Review – The Circuit : Executor Rising

Full Disclosure : I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I do not know the author personally, except for our brief interactions by email.

The Circuit : Executor Rising is a fast-paced and enjoyable science fiction yarn that takes place in a most interesting setting. It’s our own solar system, either during a time before interstellar travel becomes possible, or perhaps in a universe where the laws of physics never become more than what we know now. Regardless, Mr. Bruno does a great job showing us how our own tiny, insignificant star system can feel like a vast and wondrous place.

The story follows several principal characters : Sage is a young, deadly assassin known as an Executor ; a hard-working miner named Talon ; and perhaps most intriguingly, a disaffected scientist and former member of the system’s ruling council, Cassius Vale. Vale, and by extension, his AI creation known as ADIM, are definitely the antagonists in this story… Villains, even. And yet they are, by far, the most fascinating and sympathetic characters in the book. It takes a lot of storytelling talent to make a monomaniacal mad scientist feel like a real person, justified in his horrific actions to the point where you root for him, instead of those trying to stop him.

By and large, the plot is not something which will surprise a veteran science fiction reader, but rather serves as a showcase for Mr. Bruno’s adept worldbuilding and strong characterization. He gives us things to be genuinely interested by and characters we can believe in within the space of a few hundred pages, making for a thoroughly enjoyable read.

With no major editorial issues to speak of and pages that kept me coming back for more, The Circuit : Executor Rising earns 4.5 out of 5 stars. As is my standard policy, I will round this up to 5 stars on the appropriate websites.

Review: The Cabal of Thotash by J. Zachary Pike

thotashAmazon US

The Cabal of Thotash is an urban fantasy… Sort of.

Let’s start at the beginning. A mysterious cult devoted to an evil Lovecraftian deity meets in an unventilated basement once a week, and everything is going well enough. Honoring the Contract, doing evil deeds, making sacrifices of innocents upon the altar of Thotash, until one day they bring a young woman into their midst as an intended sacrifice… And everything changes.

Only 9,000 words or so long, that is all this story needed to tell a whimsical and downright hilarious tale of a Lovecraftian cult (sorry, cabal) which just can’t seem to get things right. If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and love to revel in the absurdity of situations normal and supernatural, you should not hesitate to pick this up. Genre-savvy readers will instantly recognize both the familiar and the unfamiliar, and you can’t help but laugh as you watch this thoroughly respectable cabal become something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

For a first entry into the market by a new author, this short story/novella/novelette/whatever we’re calling short fiction these days is well worth the time and small investment. The formatting is invisible, and while I might wish for fewer ‘was’s in the first paragraph, it did not detract from my thorough enjoyment of the story, nor did it reduce the number of laugh-out-loud moments in this brief yarn.

5 stars. Highly recommended.

Amazon US

Review: PRIEST by Matthew Colville

PRIEST is perhaps one of the more perplexing books I’ve read this year.

Let’s start with the good, as I am oft wont to do. Contained within the covers of PRIEST is a compelling central narrative, structured around a priest and former “campaigner” (which appears to be this world’s word for “adventurer”) named Heden. When we first meet Heden, he is acting somewhat the knight errant, helping a poor girl who’s been imprisoned for being possessed… But Heden knows that she’s merely ill, and comes to her aid.

Heden, from what we are told, seems to be suffering from something much akin to (if it is not) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is withdrawn and suffers from paralyzing flashbacks to his campaigner days. He is also a priest–thus the title–and once his character is established we get to the heart of the matter. The north is threatened by invaders, and those who might protect the helpless–the Knights of the Green, mysterious forest paladins that no one knows much about–have been reduced from nine members to eight. Permanently.

Our hero is tasked with discovering what happened to the Knights and absolving them, meting out justice so that their ranks might be restored and they can protect the people.

That’s just the beginning of the story, and it unfurls from there into quite the enthralling yarn. The world-building is an intriguing and original take on many common fantasy tropes, building upon the ideas that every fantasy reader knows to create something more. The core of the plot is mysterious and continually commands the reader’s interest.

But. There’s a but here, and I would be remiss if I did not point it out.

I read the Kindle edition, offered free on Amazon a few weeks ago when the author published the second installment. The Kindle edition’s formatting is… lacking, as you can see in the attached screenshot from my iPad’s Kindle app. No paragraph indents is the first offense, and it’s a glaring one. The same problem occurred in Kindle Cloud Reader, so I know it’s not just my device. Overall, the formatting feels amateur at best, and could use a significant rework.


My second issue is the use of language. It’s made clear that Heden has an informal speech style, but even so, using constructions like “ok” and “alright” grate on me as a reader, because they seem more like mistakes than characterization. There is also a significant scene later in the book where the word “reigns” is substituted for “reins” (the horsy kind) 5-10 times in rapid succession.

Ebooks these days are often seen as works-in-progress, which is fine, but I really feel like these are problems which should have been fixed long before the author published the second book.

The important takeaway here, however, is that none of these issues prevented me from reading (and enjoying) the book, all the way to the conclusion. In fact, I’d say it’s quite probable that I will pick up the second installment in the future, because I genuinely want to know what happens to Heden. Given that formatting issues and use of language will often cause me to drop a book before Chapter 2, the author must be commended very highly for creating a story that allowed me to see past these issues to the gem of a tale beneath.

