Enter to Win a Signed Copy of Dark the Chains of Treason!

chains1Morning, ladies and gents!  This is your captain speaking.

Did you know that from now until August 24, you can enter to win a signed copy of my latest novel, Dark the Chains of Treason?

No?  Well, maybe that’s because I’m just telling you right now.

But it’s true!

The winner will receive his or her copy via overnight mail, so you actually get a few days’ head start on the rest of the pack.

And if you’re not sure it’s worth investing all that typing energy to enter a contest for the third book in a series you haven’t read yet, just remember: the first and second installments of The Paderborn Chronicles can be had for mere pennies on Amazon.

They’re really good.  I promise.

You’ve got one whole week to get those entries in, so let’s get started!

Music to Your Ears: The Soundtrack of My Fictional Worlds

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Final edits are finished for Dark the Chains of Treason!  You can still pre-order your Kindle copy on Amazon, or you can snag a paperback on August 29.

There are two main types of writers in the world: those who need absolute silence when they are putting words on the page, and those who can’t create anything without a little bit of background noise, whether it’s coffee shop chatter or their favorite songs on repeat.

I say two main types, because I’ve actually been both.  Right now, I need a quiet environment to concentrate on my work.  But during my misbegotten youth, I couldn’t function without my carefully curated playlist.

When it came to writing creatively, I tended to listen to classical music – Beethoven and Mozart especially – or lose myself in the seamless, ethereal repetition of Gregorian chant.  I was a nerd, okay?  I’ve made my peace with it.

Music set the tone for my characters, inspired my landscapes, and soothed my anxieties when some bit of plot wouldn’t click into place.  Silence during the creative process seemed unnatural and unnerving in some way – like those moments in a movie when you realize the soundtrack has stopped, the only noise is the ragged breathing of the main character or the furtive footsteps of the serial killer, and something very bad is about to happen to someone you like.

The comparison to movies isn’t anything new, of course.  I know a lot of authors who listen to music while writing specifically because they view their novels like films that just happen to be printed on a page.

These authors would scribble song titles in the margins if they could – I’m sure some probably do in their rough drafts – and get frustrated when it becomes difficult to directly translate the sights, sounds, and unspoken gestures of a visual scene into a written one.

The difficulties of going the other way, from book to screen, are well-known to anyone who has been disappointed by a film adaptation of their favorite story.

The cinematic approach isn’t a bad thing at all.  It’s perfect for many types of stories.  Thrillers and romances, of course, rely on a film-like progression of actions and a sharply delineated character development arc that fits right in with what you would expect from the movies.  Certain sci-fi and fantasy styles also very episodic, and mesh well with visually-driven entertainment.

The serializable nature of many popular speculative fiction books and movies (and the many crossover content streams available from properties like the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, for example) shows just how must interplay there can be between media types.

Sure, many of the novelizations or TV pilots or seven-part film sagas are just about making money for the production company that owns the story rights.  I’m not saying it’s always a great thing.

But it speaks to the general cultural perception that many books could easily be movies, and movies are sometimes just visual books, and both types of stories often rely very heavily on similar conventions to highlight character traits, set up plot points, and prepare their readers/viewers for what’s going to happen next.

The point is that many popular fiction titles are very strongly informed by the way movies work, and that often includes the fact that authors tie particular songs to particular characters in order to paint a mood or capture a feeling.

I don’t think my novels are overly cinematic, but I do the soundtrack thing, too, even if I never meant to.

It wasn’t until I had written and published The Last Death of Tev Chrisini that I realized some of my new favorite songs fit in with certain characters so well that it was almost eerie.  I’m sure there was a subconscious thing going on, but it’s still weird to realize it.

After I wrote The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun, I came across a handful of songs that matched the plot and tone of the novel almost exactly, which further freaked me out.

By the time I got around to starting Dark the Night Descending, I had moved away from listening to music while writing, but also embraced the idea that collecting a soundtrack as I went on wasn’t such a bad idea.  After all, the title of the book was inspired by an Iron & Wine song, so it was only natural that music would play a role in the rest of it.

