Books make the best presents

Tis the season, am I right? Now that we’ve all feasted on ham, turkey, gravy, stuffing, and that delicious cranberry sauce it’s time to do what we all love to do after Thanksgiving. And no, I don’t mean sleeping. I mean, I love to do that too. But there’s something else that I love.

Christmas present shopping. There’s a plethora (I love this word) of different days dedicated to the purchase of gifts for your loved ones. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday.

That whole weekend is a bit sadistic if you really think about it. First, Thanksgiving has people stuffing their faces on as much food as they can before going out and fist fighting for all those sweet deals.

Come on, you had to know that was coming. However, I don’t really spend that much money. For me, shopping isn’t really about spending money. Sure, we all spend money when we brave the cold and the other crazy people that want to save $5 on something they could get cheaper on Cyber Monday. 

Allow me a moment to backpedal. When I say “other crazy people” I include myself. And when I define that phrase it means “people that willingly go out to businesses in the dead of night to battle other warrior-shoppers for the right to claim a discounted item as their prize.” It’s really not an insult when you call people “warrior-shoppers” right?

When I go out on Black Friday, it’s typically to do some people watching. So, that sounds a bit creepy, but as a writer watching people is all part of the job. When you’re writing a story with humans in it, you want to try and capture human nature. And nothing portrays human nature like crowds fighting for $10 copies of the newest Call of Duty game. Seriously, that happened. I was at the South Bend Wal-Mart standing in a circular crowd with the cardboard box of games in the center. As the sales started and the shrink-wrap pulled free from the box, the crowd surged forward as one. Of course, the people at the front that already nabbed their copy tried to move out of the way of the others, it created a wave of push and pull. For a moment, I felt like I was swimming with waves coming and going. 

Over the years, more shopping days have been added. Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday now distract those “warrior-shoppers” from Black Friday. Maybe we should just change Thanksgiving to something more shopping savvy?

If you’re not inclined to fight the shopping horde this weekend, I’d suggest a better shopping alternative: books. That’s right, I said it. Go buy your friends, families, and other miscellaneous loved ones some books for Christmas. Here’s some quick reasons:

• Books are fairly cheap.

• Newly released books are never hard to find.

• Books often don’t weigh much so carrying five to ten presents to a loved ones house is fairly easy.

• Books are easy to wrap.

• Books fuel the imaginations of everyone reading them.

• There’s a book for literally (a literature and literal pun) everyone.

• Books make excellent White Elephant gifts.

• If you buy a book from a local author you’ll be participating in Small Business Saturdays. Do it.

• When someone asks you what you bought, tell them you purchased magic. Because that’s what books are: magic.

• Books, unlike video games, never need updates.

Go to a brick-and-mortar store, shop online, or go to Goodwill/Salvation Army and pick up some books instead of that new video game or that 1,000,000,000,000 inch television for $169.99.

Your wallet will thank you. And so will I.

99 cent BWP Thanksgiving Extravaganza

This holiday season, stay inside your warm homes with your family playing board games and drinking coffee. Instead of braving the cold and fighting all the other crazy “warrior-shoppers,” go check out Amazon to find these Burning Willow Press ebooks on sale for a very limited time.

The Starhawk Chronicles

The Beast Within

Immortal Slumber (The Crawford Witch Chronicles Book 1)

Follow the Ashes: Book 1 of the Executioner Trilogy

We Could Be Heroes

We Will Gain Our Fury (Seers and Demigods Book 1)

Asclepius

Hello, My Name is… (A Miss Hyde Novella Book 1)

The Road to Jericho (The Hell Walker Trilogy Book 1)

The Zombie Days (POW! Book 1)

Pain-Killer (A Miss Hyde Novella Book 2)

Follow the Screams (The Executioner Trilogy Book 2)

Mysterium Excelsum Unum (Mysterium Excelsum Book 1)

In Obscura Silvae (Mysterium Excelsum Book 2)

Beyond the Vale

Crossroads in the Dark: Anthology of Morality

Southern Fried Autopsies: Dissecting the Best from Southern Authors

So this is a very tiny percentage of the books on sale from Burning Willow Press. This sale lasts over the holiday weekend so don’t miss out!

My two books are also on this discounted list. You can find them here.Just make sure to click on the Amazon links to get the 99 cent deals.