PRIEST gets four stars from me. With polished language and a formatting fix, it would easily be four and a half, and possibly even a full five. This really is an enticing, riveting story, and if you can bring yourself to see past the rough spots, you won’t regret the time you spend reading it. Recommended.

Chris Kellen’s #RoadToWorldCon2014: The Countdown


According to the countdown widget on my HTC One, 111 days remain before the start of WorldCon 2014/LonCon3.

The picture above is the London ExCeL Centre, the venue for this upcoming gathering of authors, fans and media personalities from around the world.

In 111 days, I will be there.

I’ve never traveled overseas before. That’s not to say that I’ve never done any traveling at all–I’ve been on a longer plane ride, even, than the one which will carry me to London. (12 hours on a plane is nothing to sneeze at, but Oahu was totally worth it.) Even then, though, the culture was nowhere near as different as it will be when I leave this summer.

Culturally speaking, the farthest I’ve ever been from home was a trip I took sponsored by my high school to Québec City, way back more than ten years ago. The memories I have from Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Notre Dame de Québec, a boat on the waterfront, a small café where I had a giant croissant and a bowl of hot chocolate for breakfast are some of my most treasured ones. Ten years on, those images are more like still-life paintings than the photos or videos that they used to be, but I will never forget them.

All my life I’ve had a travel bug, but rarely the means to swat it. My mother grew up a military brat, and she was born in Honolulu, lived in Germany at Rammstein Air Force Base, in the Philippines, and she talked about these places from the earliest days of my memory, filling my head with wondrous images of Neuschwanstein Castle, the pink hospital in Honolulu where she was born (which I actually saw when I went there… it’s still there, sitting on the hillside, you can see it from the highway), the veritable fortress surrounded by walls topped with razor wire and broken glass that they lived in when in the Philippines–because at the time Americans weren’t exactly welcome–where one day it rained on one side of the house, snowed on another, while the sun shone merrily out a third window.

These are the pictures I grew up with.

As I got older, and began to truly understand who I am, I knew the kinds of journeys I wanted to take. Many people going to London would be excited by the nightlife, the glitz and glamour, the high-powered shipping… but not me. For me, history is where the wonder is. It’s one of the most frustrating things about living in America for a mind like mine–Americans think that a hundred-year-old building is full of history. I think the great Eddie Izzard put it most succinctly when he sarcastically quipped, in a tone full of false wonder:

We’ve restored this building to how it looked over fifty years ago…

Bah. No sense of time, my fellow Americans.

I’d be most at home in the countryside, as far away from the lights and sound of the city as I could get. My wonder, my joy lies in dreaming of seeing how people live day to day surrounded by so much depth of history. That’s not going to happen this time, but I found a few ways to get a little bit closer.

While researching this trip, I found that most of the best fares to get from Boston to London flew Aer Lingus, with stopovers in Dublin on the way there and the way back. Thanks to a happy confluence of events, I suddenly had the means to pay some extra for a direct flight, but then I had a brainstorm.


The question occurred to me like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky, if you’ll pardon the cliché. Why spend extra on a direct flight and skip a second destination?

Why not use that same money, instead, to make the trip longer?

I could stay a couple of extra days in London, but remember what I said above? When you get down to it, a city’s a city, no matter what. If I’m going through Dublin anyway, why not fulfill a second dream while I’m at it, and spend a couple of days in Ireland?

Okay, but Dublin’s still a city. (I have a friend who’s from Ireland, and she says this all the time.) The only thing different from Boston to Dublin is that the Irish accent’s a little stronger. (I kid.) So how do I get out of the city and see the real Ireland?

So, now my itinerary looks like this:

  • Fly overnight from Boston into Dublin, Ireland.
  • Catch a train from Dublin to Kilkenny (this is where my Irish friend is from)
  • Stay two nights in Kilkenny, soak in as much as possible
  • back to Dublin
  • Fly to London Heathrow
  • Stay 5 nights in London, attending #LonCon3 and seeking the history in the ancient city whenever I have a spare moment
  • Somewhere in here I plan to take a Stonehenge/Bath tour. I mean, come on. How could I not?
  • Take a train south to Crawley, UK
  • Stay two nights in Crawley
  • (Hopefully) Catch a show in Crawley at the Hawth Theatre
  • Fly out of London Gatwick
  • Stopover in Dublin
  • Home at last

Wow. Looking at that is a little daunting, actually. Am I crazy? Maybe.

I’m no travel blogger, but I follow a couple, and I’m using some of their tips and tricks to make this trip a reality. I’ve got a travel credit card whose reward points are instrumental in bringing this journey to life. (It’s a Barclaycard Arrival, for anyone who’s wondering. Great terms, a friendly website, and 40000 bonus points [that’s $400] just for using it reasonably in the first couple of months. I heard about it from NerdWallet.) I’m not staying AT the ExCeL Centre, because that would be crazy and I’m not made of money. Instead, I found a very reasonable hotel just on the south side of the Thames from the ExCeL, which happens to be right near a ferry that hops across, and it’s less than half the price per night. Sure that makes for a little commute to the convention, but IT’S LONDON. It’s not like I’m stuck traveling through someplace boring, right?

With these little tricks, and being willing to compromise only slightly on my proximity to key locations, I’m making real what has literally been a lifelong dream for me.

I’m going to London. And Ireland. I’m going to forge new memories to keep and treasure for the rest of my life.