The Paderborn Chronicles are a little darker and grittier than my first books.  I started the series after a very rough period in my life, wherein I lost some of my illusions about the fundamental goodness of the human spirit and gained some new perspectives on what purpose novels should serve in the grand scheme of things.

These books address some difficult themes for me, and there is plenty of brutality to go around, both given and received.  It’s a very dangerous world filled with selfish, cruel, ruthless people (and not-quite-people), and happily-ever-afters are not easy to come by.  That isn’t to say no one can find redemption, but it’s a little harder than in some of my earlier works.

The music is a little sharper, too.  So as I get ready to release Dark the Chains of Treason, I thought it would be fun to share a few of the songs that have shaped the series so far.

In no particular order, here are a few of my favorites:

Bilgewater – Brown Bird (Salt for Salt)

Freedom Hangs Like Heaven – Iron & Wine (Woman King)

Beat the Devil’s Tattoo – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

It’s Only – ODESZA (In Return)

Whistles the Wind – Flogging Molly (Within a Mile of Home)

Wake Up – Arcade Fire (Funeral)

All these links will take you to Amazon’s music service, which will only let you hear a preview (unless you’re a Prime member) instead of the whole song.  As an independent artist myself, I like to make sure people get paid for their works, please do buy them legitimately from Amazon, iTunes, or elsewhere if you decide that one of them strikes a chord.

Happy listening/reading/watching!

Alert, Alert! Imminent Kindle Book Giveaway!

Tired of reading about how quickly the world as we know it is coming to the end?

Want to regain a sense of perspective by reading some escapist literature about a universe that is definitely much closer to collapsing under the weight of impending doom than our own?

Click here to download for Kindle

Well, you’re in luck!  Because next week the first two books of The Paderborn Chronicles will be available for free on Kindle!

That’s right.  From Monday, June 27 until Friday, July 1, you can snag Dark the Night Descending and Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow for free on Amazon.

It’s the perfect chance to dive into the series for the first time or refresh your memory before Dark the Chains of Treason hits the virtual shelves this August.

If you can’t wait that long, you can always read any of my novels for free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription or pay just 99 cents to get your hands on the first volume of Arran Swinn’s five-star adventures.

Click here to download for Kindle

No matter how you acquire your copy, I will once again do what all authors must do and beg you, abjectly and on my knees, to leave a review when you’re done reading.

Honest feedback is worth more to me than the royalties I might get from a full-price purchase, so don’t feel awkward about writing a review if you get the books for free next week.

There will be more reminders forthcoming on my Facebook page and Twitter account in case it slips your mind over the weekend.

Download!  Read!  Have fun!  Do it for free!  Write a sentence or two in a review on Goodreads or Amazon and I will be eternally yours.

Five Questions to Ask Yourself before Committing to Self-Publishing


As some of my long-time readers might know, I started my self-publishing journey on a whim in 2012.  I had written a book two years before, a few friends who were interested in reading it, and I had a vague remembrance of reading something about a new-fangled publishing platform from Amazon that would let you share content easily.

The first time I uploaded a (pretty rough draft) of The Last Death of Tev Chrisini, my heart almost stopped when I saw my name on a real Amazon page.

The cover image was garbage, the PDF sloppily formatted, and the metadata clumsy, but it was my name on Amazon – the biggest bookseller in the world! – and strangers could now find and read something that I had written: a world I had created, inhabited, and loved.

It was thrilling, frightening, and frustrating in equal measure.  Sure, the book was there, but no one other than those few close friends had purchased it.  Sure, I had a weighty CreateSpace paperback in my hands, but my design abilities were rubbish, I couldn’t get the formatting just right, and I kept finding typos.

I had published a book, which is certainly a milestone.  But in the early days of the publish-on-demand industry, I was among thousands of curious new authors who had a lot to learn.

