Book Review: Gateway to Celesta by Tessa Apa (@TessaApa)

Gateway to CelestaI have a confession to make. As a 34-year old man, I’m far from an expert when it comes to the world of YA (young adult) novels—a fact that concerned me a little bit as I read through the first couple of chapters in Gateway to Celesta. However, as I continued to read, I realized that what author Tessa Apa had done was manage to tell a story that could be attractive to younger readers, but also offer enough complexity to keep older readers entertained.

Gateway to Celesta is the first entry of a forthcoming series of books that revolves around the lives of three extraordinary children. Sisters Frankie and Xim, and their brother Boscoe, are unknowingly entrusted as the guardians of an ancient puzzle called The Qui, which comes bundled with special powers. Once the children are able to unlock the Qui’s secrets, they are given the gift of “thought throwing,” and telepathic communication. They also soon discover that unlocking The Qui has greatly enhanced their primary natural talents, allowing them to excel even beyond their wildest imagination. However, the Qui’s most important secret is that it serves as the doorway that leads to the hidden world of Celesta.

As you might expect, a gift of great power soon attracts the attention of nefarious characters that would rather use its power for greed and destruction. A troubled teenage boy named Peter is given the task of seeking out the Qui and retrieving it for a shady faction known as The Chapter. Peter’s journey is a struggle, however, as he is torn between doing the sinister things mandated by his mother, and following the small traces of light that exist within his heart. When he meets Frankie, she makes him feel significant for the first time in his life, but allowing himself to fall for her would come with a hefty price for defying his mother’s wishes.

The influence of Harry Potter is impossible to ignore while reading this book. It’s highly likely that author Tessa Apa intended for this to be a story that parents could easily share with their children before bedtime. With the exception of a few fleeting moments that might be a little intense for younger audiences, I’d say she hit the mark straight on. Apa is incredibly imaginative, and her creation of the Qui puzzle, it’s powers, and the world of Celesta, are vast and complex. Perhaps even a little too complex at times, considering the intended demographic.

What you’ve got here is a more than adequate entry point for a sprawling new series that should satisfy J.K. Rowling fans wondering what to do in life after Potter. As with any first novel, Gateway to Celesta is occasionally rough in spots, and it could have used just a little more polish before release (Apa recycles a few of the same visual cues throughout the book), but there is no question that this author is poised for even greater works on the horizon. Considering that the cost of entry is but a mere .99 cents, the mystical world of Celesta is a bargain worth venturing toward.

Q & A with Gateway to Celesta author, Tessa Apa

[DAVID K. HULEGAARD]: Gateway to Celesta is very deep and contains many layers. How did the whole idea come about?

[TESSA APA]: It started with the concept that we are not always in control of what we think. You know how we can sometimes be swept away by unexpected thoughts? How they pop into our head from no-where or maybe they come from ‘somewhere?’ Does that make sense? Anyway, that’s where it began. I also wanted the book to be a warning – that we should guard our minds, and be very careful what we dwell on. The world of Celesta grew from there, and the whole concept that we all have the ability to tap into this power. Every single one of us – not just the special people.

[DKH]: How long did you wait before you decided to try and put your ideas into a book?

[TA]: I started straight away and pretty much wrote the first and the last chapters in the same day. After that I had to fill in all the detail. That part took four years (I’m the world’s slowest writer!)

[DKH]: Did your story change a lot as you wrote, or did you stick closely to your original vision?

[TA]: It changed a huge amount. I developed the relationship between Frankie and Peter. At first they were barely interested in each other. I also added a lot more tension with the fire and the dog being stolen (and thought murdered!). None of that was really planned at first – those elements just developed as I wrote. I even changed some of the characters names. Taking four years to finish it definitely didn’t help on that score. Because I was writing it with my children in mind (as my audience), they grew from pre-teens to teens in that time span, so I had to add more depth, conflict and relationship than originally planned.

[DKH]: Gateway to Celesta is the first book in a series. Do you have a plan for how many books you would ultimately like it to contain?

[TA]: I know there is a second book. I think there is a third. I’d love to say 6 or 7 but I just don’t seem to be able to plan that far ahead. I also keep getting ideas for other stories and those distract me a lot. I love writing short stories with fresh new ideas and seeing where they lead.

[DKH]: Did you have any real-life influences for creating the kids in your story, or are they all entirely your creation?

[TA]: How did you know? I have three children, two girls and a boy (like the James children). I read somewhere to write what you know and that’s why I went down that path – only some of their characteristics are similar though. They know which ones, but hopefully no one else does. Peter is entirely my creation though. I look for him everywhere, but haven’t seen or met anyone who comes close. Goose, the dog, is a shameless tribute to my dog – there’s a photo of her on my website.

