3 freebies for 3rd annual Reader Appreciation Day

It’s Sept. 13, and you know what that means: something free from your favorite author of wonderfully weird fiction.

(That’s me, by the way.)

I started Reader Appreciation Day in 2016 as a way to get the word out about Capricon and Beyond, the free e-book compendium for The Renegade Chronicles. Then last year, I gave away free wallpapers for a then-upcoming short story.

Keeping this tradition is important to me because I truly believe that readers make writers better at their craft. (More on that here.)

To show my gratitude to everyone who has ever visited Altaerra, journeyed into the dreamscape, or simply took the time to read my blog posts, I offer these three freebies:

1. If Souls Can Sleep

In celebration of the upcoming release of If Sin Dwells Deep (Book Two of The Soul Sleep Cycle), Book One will be available for free at Amazon.com, Smashwords.com, and a slew of other online retailers.

Download If Souls Can Sleep as an e-book today to get a glimpse at the dreamscape before Book Two releases—but don’t dillydally because this is a limited-time promotion.

2. If Sin Dwells Deep

If you want to read If Sin Dwells Deep before the official publication date, you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway and try your luck at winning one of 100 free copies for Kindle.

Oh, and today is the last day of the contest, so do not delay!

3. ‘Ghost Mode’

Last—though certainly not least—I’m thrilled to share one of my short stories in audio, courtesy of KC Johnston at Story Tale Podcast.

“Ghost Mode” appeared earlier this year in the One Million Project Fantasy Anthology (available as a paperback or ebook at Amazon.com). If audio books are your music to your ears, check out “Ghost Mode” here:

And thanks again, readers, for your ongoing support as I continue to conjure up bizarre books and strange stories!

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A fantasy author’s approach to D&D

Over the past few weeks, I’ve become well acquainted with a gnome barbarian by the name of Ozric.

Painted miniature of a bald, muscular gnome wielding a sword and shield

Ozric, gnome barbarian

That could prove to be my first mistake: choosing a gnome barbarian for my first foray into Dungeons & Dragons. Even an uninitiated noob like myself knows there are more suitable combinations of race and class—a halfling rogue, an elf wizard, a dwarf barbarian—but I couldn’t resist. A gnome who aspires to be a badass warrior is too fascinating to ignore.

As a newcomer to the game, I know I should prioritize winning, but the writer in me craves a good story.

Even if that story means little Ozric will have to defy the odds to survive.

An inauspicious origin

Now I’m no stranger to fantasy. My first series, The Renegade Chronicles, falls firmly in the sword-and-sorcery genre.

But I’ve never played D&D, not properly. Oh, my cousin and I bought a reduced-price starter kit decades ago. Alas, we were too young to puzzle it out, and so I was left to get my fantasy fix from 8-bit Nintendo RPG games inspired by their tabletop counterparts.

Years later, I discovered DragonLance books—novels that served as companions to the D&D modules (campaigns?) by the same name. By that point, Magic: The Gathering was gaining in popularity, so I tried my hand at that card game.

Any hope of finding a group with whom to play D&D fizzled like a fireball with insufficient mana. Or so it seemed.

Fate intervenes

You wouldn’t think a man in his late thirties could come across so many disparate conversations about D&D at the same time. Jake Weiss, the cover artist for the The Renegade Chronicles offhandedly mentioned he was interested in starting a D&D club. Then a fellow Cub Scouts leader told me he was creating a campaign to play with his sons.

Finally, my sister was invited by some of her work friends to give tabletop gaming a try. She enjoyed it so much, she helped my kids roll their own characters and has, to date, DMed a couple of sessions for not only them, but also my mom. It didn’t take much coaxing to talk my wife and me into creating characters of our own.

And here I thought D&D was dead, along with any chance for me to experience it.

Full disclosure: as of writing this, I still haven’t actually played D&D, but after taking the first step—discovering Ozric’s stats and selecting his abilities—I’m awfully eager for my first session. Meanwhile, the writer and world-builder in me can’t sit idle.

How does a fantasy writer prepare for a story-based game? In a word, research.

