. Beech mast crunching beneath his horse’s hooves, the light green and gold through the first new spring leaves. Men kneeling before him, women eyeing him with longing, a whole world at his feet. Gilded and pampered and lording it over everyone. Ruined and screaming and crawling blind in the dark.

Oh yes, he thought, I know what I am and what I’ve given up. Sometimes I even wonder why.

If that doesn’t paint you a scene within a character’s introspection, then nothing will. Trust me, this isn’t an easy read in terms of the word magic Ms. Smith Spark brandishes expertly, but when you get to the end, you realize it was a beautiful journey you just undertook.

One thing that I thought was super wonky and shouldn’t work is the use of Point of View in this book. There are four main characters – an old Gran Torino merc, a young “nobody” with strange behaviors, a High Priestess who drew the wrong lot in life, and the noble (rebel) with a cause that went awry. These characters are fun, they serve a purpose to the story (though see far below for my one major detractor of this story), but that’s not the issue. The issue lies in how the rest of the story unfolds using POV in general.

First, and I really don’t understand why Ms. Smith Spark would go this route, but the High Priestess character has chapters written in both close 3rd and 1st person POV. And it’s the 1st person that boggles my mind. Typically I dislike 1st person, but in this story it is just weird because the High Priestess is already a 3rd person character, yet when these 1st person interludes (for lack of better word) happen, they are almost like someone reading a diary of the High Priestess’ life. She goes on to explain the history of how she became the HP, what her duties are, what her emotions are to certain scenes unfolding. It makes no damned sense and I SHOULD hate it… But I didn’t. It was so odd, but I actually enjoyed these interludes, they added so much to the story that I applaud their use.

Additionally, there were other interludes that shouldn’t work either. We have short chapters about this God, this world-conquering God. These chapters are told from an omniscient POV. Hell, the first chapter is all about this God. We never really see this God, but we get to see the insanity and death that accompanies him. And then he goes away after the first half of the book, before you realize how this God plays into one of the character’s story at the very end. So strange to think this can work. And the other oddity is the use of the same character’s flashbacks to his childhood with his BFF/lover. The characters are never named (only using hair color to differentiate) but you know who they are. And the final chapter is a moment in time that nearly threatens to contradict all that happened before it.

None of this should work, but it all does. Such brave decisions made in isolation would never work, but they meld together into something great.

I would like to add the best thing about these four character POVs is that Ms. Smith Spark does an excellent job of making their voices distinct. The merc thinks and talks like a merc. His perception of events is ground in things he knows – blood, guts, swears, and coin. The young buck character has a background that would constitute him having a completely different voice, and he does. The High Priestess spent her entire life within the Temple, so she has this awe and bewilderment to her voice. And the noble is almost jaded with his life, so his thinking reflects that. What really works with these voices is that the chapters are written so differently from one another. The poetic prose mimics these characters’ voices. It’s perfectly done.

And the magic system – if you would call it that – isn’t really all that detailed. You really have no idea what the heck is going on, but since the prose is so beautiful, you suspend belief and it works. You could care less that it makes no sense, you just love seeing it happen.

My only real gripe with the story is the noble character. Sure, I get it, his plan to assassinate this Emperor (which fails obviously) is what brings all the characters together in this story, but after the first 3rd of the book where he is this big-time player, he basically disappears for the vast majority of the book. Yeah he has chapters here and there, but they really don’t do anything to serve the plot (hopefully more comes from him in the next two books). And I hate to think like this, but I almost felt his chapters were only meant to serve diversity (he has a male/male relationship). I’m all for diversity in my SFF, but this just felt added when it really didn’t need to be there (the one main character also had a male/male relationship), all the noble did was shuffle papers, eat food, and have sexual relations with his man. I kept waiting for some dramatic twist to come with his character, but it never did (aside from the most weakest attempt on his life ever), so it was a letdown (again, hoping more from him in book 2). But I still didn’t dislike his character at all, it was just like a simmer on the stove waiting for him to become a bigger role in the story.

Rating:

5 out of 5.

The Court of Broken Knives isn’t perfect by any means, but I’d be hard pressed to say that I didn’t love this story. I can’t wait to dive back into this world Ms. Smith Spark created. It’s not a book everyone will enjoy, but if you like the art of storytelling, then you need to give this book a read.

Writing Thoughts: A change of scenery

I want to start off by showing this really cool aesthetic one of my excellent critique partners created for me.