[DKH]: What’s up next for you?

[TA]: I’m finishing a novella called The Girl Who Played Chess with an Angel. After that I have to fill in the gaps on the ‘Gateway’ sequel. I have promised myself to finish that this year. I think the first book is the hardest in so many ways. Cross fingers I can do a quicker job from now on.

Buy Gateway to Celesta for: Kindle

Download ‘The Night Shift’ For Free!

I am very excited right now, as I have submitted my upcoming novella The Jumper for final edits, and will soon see it released for eyeball consumption! It has been a lot of fun to write, and I sincerely hope that you’ll enjoy reading it. However, since there is still some time to kill before the story of R.C. Dawson is released upon the world, I thought that I would prepare a writing sample for you while we wait. It’s a short story entitled The Night Shift that serves as a prequel, and will introduce you to one of the locations and supporting characters from The Jumper.

In this prequel, we meet Craig Dixon and get a glimpse of his life before the events of The Jumper. When R.C. Dawson meets him in The Jumper, Craig is working the day shift as a custodian for the Emily Glavine Community Youth Center. He ominously tells R.C. that he used to work the night shift, but just for one night. This short story tells the tale of Craig’s first, and only, night alone at the community center, and will give you a taste of the spooky events that have been reported by several employees of the building… and what’s soon to come for R.C. Dawson.

WARNING: This material is intended for mature audiences and contains language that may be considered offensive to some people. Please enjoy at your own discretion.

Download ‘The Night Shift’ for free!

(Right click, Save Target As, Voila!)

The Jumper: Overview

It’s an exciting time around here! As I type this, my next book, a novella titled The Jumper, is nearing completion and will be releasing in the next few weeks. Earlier this week I unveiled the final cover art, so it seemed only fitting that it was time to give you a sneak peek at the story behind the art. I thank you for your continued support and look forward to being able to share the book with you. Check back soon for the opportunity to download the first chapter for free!


When the real estate market collapsed, so too did R.C. Dawson’s retirement plan, forcing him back into the workplace at 54 years old. He took the night custodian job at a youth community center, thinking he’d get to enjoy the peace and quiet. He was wrong.

The community center was a beautiful old building with a dark secret. It was the home to a mysterious shadow figure they called “The Jumper,” an innocent looking teenage boy harboring a rage that prevented him from moving on.

R.C. now finds himself on a chilling collision course with a powerful force, a 25-year old mystery, and a night he’ll never forget.

Book Review: Women and Other Monsters by Bernard J. Schaffer (@ApiarySociety)

As a writer, inspiration can hit you at any moment as long as your mind is clear and open. More often than not, however, the story ideas that hit you, while exciting and full of possibility, don’t always leave enough open space to craft an entire novel. You’re left with two options. You can either surrender to your doubt, allowing the story to continue to float past you harmlessly, or you can take your idea and attempt to mine a short story from it. With Women and Other Monsters, author Bernard J. Schaffer has taken the latter approach and offers up a serving of six deliciously twisted tales for your amusement.

In an effort to keep the stories from feeling familiar as the book progresses, Schaffer has carefully insured that each story is completely different from the last. Some stories are based upon the creations that stem from an overactive imagination, while others carry a subtle hint of morality buried deep within the madness. The one attribute that each story shares in common, however, is that each one will make you think. Some will make you laugh, some will make you queasy, but above all else, they will absolutely make you think.

Women and Other Monsters is likely to remind you of other great short story word-slingers, but take comfort in the fact that you’ll only sense influence, not imitation. While Stephen King is the most obvious of which, I was also whisked back to a time in my youth when Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Tales from the Crypt were the champions of scaring the pants off of suburbanites. To me, this book feels right at home in that same category. That’s not to say that the book is scary, but rather that it creates a pleasing concoction of chills, laughs, twists, and the macabre that will satisfy even the most jaded reader.

Schaffer pulls no punches with Women and Other Monsters. His imagination unapologetically consists of a balance of vast intellect and fearlessness when it comes to spinning yarns. He is going to tell you his story in his way and will make no concessions in reaching that goal. Readers that tend to be more sensitive may not appreciate his work, but I simply couldn’t put it down. I liked this collection of stories immensely and was left wanting more as I’d turned the final page. For the mere price of four quarters, this book belongs in the palm of any reader with a slightly askew take on reality. When one can see reality every day, it’s the gems like this book that make diving into insanity that much more fun.

Q & A with Women and Other Monsters author, Bernard J. Schaffer

[DAVID K. HULEGAARD]: How long had you been working on the short stories from your book before deciding to publish them all together as a collection?