111 days until #LonCon3 begins. 107 days until I set out on what I hope will quite seriously be the experience of a lifetime.

Are you going to #LonCon3? If you (or someone you know) will be there, drop me a line at eisengoth (at) gmail (dot) com and maybe we can put together a posse!

Jeff Carlson’s Adventures In Self-Publishing: What I’ve Learned So Far

Jeff Carlson is the author of Plague YearPlague War (a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award), and Plague Zone. To date, his work has been translated into fifteen languages worldwide. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in a number of top venues such as Asimov’sBoys’ LifeStrange Horizons and the Fast Forward 2 anthology. His latest book,The Frozen Sky, is available in paperback and as an eBook.

This post originally appeared at SFSignal (10/15/2012)

Self-publishing is five jobs and a half.  By comparison, writing the book was easy. It was also waaaaay more enjoyable.

I like writing.  That’s why I’m a writer.  But when you publish alone, you’re not really alone unless you’re a fantastically talented jack of all trades.  My strength, I hope, is in storytelling.  I liked to draw when I was a kid, but I hardly qualify as a professional artist.

Many people say cover art doesn’t matter for ebooks.  For the original short story of The Frozen Sky, it’s true that I used a simple placeholder designed by a super fan named Ben Metzler.  He created it for sheer love of the story after hearing the podcast by Amy H. Sturgis on Starshipsofa.  Then he emailed his artwork to me as thanks.  Thanking him for thanking me, I wrote Metzler into the novel as a squat, ugly, quick-tempered genius who’ll find himself eviscerated by a Europan ice monster.  Such is life in a Jeff Carlson novel.

His jet black cover was stark and effective for a 99 cent short story.  For the novel, I went old school.  People do judge a book by its cover.  Especially for dead tree editions, I believe it’s critical to have evocative, mood-influencing artwork, so I hired the talents of Jacob Charles Dietz.  I’m a starving writer.  I realize some of my brethren would squawk at forking out $500.00 for a schnazzy cover when a cheap-o slap-it-down file from PhotoShop will suffice… but does it really?

When the sentient raccoons rule the world in 3303 A.D. and discover your ebook among the toxic ruins of our civilization (after which they’ll power up our Nooks and Kindles with their zero point clean energy beams), don’t you want them to chirp and bark in amazement at your artwork (chirping and barking being the raccoon equivalent of oohing and aahing)?

Meanwhile, I don’t convert my manuscripts myself.  Yes, I know, I should be able to learn to do this for free on Calibre, but I don’t have the patience for it, partly because The Frozen Sky is salted with interior illustrations, maps, and org charts.  Again, my strength is writing the book.  I want to invest my time writing, not flailing around with computer programs.

I dropped another $500.00 in total on print-ready files, e-conversions, KindleNookKobo, and Paperbackfiles, and last minute changes as I crawled up and down my own personal learning curve.  For example, on the front sales pages I dropped the ball by listing David Marusek’s blurb as:

“Nothing short of amazing.”
–David Marusek, Tiptree Award-winning author of The Wedding Album

David Marusek has never been nominated for a Tiptree.  But for Pete’s sake,  the guy’s been shortlisted for so many awards, it’s no wonder I was bewildered.  If he would stop writing such mind-bending stories, I would stop being dazzled.  I’m in the process of replacing all print and ebook editions with the correct attribution: Sturgeon Award-winning author of The Wedding Album.  At the moment, those collector’s item goofball editions are still on sale.

Back to the topic at hand.

For bookkeeping purposes, I also attribute $250.00 specifically to upgrades to my web site for The Frozen Sky.  Developing my site is another chore I partially hire out because I’m not a programmer or a graphic artist.

Total costs for the new Frozen Sky: $1250.00.

Then I earned this money back in the first 10 days after it went on sale.  Kindle, Nook, and Kobo split another $900.00 for allowing me to use their platforms.  Chump change, right?  Making $1,250.00 in 10 days would be an abysmal failure for a traditionally published novel.

Plague Year sold 15,000+ copies in its first week.  I don’t mean it shipped 15,000 copies.  Penguin distributed a truckload more than that.  I mean actual receipts in hand exceeded 15,000 copies sold, and 15,000 is a small number indeed compared to the heydey of paperbacks long before I got into the game, much less the numbers of current New York Times blockbusters like Grisham or King.

Nevertheless, as a debut mass market genre original, 15,000 copies sold in seven days popped some eyeballs in New York.  Plague Year immediately went to a second printing to keep up with demand.  Today,Plague Year is in its eighth edition and has sold (not shipped, been returned, or lost in the magical world of reserves against returns) nearly 40,000 copies in North America.  That’s a nice set of legs.

Self-publishing is a different business model.  You know the drill.  No rent, no utilities, no editorial staff, no sales staff, no publicists, no marketing costs, no print costs, no warehousing, no shipping, no kickbacks for front-of-store placement.  It’s Day 10 and I’m in the black.  This ignores the reality that I spent the better part of a year writing, editing, and polishing the book (which I would also do with a traditionally published novel), but I’m in the black.

My track record with the original short story is exactly what I’d like to repeat, ideally in a tighter time frame.