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She did a damn sight better job than I ever could have done. Granted, I’m not big on these types of things because I don’t need a visual to see my world, but the fact that she put this effort in, only goes to show that having a CP (having three excellent ones is even better!) is critical to success.

Now, you’re probably asking why I bring up critique partners when this post is about setting. It was strategic, I tell you! You see, when I first started writing this would be fantasy series, I started with a fairly vanilla traditional medieval fantasy world. In my head, the world was secondary to the story (at least in the first draft of the first book at the time). It was all about the characters and the plot for me. And I think that is the way it might normally go for many first-time writers. You need to focus on getting that story on paper, then you can go back and add more flavor to it. Spice it up.

Near twelve years on since that first draft started, I’ve made so many different changes to not only this story as a whole, but the world as well.

As I said, it was set in a world that the greater majority of worlds are based on. Very Western ideals of building shape, style, and architecture. That still works for some stories, and when I was writing the first draft of the series (trilogy at the time), it worked for the story I was trying to tell.

But the Gods’ honest truth, it was boring as Hell.

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There was nothing in that world that made it interesting. I tried my hand at the query trenches, digging away for a couple of years with no success. And then I did an online course with an agent/editor and he confirmed the exact same thing about my world. There was nothing about it that was cool or different from the thousands of fantasy books out there in the market. It was a cookie-cutter book.

It was around that time though that my interests in becoming a better writer grew, but also my taste of sub-genre grew as well. I started reading more grimdark, more steampunk, more New Weird fantasies and many of those stories have worlds that aren’t the standard run of the mill.

And that got me thinking on how to change my world up some.

At first, I decided I wanted my world to have steampunk elements. Completely altering the setting is a huge undertaking, it’s like bulldozing a skyscraper and building a brand new one with the same structure, just painting the metal/glass a different color. It is so time consuming to alter a setting from no/low tech, to one with much more technology. And I like to start each draft from scratch and only take phrases/sentences/paragraphs/ideas that I like from the previous draft and put them in the new one with all new writing.

More failed queries later (even though the writing became much neater and sleeker), I was still at a crossroads with this story. It still felt incomplete. It was missing something to give it that oomph.

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I used to be a gamer. I used to spend hours when I was in my 20s playing videogames (mainly PS) and the Final Fantasy series are some of my all time favorites. Final Fantasy IX of all 23432535 of them is my favorite. It has such a spot in my heart. But one really cool aspect of that game is the mist covering one of the continents. The mist powers their airships, their lights, what-have-you.

So I stole that idea. I added mist to my world instead of steam power. But that’s just lame to rip off something like that. Right? Right.

That meant I had to twist that concept somehow. I needed to tie the mist existence to the story. And that is where I came up with the idea to have the mist be a byproduct of a God’s failure. And the mist is also poisonous to all humans. Yet, it also has magical properties, so people can use the mist to make magic spells, weapon enhancements, physical enhancements.

Now that is a cool (at least in my mind, and a few agents I’ve pitched to) concept for a setting.

But back to the aesthetic at the top of this blog, even with this cool world and mist-tech, I was still lacking that extra sauce to push it over the edge.

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This world lacked a distinct difference from the traditional thought of steampunk = Victorian Goth. Don’t get me wrong, I love that aesthetic but I want to stand out. I want my world to have a different feeling, yet still evoke something we’ve seen and understand.

This (and not to prove my father wrong that my Classics & Anthropology degrees aren’t useless or anything…) is why I chose to have the setting be inspired by Roman Antiquity.

And Oh Gods, this made my story pop like I couldn’t even imagine!

A mash-up of Rome and steampunk (mistpunk) is so unlike anything I’ve read before. But it also really played into the story I wanted to tell (after some major story-shifting, of which, I’ll do another post about in the very near future) because the ancient mysteries/cults that actually existed in Roman times run directly into where I was heading with the mist. Cults of alchemy, Gods, and blood magic. Man, there is so much to toy with. It just made the right decision even easier.

Some of the things I added into this world are your basic columns, domes, aqueducts, you name it, but the biggest thing that helped shape this weird Roman mistpunk story is the addition of Latin terms, titles, and slang. I bet most people have no idea that Ancient Romans were dirty AF. They talked about sex constantly, and they had such a vernacular that would make censorship in this day and age pale in comparison.

By having these types of additions, the story no longer feels bland or meh, it feels like a world that is unique and different. I mean, it’s not everyday you picture centurion guards wielding gladius swords and firing wheellock pistols aboard airships (and if you have, tell me of this literature Valhalla).