[BERNARD J. SCHAFFER]: David, thank you for having me. Some of the short stories had actually been in existence for quite a while. “A Reluctant Death” was one of my very first as a maturing author, and I’d had it lingering around as an unpolished work. I was never satisfied with it, but it never quite let go of me. When I made the decision to do something in the e-format, I had already published several short stories in larger print mediums. The only other thing I had was a finished manuscript for Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, but it was under contract with an agent. I took a hard look at some of the stories that were already written, like “A Reluctant Death” and “Cold Comforts” and completely overhauled them for publication. By the time I finished “A Reluctant Death” it became something I am truly proud to have written.

[DKH]: Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut?

[BJS]: My editor, Karen “The Angry Hatchet” S., absolutely refused to let me include an erotica piece called “Ancient Rituals.” It was just something meant to fill the pages and maybe titillate a few readers. I thought it was just harmless fun, but she hated it to the point that I had to decide whether to press on without her, or make a change. I remember complaining to her that I now had a story-sized gap in the manuscript, and she told me I could either publish something mediocre or get off my ass and make it awesome. At that point, I was pretty spent. I’d re-written, overhauled, and edited myself to the point of exhaustion. I opted to just write something for me. That I thought was fun. That turned out to be “Codename: Omega.”

[DKH]: I know this is probably going to be like being asked to pick a favorite child, but is there one story in particular in your book that means more to you than the others?

[BJS]: Tough to say. I like each one for their own merits, or for personal reasons. “Nazareth” was a particular victory for me because it was a HUGE struggle to get right. Karen and I went back and forth on that one so many times that each of us would fight, and then break to neutral corners to research our opinions. It became a duel of references. In the end, when it was finally done, I was just so relieved. However, I’d say “Codename: Omega” is my favorite in terms of a story. It’s cinematic and adventurous. Sean Price and I will be spending a lot more time together in the future.

[DKH]: When getting reviewed, your work inevitably gets compared to any number of potential influences, but who would you personally cite as your literary inspirations?

[BJS]: For Women and Other Monsters, the inspiration began with short-story masters like Stephen King and Harlan Ellison. I grew up reading their collections. I also see a clear influence from Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Now, bear in mind, I don’t mean in terms of writing style. Out of all of them, I’m probably closest to King (style-wise).

[DKH]: In the book’s finale, “Digestif,” we’re given a rather touching auto-biographical glimpse at the man behind the pen. Is that an all-encompassing recount of your journey to print, or perhaps a clever parting shot for the reader whose mind has already been twisted and toyed with?

[BJS]: I have a confession to make. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed the most about short-story collections were the introductions that King and Ellison did. Sometimes, I liked the introductions a whole lot more than the story themselves. It’s the idea that the author is giving you a peek behind the curtain. I think it builds a partnership with readers and demonstrates a level of trust. I can tell you a little about myself and trust that you’ll still look at me the same way, just like any relationship.

[DKH]: It seems as though the majority of the stories don’t have a definitive ending. Was that a conscious decision to allow the reader their own interpretation, or did you feel like you stopped at the point in the story that felt the most natural?

[BJS]: The consistent thing people have said to me was that they didn’t want the stories to end where they did. They thought several could be full novels or much larger bodies of work. I’m actually quite happy with that response. It means I gave them a full ride when they expected something little. That being said, several characters will be returning in the next short-story collection (Bernard J. Schaffer’s Codex Leicester) due sometime in 2012. I know people want to see Rob the Vampire again, and I certainly want to go kick the crap out of more Nazis with Agent Price.

[DKH]: I am very excited for your next book, Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, which just released on eBook this week. What attracted you to the subject matter and what are you doing within the Sherlock Holmes universe to add your own unique footprint?

[BJS]: Last Friday night I was investigating a homicide where a little boy got his brains bashed in with a baseball bat. His father was the murderer. I’ve been a police detective for several years now and have seen things that would make most people run for the hills. For me, the thing about Holmes is that Doyle told us all this interesting stuff about him but it never really mattered. He’s an intravenous drug user, but it doesn’t affect him. He’s an insufferable misogynist but nobody minds. I wanted to take this mythic champion of Good and break him down to human-size and see if he could still rise to the occasion. As for Jack the Ripper, it’s always driven me nuts that this monstrous serial killer who butchered at least five women has been turned into some sort of romantic figure. Nobody remembers the victims. I dedicated Whitechapel to the victims. People might disagree with the level of gore or brutality in the book, but I based everything on actual events as they occurred. I actually had to tone down the reality a bit because it was just too crazy. That being said, I also based the entire setting and all of Doyle’s borrowed characters as people who would actually live in that environment. Goodbye doilies and teacups. Hello Whitechapel.

David, thank you for being such a gracious interviewer. I greatly appreciate it.

[DKH]: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you for writing such an enthralling read!