Being Thankful (revised)

You might be wondering what I meant in the title when I said revised in parenthesis. I started writing this rant with the purpose of discussing what I’m thankful for due to it being so close to Thanksgiving. By the way, I call all of my weekly columns “rants.” If you regularly read them over the years you’ll know why. When I wrote the title, I had an odd feeling of deja vu. So I went through my archives and found the same title from last year around the same time. You won’t find it on this website. Back then, I was writing these rants for the newspaper I work for. I still write them for that paper, but I also put them on here. It’s really interesting rereading some of these older rants.

Here are the things I was thankful for last year:

• The ability to write for a living.

• The never ending support from my friends and family.

• The fact that my publisher, Burning Willow Press, took a chance on me and published my books.

• The failures I’ve suffered and the lessons I’ve learned from them.

While all of that is still true, there’s something I missed out about mentioning. It’s something that’s been in the background of my life and I’ve never really made any efforts to cultivate it or even acknowledge it. This factor is really the entire reason behind everything I’d previously listed.

It’s that I’m thankful for my faith in God and for His love for me. God has given me the gift of writing. That never ending support from my friends and family? That’s also a gift from God. Because of the writing gift, it’s led to my books being published. Those many failures were because I placed my pride and stubbornness higher on my priority list than I did my faith. God’s granted me the patience, wisdom, and endurance to suffer through those failures and learn from them.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t mention it the first time. Well, there were a few reasons. Without being too convoluted about it, I should simply state that I didn’t have the courage. I’d grown up tight lipped and never really talked about my feelings or expressed my thoughts and opinions. That’ll sometimes happen when your parents go through a nasty divorce. Because of that divorce, I’m not that fond of arguing with others, especially when those people are concrete in their thinking. The conversation doesn’t really lead anywhere and both sides only entrench themselves deeper in their beliefs. That’s also why I don’t often discuss politics either. 

So what happened? Why am I being so open about this revelation of mine (pun intended)?

It’s because my own marriage imploded. A few years ago my wife and I suffered what the courts call “irreconcilable differences.” The funny thing was that those differences were reconcilable had we both sacrificed our pride and ego to solve them. Except we didn’t. We opted for divorce. 

Do you ever ask people “How are you doing?”  and that person responds “I’m fine.” That was my response and it was always a lie. After my divorce, I fell into a depression.I didn’t take care of myself and I didn’t do any writing on my books. I delved too deeply into video games and fast food. I didn’t care for much during that time. It was bad.

Eventually though, and I’ll get to my main point in a second, things got better. I decided to write a book about a character similar to myself that suffered many of the same things that I went through. A fellow writing friend was my only confidant in this book’s creation. She was the person I workshopped ideas with and she never once judged me for what I was doing to that poor soul, my main character. I poured all of my pain, sorrow, and other elements of depression into those pages. I punished him just as hard as I thought God was punishing me. What can I say? Writing is very therapeutic. 

Except I was wrong. God wasn’t punishing me. I was being tested. By writing that novel, I was given a view of what would happen if I followed along that dark path filled with depression and sorrow. So I took another path. I began taking better care of myself both physically and spiritually. Little by little, things are getting better. As time ticks away, I’m learning from my failures and hope I don’t repeat them.

So while I am thankful for the four things at the beginning of this rant, I have to acknowledge the source behind those things. I am most thankful for God and all the wonderful gifts I am blessed with.

It’s normal for people to ponder what they’re thankful for during the tail end of November. The challenge is cherishing and carrying that feeling with you throughout the rest of the year.

By the way, don’t expect that book to come out anytime soon. That novel will likely never see the light of day because I’d have to go through it and relive it. That’s something I’d rather not do for a very long time. 

The waiting game…

 I hate waiting.

I know, I know. You’re probably saying, “but Jim, you should never hate something because hate’s a strong word.”

And you’re completely correct. Hate is a strong, harsh, and deplorable word that should only be used in the most extreme of circumstances. For example, I finished a James Patterson novel the other day and I said, “I hated that book.” That example would show that I really, really disliked that novel. That example would also be a lie because that would imply that I still read James Patterson novels. Which I don’t. 

All of that to say, I hate waiting. Unfortunately, waiting is an essential part to the author life. Once you submit your manuscript or query to a publisher, you typically have to wait 60 to 90 days to hear back from them. When I first submitted my series to the first publisher (for all you new readers, that was an entire kerfuffle of its own) I checked my email constantly. I had the Gmail app on my phone and set notifications so that when I received a new email my phone would ding. Do you think that stopped me from logging into the app and clicking refresh every few minutes? For all you that said no, then you win a free imaginary chicken dinner! I checked the app every half hour for the first two days. It got to the point where I would wake up, use the bathroom, log into the app, then went back to sleep. That would happen every few hours. 