Quest for knowledge

Cover of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook

Don’t leave the tavern without it!

Like any adventurer worth his d12, I first sought out a tome containing what I needed to prepare. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I read the D&D Player’s Handbook from cover to cover. (OK, so I skimmed through the chapter on spells. Sue me.)

Now I know the rules, more or less, but reading about an alternate reality and actually visiting one are two very different things. I asked around for the best way to familiarize myself with D&D and received a unanimous answer.

“Watch Critical Role.”

A handful of episodes into their second campaign, and I have to admit I’m feeling more comfortable with the nuances of the game—though my sister warned me not to expect a Matt Mercer level of quality from her dungeon master experience.

Equipped with an idea of how a story might unfold as well as the rules of the world, I was ready to turn to one of my favorite exercises as an author: characterization.

A gnome by any other name

Creating characters has always been the best part of storytelling for me. Even the most exciting adventure is doomed to fail if the cast falls flat. That’s why I’m a firm believer of getting to know my characters extremely well before putting pen to paper.

For my major characters in both The Renegade Chronicles and my new series, The Soul Sleep Cycle, I slogged through fifty or more questions, forcing myself to invent/discover details about the people populating my story.

I did the same for my gnome barbarian, and one of the first things I learned was “Ozric” isn’t even his real name.

Over the course of four hours—and 7,000 words—I ascertained plenty more about Ozric’s personality, motivations, and backstory. He’s probably more complex than the average barbarian, but if I’m going to give voice to a character, I have to know him. That goes for novels and D&D alike.

Revelation

A writer typically lives within his story for months and maybe even years before it goes out into the world. Even after beta readers have provided feedback on a manuscript—even after a publication date has been decided upon—nothing makes a book feel more real than seeing the cover for the first time.

Similarly, I had the privilege of seeing Ozric in three dimensions, thanks to the painted miniature my sister produced for me. That same night, she texted me a note containing secret information only he knows.

The game is afoot!

Anticipation

Painted miniatures of a gnome barbarian and his companions

Ozric and friends

Very soon Ozric will meet Phoebe (a dwarven cleric played by my daughter), Johnny (an elf rogue played by my son), Cordelia (my wife’s half-elf ranger) and Saphira (my mom’s halfing cleric). We’ve even convinced my step-father to join us as a half-orc fighter named Spencer.

Like any good storyteller, my mind is already running amok with ideas of how Ozric will relate to the members of his motely party and how he might approach the problems likely to arise.

You might be asking yourself why the fantasy writer isn’t the one DMing the campaign. For one thing, it’s incredibly intimidating to jump into that role without any prior D&D experience. For another, I’m afraid I’ll enjoy it too much.

It took four hours to flesh out Ozric; I can only imagine how long it would take to plot out a campaign. If I’m going to wrap up The Soul Sleep Cycle next spring, I can’t afford to get too distracted.

Crafting Ozric’s story in real time will have to suffice—assuming my little gnome berserker survives his first battle.

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Cover reveal: If Sin Dwells Deep

By auspicious happenstance, my 100th blog post coincides with another milestone: the completion of my next book’s cover.

Behold!

If Sin Dwells Deep will be published as a paperback and for Kindle on Oct. 2, 2018. The Kindle version will be available for preorder at the end of the month IS AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER NOW!

Here’s the back-cover text to tide you over until then:

Even good girls have secrets.

When straight-laced Allison sleeps, the rebellious goddess Syn wakes. Having a fling in the dreamscape may seem like harmless fun, but when a sadistic predator learns her true identity, the fantasy begins to bleed into real life.

If Sin Dwells Deep—a parallel novel to If Souls Can Sleep—exposes the hidden world of dream drifters and explores the war between gifted government agents and those who would use their abilities to corrupt life, death, and that which lies beyond.

Because I’m up to my elbows in pre-release book marketing tactics (which will likely include penning some guest posts), I’ve elected to use the rest of this article to highlight some of my favorite posts from this blog.