Buy Women and Other Monsters for: Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords

Buy Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes for: Kindle

Book Review: Expectations by Liz Borino

Expectations by Liz BorinoMatt and Chris Taylor are just like any other post-grad adults trying to figure out what it is that they want to do with their lives. Though twin brothers, their trajectory in life is anything but identical. Matt is the book-smart, guarded brother with a good head for business and a flair for self-destruction, while Chris is the softer, creative brother with a keen eye for photography and a passion for dance. No matter how different their personal lives have become, they strongly support one another and understand that they will not advance far in life without each other.

Seeking liberation from the controlling clutches of a tyrannical father, the twins search for new direction in life under the seductive caress of the New York skyline. However, it is at this stage where the twins begin to splinter and the unique challenges that Matt and Chris will face begin to take shape. For Chris, he will discover a deep-seeded love for his long-term friend Aiden that has bubbled up to the surface and struggle with the challenges associated with living as an out-of-the-closet homosexual. For Matt, he will come face-to-face with his fear of becoming just like his despised father and attempt to postpone the transformation by hiding behind countless empty bottles and throngs of nameless, faceless women.

Under any normal circumstance, these situations may sound normal, or possibly even relatable, but there is a caveat. Both Matt and Chris each have a $50M trust fund set aside for them if they can accommodate the lofty expectations set by their father. To acquire the funds, Matt will have to become the one thing he hates the most in life, and Chris will have to hide from his true identity to become the person his father wants him to be. The burden sends Matt down into a shame spiral of binge-drinking and loneliness, while Chris is able to reach down and find a hidden strength that will empower him. Just as the days are beginning to look their darkest, Chris finds that true love will guide him through the toughest decisions of his life, and Matt will find that learning to embrace his natural talent will come easier with the support of someone special in his life.

Expectations is an enjoyable read because Liz Borino understands the significance of solid character development. Though Matt and Chris are the stars of this story, Liz has done an incredible job of creating a supporting cast that feel anything but secondary. Through Aiden, we learn about a dark past and a strong will to survive that makes the unconditional love that Chris feels for him believable. Through Carley, we learn that two people don’t have to have similar backgrounds to make a relationship work and that it’s those differences that truly allow Matt to shine at full radiance.

Make no mistake, however. Expectations is not an easy-to-swallow, garden variety romance novel. The path that the characters will take you down is not always sweet and innocent. Borino delivers plot points that can get gritty and uncomfortable even for those not easily squeamish. By doing so, she demonstrates to us that these characters are human and not a Hollywood portrayal of characters living under perfect conditions. What really comes through in Borino’s writing is that she genuinely loves these characters, even when she puts them in situations that leave the reader shuddering. At its core, Expectations is a story of hope and love that anyone can relate to, though the path to get there is unconventional to say the least. It is because of that very fact that the book stands out as a must-read, rather than a paperback romance squeezed tightly into an impulse rack at the local supermarket.

Q & A with Expectations author, Liz Borino

[DAVID K. HULEGAARD]: You’ve been creating stories for most of your life, but Expectations was your first book. What was it about The Taylor twins’ story that made it ideal for your first published endeavor?

[LIZ BORINO]: I’m not sure. I’d say it was honestly the first one I deemed publishable. I connected with the stories and the characters in a way I hadn’t with any other book. Also, I did a lot of work and research to make it work.

[DKH]: Most writers say that there’s a little bit of themselves in each character they create. Is that true for you, and if so, which one do you think you identify the closest with?

[LB]: Chris is the character I hope to be most like. He’s unconditionally loving, supportive, optimistic, and really full of life, even at the worst of times. Aiden is how I perceive myself. He’s introverted, only opens himself up to certain people, but talented in a way his (old) family doesn’t understand or support. I think I made them male to give myself some distance. Matt deals with problems I’ve seen destroy people close to me. And Robert represents one of my greatest fears: being controlled.

[DKH]: As a straight woman, did you find it challenging to write a love story about two gay men? Did you do any special research to uphold the authenticity?

[LB]: No, actually, I enjoy writing about gay men more than the straight couple. Maybe it’s because Carley annoys me so much. As for research, one day at college I sat down and had a discussion about m/m sexual positions with a bisexual male. After that, I let the characters guide me.

[DKH]: Creating such different lives for Matt & Chris must have been fun, but challenging. Even though we learn much about Matt, we learn even more about Chris and Aiden. Do you tend to think of them as the stars of your creation?

[LB]: No, I don’t. After Expectations, the stories between the couples even out. Matt’s story, and past, is darker than Chris’s, but he’s got a good heart and wants to make sure his family’s future is bright.

[DKH]: Expectations is only an introduction to the fast-paced lives of these characters. It ends on quite a bit of a cliffhanger. Where do we find these characters in the next installment, What Money Can’t Buy?