Had I planned my entry into this strange new world a little better, I might have implemented a different strategy.  I might have been more successful right off the bat…or I might have been so overwhelmed with the prospect of committing to this massive undertaking that I may never have gone through with it.

After several years of experience, including some notable high points and more than a few disappointments, I think I have a better idea of how new authors might want to approach their own first taste of self-publishing.

Any commitment should start with a cost/benefit analysis, and these are the top five questions I would ask myself if I could go back in time and do it all over again.

1. What do I hope to get out of this?

What are my goals when it comes to self-publishing?  Do I want to share a particular skill or knowledge base?  Do I want to create a revenue stream I can live on?  Do I have a unique perspective that I must share with the world?  Do I want to use self-publishing as a springboard to a traditional publishing career?  Do I just want to write for my own fulfillment?

ThinkstockPhotos-490243498Everyone has a different reason for wanting to self-publish, and I don’t think there are any invalid motivations.  Some want to write the books they wanted to read when they were kids.  Some are aiming for the money or the fame; some just like the idea of sharing fanfic stories with their chosen fandom.

It doesn’t matter what the reason is.  You just have to know why you’re doing it.  When you establish a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish, it will help you set up a platform, focus your outreach efforts, and ensure that you are not wasting your precious time and energy on activities that won’t get you to your chosen outcome.

2. What skills do I have and what do I need from others?

Let’s face it.  We’re not all experts at everything.  Yeah, that includes you, okay?  We all need a little outside help to fill the holes in our game.

Self-publishing requires a lot of specialized skills, and a lot of back-end production work.  Editing is a different competency than writing.  Web design isn’t easy.  Cover art creation isn’t for everyone.  Putting together a perfect template for publication?  Man, that still trips me up sometimes.  And when it comes to marketing…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t mind a little help in that department.

In order to bring a high quality product to market, you might have to enlist the skills of people who have expertise in one or more of these areas.  And in order to know who you need to ask for help, you need to honestly assess where you might fall short.

Understanding your strengths and recognizing your own limitations before you begin will save you a lot of frustration in the long run!  Trust me on this one.

3. Do I understand my market and the options available to me?

Market research isn’t just for smarmy guys at big corporations who try to get you to buy stuff you don’t really need.  It’s an essential part of any sales gig, and it’s vital for self-publishers.

Not only do you need to understand what the different available publishing platforms offer their authors, how to manage your rights and permissions, and how to navigate each company’s unique process for bringing a book to life, but you also need to have a clear strategy for selling the finished product.

You wouldn’t try to sell a cookbook to the same audience as a memoir or a young adult sci-fi thriller.  You wouldn’t use the same strategies to appeal to middle grade readers as you would use for erotica aficionados (I hope).

And even within your chosen genre, there are nuances and subdivisions that no outsider could ever comprehend, let alone leverage.  Vampire lovers may get miffed if they’re being offered a zombie tale in disguise.  Space opera junkies don’t want to read about…whatever the opposite of space operas are.  You get the point.

Before jumping into your first en masse Twitter following spree or joining a million reader forums, take some time to identify your perfect reader.  Find out where those people hang out, what they’re looking for, and what strategies appeal to them.  That’s going to be important for deciding how to deal with the next question.

4. How much am I willing to invest when it comes to time, money, and effort?

Self-publishing can be hard on the wallet, and it can be even harder on your initial bubbling enthusiasm.  Building an audience takes lots of time and dedication.  It can require weekends at conferences, or hours in front of the computer writing blog posts (ahem), replying to conversations in communities, and creating a presence on social media.

Buying ads, web domain names, subscriptions, contest entries, and a box of books to have on hand can easily run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars before you know it.  And there’s no guarantee that you will receive a return on your investment.

But there are some steps you can take to minimize waste and maximize your potential for seeing some fruits from your labors.

First, create a budget and stick to it.  Make a list of your possible expenses, prioritize the essentials, tailor your spending to your targeted audience, and do not spend a single penny on any product, service, or offering without reading the fine print.  Twice.

