Review of Bird Box

bird boxI only picked up this book because of the Netflix film, of the same name. I’d seen the film and thoroughly enjoyed it. Having seen the Netflix film, I knew what I was getting into when I started the debut novel written by Josh Malerman. Having said that, I’m glad I picked it up. Both versions of the story are equally great.

The story begins with the main character, Malorie, standing in the kitchen thinking. It’s been four years since the apocalyptic event that swept across the earth killing untold millions. What follows is a forty-three chapter game of tennis. Malerman switches from the present to the past almost every chapter. In the present, Malorie is gearing up to travel on the river with her two children, Boy and Girl. The destination is a promise of a safe place from the insanity inducing creatures. In the flashbacks, the reader gets the full story of why Malorie is alone and why she has two children of the same age with her.

This is one of the charms of the novel because when a chapter ends, it’s typically a cliff hanger and the reader won’t figure out what happens until a few chapters later. There were moments when I would reach the end of a chapter, look at the clock knowing I need to be somewhere, but couldn’t wait so I continued reading.

Another charming thing that Malerman does in his novel is never show the monster. The apocalyptic event is this creature that causes insanity in those that view it. So, reasonably, the reader never gets even the hint of a description other than it might smell bad. Even when the characters see the creatures, they don’t see the creature. For some writers, that might be a hindrance, but for Malerman he writes it really well. The way characters live in the world where vision is a danger, they wear blindfolds. This natural isolation makes even a leaf falling on the characters shoulder spooky. Is it a leaf? Is it a crazy person taunting the character? Is it the creatures? The characters don’t know and that’s when their imagination is the enemy. Even though it’s a leaf or a random twig breaking is intense to a reader because they don’t know either. They are, literally, in the dark like the characters.

The one thing that bugged me about the story was the lack of technology it employed. Presumably set in 2014 when Malerman wrote it, there isn’t much use of technology. Characters use phone books to call numbers using a landline. They don’t access the internet even though their power is still on. There is no GPS and the characters have to use mileage on their cars to judge distance. It felt like I had picked up a book from the early 1990’s. Which isn’t a bad thing, but for younger readers it may not be a relatable literary experience.

Bird Box is an interesting tale of survival and what a mother would do to protect herself and her two children. It’s an intense novel that’s a true page turner. Even though you know the fates of the characters, you’ll be cheering for the ill-fated characters during the flashback chapters. If you’ve never seen the Netflix film, give it a watch because it’s really pretty good. If you’ve never read the novel written by Josh Malerman, give it a read because it’s equally as good.

If you want to read an apocalyptic novel that doesn’t include the normal amount of blood and gore that is commonplace in most books of this genre, Bird Box is the novel for you.

Novel Ideas: Becoming an Editor

Last Saturday, I was at the weekly Bible Study and one of my friends asked me a question. Some of you might already be saying, “Stop right there. You’ve got friends?” To which I would respond, “Why yes, I keep them in my basement that way they can never leave me.”

Hopefully you all know I’m joking right? I’d never kidnap my friends and keep them locked away in my basement. That’s what my garage is for after all.
Joking aside, my friend also happens to be a copyeditor and asked how one would expand into the world of book editing. I told my friend that question would make for a novel idea for Mastering the Craft (Pause for laughter to subside).

So I did some research and here are my findings about how to break into the novel editing biz.

Some of you might not know that I have edited a few books for other authors. I’m currently editing one for Burning Willow Press, the home of my own books. The first tip I have is this: get some writing of your own out there so employers can see the quality of your writing. This will show them that you know how to write character arcs, build tension, craft a scene, write dialogue. You know, the basics of storytelling. If you don’t know how to write a story, you shouldn’t expect employers to hire you to edit a story.

If you don’t want to wait to get a story published, then the easiest way is to place it on your own personal website. Having your own website is a great way to market yourself. A good freelance editor’s page should include your experience, qualifications, prices, testimonials, and any other piece of information that would sway your potential employers to hire you. If you’re looking for a good example, check out http://www.thejohnfox.com.