Without further ado, here’s my Top 10 blog posts…so far:

10. Celebrating a writing milestone? Listen up!

About three years ago, I created a soundtrack for a novel I was working on. The songs all—directly or indirectly—tie into the plot and characters of If Sin Dwells Deep. (Available soon!)

9. It’s a…business!

This short but significant post announced the birth of One Million Words LLC, my indie publishing company. The business, now 2½ years old, resembles a toddler today: lots of unexpected fun and requiring constant supervision.

8. How to make a person

No, this isn’t sex education. I once used this blog to share writing tips, and this post featured a series of interview questions to get to know your characters better and transform them from two-dimensional ideas to full-fledged human beings.

(Pro tip: I recently used these same questions to flesh out my new D&D character.)

7. Why sci-fi and fantasy?

I get asked this question a lot.

6. What every writer needs

Spoiler: it’s an audience. I followed this post up with three others related posts: What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). While I think this series could be helpful to other writers, I’m including it here because it also gives readers a glimpse into a writer’s journey (and psyche).

5. The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical

The odds are I’ll never make a video game about grammar, but what I love about this post is the reminder that writing doesn’t always have to be a serious and that writers should always have a dream or two in their back pockets.

4. ‘Who is your book about?’

I composed a “Meet the Renegades” blurb as far back as fall 1997, when I was drafting the first chapters of what would eventually become Rebels and Fools. That guide was meant for the English instructor reviewing my chapters for an independent study class. It was with great excitement that I introduced the rest of the world to Klye Tristan and the gang.

3. Friends and family of writers, beware

Another common question from readers: where do you get your ideas from? The answer: just about everywhere, including the people closest to us.

2. Why writers groups still matter

I wrote this treatise on the importance of writers groups more than five years ago, and I still believe strongly in the message. In fact, a fellow Allied Authors member and I tackled this very topic on the Read.Write.Repeat. podcast, which will air later this month.

1. Storytelling can take many forms

Predating my life as a writer, I told my stories by other means. Before the cast of The Renegade Chronicles made it to the page, they were LEGO minifigs. As a nod to my humble roots, I transcribed the characters from If Souls Can Sleep into the same medium, bringing my fiction full circle.

I’d like to thank all of my readers over the years. I hope you’ll enjoy not only my next book, but also many more blog posts to come.

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My year of yes

While watching a hardscrabble soccer game with my son, I proffered this platitude:

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

Cue the eye roll.

My 10-year-old swiftly informed me there were posters proclaiming that very notion scattered throughout his school—three of them. Cliché though the expression may be, it’s nonetheless true that you can’t succeed if you don’t try. And probability suggests the more often you try, the better your odds of achieving.

I didn’t realize I was taking my own (borrowed) advice until I caught Yes Man on HBO the other night. That’s the one where a play-it-safe, stuck-in-a-rut loan officer makes a covenant with himself, promising to say yes to every request and opportunity.

In the movie, operating in an affirmative absolute yielded comical results. But this is real life. Unlike Jim Carrey’s character, I’d never blindly agree to everything. Lately, however, I’ve started forcing myself to come up with reasons to do something rather than not doing it.

As a result, 2018 is proving to be a year of trying new things and taking chances.

Destabilizing events

It began at the end of last year. While updating my business plan, I made the decision to attend more events. Why? My records showed I sold more books face-to-face than through any other marketing tactics in 2016 and 2017.

As a result, I earmarked a handful of conventions, conferences, and occasions where one might peddle one’s literary wares. Some were repeat appearances, but I also added a few new events, including Lakefly Writers Conference and WisCon.

So far sales have varied greatly from venue to venue. However, I’ve also realized networking can be its own reward.

Destination: collaboration

I was fortunate enough to meet two other fantasy authors at Lakefly. We had fun trading stories about our individual writing, publishing, and marketing experiences before the the doors to the vendor room opened as well as over lunch. Those conversations continue today via group chats.

There’s certainly value in learning from the successes and missteps of other writers’ “yeses.”

The biggest thing to come out of meeting Malinda Andrews and Rebekah K. Bryan, however, was an invitation to contribute Rebels and Fools to an e-book box set comprised of six complete fantasy novels.