As time dragged on, I checked my email less frequently, but the urge was still there. After a few months and no response, my hopes began to shrivel up like slugs under a salt shaker. It was during one of those late night bathroom experiences that I read my acceptance email. I was so ecstatic. My waiting was over and I was soon to be a published author.

Oh course once you wait and then finally receive that acceptance letter, that doesn’t mean that the wait is over. No sir, you’re waiting has only begun. I waited a year before I was released by the publisher (like I said above, it was an entire kerfuffle of its own). Then I was forced to find another publisher and submit the series to them.

Cue the anxious email checking. And of course, it happened that way. Even though this time I knew that I wouldn’t receive a response until months later, I still checked multiple times a day. I still performed the late night bathroom and email checks. I still jumped at the sound of that new email notification.

Waiting is something that doesn’t just pertain to an author’s life. It’s part of everyday life. Everyone has to wait for something. It could be a book response, your turn at the BMV, attention from the person you’re interested in, or an oven preheating. We all wait for something.

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways,” states Psalm 37:7.

Even if you’re not the religious type, you have to admit that The Bible has amazing advice. Have any of you tried to “be still?” It’s not that fun. It’s that other part that gets me sometimes. “Do not fret when people succeed in their ways.” 

I see that all the time. For me, it’s hard to not become jealous when I see another author succeed where I’ve failed. It’s tough to wait for that response and then get it only to have your dreams shattered. Lately, I’ve been struggling with that. I’ve sent out submissions and wait, only to have them rejected. I try and not become discouraged, but it’s tough. You put yourself and your work out there only to have it denied. Sometimes I feel like I should just give up entirely and quit submitting. 

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil,” Psalm 37:8 continues.

All of my fretting as I waited for the publisher’s response caused me to doubt myself. As the days waiting grew longer, I began to worry. Worry would then turn into fear. So when I get those rejection letters, that doubt has already infected me. 

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” said Yoda.

I know, this is a weird column this week. The Bible and Yoda quotes. 

The point of this odd column is that we all wait for something. You must be vigilant during the waiting process. Don’t let your mind wonder to those feelings of self-hatred and loathing. Fill them with something that uplifts yourself. Don’t fall to the dark side like Darth Vader. 

If this didn’t help you with your waiting problems, here are some obligatory cliches that might aid you:

• A watched pot never boils.

• All things come to him who waits.

• You usually have to wait for that which is worth waiting for.

• If you wait, all that happens is that you get older.

My top influences

I’m not sure if I’ve covered this topic and if I have then I apologize. I was filling out questions for an interview for another website and one of the questions asked about what book and/or author had influenced me the most. Surprisingly, it’s not really a question that I get asked. Yet, it’s one of the more important questions that must be asked. Everyone is influenced by someone or something. It could be a work or art, work of fiction, your parents, or even someone you’ve never met in person. That influence changes you, shapes you into the person that you will become. What would the world be like without the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King? What would it be like without the works of Mary Shelley or Edgar Allen Poe?

So without further ado, here are my top influencers (not in any certain order either):

1. My Mother and Father. I know what you’re saying right now. “But Jim, that’s an obvious choice.” I would argue that it isn’t such an obvious choice. Parents are human too and sometimes they leave a negative influence. However, my parents both taught me something that I might not have learned otherwise. For my mother, it was to keep calm and carry on. When my parents first divorced, she was left with four children and one income. Granted my older sister would later go to live with my father, it still left mom with three children to feed, clothe, and get to school. And she did just that until the time I left to live in South Bend for college. She taught me perseverance and maybe a bit stubbornness which can be a good thing from time to time. My father taught me the value of humor. When I was in the hospital with that three foot blood clot in my left leg, my wife (at the time) would get angry that I was cracking jokes about my situation. In my opinion, if you can’t laugh at either yourself or the situation you’re in then it must be dire. Plus, laughter is beneficial for your health so there’s that. When I was young I was grounded for some reason. I had to wait for my father to come home and deal out punishment. My young mind came up with so many scary scenarios that when he did get home, I dreaded it. Instead of pain and suffering, he handed me a hardback copy of Hardy Boys #2: The House on the Cliff. My punishment was to read the entire book. It was the best punishment ever. It also opened me up to books in general.