[LB]: Both couples are anticipating parenthood and dealing with the stresses and joys that entails. Matt and Chris have to compensate for the changing role their father has in their life. It’s an exciting and dramatic book.

Video Games: Brain Rotting or Brain Candy?

As a child of the 80s, video games were introduced to me at an early age. Like most boys of the Masters of the Universe era, I was immediately consumed by the glowing electronic display of goodness! From the first time I picked up that controller and played Donkey Kong nearly 30 years ago, I’ve been addicted to the allure and splendor of video games. Don’t you roll your eyes at me! I see that permanent fingerprint seared into your smart phone screen from hours of Angry Birds and Tetris!

There’s no question that video games have become an acceptable form of entertainment for all ages in this modern era, but there still remains a large percentage of people that believe these games are damaging to our mental development. Is that true? Though I don’t deem myself qualified enough to answer that question definitively, it is a subject that I have a wealth of personal experience with and I’d like to plead my case based solely upon that.

One of the biggest arguments I hear against gaming is the belief that playing video games stagnates your mind. Even my own mother used to tell me as a kid that playing all those video games would rot my brain. For the time being, we’ll temporarily ignore the fact that she is hopelessly addicted to Café World. When I hear this argument however, I can only imagine that it depends heavily on the existing mental state of the person in question. For example, as a gamer of nearly 30 years, I’m doing my most creative work ever now as an adult. While I would freely admit that a fascination with video games did prevent me from handing in all of my homework assignments throughout school, I would strongly disagree that it diminished my brain’s potential.

For example, back in the early days of Atari and Nintendo, developers didn’t feel the need to create a deep back story to accompany the gameplay. It was a simple matter of constructing eye-to-hand coordination and dexterity challenges. Did we care why a hungry yellow sphere ate pellets while being chased by ghosts? Did we care why a suicidal frog felt the need to cross the busiest 10-lane freeway in the city? The developers didn’t think so, but you know who did? I did. I thought it was fun to name the characters and create little back stories to explain the events that I was witnessing. While just simply knowing that the princess was in another castle was suffice to most gamers, I always wondered who gave Mario the bad intel and why. In my mind, Toad was a double agent working on behalf of King Koopa and purposely misleading Mario all around the Mushroom Kingdom. However, because good always wins over evil, Mario eventually finds his way and rescues the princess after the final showdown. Then… PLOT TWIST… King Koopa wasn’t really the mastermind behind the abduction and the princess is still not safe. MUWA-HA-HA-HA!

By now you’ve probably already deduced that I am a giant nerd. Guilty. This practice stayed with me through most of my adolescent years until the video game industry changed and one day the art of creating stories for the player to sink their teeth into became the status quo. They were primitive at first, but have since evolved into complex tales of twisting paths and rich character development. In fact, it’s extremely common now days to hear stories of couples playing games together so that both can experience the story while only one of them actually plays. It’s no longer sacrilege to say that video games are like interactive books, because some of them truly are. Companies like BioWare and Rockstar Games are continually generating some of the most compelling examples of this. Video games can now make people laugh out loud, or express remorse or sympathy caused by the trials endured by the characters, and in some cases, even shed tears. You Final Fantasy VII veterans know what I’m talking about.

While writing my first book, Noble, the video game BioShock was a huge influence on me. The developers hadn’t only crafted a clever story of mystery and thrills, but also created an inviting alternate 1940s era that was so full of charm and character, that it only made it that much more intense when you were thrust into the dystopian nightmare within. Even now I still get chills when I think about the spiraling downward staircase that was the game’s plot. It was full of more “AH HA!” moments and payoffs than most modern day television shows and movies. As the credits rolled at the end of the game, I could only applaud what was easily one of the best fiction stories I’d encountered in years. Its the experiences such as those that continue to fuel my imagination not stifle it.

Of course this is only one negative connotation associated with video games. I do understand that from time to time there are more serious events that are linked to excessive video game infatuation, but I am absolutely not qualified enough to broach that subject. All I know is that I turned out just fine and I am thrilled to have another source of inspiration in my back pocket for when the mood strikes me. In the meantime, I’ll be proudly sporting a controller in hand when I’m not writing and waiting to be whisked away into a new and exciting universe.

How a Great Leader Can Change Your Life

When you think of great leaders, names like Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa may come to mind. However, there are people around us every day that also touch our lives and inspire us. Most of the time, these unsung heroes don’t even realize the impact they’ve made. Today I want to talk about one such person in my life: Pam Stanek.

From an early age, everyone is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer was always the same: “I want to be the greatest baseball player to ever walk the face of the earth.” Unfortunately, by the time I reached high school, it had become obvious that the Chicago Cubs would never come looking for a chubby, Danish kid with an awkward running motion. However, my lack of athletic ability helped me rekindle an old, childhood interest: creative writing.