Once you have your website up and running, it’s time to build up your social media presence (if it’s not already). Having an account on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon Author Page, and LinkedIn will be your primary way of networking with not only potential employers, but also with other editors. Don’t think of other editors as enemies, think of them as resources. If you’re new to the business, reach out and ask them for advice. They were once in your shoes (maybe they still are).

Now, here’s the biggest piece of advice in terms of social media and your website. Maintain and update them as much as possible. If a potential client finds his/her way onto your site and the last post is from a year ago, it’s not going to make them get excited about hiring you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about your business. People love seeing posts about your pets, your newest video game addiction, what you’re reading, what you’re writing, and just life in general.

Join in on internet book release parties. Authors typically have Facebook events to promote their latest releases. During those releases there’s normally what’s called “Author Take Over Events” where authors or others in the business take over for a time slot (typically half hour or hour periods of time). Hosting such a time slot is an excellent way to network. You could also have contests and give away editorial discounts. This might entice an author to hire you simply because your services are now cheaper. Remember, indie authors don’t get paid the same as Stephen King and James Patterson.

Having a bachelor’s degree in English, Journalism, Communications, or some other related concentration is advised. This shows the potential client that you’ve received formal training and should have a grasp on editing. However, if you don’t have the time/money to go to college then you can always receive informal training that may help to even the scales. Go check out your local library and see if they offer online courses like Lynda.com and Gale Courses. My library does and they’re free (at least at my library) to those that have a library card. Even if you’re a college graduate, sharpening your skills is never a bad thing. I’m taking an editing class through the library this March.

Along those lines of education, make sure you have knowledge of Microsoft Publisher and/or Adobe InDesign. They’re not absolutely necessary, but they’re a good bonus to have. Also, get some firsthand experience with Microsoft Word, specifically the Track Changes function. Most publishers now a days require you to have Office 365 and use Track Changes. But hey, look on the upside. That subscription to Office 365 is now tax deductible since you’re purchasing it for your new editing business!

The very last thing I can suggest to you, my friend, and all those others that consider the glamourous life of a novel editor. Focus on getting that first client. After that, focus on performing a good job. Bad reputations can cripple a career. Bad reviews are always easier to spread than good ones. When you do get good feedback from your client, ask for a short testimonial to put on your site. Wear it as a badge of honor.

Above all else, have fun. It’s always been my opinion that you should never spend your life at a career that you despise. 