Do not sign any of your creative rights or content rights away without being 150,000% sure you understand what you’re doing.  There are unscrupulous people out there who are more than happy to promise you the impossible.  Be careful.

Second, be flexible and be willing to make changes.  If the Facebook ads aren’t generating returns or the dealer’s table at LocalCon was a bust last year, then screw ‘em.  Find something else to spend your budget on.  There’s no set path for success in self-publishing, so remember that the strategy that works for your friends may not work for you.

Third, be mindful of your limitations, obligations, and expectations.  Ambition is a fine thing, but maybe you can’t spend every Saturday and Sunday traveling around the country to every writer’s convention without stretching your bank account or your relationships to the limit.  Maybe you’re an introvert who hates networking in person, so you shouldn’t spend $500 on a ticket to that fundraising brunch.  Maybe you’re better off putting that money into a blog redesign or a copyeditor instead.

5. How good am I at dealing with disappointment?

This is a downer of a question, but it’s something you absolutely have to think about before embarking on your self-publishing career.  There simply isn’t room for everyone at the tippy-top of the charts, and chances are that the vast majority of people will not make it as far in real life as they do in their daydreams.

ThinkstockPhotos-504860101It’s okay to acknowledge that.  It’s good to understand that life is hard, and things don’t always work out the way you hoped without some struggle, some pain, and some determination.  Realistic expectations are healthy.  They keep you from overextending yourself, and they allow you to look at too-good-to-be-true possibilities with a critical, rational eye.

The publishing industry is especially good at forcing you to practice these skills.  It’s an industry based on luck, chance, preconceived notions, and first impressions.  At times, its capriciousness can seem downright cruel.

You need to be able to handle losing that big contest or never getting that phone call.  You need to have the strength to accept the fact that not everyone is going to like everything you write.  That doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.  That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  It just means that you have to try again next time.

If you accept that disappointment is going to be a part of this process from the get-go, you’re going to be better equipped with the fortitude to take your knocks and shake them off.  It’s hard.  It sucks.  It happens to everyone.  But you need to ask yourself if you’re going to be able to pick yourself up out of the dirt and keep swinging.

Yes?  Then welcome to the club, self-publisher.  You’re going to do fine.

Characters of Chaos: Crafting Responses to a Crumbling World

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Late last month, right before I took my trip to Las Vegas, I hit a milestone in my life.  I turned 30 years old.

I’ve never been someone who’s been that obsessed with my age.  People generally think I’m older than I am – the copious amounts of gray hair might have something to do with it – and I’ve always been perfectly happy to let them.

Being young is no fun.  Your opinions are dismissed and your experiences trivialized.  You don’t get any discounts on stuff between the time you forfeit your student ID and the time you join AARP.  Strangers think they can tell you what you should or should not be doing at your age, and give you unsolicited advice about a future that looks absolutely terrifying at the best of times (thanks, Baby Boomers).

I’ve always wanted to be a grown-up. I’ve always wanted to do grown-up things like buy small home appliances and have a reason to hand out business cards.  My teenage years were tough, and my 20s were even tougher – I’m not that sorry to leave them behind.

One of the (many) reasons why I struggled with my youth was my absolute faith in institutions.  I was raised to respect authority, which is a good thing, but I also read way, way too many Victorian-era novels that also made me afraid of it.

Pro tip: don’t let your seven-year-olds read abridged versions of Dickens unless you want them to grow up with an unshakable fear of getting caned for speaking out of turn.

Teachers and professors, doctors, bosses, older colleagues or peers, rules and regulations – they were all infallible.  They all said and did things for a reason.  A good reason.  A reason that must have been thought about and examined and tested and passed down as the wisdom of the ages.  And I, young and naïve and painfully sheltered, must be the one who was getting it wrong.

The world had a lot to teach me, but not in the way that I first thought.  The more I learned about institutions and authorities and experts, the more I realized that the people in charge were winging it almost as much as I was.