During its first three months, the original story sold less than 500 copies.  “Eh,” I thought.  “So much for self-publishing.”  Then it found its audience.  Word of mouth reached critical mass.  The story took off.  With the novel, my biggest hurdles have been my own impatience and the myriad tasks of updating my web site, uploading and proofing e-files on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, proofing and sending pdf files to the printer, and checking and uploading audio files to

One thing I’ve learned is it’s impossible to release a book simultaneously across all platforms in all formats when self-publishing.  Each e-store has it own requirements and delays. has a five week wait before it lists print titles.  Five weeks!  I can only jump through so many hoops at a time with a time machine.  Organizing every little piece of the puzzle is what I hate most about the experience.  Finally, most of my torpedoes are in the water.  Very soon I’ll be back at my next manuscript instead loading, arming, aiming, and firing.

The Frozen Sky is available on Nook, but for now print copies can only be found on Amazon and in select independent book stores.  As yet, it’s also unavailable on iTunes because while you can access your iTunes account from a PC, you can only add new material from a Mac.  I ain’t got one.  Two friends who live nearby are Macky Men.  They’ve allowed me to use their über–cool machines in the past.  Now their schedules haven’t matched up with mine, and I can’t ask them to quit their jobs and sell their families in order to make time for me.  I mean, I did ask, but they said no.  iTunes likely has to a wait another week or more. has also proven a small minefield.  Next week we hope to release the audiobook at last?

Thus go my adventures in self-publishing.

I also need to point out a mistake in my previous guest blog for SF Signal.  I claimed my grandfather’s copies of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978) and Han Solo’s Revenge (1980) were the world’s first media tie-ins…  And I call myself a science fiction fan!!!  Aha ha ha.

Both pros and fen took me to task for this blunder.  Here’s the truth:

Author and editor Richard Gilliam (the Grails series) pointed out that from 1907 – 1915, Essanay Studios made a number of films based on real and fictional people like Jesse James and Sherlock Holmes.  Essanay had a tie-in  program in which magazines printed stories related to these films.

Author David Smeds (Embracing The Starlight) said “I have the tie-in hardcover for the 1916 film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which included several photos from the film.  I don’t know if it’s the very first novel tie-in, but it’s an early example.”

Love it!

The Last Of The Mohicans – Jeff Carlson on Aliens, Spaceships and The Frozen Sky

Jeff Carlson is the author of Plague YearPlague War (a finalist for the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award), and Plague Zone. To date, his work has been translated into fourteen languages. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in a number of top venues such asAsimov’s Science Fiction MagazineBoys’ LifeStrange Horizons and the Fast Forward 2 anthology. His latest book, The Frozen Sky, is available as an eBook.

This post originally appeared on 9/28/2012

Aliens, Spaceships and The Frozen Sky

I’m fourth generation sf/f.  My great-grandmother built her library around Frank L. Baum’s Oz series, the original fantasy epic.  She passed those beautiful hardcovers to her son, my grandfather, who kept them alongside “Doc” E.E. Smith novels  such as Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol, which were the cutting edge in his time.

Later, when I was a boy, my grandfather introduced me to the world’s first media tie-ins like Han Solo’s Revenge and Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye.  This was not a man who sneered at popular good fun.  He entranced me with Star Wars books, then fed my new addiction with the classics.

At the same time, my father was bringing home doorstoppers like The Hobbit and Clan Of The Cave Bear, which reads very much like alt history with strange people in a strange world.

My point is I know a good piece of science fiction when I see it.  Tell me this doesn’t fit the bill:



Something is alive inside Jupiter’s ice moon Europa. Robot probes find an ancient tunnel beneath the surface, its walls carved with strange hieroglyphics. Led by elite engineer Alexis Vonderach, a team of scientists descends into the dark… where they confront a savage race older than mankind…


I’m hooked.” – Larry Niven
A first-rate adventure.” – Allen Steele

Here’s the rub.  The Frozen Sky is self-published.  Why? Settle down, kids.  Let me tell you how the world worked when I was young, for I am The Last Of The Mohicans.

I may be one of the last writers to come up the so-called traditional route.  At the turn of the millennium, I broke into the field selling short stories to small and semi-pro markets, some so small they’re collectibles now.  I’m talking about ink on paper.  My first appearance in print was in the guidebook for MosCon 16, where an über-fan named Jon Gustafson published my story and paid me with a free membership to the con.

Eventually I began cracking pro markets like Strange Horizons and Asimov’s. Then I graduated to novels and sold Plague Year in a minor bidding war in New York.  This was 2007. It felt like the big time.

Also in 2007, I sold a novelette called The Frozen Sky to the Writers of the Future 23 anthology.  Because the story is a near future sci fi thriller, my meat and bread, I pitched the idea of a developing it into a novel to my editor at Penguin as my follow-up to Plague Year.

She didn’t want it.  Plague Year is a present day apocalypse.  For marketing reasons, they’d immediately pigeonholed me as an end-of-the-world guy.

In those days, the Great And Powerful Marketing knew all.  Marketing dealt with other marketing heads in other corporate environments such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, Tower, Target, and Wal-Mart.  Their computers matched numbers with other computers; the computers wanted simple, readily identifiable brands; and if this smacked a little of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, try not to think so hard about it.

To my dying day, I’ll remember her words in rejecting a novelization of The Frozen Sky: “Oh, Jeff, all those aliens and spaceships.  Who really reads that stuff any more?”

This from a science fiction editor at a science fiction imprint!  I couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d said she was an alien.