My newest book release and following your gift

On Saturday, Feb. 2, my third book is being released by Burning Willow Press, LLC (BWP). They are a phenomenal company that cares about the quality of the books they publish. It can be purchased at a variety of places, but if you search “The Book of Ashley, James Master” on Amazon.com you’ll find it easily. Enough of the shameless promotion though.
I watched a video of Steve Harvey while hiding inside my home during the polar vortex on Wednesday. He talked about how you should follow your gift and not your passion.
“All of you have this gift, identify it. It’s the thing that you do the absolute best with the least amount of effort. That’s what you should be doing. You’re wasting your time pursuing your passion,” Harvey said.
If I’d watch this video a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have understood this message. Up until a few years ago, my passion was playing video games. I’d spend hours playing them, didn’t matter what game it was. Admittedly, I was pretty terrible at esports or other competitive video games. That ruled out playing video games on a professional level. I was terrible at computer programming, ruling out creating video games.
I spent so much time and money trying to follow my passion instead of following my gift. Making the choice to follow my gift, my life has been changed. I have a better paying job, several published works, and an interesting side job with a really great publishing company.
Some of you may be thinking, “but Jim, don’t you work for BWP? Doesn’t that make you biased?” The answer is… sure, maybe a little. For full disclosure, I will state for the record that I am a contracted author for seven books with BWP as well as an editor for them. I also work in the submissions department which typically entails reading submissions and giving my opinion on whether they would be a good fit underneath the BWP umbrella.
Having said all of that, I don’t believe that it would change my view on the publishing company. If anything, this relationship has strengthened my view on BWP. If you ever get a chance to talk with Edd Sowder, VP of the company, you’ll come to the same conclusion I’ve reached. This man loves four things: his wife Kindra (author and BWP President), his company, his coffee, and his authors. You can typically find Edd on the Writer Imperfect Twitch stream that airs Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If you don’t watch Twitch or don’t know what that is, then go to YouTube and search Writer Imperfect with Joshua Robertson.
Enough about Burning Willow Press, LLC though. Let’s talk about my newest release. For those that might be interested, The Book of Ashley is the third book in my series, The Soul Eater Chronicles. The whole series is based around demons, monsters, and the holy crusader that stands against the darkness. When people ask me what kind of genre the series falls in, I typically call it “Religious Horror.” Basically, if you like monsters, demons, and books about good fighting against evil then these books might be for you.
This will be the third book I’ve had published. I’ve also had three short stories that I’ve had published in anthologies. All of them with BWP. Every time I publish something, there’s this triumphant feeling of accomplishment. It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced while playing video games.
I know that last week’s rant might have seemed like I didn’t exactly like my profession. Which is totally the opposite. I do not regret one word that I’ve written in the last five years of being a news writer/author. I am so grateful to be doing what I’m doing for a living. There’s nothing else I could possibly see myself doing. Well, maybe I’d be doing something in the dining service/gas station arena. I sure wouldn’t like it, whatever it would be.
“A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway,” said Junot Diaz, professor of writing and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.
Even if I was still working in a gas station or as a supervisor of a café at a college, I’d still be a writer. Even if I received rejection after rejection, I’d still be a writer. Even if I had absolutely zero training in the craft, I’d still be a writer. Even if I lived in Michigan, I’d still be a writer (because if I lived there, I’d need something to take my mind off the fact that I lived in Michigan).
Identify your gift and follow it. It doesn’t mean that you must abandon your passion. I still play video games, but I’m not focusing my time on it.

The Legends of Luke Skywalker

The_Legends_of_Luke_Skywalker_final_coverKen Liu writes an interesting anthology of tales that center around the myth of Luke Skywalker. The story is centered around some passengers on a transport barge on its way to Canto Bight. If you’ve seen the film Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) then this destination will be familiar. In fact, it really shouldn’t be a surprise because the book is included in part of the “Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

To pass the time, the passengers tell tales of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. This novel falls between Episode VI and Episode VIII as far as the timeline.

The first thing that I enjoyed about this book is the structure in which it was made. There are six stories about the Jedi Master with interludes in between. Also, the edition I read had fully colored illustrations of the story about to be told that were beautifully drawn by J.G. Jones.

The next thing that I enjoyed about the book was the fact that not all tales about Luke were true. Told by many different characters, the tales of Luke and the Rebellion vary from being saviors of the galaxy to just a bunch of con artists as told in the short story “The Myth Buster.”

If you’re a fan of Star Wars but have never really delved into the cannon/non-cannon books, then this one might be the one to try out. This book is considered cannon, but like I said earlier don’t really count on the legitimacy of what’s being said about Luke Skywalker.

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Just one example of the artwork in this book crafted by Artist J.G. Jones.

Overall, the book is great in terms of writing. Author Ken Liu does an amazing job crafting these stories and making each sound different in terms of the tones of the narrator that’s telling them. My favorite story is at the very end. It’s titled “Big Inside” and is about Luke and the narrator being trapped in the belly of gigantic monster. In order to get out, Luke and the narrator must accept the sacrifice from another trapped group. “Big Inside” contains the most wisdom in the anthology stating that:

“It was one thing to sacrifice yourself for something you believed in, but how much heavier was the burden of accepting someone else’s sacrifice?”

The genius of this concept for a Star Wars book is that since each story is told by different people, nothing can be considered “true” even if Luke did the things that he did in the book. The writing trick of “the unreliable narrator” is used here to make the reader ponder what really happened in each tale.