Not all rules exist for a reason.  Saying something with confidence doesn’t make it correct.  Even if you read it on the internet, it may not actually be true.

That can be a pretty big shock to someone who used to plan out her birthday party schedules down to the minute and is still deeply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would call a college professor by her first name.

I like order, and I like feeling as if things make sense.  I like institutions, and evidence-based decision making, and I like data.  I don’t like that the world is, fundamentally, an unstoppable whirlwind of pain, loneliness, confusion, and chaos.  I’d rather believe that someone out there knows what they’re doing, and that there’s a possibility that I might be able to do the same thing.

The notion that things happen for a reason – or happen according to reason – is a comforting one.  It gives us a sense of belonging and purpose, and cushions our shortcomings when something goes awry.  A black and white existence is a simple one.  Simple can be good.

And that’s where you start a fantasy novel.  In a world that makes sense.

Whether it’s on the family homestead with your adolescent hero or in the halls of a king presiding over a golden age of peace, most stories start at the breaking point, when the good king dies and leaves his country without an heir, the princess realizes that her intended is a traitor, or the Sherriff’s men destroy the village and leave shattered innocence in their wake.

The beginning of a good story rips away those false foundations of false surety and throws the main character into an unfamiliar and dangerous world.

A good character is built on how he or she responds to that.  And that is, fundamentally, what all stories boil down to.  What do people do when faced with bad things?

I think we’ve all seen the charts that divide characters by the influence that they exert on the world.  Chaotic neutral, lawful good, true neutral, lawful evil: this is a great way to codify how they impact the plot.

But it doesn’t specifically show why they act that way.  What makes them believe that there is good in the world?  That people are fundamentally bad?  That there is a god(s), or that there isn’t?  To do that, we have to move beyond the basics and take a deeper look at their response to the realization (or lack thereof) that the universe is a big, scary, chaotic, anarchic place.

So here are a few character archetypes I’ve come up with based on their response to chaos.

The justifiers

The ingénues

“Ignorance is bliss” would be the motto of these characters, if they even knew they were being ignorant.  Children too young to form rational thoughts and spoiled pets are the only ones who can really fit into this category.  Someone who has never experienced any sort of unpleasantness, conflict, or misfortune is rare, and usually unbelievable.  Most characters who seem this innocent are either hiding something or willfully ignoring something, which tends to put them in one or both of the next two categories.

The faith-driven

Faith is a powerful force for a whole lot of people.  Entire societies are built on it.  Entire eras have revolved around it, and it’s one of those basic tenets of pre-modern societies that play a major role in the fantasy world.

Faith-driven people believe that there is a greater force watching over them, guiding them, and laying out the rules.  They may believe that there is chaos in the world, but it is often the work of a single great adversary (the devil or other dark spirit).  Everything happens for a reason, but that reason is usually unknowable.

While this can be frustrating to those who think differently, it can be a great source of comfort to the faith-driven, who may look beyond the suffering of the mortal worlds towards the promises of a glorious afterlife.

Faith-driven people can often have a lot of experience with pain, poverty, grief, stunted freedom, and/or helplessness.  Their choice to believe that there is a greater purpose – that happiness is achievable and the chaos can be conquered by their deity – is how they cope with that.

The law-driven

Law-driven characters also turn to an external concept to find comfort and make sense of their world.  They may also have strong faith in a deity, but their primary god is duty and honor.  They may be strongly attached to a monarch or other figure of authority, or they may make the abstract concept of “the law” or “the right thing to do” into their primary motivator.

They may believe in adhering to this code of ethics no matter what the consequences, and might think that they will be rewarded for loyalty and honor in the long run, even if it’s in the afterlife.  On the flip side, they could be cowardly and blindly obedient, unable to reason for themselves.

They can be stubbornly rigid in their view of how things should be, which can make them unpopular, or they can be genuinely eager to make the world a better place.  They believe in solutions of one kind or another, and they want to fix things according to their own notions of right and wrong.