In fact, Sixfold Fantasy became a reality earlier this month. Buy it here.

The play’s the thing

Sometimes opportunities pass us by without our even knowing. That almost happened to me a week ago when an email that looked suspiciously like spam popped into my inbox. Thankfully, I took a closer read before banishing it to my junk folder.

Lo and behold, it ended up being an invitation to participate in something called the 24-Hour Theater Experience. This October, a handful of writers will be given a theme, number of characters, and nine hours to write a 10-minute play, which will then be rehearsed and performed by the local community theater troupe at a swanky Fond du Lac venue—all within in the span of a single day.

Turns out someone recommended me to be one of the writers. (Thanks, Dusty!)

Now I don’t fancy myself a playwright, but I do have experience writing scripts for commercials and other videos. It’s always a thrill to see actual people speaking the words you put on a page.

Comfort zone? Looks like I’m gonna exit stage left.

Action affirmative

Here’s another adage: man plans, and God laughs.

I try to keep my production calendar as flexible as possible. Some projects—such as a comic book collaboration codenamed ONE-SHOT—started out as a “yes” but collectively became “no, not right now.”

On the other hand, I just finished writing a short story that was decidedly not part of Plan A and am contemplating publishing an e-book anthology of my shorter works—though not until 2019.

Yes, 2018 has already put plenty on my plate!

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The secret beauty of bad ideas

Writers never kill their darlings.

We just lock them away…in a dungeon…indefinitely…

Even when we expunge plots points from the pages, old drafts linger long after their expiration date, haunting hard drives and battered binders for years. The same goes for ideas that never even had a chance to thrive as well as stories that don’t survive a full draft.

I keep my little failures in a folder called “Ideas and false starts,” a literary gulag whose inmates date back to the turn of the century.

What makes an idea bad?

Bad is in the eye of the beholder. Most ideas start out as precious—too precious—so if the author passes harsh judgement on his/her own work, it’s probably really bad. Some common culprits are ideas that are too unrealistic, convoluted, or clichéd. If an idea doesn’t serve—or can’t support—the story, it has to go.

Then there are the ideas that might have made it to those two little words if only they had kept the author’s interest. Boredom aside, ideas also can lead writers down dead ends. Writer’s block has murdered many a storyline.

And here’s a tragedy: a perfectly adequate idea can perish before it reaches its full potential when a shiny new one shows up, usurping an author’s brainpower and priorities.

Can two wrongs make a write?

Abandoned ideas don’t really rest in peace. I, for one, occasionally visit their proverbial prison, poking and prodding to see if there’s any life left in them. Better to have many ideas waiting in the ward than too few to fill one’s time.

I admit very few people to this freak show. Family members, writers groups, beta readers—they alone get glimpses at the grotesqueries. However, after watching a certain movie and playing a somewhat related video game recently, I can’t help but wonder if there could be beauty in the bad.

The LEGO Batman Movie and LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 both feature D-list characters from comics past and present. If Condiment King and Chipmunk Hunk can star in successful stories, what about some of my own castoffs?

The Bad Idea Club

Supposing there’s validity to the theory that mixing up a bunch of bad ideas can result in something good, here are a few mostly forgotten characters of mine that could conceivably band together:

Digger (circa 1984)

Likely the first instance of my unfulfilled fiction, Digger’s Days would have recounted the adventures of Digger, a robot equipped with a drill and a number of other tools to do…stuff. I’m pretty sure this prototype didn’t make it past the drawing board, literally, since I was all of five years old when I sketched him. Still, what story couldn’t use a mechanical sidekick?

The Ultimate Crusaders (circa 1991–1993)

Drawing robots eventually led to illustrating massive battles. I flirted with the miserable (and trademark-infringing) G.I. Joe: The Next Generation before inventing cringe-worthy acronyms for my elite soldiers. Once my interest switched to comic books and their super-powered characters, I invented the Ultimate Crusaders. Many of these heroes and villains they thwarted were Marvel rip-offs (e.g. The Mutant Flame and Electra); others were just plain terrible (the Quarter Note and Herron, whose helmets were as groan-inducing as you might imagine). However, Mr. Mysterious did get reincarnated for a short story I wrote in college.