But to sum it all up, why did this all come about? Because of working with that agent/editor and critique partners. They opened my eyes to a world that just existed and had no bearing on the story. It was just there. Now, after earthrending changes, the world is a character of it’s own! We get bogged down in our own stories that having other sets of eyes on it really enhances this odd journey of writing. Perspectives are the key to success, especially when they are different than your own. You grow, your story grows, and in the end, that is the basis of why we do this in the first place.

And it all starts with immersing yourself within a world that has a story that demands to be told.

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What I’ve Read: Kinslayer

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Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff, The Lotus War Book Two

Brief Summary:

Picking up from the epic showdown with the Shogun, Yukiko, along with her mind-melded thunder tiger buddy Buruu, is now seen as the poster child for open rebellion within the Shima Imperium. But Yukiko is still fuming about the death of some loved ones and her power of being able to enter the minds of animals is growing so bad that she falls to liquor to numb the onslaught. Told that there might be some ancient knowledge far to the north, she sets off to learn to control this power. Meanwhile, the rebellion is planning to infiltrate the heart of the empire as some characters thought killed in the first book have resurfaced, and a new link to the throne arises. But Yukiko’s actions have spurred other would-be insurgents into action. More twists and turns abound between warring factions and the ever-present Lotus Guild.

What works & What doesn’t work:

Normally I separate these two sections, but it was an odd thing while reading this book, many things that I really really liked, I also disliked for some reason or another, of which I’ll explain below.

Kinslayer becomes an ensemble book. I love ensemble books! Give me GoT, WoT, or any other epic fantasies where there are multiple Points of View characters and different arcs all going on at the same time. I love that this book became an ensemble cast, I really did, however, starting Book One as a limited POV cast and expanding greatly here has really diminished Yukiko as a character in my eyes. Stormdancer was in essence, all about Yukiko and Buruu’s connection. Yes, her father was a major POV, yes, Kin and Michi were POVs, but they were minor POVs. IT was ALL about Yukiko’s arc. And in this story, she is nearly pushed aside to grow the rest of the cast.

Yukiko’s storyline was great, she was angry, she was depressed, she had other things that I won’t spoil happening to her, but Godsdamn, her scenes were very short. I mean, her going north was a really damn good arc, but it was sporadic and limped to the finish. And then, she didn’t show up for 100 pages until the very end of the story!!!! Not exactly my favorite way for the main character…

I will say, making Kin and his arc a much bigger thread was a genus idea by Mr. Kristoff. I loved Kin’s character in the first book and he grew so dramatically in this book. The things he does and the actions he ultimately took were just epic and I didn’t see coming. I really loved it! I especially liked how he dealt with the inward hatred of him being a Guildsman amongst rebels. There was this real feeling of distrust, a fox in the chicken coop kind of feeling. It really made for some interesting character dynamics.

But to the detriment of the story, two siblings were introduced and given soooooooo much screen time. I liked the final outcome of their arc, but Izanagi’s balls I didn’t care for the vast majority of what they did. I liked Hana to an extent, but I could have completely done without Yoshi’s character POVs and thread. Hana had a purpose to the story, she rose to the forefront of the rebellion infiltrating the Imperium. But Yoshi’s story with the yakuza didn’t add anything to the overall plot other than to set up some gruesome scenes toward the end.

And then there was Michi. Man she really is a cool femme fatale character, but her temptation of love was not my favorite. Again, her climax to her story was really damn sweet and a bit unexpected, but the drive there was meh. At least there was some great emotional moments at the end for her.

The less said about Hiro, the better…

I really did like the introduction of the “round-eye” gaijin in Yukiko’s arc. It was interesting to see another people out there that was only alluded to. And, again, this part of the story was really fun and full of twists and turns for Yukiko and Buruu, very character defining. I mean, we got more thunder tigers!!!

The climax was amazing. It was such a slow build to the attack on the heart city of the Imperium, and when we finally got to witness it, it was a thing to behold. While I love epic battle scenes in books, I like the more intimate (or back-stabb-y???) moments against the battle backdrop. For example, Michi’s conclusion takes place during this epic invasion, but her scenes are concise and have huuuuuuuuge emotional impact to her character as a whole. To me, that is perfection on paper when an author can hit an emotional response to all the destruction going on around these characters.