A subset of the justifier archetype is the love-driven character.  They may include elements of both the law-driven and faith-driven person, but their object of orientation is a romantic relationship.

The observers

The jaded

This is where a lot of modern heroes and heroines live, I think, since moral ambiguity is all the rage these days.

The jaded are those who might see the chaos, recognize it exists, but just try to do their best to get on with their lives.  They are neither strongly faith-driven nor overly concerned with adhering to the precepts of another person.  They are not actively evil, but they are generally not spotlessly good, either. They might believe in right and wrong, but they can fall on either side of the line – or ignore the line all together.

They might rely strongly on luck, happenstance, or good fortune to explain why they haven’t been totally annihilated just yet.

Whether they’re soldiers of fortune, fallen angels, wandering samurai, or disgraced civil servants, these are people who have probably tried to follow the herd, but have failed to find fulfilment or success in a normal life.

They can be interesting characters, and they may claim that they hold no allegiance to anyone other than themselves, but at the end of the day, they have to make a choice or a sacrifice that sticks them on one side of the good/evil divide, and could determine the outcome of the story.

The opt-out

Those who don’t make the choice – or made the wrong one and want to lament about it for a few pages so your main character will learn from the mistake – might fall into this category.  These are your hermits, your mad monks, your wandering wise women, and your myopic scientists.  They might care about the chaos, but only because it’s statically significant.

Honestly, these characters aren’t really that interesting on their own.  They may serve to give help, information, exposition, or insight to the main character, and they make great plot points but people who don’t make choices don’t have much of a reason to be a sustained player in the story.  If you rely too heavily on these people to drive your plot or provide a running commentary, it’s going to end up pretty weak.

The manipulators

The puppeteers

Now we get to the fun part.  The bad guys.  These are the people who know the world is going to hell in a handbasket and love every minute of it.

The puppeteers are primarily concerned with manipulating the chaos for their own selfish advantage.  The scheming courtier; the traitorous servant; the lieutenant who will stop at nothing to drive the hero to madness.  The one with the evil plan that may or may not get away from him.  The second-in-command to the really big boss who hopes his nefarious activities will net him some coveted reward.

These are great supporting characters, but when it comes down to it, the puppeteers usually find that their own strings are being held by someone even worse than they are…

The masters of darkness

…like the pure evil of the master of darkness.  Now you’ve got your dark wizards, your warlords, your Queens of the Underworld, and your dastardly masterminds.  These are people to beat.  They don’t just accept that there is misery and evil in the world – they want to set it free to consume all that is good and holy just because they like to watch things burn.

Adding nuance to these characters can sometimes seem difficult, especially since they often only exist just to give your hero something to do with his life.  But if you think about them in terms of input in addition to output, you can create a backstory that is a little more elegant than just saying, “Well, someone has to be the bad guy.”

The agents of entropy

On the far end of the scale is the agent of entropy.  These are not evil characters, exactly.  They just exist to mess things up.  The meddling mother-in-law, the trickster god, the unlucky peasant pushed out of the way of the prince’s runaway horse by the hapless heroine.

Sometimes these are quick encounters that serve only to move the plot forward.  But other times they are a force to be reckoned with.  A best friend with a penchant for getting in trouble after a night out isn’t just a one-and-done plot device.  The whole story could be about the main character wrestling with the boundaries of friendship, or getting deeper into some kind of mess when trying to fix whatever their friend broke.

Entropy is required to drive the story forward to its crisis point, and these characters often cut across other archetypes as they move the plot along.  I think these can actually be really interesting, especially as someone who doesn’t really understand people who love chaos for chaos’ sake.

As far as my own character type goes, I’d call myself a jaded but law-driven observer.  I want things to make sense and to obey the rules; I want to try to make the world better, and I want everyone to be wonderful all the time, but I don’t necessarily think there is any surefire strategy people can use to ensure that they will get their happily ever after.

In any case, I hope that looking through this particular lens can help you view your characters in a different way.  If you think I’ve left anyone out, or you just want to share what type of person you think you are, leave a comment!