Yalte Dark Elf (fall 1994)

After months of building my own fantasy world, I decided to attempt a novel. While Altaerra would live on and eventually serve as the setting for The Renegade Chronicles, the original cast of “The Maltaken Experiment” did not. There was an elven bard, a gruff dwarf (of course), a warrior woman, a pixie, and a barbarian guy. Leading the pack, however, was dagger-flinging Yalte Dark Elf, whose only saving grace was that he wasn’t inspired by Forgotten Realm’s Drizzt Do’Urden (like most dark elves), but rather DragonLance’s Dalamar the Dark.

Tarreth (spring 2001)

An attempt at co-writing a fantasy series with a fellow college student quickly fizzled, but not before I wrote a scene introducing Tarreth, a half-immortal child adopted by a creepy old wizard. I think she was going to eventually destroy him and meet up with a delusional “Chosen One.” Alas, her quest was over before it began.

Benedict Strong (fall 2006)

When I stepped away from Altaerra to take a stab at a fantasy novel set in the real world, I conjured up Benedict Strong, who was one of only a handful of true wizards remaining on Earth. He learned from Merlin, I believe, and so did his rival/counterpart, Pandora, who used her arcane talents to perform true magic on stage—unbeknown to her Vegas audiences. Rasputin would have made a cameo. I know: hard to believe this one flopped.

Persephone (fall 2010)

Some ideas are enticing solely because they are something other than what you are currently working on. While up to my elbows in dream drifters, editing If Souls Can Sleep, I began mentally exploring a story where a teenage Wisconsinite named Persephone gets possessed by her unborn granddaughter, a time-traveler comprised of consciousness-preserving nanobots. Of all my bad ideas, Sunny’s story is most likely to orchestrate a jailbreak.

Ysa (spring 2013)

It turns out that writing a story about an alien anthropologist isn’t all that new. Ysa, a genderless extraterrestrial from a mostly lifeless universe, would have been one of three interplanetary delegates to travel to Earth, where the anthropologist would use his/her woefully incomplete knowledge of humankind to forge a lasting friendship between worlds. Naturally, Ysa would have discovered a conspiracy on one side or the other and then foiled it.

The Later Gator (fall 2013)

A few years ago, my wife and I penned a children’s chapter book. The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers had a very limited run for complicated reasons, but the story foreshadowed a sequel in which the titular heroine would square off against an anthropomorphic alligator whose tide of chaos causes tardiness wherever he goes. The Later Gator still hasn’t shown up.

A song for the unsung heroes

My abysmal mashup may never come to be, and there’s an excellent chance not a single one of these characters will ever escape my digital dungeon. But even if bad ideas can’t be reformed, they serve an important purpose.

Bad ideas take the brunt of punishment from an author’s inner critic. For example, if Benedict Strong hadn’t been such a bore, I might never have given Vincent Cruz a chance, which means The Soul Sleep Cycle would never have happened.

Once a bad idea is banished, we turn with fresh eyes to a new idea, our sadism sated…for now…

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When is a sequel not a sequel?

"What's next" scrawled on a blackboard with white chalk

After people finish reading If Souls Can Sleep, they often wonder, “What happens next?”

While Book One of The Soul Sleep Cycle provides enough resolution to stand on its own, readers already know a second book in the series is forthcoming. There is plenty of dreamscape real estate left to explore, but where might the story go?

The good news is Book Two is scheduled for release this fall.

The bad news is readers will have to wait a little longer to find out what happens “next.”

Solving the riddle

If Sin Dwells Deep is technically a sequel to If Souls Can Sleep, since it was written—and will be published—after Book One. However, the events of ISDD do not follow those of ISCS chronologically.

The two novels span roughly the same timeframe: Book Two starts a couple of months before Book One and concludes a few days before the epilogue of ISCS, though that doesn’t make it a prequel.

If Sin Dwells Deep can best be described as a parallel novel.