But I temper the entire thing because of the introduction of so many one-off POVs that it sometimes felt erratic (I mean war is erratic, but this was a bit much).

On the whole, I really like the set-up and execution of the story, but things got muddied for me in the process.

Rating:

3 out of 5

2018 Writers’ League of Texas Conference

Earlier this month was the annual Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference in Austin, TX. Below is a picture of my badge as well as a nice little ribbon (which I will get to in the meat of this blogging remembrance)

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A little backstory first: I moved to Texas a couple of years ago when my lovely wife got a job offer she couldn’t turn down in the great city of Austin (seriously, it is a sweet ass city with lots to do, but good gracious, it is hot as sin down here, and being from Chicago, I was not prepared for this temperature change…). Anyway, I had started writing what would become a series called The Mistlands Tragedies many years ago (of which if you follow this blog, you’ve seen the many changes it has undergone), but it wasn’t until we moved to Texas that I really found the push I needed.

You see, up until I moved to Texas, I was a man alone with this writing thing, no fellow writers, no critique partners, no one but my brain and my fingers to work with. And then I found the WLT. Now the WLT is simply amazing for bringing writers together and creating that community. I won’t bore you with all the rah-rah-rah stuff or the bloody tears of joy (wait, what? jk!) but the best thing is, each year, the WLT has a conference where honest-to-goodness professional book industry peeps show up and listen to us writers ramble about their stories!!!

I went last year and, as my first ever writers’ conference experience, I would say it was a smashing success. I gained experience and knowledge I never would have on my own. I met a great writing friend, Amanda, and just had a great time overall.

This year, while still great, was a different experience for me, and most of that comes down to where I am as a writer this year as opposed to last.

First, the ribbon at the bottom of my badge. So each year, the WLT has a manuscript contest. You submit the first ten pages of your MS and a synopsis. Then the WLT has panels of judges based on the category you submit to (mine was Science Fiction/Fantasy, obvi). Then these judges will read each submission and then come up with a list of finalists and a winner. Then we all get recognized at the conference for our awesome work!

So I’ll be frank: I wasn’t expecting anything from the contest. Last year I submitted and obviously didn’t get anything. This year, I was in the midst of drastic rewrites/editing of what is now the first book in the Tragedies. I was still working through things, but my overall plot was plotted, the characters characterized and vibe the vibing (I don’t think that’s how it is spelled, but I’m going with it). I submitted the first ten pages, which I had polished so many times it shone like newly shined black Sunday Church shoes, and the synopsis like a good little follower of rules. And then sent it off to the Gods. Little did I expect I would be named a finalist. I mean, as a writer who has been rejected (rightly so) by many agents in the query trenches, this was like the world had opened anew for me. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes into this Valhalla of bliss. I couldn’t have been more happy or motivated to keep on writing.

But here is the thing, with growth as a writer, you tend to level up (I mean that is the nature of the world) and that also pertained to the WLT conference.

Last year, I learned a ton from the panels offered by the conference, this year, very little. I’m not here to say the panels this year were worthless, but more to say that I am past the 101 class level of the book industry, past the very basic overview of things, past the cursory ideas tossed out there. I’ve been querying for ages now. I know how to structure a query letter or synopsis (not saying I’m great at either, but I know what needs to go in them). I know the basics of what happens with an agent, with an editor, with a publisher. I’ve either been to those panels before, or have done extensive research on my own.

The panels this year were very similar (if not the exact same in some cases) to the ones last year. And for newbie writers, those things are great. But for me, I needed more detail, more in depth discussions on craft and business. I needed more knowledge from the agents/editors, and unfortunately, I didn’t get that very much this year. I’m at that point where I feel my story is so nearly polished (per my critique partners) that I’m nearing the point of no return with agents. If I do the query right, I should be getting some hits. So I need some 400 level courses and panels about the industry AFTER the query process. And the conference didn’t have those available (minus a good portion of the book contract panel, which was quite eye-opening).

One thing I also want to touch on is the agent pitch. I talked about the pitching in my post about the DFWCon I went to last month, and, at the WLT conference, I also had a pitch session. I had a glowing response to my pitches at DFWCon and the WLT was not as glowing to very nearly the same exact pitch. But here is the thing, all the agents said to query them (which is the great thing, better to get requests from a conference than to try the slushpile), but getting to that point of them telling me to submit was markedely different between them all. Now, that is no knock toward the agents from either conference, but I do think it adequately sums up the industry: THIS STUFF IS SUBJECTIVE AS HELL!!!! Not every agent (and more importantly, readers) will be interested in the same stuff, even in their preferred genre! And that is perfectly acceptable. Yes, it’s weird when it happens in person (in that microcosm of the 10 minute pitch session where you are trying to sell your story to a very important person), as opposed to anonymous email queries, but it is a great learning experience nonetheless.