2. Stephen King. When I was in sixth grade, I started reading the works of Stephen King. You might be saying, “But Jim, you shouldn’t have been reading those books at that grade. You were too young for that stuff.” And… you’d be right. I shouldn’t have been reading his stuff at that age. But I was. Starting with “IT” I moved on to “Gerald’s Game” and then “Firestarter” and “The Gunslinger.” Once I read that last one I was a fan for life. His books influenced not only my writing style, but the writing ethic that I try to maintain. I can’t maintain his writing ethic, but it’s something I’m always trying to elevate myself towards.

3. George Romero. Romero is the film equivalent to Stephen King in the aspect that his trilogy of zombie films influenced me to write post-apocalyptic fiction. I’ve seen zombie films before, but it wasn’t until I watched the 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” that I truly appreciated the use of zombies in film and literature. I learned that zombies shouldn’t be the main focus. It’s the conflict between the human protagonist and antagonist that the story should be centered on. The zombies are the vehicle to get that conflict isolated and focused around. Romero was an expert at that.

4. The Bible. I know, everyone uses God and religion as their main influencer. For me that holds true as well. If you want to know why all you have to do is read the book of Revelations. As a writer of horror, this is the source of post-apocalyptic genre. The name of the genre derives from the word Apocalypse which comes from Revelations. The imagery is amazing as well. I’ll just leave it like that.

Those were just four influencing elements that have made me the writer that I am. There are a plethora of others that I could detail and maybe I will, but so far those are the leading ones.

Take a moment and think about your life. Even if you’re not a writer, what influences you? Leave a comment with your top influences!

Healthy Writing 101

When I was a kid, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Of course, it would change constantly. First I wanted to be an archeologist because I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Then I wanted to be a paleontologist because I watched Jurassic Park (1993). It should only come naturally then when I say that I also wanted to be a Ghostbuster because I watched Ghostbusters (1984).

Well, as time passed I came to realize three things about my “ideal” careers. 

1. Indiana Jones is more of a tomb raider which is illegal in most countries.

2. It takes incredible patience to dig up all those dinosaur bones which is something I don’t have.

3. Ghostbusting isn’t real, sad as that may be.

If I was being honest with you (the reader) and myself, I wouldn’t have landed in any of those jobs for one simple fact: I’m quite lazy. I admit it. I like to sit while working. In fact, when digging up bones, busting ghosts and thwarting Nazis weren’t in my future I picked a more modest career: writing. As some of you know, that didn’t go as planned either and I was forced to choose another career which turned out to be computer programming. Long story short, that didn’t work out as well and I went back to writing. 

The moral to my search for the perfect career is that I didn’t factor in the amount of physical activity (or lack thereof) that career would involve. When I was growing up, I wasn’t the pinnacle of physical fitness. I’m still not. Far from it. I’m more like the base camp of physical fitness. When I was considering my career as a computer programmer, it was the thought of sitting in front of a computer screen all day isolated from the rest of the world. At that time, I was in high school and I was self conscious about my weight and general appearance. So a job that had me behind closed doors most of the day was right up my alley. My failure was that I didn’t realize the physical strain sitting down most of the day would have on my body’s health.

In 2015 I began working at the Pilot News and I loved it because I wasn’t on my feet for eight to ten straight hours every day like I had been when I was working in dining services. I loved the career change for that (lazy) reason, but also because it was one of my dream careers. 

However, I didn’t expect the blood clot. Blood clots are like the Spanish Inquisition in that nobody expects them.

For those that don’t know, sitting for extended periods of time could cause blood clots to form. In my case, I found that my three foot blood clot was a combination of sitting instead of being on my feet and the genes that my parents gave me. Thanks Mom and Dad.

What I’m trying to say is that even if you’re sitting on your butt all day for hours on end, you still have to exercise and get that blood flowing. If you’re going to be sitting for an extended period of time, you need to move around. Stand up and walk around your room every hour. Break up an eight hour writing session by going out and walking. You could even get a gym membership and work out. Even if you walk from your office to the kitchen to refill your coffee cup, that’s still better than having the coffee pot on your desk.

Trust me on that last one. Having your coffee pot located on your desk is a bad thing for multiple reasons. The first being that you’re not getting up and walking to the kitchen. The second being that your coffee pot could leak and then you’d have a permanent coffee pot ring engraved in your wooden desk.

Yes, that happened to me. On the upside, it gives your desk character. 

My local library offers Chair Yoga. Chair Yoga, as the name might suggest, teaches people how to stretch and exercise while sitting in an office chair. I’ve never been able to go, but it’s always something I’ve found interesting. 