Pam Stanek taught English at Hudson’s Bay High School, and I could tell from the first day of class that she was someone special. She was one of those rare teachers that addressed the entire class, but made you feel as though she was speaking only to you. What really stood out about her teaching style was how much she cared about our success. She did everything within her power to ensure we got the most out of her class. Not all teachers have the patience for that, which is what separates the good from the best, and Ms. Stanek was one of the best without question.

I wasn’t a particularly good student. Academic accomplishments mattered very little to me, and I wasted most of my high school years focused on the social aspect of it all. But English class was different. Something about Ms. Stanek’s syllabus motivated me to actually put forth some effort toward my assignments.

Ms. Stanek saw potential in my work and pushed me. She was extremely supportive, and challenged me to continue writing and developing my skills. She even gave up time after class to work with me. All that extra attention was the catalyst I needed to finally care about my future.

My favorite Pam Stanek story goes like this: she once gave us a homework assignment in which we had to write a poem. That’s it. No specific rules or guidelines, she just wanted us to write. Back in those days, I was a bit of an emo-in-training, so I came up with a depressing poem about heartbreak.

On the day she handed back our assignments, she asked me to stay behind after class. After all the other students had gone, she pointed to a flyer on the wall advertising a community college’s poetry contest and encouraged me to submit for it. I’ll never forget the words she said to me: “You won’t win. They like happy poems about sunshine and flowers, but your poem absolutely deserves to be read.”

Ms. Stanek’s support has stuck with me long after graduating high school. Even now, whenever I’m having a moment of doubt about my writing, I think back and remember that day. Those were the most inspiring words of encouragement I’ve ever received.

None of my accomplishments as a writer would’ve been possible without her, because without her as a teacher, I would’ve never even tried. She pushed me to strive for something more not because she had to, but because that’s just the kind of teacher she was. I’m grateful to have known her, and honored to have had her as a mentor.

Why Sci-Fi: The Creation of my Novel, Noble

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved to create and tell stories. In some of my earliest memories of grade school, we had a creative writing exercise called “Squiggles.” Squiggles were these plain white pieces of paper with odd, incomplete shapes on them. The goal of this exercise was to allow you to finish the shape by drawing something from your imagination and then follow it up with a story about your creation. I still remember one of these assignments in particular where the shape was reminiscent of a backwards number three with a couple of lines sticking out from it. For some reason, I saw this shape and it inspired me to draw a puffy little critter that would’ve been fit for the Rainbow Brite line. Girly, sure, but I was proud of that little puff ball and the accompanying story I wrote about him. It filled me with about as much pride as a seven year old boy can have. In it, my little puffy hero was sent to earth from the deep recesses of outer space to make friends with mankind. When we later shared our stories with the class, I was devastated to find that I was the only one that saw a puffy little alien, while everyone else had come up with much more realistic scenarios.

Looking back now, I have to laugh about it because I suppose the attraction to science fiction had always been there. You could routinely find me in the school library checking out whatever I could get my hands on pertaining to space, aliens, ghosts, and various other subject matter along the same ilk. I was probably the only second grader in my home town that saw an ad for the Time-Life books monthly subscription service featuring tales of the unexplained, and wanted it as badly as the other kids wanted a bike. To say that I was always a little different than the other kids would be a gross understatement.

When I finally had the free time and desire to sit down and begin work on my debut novel last year, many ideas were fresh atop my overactive imagination. I’d been sitting on ideas that had been accumulating over several years. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to be documenting those ideas in my “rainy day” book. So which one would it be? Which story would I tackle first? Well, as my friends and readers already know, I chose the story that would eventually be come to known as Noble.

One of the most common questions that I get asked by people is “where do you get your ideas from?” It’s not really a secret. It’s the same way that an artist gets their ideas for a painting, or a musician gets their ideas for a song. Inspiration is all around us, every day, and how we’re “wired” designates how we’ll pick up on that inspiration and apply it to our own individual craft. Would you be surprised to discover that the story of Noble actually came to me in a dream? Not all of it, of course, but the foundation from which the book is based upon, absolutely. I still remember it. It was a couple of years ago and I had awoken on a Saturday morning following a bizarre dream. It was so bizarre, that it was still running through my head as I stretched and got out of bed. I kept thinking to myself, “wow, that was kind of cool, but now I’ll never get to see how it ends.” I was legitimately disappointed. That’s when it occurred to me that I should log what I remembered, and come back to it someday when I was ready to apply my own recipe to it. The dream, as 99% of all dreams are, was wacky and nonsensical. I knew that I would have to dig really deep in order to refine something usable from it, but the potential was there. In truth, the original dream reminded me more of the Japanese classic film Battle Royale than anything else, but staying true to my predilection for sci-fi, I was able to extract the more interesting elements of the dream and create my own storyline to accompany it. It was kind of like the Squiggles from my youth. My dream had shown me an incomplete shape, so it was up to me to finish the drawing and create a story.