Even if the panels were a bit lower level than I would have liked, and my pitch session was not as strong as I would have wanted it to be, the conference on the whole was still a good experience. I got to spend time with others like me, introverts working on stories that are near and dear to their hearts (although, I seriously got tired of hearing people say they are writing memoir – but that is just not my particular brand of whiskey). I got to spend the entire weekend talking/plotting/idea generating/shooting the shit with my good buddy (and critique partner) Dewey.

And I think that is the most important thing to take away from conferences: it is all about the writing journey, and take those with you that are also on the same quest!

DFWCon 2018

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On Saturday June 9th I went to the first writer’s conference of the summer – DFWCon in Dallas, TX with my good friend and fellow writer Dewey Conway. Now, as many writers might know, these sort of conferences do a wide range of things for would-be authors – panels by published writers/agents, classes on craft/business, as well as the opportunity to pitch a polished work to an actual agent. This was only my second ever writer’s con, but I’d say this one was a far different experience than my first, and dare I say it, a much better one.

Let’s start simple, this time I actually had a polished work (of which I’ll post future blogs on the many changes Summonborn has gone through in the last six months) that I was feeling positive about being good enough to actually pitch agents. Pitching agents is not an easy task for a fairly introverted person like myself, you know it means talking to another person about something near and dear to your heart. This damned story (ripped tenderly via blood magic from a greater trilogy as a lead-in novel) has gone through so much change, that somewhere along the various rewrites, I realized I had something worth sharing. Now, pitching that same story, regardless of my confidence levels going in, was nothing short of mental pants shitting. I think I did good of keeping it all internal, but it was still nerves going up and down the spine.

But here’s the thing I also learned over many rejections during querying, agents are just looking for the next good story, and they want to listen to your pitch. And if you have a good one, they will be interested. Not so hard.

Luckily, I had an excellent pitch prepared, it was so awesome that when I sat down to pitch, I literally didn’t use it at all… yet somehow I was able to stumble through and form cohesive thoughts long enough to passably get my story across to this lovely agent. And will you believe it, she was interested and wanted me to submit to her. Well Savior’s cock (my main character’s favorite swear word and now in my own lexicon) I knew I had a good story, I just had to make sure I would get it across, and apparently I did. So, that, my dear friends, is a huge win in my book.

It was such a big win for me that I barely cared about the panels/classes. Yeah I went to some, but I really don’t remember a whole lot from them. Cloud Nine is a real feeling I had not been to in a long time. I even decided to try my hand at pitching another agent. It went just as well since she told me to query her agency.

That’s two wins in my book.

And then, to top it off, Dewey pitched his wonderful story and got a full manuscript request! I felt like a proud papa bear because I’ve spent a ton of time with his story as a critique partner, helping him (and vice versa). It felt like I also got  another full request.

Met some other cool writers and heard their pitches. Went to those panels. And then the keynote speak, Mr. Scott Westerfeld, gave an awesome lunchtime speech on Young Adult, teenagers, and art. I really didn’t understand how he was going to tie it all together, but damn was he great. Funny and smart. Oh, and I had some super rich double chocolate cake (which I never eat sweets, but hot damn that was good!)

All in all, it was a great way to kick off the summer! Nothing beats a good roadtrip talking about books. And that is the kicker, for an introverted writer, talking about books IS the easiest way to crack open that shell, I just had to find that first crack.

2017 in Review

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With 2017 ready to bow out and 2018 coming to invade, I think I can honestly say that this past year was a good one.

Personally, and I’ll keep it short since this blog is mostly about my hobbies, was pretty good. The wife and I bought a big dumb house (hooray mortgage) that we pretty much redid (painting really blows). The big dog ended up having heartworms, so yeah, that was fun. While the little one had to get gnarly teeth pulled. Other than spending a metric shit ton of money this year, all in all, it went swimmingly. Oh, and I added to my anime-inspired tattoo sleeve – added Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke to my Cowboy Bebop. Next up: Neon Genesis Evangelion.