She’s a sharp lady whom I like and admire, but, like all of us, she works within the constraints of her environment — and it’s true that in genre fiction, Category B had outsold Category A for many, many years.  Boy wizards and magic rings dominated the bestseller charts.  Marketing had the numbers to prove it, and publishing is not a business driven by great profit margins.

Most novels, especially first novels, lose money.  They sink without a trace.  I was lucky to strike it hot with Plague Year.  The publisher rightly wanted more.


I wrote my sequel, Plague War, a decision which worked out well.  The marketing machine knew what they were talking about, but the direction of my career was laid by the publisher dictating to the writer rather than trusting the writer’s instincts.  I’ve always had one eye over my shoulder wondering what else I could do with The Frozen Sky.

Meanwhile, the global economy imploded.  Publishing took a larger hit with the advent of strong, low-priced, well-organized e-stores and e-readers.

Late in 2010, I republished my novelette of The Frozen Sky on Kindle, Nook, and iPad. It’s sold 40,000 copies.

“Huh,” I thought.  “I guess somebody’s reading aliens and spaceships.”  In fact, from a glance at the top sellers in ebooks, there’s clearly a large demographic of tech-savvy, tech-friendly, literate people who love a good mind-bending novel.

E-readers have revived science fiction, which is precisely what you’d expect from futuristic gadgets.

Oh, sweet irony.

As soon as I cleared my desk of deadlines, I started writing the novel of The Frozen Sky. I never had any intention of pitching it in New York.  At best, a Big Six publisher would offer a mid four-figure advance, then lock up the rights for ten years.  Or ten decades. I’ve earned $14,000 republishing Sky on my own as a 99 cent stand-alone.  That won’t cover my mortgage.  It did pay off my wife’s car.

Equally important, money isn’t my only goal.  Writing is my job, but I also want to be read.  The ability to leap directly to readers is a wild experience for a guy who spends a lot of time alone in a room with his laptop listening to the voices in his head.

John DeNardo sez: Wait.  My mathematical mind wonders how selling 40,000 copies at $1.00/each equals $14,000?  Do you mean 40,000 downloads, some of which were free, some of which were sales?

Jeff sez: Excellent question.  No, I mean I sold 40,000.  The royalty splits with Kindle and its brothers break down like so.  From .99c to $2.98, the author receives 35%.  From $2.99 to $9.99, the author receives 75%.

Since it was a 60 page short story, I thought 99 cents seemed reasonable.  Amazon, which saw the vast lion’s share of activity, kept nearly $25,000.  I kept $14,000.  Hard to complain.  It’s their ballpark.

Meanwhile, other writers are selling 100,000 or 1,000,000 copies of their ebooks.  This is insanity.  It’s chaos.  And chaos is opportunity.

Self-publishing The Frozen Sky is an e-experiment for me.  Wonder of wonders, the book is also available in print for anyone who still prefers dead trees (myself included).  An audiobook narrated by the esteemed Amy H. Sturgis will be out next week.

This is a freedom even Heinlein or Clarke barely imagined.  Search your feelings.  The truth is out there.  Live long and prosper.

Welcome to the e-future!

Rose-Colored Demons

This post originally appeared on

Guest blogging for us today is Jeff Carlson. Jeff is best known for the Plague Year series and his bestselling Kindle novella “The Frozen Sky,” which is also available on Nook and will soon appear on iBooks. As a working pro, Jeff lives on the other side of the author-reader connection. He promised to give us a look behind the curtain, which he calls…


For me and many writers, one of the most eye-opening changes since the e-revolution has been the rise and importance of book reviews on personal blogs and corporate sites like Goodreads, Amazon, and B&N.

To writers, strong word-of-mouth is catnip. Even bad reviews can be useful in honing your craft.

I spend a lot of time alone in a room with a laptop listening to the voices in my head. That sounds like a joke, but it’s a large part of my job description. There’s no one to hang out with at the water cooler in my office. Heck, there’s no water cooler! That’s why it’s especially cool to get fan mail or to have my Google minions find reviews such as: “This novella was so fast paced and action packed from the very first line that I was sucked in like a two by four in a F5 twister!”

Reading that, I thought, FantasticShe gets it.

Capturing you is exactly what I want – to connect, to entertain, to make you a 2×4 in my tornado.

When eight people say the ending is abrupt, that’s useful, too. My brain says to me, Okay, you thought you had every element in place, but you’d better add at least another paragraph to wrap things up. Readers want to walk away with a feeling of completion. Sometimes I move too fast, so I’m learning to take it down a notch.

Even the people who hate a story are right. No writer reaches everybody, and it’s perfectly fair for someone to leave a low-starred review if he doesn’t feel like he got his money’s worth. That’s expected.

But in today’s brave new world of e-media, my inbox is also peppered with a steady dose of diehard political outrage, accusations, and messages from weird alternate realities.

When I swap emails with my writer friends or when we meet up at cons, the new game is Who’s Been Burned The Worst. It’s almost funny.

We all view the world through the lenses of our personal life experiences. Sometimes the world is rose-colored. Sometimes we’re not even aware of how thoroughly our own demons shape our perceptions, so let me share some of the over-the-top experiences I’ve had with folks from the fringe.