As far as what I didn’t like about the book, there wasn’t much. If I had to nitpick and find one negative in this book of positives, then I would have to say that one of the stories dragged on and didn’t really capture my attention. “The Tale of Lugubrious Mote” was about the true brains behind the comedic genius in Jabba the Hutt’s palace. That story didn’t quite accelerate until Luke showed up which wasn’t until thirteen pages into the story.

This book can be read by children of all ages. As far as swear words, I didn’t catch any. If you’re looking for a Star Wars book that doesn’t really add to the canon of the films, but does provide some good tales to read then The Legends of Luke Skywalker written by Ken Liu is your book.

If you’re wondering whether or not to purchase the book in hardback or ebook, I would recommend hardback. There is not a book sleeve on it and therefore is just a glossy cover, but the book is extremely durable and has a great feel to it.

Writing Myths: “It’s such an easy gig.”

When people tell me that writing is easy, I have two reactions. The first reaction, my outward reaction, is that I often chuckle and say sure it is. The second reaction, the one I scream inside my head about, is the exact opposite. Being a writer, especially an author, is an exceedingly difficult job with little thanks. You know, if I’m being perfectly blunt, writing is incredibly difficult. If you’re not a writer then I’ll briefly explain my writing process in terms of a news writer and an author. Then you can decide whether I’m justified in my ranting or just a crazy nutjob that shouldn’t be writing anything at all.

For example, I cover government meetings and write articles based on what happens during the meeting. Sometimes, as in the case of a BZA meeting I attended last year, the meetings can last more than one, two, or three hours. Not only do you have to be furiously scribbling notes the entire time, but you also have to be able to sit still for that long. You better hope that you aren’t predisposed to blood clots (like I am). Then when you get back into the office, you have to set about the task of writing that article. Do you break it apart into separate articles? Do you leave something out or include something out of fear that the reader calls and complains because that issue wasn’t in the article? Especially at government meetings, you have to make sure that all the names are correctly spelled. Believe me, there are sometimes when I have to fight with autocorrect because it’ll change a name three times. You’ll also want to make sure that you leave your opinions and bias out of the article. I can’t tell you how annoying, frustrating, and grating it is to hear the term “fake news” applied to your article.

Then you submit it to your editor who reads it, edits it, and puts it into the paper. If the article is a sensitive subject, if you’re like me, you’re going to be walking on glass for the next day or two because you think someone is going to come in and complain about it. And sometimes they do. Or sometimes they send anonymous letters to the office or leave voicemails venting their own frustrations about the article. I love feedback as much as the next writer, but at least have the common courtesy to leave your name. I like to put a name to the punching bag I have at home.

But that’s just my thoughts on news writing. Let’s talk about what book writers go through.

Writers work hard to do what they do. We sit behind a computer screen and pour that combination of imagination, blood, and a pinch of our soul into a piece of work that may never see the light of day. Even if we finish, sometimes we don’t, that’s not when a writer can relax. Once we have completed our work, we have to literally tear it to shreds line by line, word by word. Writing is tough, but editing is soul crushing work.

Even when a writer is finished editing, you might want to submit it to a publisher. Did you know that most publishers have a response time of months? Once that writer submits, they’re checking their inbox almost hourly. Don’t deny it writers, you can’t con a conman. And when you finally get that response saying that your book has been accepted, that means you can sit back and watch those fat royalty checks come in? Maybe if you’re a Stephen King or James Patterson. Let’s be honest, you’re not. I’m not either so we’re even.

Now it’s a waiting game. The publisher isn’t going to put your book in the front of the publishing schedule. Imagine walking into the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. It’s a packed Saturday and you enter to find fifty other people sitting down with tickets in their hands. So you walk over to the ticket machine and grab yours. After waiting patiently, you get another email. This time it’s from the publisher’s editor who has painstakingly picked the corpse of your book clean. Now you have to go through the book and change everything the editor has commented on.

After that is done, you send the edited version back. That’s where the fun begins because there’s the cover to approve, the author bio to write, the formatting to approve, you have to find people to read an advanced readers copy so that they can leave reviews at the time of the release, there’s the online release party to organize (if you have one), then all the other promotional things to market your book.