I’ll leave my writing for the last since that’ll be the longest. In terms of my other hobbies I tend to blog about – I’ve seen/read some badass things this year. From movies to TV shows to books, I can say with aplomb this year was excellent. Now I know that I should have done some more blogs this year about all of the things aforementioned, but sometimes I didn’t want to spoil things (aka The Last Jedi, Stranger Things 2). So I might do a post about them this coming year.

I have a new favorite show: The 100. I seriously don’t know how I missed it until this year, probably the whole YA/CW stigma. But damn, this show is amazing and gets better with each season. One of my other favorite shows, Halt and Catch Fire, ended this year and I am super sadface. I will say that this season was stunning and one character’s death was probably the most well done TV death I have ever seen. Just beautiful. Emotional.

I’d have to say IT was probably the single best movie I saw all year. It (pun intended) was just perfect. It had everything – tension, drama, scares, humor, teenage angst. I just flat out loved it from start to finish. I’ll stand by it, but I loved The Last Jedi (come fight me bro). TLJ really flipped the Star Wars world on its collective head and I loved every minute of it. OK not every minute because that one scene with that one character (we all know what I’m talking about) was very cheesy. And I don’t care if people hate it, I loved it. It’s no Empire, but definitely up there with the best of them. Some of my other top films seen this year were VVitch, Thor: Ragnarok, and Blade Runner 2049.

This year, my goal was to read 30 books. While I didn’t reach that goal, I did finish with a respectable 27.5 (still reading that other half but won’t finish prior to year end). A few of those books were rereads (Elantris, Watership Down, Voyage of Jerle Shannara) but most were brand new. Majority of them were fantasy, but I did dip my toe into YA this year (more on that later). A couple of them are beta reads for critique partners, but I’m counting those because they are full manuscripts. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t been published because someone took the great effort to write them (both were excellent btw). I’d say Blood Song and Nevernight were the top two new books read this year. I will admit, I had to put down three others due to first person POV, I just have such a hard time with 1st person. So hard.

Now to the meat of this year end review – my own writing.

2017 was illuminating for a multitude of reasons. I know I don’t know shit, but I feel like this year really helped clean the muck off so to speak. At the tail end of 2016, I worked with an agent/editor on my passion project. After he lovingly tore it apart, I truly came to understand what the story needed to become – albeit to a point. I spent years writing this thing and in one fell swoop, I learned my story was trite and boring. Overdone. It was disheartening to hear it. But ever the optimist (hey I’m a Chicago Cubs fan so back off) I set my mind to fixing this story of Brynn and Hunter, vengeance v. duty of faith. Long story short, I thought I fixed this story. But I was wrong.

Something just didn’t feel right about it. I changed many things: the setting, the religion, the magic system, points of view. But it still didn’t feel complete. And then I went to my first writer’s conference. Though I grew up in the shadow of Chicago, there really wasn’t a huge writing fellowship, a group of fellow writers. Twitter has really helped grow my world in that manner, but the big thing was moving to Texas. The Writers League of Texas is amazing. I won’t stroke the ego anymore than this, but joining the WLT has been a boon. And their annual conference really helped a ton. I met some great writer friends and had some interesting ideas pop into my head.

You know how they always say you should listen to your wife, well in this case, I should have. Even though she hasn’t read much of my writing (waiting until I’m satisfied with the story) she has always said my style is very YA. So after hearing this and talking about my story at the conference, I came to the revelation it should be YA. I did the edits, toned things down, de-aged the characters, all the fun YA stuff. The story really did pop more. But, I still wasn’t comfortable with it.

I know YA is trending toward more adult themes like sex and violence, but even with toning the story down, it didn’t feel right. I have a creepy sick villain and he had to be taken out in the YA version. That didn’t sit well with me. My main character, Brynn, likes to swear (same with a sky pirate). I didn’t want to lose all of that. But I tried. So I ended up taking the darker parts/characters/plots out and went to put that into a separate book. Nearly finished with that book. But always in the back of my noggin was the original plan for my trilogy. I couldn’t shake it.

And then came the true enlightenment. And it came while playing Final Fantasy IX (of all things).