  • The Illinois Nazi. More than once I’ve received hate mail or nasty Amazon reviews for Plague Year because two of the main heroes are a Latino and a genius Jew. Worse, two of the villains are white guys. Obviously I’ve either turned on my own kind (I’m a white guy) or I’ve been so indoctrinated by the sinister liberal media that I don’t even realize what I’m doing…Here’s the thing. The opening chapters of Plague Year are set in post-apocalyptic California. I don’t know where our white supremacist friends live, but the West Coast is one of the most ethnically diverse areas on the planet. If everyone was forced into the mountains to escape a runaway nanotech plague, there’s zero chance it would be only sparkly blond Caucasians who survived. More to the point, among my best friends growing up were Hispanic and Jewish families. I knew I could pull off those backgrounds competently, and a diverse cast added a bit of texture to what’s ultimately just a rock-’em sock-’em sci fi thriller.
  • The One-Winger and The Classic Old Knee. As a writer, it’s both frustrating and hilarious to have the same novel condemned as a subversive socialist pinko screed and as a right-wing manifesto. Yeah, it’s nice to strike such a chord. Every writer wants their work to resonate. But reading is a subjective experience. People bring a lot of themselves to the experience… sometimes too much.The One-Wingers are careful not to mention race like the Illinois Nazis, but they don’t appreciate how the conservative remnants of the government are perceived by the heroes. By the same token, The Classic Old Knees are certain I must be a big fat Republican because the government is enforcing martial law and the tough Special Forces guys keep pushing the scientists around. It’s crude symbolism, isn’t it!?!?

    Uh, no. Plague Year is an end of the world novel, man. The new U.S. capital, a Colorado town meant for 3,000 people, has been swamped by 600,000 refugees. There’s no food, no shelter, and if I was in charge I’d darn well have the few remaining supplies surrounded by Army units. That doesn’t mean I’m a liberal or a fascist or a purple polka dot Martian.

    I think it’s a very human phenomenon that individuals on far, opposite ends of the political spectrum are able to interpret the same story in different ways, seeing exactly what they want to see in order to support their beliefs.

    Sometimes the smallest minds make the biggest noise. That’s because feeling angry is pleasant. It makes you feel important. Condemning a book as dangerous and shouting your warnings from the rooftops… let’s call that the Revere Complex. Each of our archetypes the Nazi, the Winger and the Knee fall into this same category, a truth which might outrage them all over again if they realized it.

  • The Nutcake. Alas, these folks are even easier to explain. They’re nutty. Three times I’ve received emails or comments insisting that Plague Year was penned by someone else, namely the person contacting me, and that I stole the book before he or she could publish it. Unfortunately, other writers tell me this isn’t uncommon, nor are personal threats. Welcome to my FBI file.Slightly less bizarre but more fun, let me introduce you to the Owner Of Katie The Dog. Not long after my sequel Plague War hit stores, I received an email with two jpg attachments. Hmmm. All right. Let’s read it…

    A woman had felt compelled to say she liked the concept behind Plague Year, but (insert sneer) “it was written in a grocery-store thriller style.”

    Aha HA ha ha! First of all, the cover has an ominous red tagline that shouts The Next Breath You Take Will Kill You. Plus the title letters are on fire. If you’re looking for a cozy literary novel, this ain’t it. Second, having my books racked in grocery stores and big box outlets like Wal-Mart and CostCo is my goal! That’s what I’m striving for!

    Yet she was so offended she’d spent $7.99 on this trash, she added that she’d fed Plague Year to her dog and snapped pictures of Katie eating it.

  • Wow. That’s wrong, isn’t it? I mean, that takes effort.

    I had no intention of opening her jpgs. Remember, I’d barely published my second novel. Being in stores still felt new and daunting. But my writer friends insisted I see what Katie had done. One accomplished old vet said, “You know you’ve arrived when you’re making people that crazy.”

    Um… Thanks?

    Conventional wisdom holds that authors and editors should remain above the fray. You’re supposed to ignore bad reviews, especially those that are off-topic or smell like fruit. I know writers who engage their haters in the comment fields on Amazon, but the reason to avoid such arguments was best put to me like this: Never wrestle with a pig. The pig enjoys it, and you get covered in sh*t.

    Which leads us to the most craven of them all…

  • The Dread Saboteur  Since February, my novella “The Frozen Sky” has sold 20,000 copies on Kindle and Nook. That’s not a huge number, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s also gotten a lot of nice reviews, which is gratifying.Unfortunately, “Sky” has also seen some attacks.

    As the e-revolution evolves, the pages of successful books are experiencing not-so-subtle assaults by bitter would-be successes who post scathing low-starred reviews with as many dummy accounts as possible, then use the same dummy accounts to post five-star raves of their own novels in an attempt to draw traffic from the high-selling books.

    Can the system be gamed so easily? My guess is no, not in the long run. Ultimately the Dread Saboteur’s work needs to stand on its own. If it’s garbage, it’s garbage. Cardboard plots, wet dream characters, bad dialogue, and the inability to spell or use punctuation are common pitfalls.

    Horse puckey reviews won’t carry a flawed story beyond a few extra sales – and if those readers feel duped, well, let the bad karma begin! The fake five-star raves will be overwhelmed by genuinely unhappy reviews.

There are more archetypes and goofy anecdotes I could share, but we’re out of time.

Here’s a final thought. Things are changing fast in publishing, but I hope it will always be true that it’s the fans who carry the day.

The loonies and the saboteurs want everyone to wear their demon-colored lenses. Don’t let it happen. If you like a book, bang out a quick ranking-and-review. That positive feedback may be enough to see your favorite author through his next encounter with a Nutcake From The Eighth Dimension.