Once the book does get released, then you’re trying to juggle promotions, getting reviews, and then also writing the next book.

Do you all want to know the common denominator between being a news writer and being a novel writer other than, you know, writing? We don’t get paid that well. Having worked four years at my day job as a news writer I believe I’m paid rather well, but that’s because I’ve put in the time and effort to get there. As an author of three books and a few short stories, I think I’ve made about the equivalent of a PlayStation 3. In today’s market.

Well Jim, you might ask, why do you do it if you hate this profession so much?

To be perfectly honest, I love this job. I love being a news writer and being able to witness events that will reverberate through the communities I live in. Writing news, I feel like I’m part of the community even though I’m an introvert at heart. I couldn’t stop writing novels and short stories even if I wanted to. It’s something that’s ingrained in my soul. Even if my books are shoddy, which I tend to lean towards even though people say otherwise, I’ll still write them.

So when people tell me that “your job is so easy.” Sure it may seem that way, but it’s not. If anyone tells you differently, that’s when you can say “fake news.”

Common Writer Traits: Self-Doubt

I can’t do it. If I had to guess, those four words (or some variation) have been spoken by every writer sometime in their writing career. I spoke those words just the other day. I’d sent in the first round of edits on my third book and started thinking about the fourth. That ones going to be a tricky one. It’s gone through some minor changes and then one major change. 

The big change occurred when I had gotten 45,000 words written and then I decided that it would be better as the fifth book. I was faced with two choices:

1. Ignore my judgment and make the fourth book work as it was written.

2. Make it the fifth book and write a completely different book as the fourth in my series. 

Now, I know what you’re all probably thinking. “Don’t ignore your instincts Jim.” 

Easier said than done my friends. One of the factors I have to figure into my decision is the deadline of the book. I have to be finished with the novel by the end of August. September I’ll go through and edit it and have it sent off to the publisher early October. That’s all this year. No pressure, right? Now if I was Stephen King and had no other job other than to write then that would be easy. Or if I was James Patterson, I could just write the outline and have another author write it for me. That wasn’t a joke, either. That’s what happens when he coauthors a book. Look it up.

So why am I doubting myself?

If you ask a writer, then you’ll probably get the response “because you’re a writer.” Writers will get that joke. But it really goes deeper than that. When I first started writing my first book I had met the woman that would be my wife. She encouraged me to write and even suggested that I go back to college and study creative writing. The entire reason you’re reading this now is because she was the one that pushed me. She was the one that believed in me. 

Ten years later, I have everything I worked so hard for. I’m a published author with my third book coming out in less than a month, I write for a living at a newspaper, and I even have a part-time gig as an editor/submissions reader for an independent publisher. I should be happy. Except there’s one thing that I don’t have anymore. 

I don’t have the never-ending support my wife would give me when I doubted myself and my writing. To my knowledge, she never read one word I’d written. That didn’t stop her from telling me that I’d become a published author one day. It didn’t stop her from turning off the television and instructing me to go into the office and write. For all she knew my writing was garbage, but that didn’t stop her from believing in her husband. Deanna was the rock that I could steady myself against the waves of self-doubt. Now she’s living her own life a state away and I go home at night to a house filled with regret, guilt, and doubt.

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough,” said Stephen King in his book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not completely alone in this world. I have a network of supportive family and friends to rely on. But when you have that level of support, that I had for nine years, crumble into nothing it can seem almost insurmountable. 

I’m not too sure that I have the answer either. If you are working through a problem similar to mine, there’s one piece of advice I can give you. Don’t go through it alone. Whatever dilemma you’re facing, be it doubting yourself or something else, you don’t have to go through it alone. If you have friends and family that are willing to help you, then seek them out. If you don’t then there are groups and organizations that can help. If you attend a church, talk to your priest/pastor/reverend/etc… If you don’t attend a church, then start attending a church.