For me, walking around the neighborhood is an activity that gets clears my mind. If I’m hung up on how to propel the plot, I will go walking. Ninety-nine percent of the time, by the time I’m back I’ve figured out what to do next.

Stephen King goes out walking everyday and look how successful he is. Although… he did almost die from getting hit by a vehicle while out on one of those walks. So… be careful when you’re out there.

Can your bad guys be… “good?”

Good and evil, night and day, black and white, chess and checkers, Stephen King and James Patterson, and chutes and ladders. Everything in life has an opposite. Since authors write stories that model real life, even stories have that opposition inside of them. One such example is the good guy/bad guy relationship. I guess technically I should be referring to them as the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the villain). 

Since I’ve been on this kick over the last few weeks about what makes a “good” story, I thought that I’d write a column about what makes a “good” antagonist. Every story that has a protagonist, must have a rival, someone that will test and possibly defeat the hero of the story. In the last series of columns I wrote, one of them detailed the fact that the hero needs to face increasing obstacles right up until the climax of the story. Well, ideally, the antagonist would be the one that provides these challenges. The reason for that is that the antagonist is the opposite to the protagonist in terms of objectives. 

mh“This is the character who most stands in the way of the hero achieving his or her out motivation,” states Michael Hauge in his book Writing Screenplays that Sell: The Complete Guide to Turning Story Concepts into Movie and Television Deals.

Hauge goes on to say that the antagonist, he calls it the nemesis, doesn’t necessarily have to be nefarious individual. “A nemesis can obviously be a villain but might also be an opponent, a rival, or even a good guy, as long as the character is somehow standing in the way,” he writes.

On a side note, this book is amazing. Even if you never plan on writing a screenplay it’s something every writer should read. You can find it here.

There are millions of examples to choose from, but for some reason my mind always sneaks back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Don’t worry late comers to the MCU, I won’t spoil the plot of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). I’ll just spoil the plot of Thor (2011). If you haven’t seen it (like my friend Ben) by now then it doesn’t really matter because you probably won’t see it anytime soon. 

Really, all you need to know about Thor is that he is the opposite of Loki in just about every way possible except for gender (interesting factoid, in the comics Loki does turn into a female). Thor is strong, blonde hair, courageous, muscular, Asgardian, says what he means, and destined to rule his world of Asgard when his father (Odin) dies. Loki is weaker than Thor, dark hair, cautious, is proved to be a Frost Giant and not an Asgardian, manipulative, and is not designed to rule his people.

thor and loki
You can even tell by this shot that while Thor is partially shadowed (meaning he’s good but conflicted) Loki is almost completely shadowed (meaning he’s 90% evil).

The hero and villain of Thor grow up together and are told that they are brothers. In fact, they form a brotherly bond that lasts till Avengers: Infinity War even though Loki constantly betrays Thor. The thing that causes them to part from the same path is that both Thor and Loki desire to be the ruler of Asgard when Odin dies. This is what turns Loki into the villain. While Thor is trying to do what his father wishes, Loki manipulates his brother into disobeying Odin causing the king to exile Thor until such a time that he becomes worthy of wielding the power of Thor’s hammer. 

Another element to a “good” bad guy is the need to humanize the villain and make the audience sympathize with the character. Loki was meant to die at the end of Thor. Because of the reception he received from the fans, they brought him back for the first Avengers movie. One element to that fandom Loki created was due to Tom Hiddleston, the actor who played Loki. The second element was the way the writers created the character.

deadThe last thing I’ll touch on is that even though there isn’t an obvious antagonist, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the antagonist around. Some of you might be reading this and thinking “But Jim, what about zombie movies and books? Can the zombies be the antagonists?” Technically I suppose. Zombies like to eat human flesh and the humans don’t want their flesh eaten. However, If the zombies are the bad guys, they’re probably sentient undead like in the film Dead Snow (2009). Since we’re talking about “good” bad guys, zombies will most likely never be the antagonists. Why? Because they can’t be humanized. No one is going to want for the zombies to win. The late George Romero was inventive when he directed his zombie films and knew this. That’s why the antagonist is always a living human opposing the morality of the protagonist. In Romero’s films, the zombies were simply the event that causes the two parties to come into conflict. 

th.jpg
Night of the Living Dead (1968) wasn’t about how to defeat the undead. The main conflict was between Ben (front) and Harry (standing behind Ben). 

Now, some of you might be thinking “But Jim, you didn’t even mention films like Sharknado (2013) where the shark infested tornado is the antagonist.”

I didn’t mention that because we’re talking about “good” antagonists.