Readers can find free excerpts, advance news, contests, and more on Jeff’s web site at

Dead Weight Blog Tour: All Aboard

deadweight-3“This is an amazing time to be a fan. At no other point in history has there been such a popular acceptance of geek and nerd culture coupled with the ability for independent artists to get their work out in front of the public…Without having to rely on corporate giants to decide what is worth presenting to the consumer, each artist, in this case M Todd Gallowglas, can present their material directly to the consumer. That gives us the power. We don’t have to read, play, watch, or listen to things created for the lowest common denominator or an overly broad and unfocused demographic, we can find exactly what we want, and give our money directly to the artist. I love this symbiotic relationship. If you want to immerse yourself in a story of a junkie bard veteran from a war where San Francisco was the front lines in an Unseelie incursion, you can. And believe me, I do.”

From the forward to DEAD WEIGHT: The Tombs by Damon Stone, Game Designer, Fantasy Flight Games

Welcome to the first stop on the DEAD WEIGHT blog tour. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trading emails and IMs with various writer pals and websites looking for places to host me. I’ve had so much interest that I’ve had to extend the tour by a couple of days twice. With each new stop adding a day, I’ve always kept The Genre Underground as my first stop. In some ways both DEAD WEIGHT and The Genre Underground are my experimental labors of love.

I love to experiment and twist things around in everything I do. Back when I was teaching swing ballroom dance, I would mix up steps and moves. In gaming, I always want to push the bounds of the rules – usually to the chagrin of my game masters. Same with writing, airsoft, my storytelling show. To quote a great, yet horrible, man, “The status is not quo.”

DEAD WEIGHT started in the back of my brain after reading, “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien. After reading the story, a question popped into my mind: “What would a platoon of Marines have to carry with them on a mission into faerie. That was over five years ago. Since then, it’s simmered in the dark corners of my imagination. It’s made me ask more questions about the story and the world it takes place in. Over the last year, the story and the characters began speaking to me again, only the story became a disjointed mish mash of a timeline…as happens with anything when you add a dash of the fey.

When I first conceived DEAD WEIGHT I only meant it to be a short story, maybe a novelette at most. The trouble is, my brain generally thinks in terms a bit more epic than short stories, and DEAD WEIGHT is no exception. More than that, its storyline twisted, turned, and became more disjointed around its own timeline. As I worked on putting the final draft together, I realized I had the perfect chance to try an experiment with how to get it out into the world. Tanks to the indie book revolution, the serialized novel is making a comeback. Amazon is even rolling out a new serial program.

In my mind, DEAD WEIGHT was made to be a serial. Even before I dreamed of self-publishing, I kept asking myself, “How am I going to get this published?” In its completed form, it’s too “big” for the standard Urban Fantasy, at least as far as conventional publishing circles consider for Urban Fantasy. Never mind the cheesy, easter egg, geek/nerd culture references seeded throughout, which several industry professionals told me would be a hard sell. That was before I mentioned the part where it’s also a post-apocalyptic war thriller with aspirations of epic fantasy woven into the narrative. However, thanks to the changes in publishing, both for both creators and consumers, I can put DEAD WEIGHT into the world in the way I best think serves the story. It’s an exciting time to be an artist in any medium. I’m pleased to be able to put DEAD WEIGHT at the forefront of the revolution. Over the next two weeks I’ll be hopping around the blog-o-sphere talking about DEAD WEIGHT, my work, and some of my philosophies as an artist. Hope you enjoy my insights, and if you decide to pick it up, I truly hope you enjoy “The Tombs” at least as much as I enjoyed writing it.

To see all the stops on the DEAD WEIGHT tour, head over to my website:

Tomorrow, my pal Patrick S Tomlinson asked me to stop by and talk about how I got into this writing game:

Ready to be a Wrublisher? A Priter? Some Caveats for Self-Publishers from Bestselling Author Jeff Carlson

(This post originally appeared at Anne Allen’s blog at:

These are chaotic and exciting times in the writing game, but it’s important to remember self-publishing means you’re not only the writer, you also need to wear an entirely different set of hats.

My first three novels, a series of apocalyptic thrillers known as the Plague Year trilogy, were published by Ace/Penguin Group USA. They did a nice job not only with the cover art but in packaging all three novels with a “look.”  They edited and typeset the books and handled the conversions to ebooks on all platforms.  Heck, they also bought display space in the major chains, placed ads in genre and trade magazines, ran specials on the Penguin web site and generally did a bang-up job.

Did I come anywhere near the New York Times lists? No, sir. Did I exceed the expectations of everyone involved (except me!) from Penguin itself to some critics to booksellers? Absolutely.

Plague Year is currently in its seventh printing in North America and, in Spain, became a hardcover bestseller due in part to my Spanish publisher’s enthusiasm not just for the book but for the treatment it received in the U.S. Like it or not, New York still leads the way in the corporate world. Other countries such as Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic have also fallen in line with their own excellent campaigns. Of course I take most of the credit – I wrote the books – but it can’t be argued that a fair level of support from Penguin helped convince some minds overseas.

Why am I bragging?  Because I’ve begun to self-publish on Kindle and elsewhere myself, and: it’s harder than I was promised by the e-revolutionaries!

Ha ha. There are hurdles I hadn’t anticipated. Identifying and solving those issues has become my own personal revolution.