On Monday, when I was mildly freaking out about this Book 4 issue, I texted a friend of mine. 

Me: I need a writer’s opinion. Is it really crazy to throw out 40k words for a story when you start thinking of another way to write it?

Friend: Nah. Even if it was, you need to write in your own way. If it’s weird to someone else, so what?

Me: Well that’s true. Thanks for the opinion. It’ll be a madhouse getting it written before my November deadline though haha.

Friend: You can do it.

Once I read that last text, my anxiety vanished. My friend’s four words trumped the four that were floating in my head.

Stephen King is right. Writing is a lonely job. Life, however, is a lonelier job. Having someone who believes in you makes all the difference.

So go and find someone.

Writing Horror: One Christian’s Perspective

This last week, I’ve been pondering the question I posed in last week’s rant: As a Christian, should I be writing horror? To be completely honest with you all, I’ve been wondering that for a while. Not just for the last week. But I’ve come up with an answer to that question. 

Yes, do it.

There’s a word that sticks out when I consider the horror genre. That word is apocalypse. You might be familiar with it in the following ways: the zombie apocalypse, post-apocalyptic wasteland (Michigan), or even that semi-decent X-Men movie. 

When you look it up on http://www.dictionary.com, there are a few definitions. Examples include: any revelation or prophecy, any universal or widespread destruction or disaster. My favorite though is the definition that states it’s “a prophetic revelation, especially concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil.”

As a Christian horror writer, that last one is the one I prefer. The word originates from the Middle English, Late Latin (around 1125-1175 A.D.) apocalypsis from the Greek word apokålypsis which means, of course, revelation.

You’re probably wondering why I’m giving you all this odd piece of information. Well, another odd piece of information is that my favorite book of the Bible just so happens to be Revelations. 

You guys connecting any dots?

In my pondering, I came across an article on http://www.christianitytoday.com interviewing Screenwriter and Christian Scott Derrickson. He works on plenty of horror films including films in the Urban Legends, Dracula, and Hellraiser franchises. Derrickson explains that the genre is better equipped to tackle issues of good and evil than any other genre.

“It distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears,” he stated in the interview. “And in my experience, that’s something that a lot of Christians don’t want to do.”

My original question seems a bit silly when reading what Derrickson had to say on the subject. Of course, then I come across another article that discusses whether or not Christians should be watching horror movies. The article discusses demon based movies specifically. “As such, this is a subject that should hardly be taken lightly; neither should it be considered a form of ‘entertainment.’,” states that article. It goes on by quoting various Bible verses. Each verse starts to make me doubt my intentions as a horror author. 

Then I get to 1 Corinthians 10:31. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Reading on I get to verse 33 of that same chapter that says “just as I also please men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”

The question now isn’t should I be writing horror. The question now becomes: why am I writing horror?

Am I writing horror in order to dishonor God? Am I writing in order to corrupt Christians and destroy their opportunity to attain everlasting life? Generally speaking, is my heart in the wrong place?

Those questions are simpler than the others I’ve been pondering. No, to all of the above. If you’ve read my books (if you have then thank you. If not then I hope you all wind up living in Michigan forever (only joking (hey, cool. Parentheses Inception!))) you’ll find that good triumphs over evil in them. There might be a few hiccups along the way, but that’s generally what happens. 

So if you’re in conflict like I was, ask yourself why instead of should. As a writer, why are you writing? That’s generally a good question in any case. If you’re only in it for the money, then I suggest you just quit because you’ll never be happy. 

This advice doesn’t just go with horror either. There’s Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and general Fiction as well with any other genre. Just because Christians are writers, it doesn’t mean they write purely Christian. Look at J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s a reason why Samwise sticks with Frodo throughout everything. Even after Frodo betrays Samwise in order to keep the ring (addiction). The faithful hobbit doesn’t give up, he goes back to Frodo because he loves him. 

And if I’m wrong, what’s the worst that will happen? Well, I’ll probably end up in Hell. You know, the little unincorporated community in Putnam Township. It’s located in Michigan.

Just saying.