If you’ve never had the pleasure of playing that game, I highly suggest it. The reason that game inspired me was the whole package it contains – humor, tragedy, tension, rage, friendship, love, idea of self, fast pacing, darkness. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is my story contains all of that. Yes, I tend to write more YA, but the story has to have that darkness to it, that grimness. It has to be dense, fully fleshed out, the world-building has to be adult level. But that doesn’t mean my YA writing can’t fit into that mold. They can co-exist. And then I remembered something that agent/editor said to me – I can write different characters or scenes using different genres. For example, my main characters of Brynn and Hunter can stay more YA style. It fits them. It always has. Minus the swearing by Brynn. My soldier character is definitely grimdark. He sees so much violence, commits violence and has a bleak outlook on life, wavering confidence in his honor. My villain was written to be more like a horror character, especially because he deals with the supernatural. Top it off, I changed the setting again, took the premise of my magic system from a separate WIP, changed some POVs, took out a YA character and gave her a complete separate story. Now I think I’m finally satisfied on where the story sits.

To put all that into perspective, none of this would have come about if I didn’t open myself up to other writers. I have 4 excellent CPs. One (Amanda) I met at the conference, and the other 3 (Claire, Lana, Dewey) via Twitter. What has really helped me the most is by reading their stories. Amanda writes YA fantasy about mermaids and Atlantis. Lana about Slavic mythology and witches (in YA first person no less). Dewey writes Middle Grade adventure/fantasy. And Claire does YA fantasy/sci-fi. Out of all four of them, Claire’s stories are the ones I would veer toward normally. And that is the beauty of having CPs. I’m getting a chance to broaden my horizons, read different types of stories and viewing them in a different mindset than just plan ole reading them. Working with CPs gives the opportunity to read someone else’s story, but also provide constructive feedback, in addition to receiving it. Seeing these other genres/stories has opened my eyes to what my own story is missing. The ideas just won’t stop. I even bring a critical eye to published authors works, see what they did, how it works. It has been amazing to have this transformation and it has really set me up for success that I didn’t have in the past.

Also, even if they don’t read this, I really just wanted to give a massive shout-out to Amanda, Claire, Lana, and Dewey! Thank you all!

Even though my goal for 2017 was to get on the path to publication, I think I can say I achieved it. Sure I haven’t scored an agent, but damn, they would’ve had a shitty story. I know that what I learned this year has set me up for success this coming year. My goal for 2018 is to land that agent. Without all the growth this year, I know it never would have happened.

Bring on 2018!

What I’ve Read: Prince of Thorns

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Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, book 1 of the Broken Empire trilogy

Brief Summary:

A young boy (nine) sees his mother and younger brother murdered by one of his father’s (the King) enemies. Once healed, the boy (ten) runs away with a group of merchenaries and becomes their leader. Now fourteen, he aims to return home to become a king. Though his father has other plans for him, sending Jorg on a suicide mission to bring him a great stronghold of an enemy.

What works:

This book isn’t for everyone. Jorg and his companions are definitely not heroes and they definitely aren’t nice. They kill, burn, rape and pillage and sometimes in very graphic detail. At first it was a bit off-putting to say the least. Though once the story fleshes out, it doesn’t seem all that difficult to see why Jorg does what he does. But it still isn’t for everyone.

That said, the way in which Mr. Lawrence writes is superb. I highly dislike first person point of view, but this book demanded it. Jorg is so complex, not being in his head would be a major shame. One thing I really did like (and only after major thought on my part), I loved the voice of the novel. It is set over a thousand years after nuclear destruction, but the limited allusions to that are great. Very little description is used, and I think that works to the story overall. Also, the way in which Jorg describes things is so basic, so stringent on detail, I came to love it.

Another thing I didn’t like at first, but after thought, really came to dig, was the fact characters were killed so quickly. Unlike in Game of Thrones where plots happen and people die, this book had Jorg (mostly) killing characters you just got to know. Some I didn’t see coming and I loved it. I thought it was so daring of the author. Well done, sir.

What didn’t work:

Though Jorg is complex, sometimes I felt like he was too badass, almost like when you play an RPG until your characters are just like God. The dude is 14 years old and he already is a genius, skilled fighter, master manipulator, leader. While cool, I wish there was a bit more build-up to it, not just him having these abilities.

This was a very short book (only 320 pages) and I felt a bit disappointed in the overall plot. I love revenge stories, but there wasn’t a ton of build-up to the end. Further, I wasn’t a total fan of the villain popping up randomly toward the end of the story. Almost a bit of a cheap fake-out.

Rating:

4 out of 5

The best thing about this book is the pace. Yes it is short, yes it is dark, but the pacing is so strong, I didn’t want it to end. The writing, while hard to digest due to the graphic nature, was so well done, it was excellent. It really is a great piece of fantasy.