Anne spoke eloquently on quality writing and professionalism, so all I’ll add to those ideas is the old truth that most of us average 1,000,000 words of garbage before we learn enough craft to write superior characters, dialogue and plotlines. That learning curve hasn’t changed.

In today’s world, especially on the ’Net and with all e-things, we expect instant gratification. Everyone hopes to skyrocket onto the charts. Personally, I want a zillion love slaves to FaceBook me and then gather on Skype to sing pirate shanties about my greatness.

What’s stopping them?

Cover art

People do judge a book by its cover.

One thing I’m not is a graphic designer. When I geared up to republish my short stories in mini-collections on Kindle and Nook, I wanted to spend as little money as possible.

99 cents is the lowest price on which Kindle and Nook will pay royalties. I didn’t see any point in selling my collections at 75 cents if Kindle and Nook pocketed 100% — and below the $2.99 price point, Kindle pays only a 35% royalty, not the vaunted 70% you tend to hear, so I calculated how many copies I’d need to sell to break even.

The best artists command as much as $400 per cover.

People like to say ebooks are forever (i.e., you and your descendants will earn royalties until the sentient raccoons take over the world in 6400 A.D. and place humankind in chains), but I really didn’t believe I’d sell 1143 copies before the raccoon apocalypse. The average ebook sells, uh, nothing? More on that in a minute.

I went cheap with the covers. Was that a mistake? Yes and no. Go ahead, take a peek. They’re not great. But there are years of evidence to support the idea that short story collections sell poorly compared to novels, so that’s an additional factor.

Are those covers holding potential readers back?  Or is the material not generating word-of-mouth? All of these stories were professionally published, btw, most of them in top anthologies and magazines. I like to think that means they’re good stuff, and yet three of my e-collections have yet to pay for their inexpensive covers.

Here’s where I’m wrestling with conflicting data:

My fourth ebook is a stand-alone novella called “The Frozen Sky.” It’s sold 8500 copies since January. That’s not a staggering number, but it’s enough to meet my wife’s car payment and most of our utilities. What’s interesting is the simple, stark, ominous cover was designed at zero cost by a superfan who gained permission from NASA to use a photo taken by the Cassini probe.

What I’m learning is that ebook cover art shouldn’t be busy, and, in fact, can be very basic, but it still needs to have a “look.” Finding someone who can deliver that look is the whole battle. If you’re not an artist, don’t kid yourself. Hire the best. My feeling now is that going halfway is wasted time and income.

Upfront Expenses 

“The money flows to the author.” This maxim is a venerable standby in writing, but it’s changing.

If you’re self-publishing and you don’t know PhotoShop (or want something more spectacular), need editing, and need your work converted into e-formats, it’s easy to burn through several hundred dollars in a hurry.

Referral lists aren’t always reliable, either. It’s also maddening to wait for the hired help to get organized when the whole point of self-publishing is to make your book public now, not next month.

Depending on your free time, it might pay off in the long run to teach yourself all of the above. Me, I’d rather be writing, so I’ve learned to plan ahead. I try to get each ball rolling before I need it. This can be a lot like herding cats.

I’m no longer just a writer, I’m a “wrublisher.” (A “priter”?)

My advice is to ask around for personal recommendations.  Once you find a service provider who’s reliable and affordable, love them.

You want a product that will to wow people, not a book that’s half-baked.

The Race to the Bottom

Right now there are 900,000 ebooks on Kindle.

500 of ’em are selling great; 1,500 more are selling well; the next 10,000 are doing all right; another 20,000 sell a steady trickle;  and the other 868,000 are selling zipperooni, maybe 15 copies total to Aunt Mavis and the author’s buddy Steve.  That’s right.  The vast majority of these writers are exactly where they’d be if they were banging at the gates of the evil elitist gatekeeping gatekeepers — on the outside.

I don’t like being a big fat negative-nancy, but the idea that we’re all going to upload our Great American Novels and sell sell sell is crazy, crazy, crazy.

It’s a swamp. Buyers are bees. They find the flowers and swarm.

What this has done is create enormous pressure on writers to undervalue their work or give it away free.

Even then, most of the time, nobody’s buying. What can you do? Writers control what they’ve always controlled: their stories. Keep at it. Do the work. Patience and persistence will always be the names of the game.

Most successful first novels are not that writer’s first novel at all. I know nobody wants to hear it, but few of us are gifted enough to write a well-crafted book with our first effort. If you’d told me when I was seventeen that my derivative Stephen King rip-offs weren’t good enough, I would have argued heatedly that you were a nincompoop. But it was true. Plague Year was my third-and-a-half novel, and that’s a very, very normal trajectory.

Remember why you got into this crazy business in the first place. Presumably it was for the love of language and storytelling.

Good writing is hard. E-publishing has subverted some of the rules, but the difficulty of finding commercial success isn’t something I predict will change. There are no shortcuts. So do the work. You’ll get there, but it may be a long haul. That’s just my pragmatic advice.

E-Revolution Now!

Having said all of that, there are break-out exceptions every week. If you think you’re ready, take your shot. The best part about ebooks is you can fix, expand or completely rewrite ’em at will, then post new versions in a matter of days instead of haggling with the corporate machine for three years to fix one freaking typo.

If there’s a negative reaction to your book (or if there’s no reaction at all), you can remove it and improve it – and if people love it, you’ve already arrived.