As I began to craft the pieces of the story that would eventually become Noble, I must confess that very literary influences actually went into my creative process. Instead, there were a few key influences from other media that played a large role in its birth. Right about the time I first put pen to paper, so to speak, Lost was ending its television run after six mind-bending seasons. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but I don’t think anyone could deny what an appreciation that the writers had for telling a story. We may not have always liked the direction they took it, but unquestionably, they crafted a masterpiece that had widespread affect. Me personally, I loved the show. I still think it was one of the greatest creations in the history of television. I am still blown away by the fact that ABC let a show like that run for six years, despite it’s rather taxing requirement of intellect. You just don’t see that in television. I think that Lost often resembled a good book more so than a TV show. As it was winding down to its final episodes, I couldn’t help but think about what the journey had been like all those years that led us to the show’s end game last May. I went back and watched the first five seasons over again in preparation. I took copious notes. Partly because I wanted to be able to follow all that had happened and what was still to come, but also to better understand the elements of constructing such an elaborate story. By the time the show did finally reach its swan song, I was consumed with emotion. I was shedding tears for characters that were not real over the decisions they made that would not affect real people, and yet I cried and I cried. That was the final exclamation point on a story well told. Any story that could impact me on that level must be dissected and understood. After I had spent weeks doing that, I felt as though I had 50% of what I needed to begin working on my own story.

The next 25% was setting. Where would Noble take place? I didn’t want to pick a real location because then it would be more like rewritten history rather than science fiction. I went back to yet another unconventional resource for inspiration: Video games. For as often as video games are referred to as the death of brain cells, I am continually amazed by the quality and craftsmanship that goes into making the games of today. They aren’t all so grandiose, but the ones that are really stick with you and lend credence to the “games as art” debate that has been ongoing for years. One such game was a little gem from the summer of 2007 called BioShock. The game was set in the 1960s, but the crux of the story took place in an intended underwater utopia called Rapture that was built in the 40s. The developers absolutely nailed the setting. Everything was designed so well that, as the player, I just wanted to walk around and look at everything. The art deco décor, the brilliantly replicated fonts and design fashions of the time, and of course, the beautiful sounds of authentic war-time radio music being played at various moments throughout the game. It harkened back to an era that I was not alive to experience, but it sure made me wish I had been. With such a strong reaction, I knew that the 40s was the perfect setting to begin my tale as well

The last 25% was folklore. I needed to craft a plot that would challenge the imagination of the reader, but also not be so farfetched that it would turn off readers who didn’t like sci-fi. I began thinking about real life stories and legends that dealt with the unexplained that I had always found interesting. One of the most titillating legends I remembered was about the famous mothman sightings in Point Pleasant, West Virginia around the time of WWII. There have been many retellings of this story over time, including the movie, The Mothman Prophecies, but if you do the research and read the real accounts back from that time, you may find them as interesting as I did. In actual publicly documented eye-witness testimony, there are many mentions of people seeing men in black suits appearing shortly after the mothman sightings started being reported. There was a woman, a reporter for the local newspaper I believe, that was working on the big story and trying to get it in print. These eye witnesses claim that the men in black suits began asking about the reporter immediately after showing up in town, then a couple of days later, they disappeared just as mysteriously as they’d arrived. No one ever saw the reporter again. She turned up dead days later when a concerned landlord couldn’t get a response upon knocking on her door. As with any good legend, there are likely some elements of truth and some elements born of fabricated hysteria, but I found it all fascinating. What if the government really did have secret agents whose jobs were to prevent widespread panic? What if they did travel across the country and attempt to silence reports of the unexplained before they could be brought to light? That sounded like a premise that I could mine the rest of my story from, and thus, with all of my ingredients, Noble was ready to be cooked.