Bisecting a book

I’m not sure how other parallel novels are born, but for me it happened by accident. You see, I didn’t realize I was composing a series when I started writing If Souls Can Sleep. I had many ideas and thought (naïvely) that I could fit them all in a single book.

Before long, however, I saw the error of my overambitious ways. Juggling so many focal characters and intertwining plots became untenable. Rather than one freakishly large baby, it turned out I had twins.

In the end, I decided If Souls Can Sleep would be Vincent’s story, with Milton’s storyline supplementing the main narrative.

And the ideas that didn’t make it in? Well, they were prime material for Book Two. In fact, Chapter 6 of an early draft of If Souls Can Sleep—a scene that introduced Project Valhalla dream drifter Allison Greene—became Chapter 1 of If Sin Dwells Deep.

Exploring new territory

Whereas Book One introduced the idea of dream drifting, Book Two reveals many more details about Project Valhalla’s mission and the men and women involved in that top-secret operation. The reader will also learn more about “the enemy”—those responsible for ambushing Milton prior to the start of the series—as well as a terrifying new villain.

A handful of scenes from Book One are shown from a different point of view in Book Two. But Book Two is more than just Vincent’s story told from another perspective. If Sin Dwells Deep focuses on Allison, aka Syn, and even though dream drifting is a big part of her life, she has her own personal demons to confront.

In short, the two stories are interconnected yet independent.

Creeping toward a conclusion

Although If Sin Dwells Deep won’t answer the question “What happens next?” the next novel will answer a more pertinent question: “What is the true threat to the dreamscape?”

By the time Book Three hits shelves in spring 2019, readers will have a clearer view of the big picture, setting up a confrontation that has been building for years. Not only will If Dreams Can Die answer “What happens next?” it will provide a satisfying conclusion for the series.

As for what happens after that, I always hold onto a few ideas just in case…

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100 agonizing words

I recently spent five excruciating hours at my keyboard and have less than 100 words to show for it.

Granted, they are some of the most important words for my next novel—second only to the title, I’d argue—but the fact that so much time yielded so little leads to believe that blurbs are the blight of the publishing world.

OK, I may have griped about the challenges of various writing exercises over the years:

Today, however, I’m prepared to go on record as saying all else pales in comparison to penning the dreaded book blurb.

Not to be confused with a full-fledged synopsis (the bare-bones summery generally reserved for agent and publisher queries), a blurb is a relatively small chunk of text tasked with huge responsibility: selling the idea of the book to readers.

Blurbs are often found on the back cover as well as the product description page of an online retailer. Working in conjunction with an engaging cover art and a snappy title, the successful blurb hooks the shopper, converting a prospect into a customer.

Long blurbs run the risk of revealing too much. (Technically, revealing the protagonist, antagonist, and main problem should suffice.) Conversely, if the blurb is too concise or vague, an amazing plot could come off as uninspired.

It’s a balancing act even tightrope walkers fear.

Cropped out book blurb from the back cover of If Souls Can Sleep

Here’s the book blurb from If Souls Can Sleep.

 

For my last book, If Souls Can Sleep, I limited the blurb to five sentences: two for an enticing headline, one to tease the protagonist and plot, and two to introduce the world of dream drifters. Because that blurb received praise from reviewers, I took a similar approach to Book Two of The Soul Sleep Cycle.

Without further preamble, here is the still-in-progress blurb for If Sin Dwells Deep:

 

She swore to defend the dreamscape.
But who will save her from herself?

When her mentor goes missing, straight-laced Allison must rely on her alter-ego, the rebellious goddess Syn, to rescue him. Trusting anyone at Project Valhalla could cost her her life, but fighting alone might damn her very soul.

 


 

If Sin Dwells Deep — a parallel novel to If Souls Can Sleep — exposes the secret world of dream drifters and the classified government operation charged with protecting the collective unconscious from those who would use their abilities to corrupt life, death, and what lies beyond.

 

Given how important these 100 words are, I welcome/encourage/demand feedback. Would that blurb motivate you to flip open the cover or, better yet, add to cart? If not, why?

Thanks in advance for your comments!

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