So why sci-fi? I think it’s just a lot more fun. You’re not bound by all the rules associated with other genres. That said, I did do a lot of painstakingly dull research about the early 20th century to make Noble as historically accurate as possible. I owe the reader that much. I want them to be able to become immersed with my story and enjoy the insanity rather than be removed from the experience because something didn’t exist at the time my book says it did. I want the reader to just shut off their brain for a little while and absorb the legend I’ve created without worry. If they’re impressed about it being historically accurate as well, then that’s just an added bonus! 🙂

To Free, or Not to Free…

There’s been a fairly interesting topic of conversation going around the literary circles lately. It involves a discussion as to whether or not the constant changing of media and technology is making writing obsolete as a profession. Certainly anyone that enjoys writing has an opinion on the subject with which to weigh in, and as such, go forth do I with my own. Of course, I’m relatively new to the world of “professional” writing and my experiences and opinions are adolescent at best, and completely misinformed or uneducated at worst. However, this is the internet after all, and those conditions have not stopped anyone anywhere from voicing their opinions yet. Am I supposed to be so different? 🙂

I read a rather scary statistic a couple of years back when I first decided to become serious about my pursuit of writing. This statistic stated that less than 2% of all writers were able to claim writing as a full-time job. Just 2%. However, as with most dreams, if you decide to pursue it, you should make certain that you’ve got something else to fall back on. I am no different. As much as I would love to be included in the 2% of writers that “make it,” even with my poor mathematical skills, I can easily read between the lines and comprehend that my chances of reaching that plateau are slim to none. I’m ok with that. Why? Because whether I ever pay a simple electricity bill with my author royalties or not, I am living my dream simply by writing. I knew that I had found success after the first person told me that my writing was good. How many people sit behind a computer wanting to tell their story, but never do? I was lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity and am forever grateful for it.

But how exactly is a writer supposed to make money when the current cultural conditions we live in demand everything for free? As writers, the current generation of people that we target to find our audience can be challenging and frustrating at times. There is a self-imposed sense of entitlement out there, which has become the largest obstacle for a writer to hurdle. I know that I personally want to create compelling content that would allow me to entertain while delivering a paycheck, but how can I do that when I’m marketing to tech-savvy users constantly searching for a window to find what they want for free? I believe the answer to that question to be simple: Differentiate your content.

If being an iPhone user has taught me anything, it’s that people will always prefer to obtain things they want for free, but there is an amount that they are willing to pay without a second thought: 99 cents. Need proof? Did you know that in the first five days of release, the latest edition of Angry Birds, Rio, had already been purchased ten million times? Allow me to say that one more time… TEN MILLION TIMES! Again, citing my accepted limitation in the way of mathematics, even I can figure out that equation. But what does it mean? It means that these tech-savvy users out there are happily investing small out-of-pocket amounts for things that they may or may not love, but are willing to take a shot. That, my friends, is the audience of a writer’s dreams. When I see eBooks going for upwards of $7.99, I think to myself, “that’s a pretty good deal for such hard work.” And it is. However, at such a high price point, I can’t help but wonder how many potential readers will never give it a shot. Would Angry Birds be as popular for $7.99? My gut tells me that it could still command that price point and generate sales, but the amount of downloads would diminish significantly. I believe the key to success for the independent writer, such as myself, will be volume of sales over asking price. This calculation is what led me to put a 99 cent price tag on Noble, and while it’s not setting the world on fire currently, in just the short time it’s been at 99 cents, I’ve already exceeded my previous 2011 sales figures from Q1. Not bad.

So in getting back to my earlier point, “differentiate your content,” I think the answer to whether or not to write for free is… both. In today’s ever-changing technology, an audience has never felt closer to the people they admire than they do today. The invention of Twitter and Facebook has brought the ability to interact with celebrity to the masses and they are responding in kind. Not a day goes by where I am not amazed at the type of content that is given away for free on my Twitter feed. Take Family Guy creator, Seth MacFarlane, for example. In addition to coming up with jokes and gags for three different television programs, Seth is never without humorous tweets. He offers obscure bits of randomness, answers questions from his fans, and takes the time to promote articles that interest him from around the web. If you’re a fan, you’re getting exclusive access to the mind of Seth MacFarlane all for free. Why? Because you’re already watching his shows, buying his DVDs, and wearing his t-shirts. You’re already supporting him in ways that have made his life comfortable and he’s providing you with an outlet that is both entertaining and free. He’s able to do this by differentiating his content. You won’t find recycled Family Guy jokes on his Twitter feed. You’ll only find fresh new content at the cost of your time, not your wallet. By doing this, his fans feel more justified in supporting his craft monetarily because they get access to so much more than his DVDs. As I learn from this tactic, I think about how people might perceive my craft. They can buy my books to engage in my created stories, but they also have free access to this blog and my Twitter feed if they so choose. My point being, the 99 cents spent on one of my books helps me to keep going, while in return, I’ll continue to offer up fresh content for free amongst the social media circuit. I could be delusional, but I see the relationship as an ebb and flow. A give and take.

To free, or not to free…? I say you can have the best of both worlds. Stay true to your craft and make certain that your audience never feels ripped off. If you can find that balance, there’s no reason you should ever have to abandon compensation in exchange for your dream. Only the select 2% of us are going to “make it” anyway, so don’t try. It’ll only drive you batty. But don’t you ever give up!