Six Important Lessons from SF Author Blogs

I wanted to comment on a couple of SF author blogs that I have had toward the top of my feed reader for a couple of years now. When it comes to online reading, my viewing habits often change, but these two authors have survived the maelstrom of feeds that have entered and exited my Pulse catalog.

18461683John Scalzi – Whatever

There are a few key points that I believe make Scalzi’s blog a success and joy to read.

  1. He posts with regularity. Scalzi typically posts once per day and there is rarely a long period where content isn’t updated on his blog. You know what to expect and when to expect it.
  2. He encourages discussion through the comments. It is quite common that a given post will get over 100 comments. A recent post where he said nothing more than he was off for the day still received a handful of comments. The posts are often left open ended and Scalzi will often comment in the thread as well. This creates an interaction between the author and fans, making him approachable and creating a fan community.
  3. He pays it forward. Scalzi has a regular feature on his blog called “The Big Idea,” which spotlights an author that may be under-read within the community. Given that his blog receives up to 50,000 hits a day, this is a big boost for up and coming authors
  4. He adds flavor to the blog through his hobby. Scalzi regularly posts photographs on his blog. This added dimension attracts others who share in this very common hobby — especially among creative types. From sunsets to vacations, readers get a glimpse into Scalzi’s world, while appreciating the aesthetic quality of his art.

17817631Chuck Wendig — Terrible Minds

Like Scalzi, Wendig has become sort of a social media maven. He absolutely nails it on his blog, but for an entirely different set of reasons that I feel are worth mentioning.

  1. His theme is not about him. Chuck Wendig blogs about the craft of writing. While fans of his writing are also likely consumers of his posts, Wendig’s real audience is writers. I think the tendency for authors is to blog about themselves. But what they forget is that not many people care. The reader cares for number one and Wendig has something to offer.
  2. His voice bleeds through the f***ing screen. I admit that I blushed a little bit when writing this bullet point and blush a little more when I read his blog. Wendig is not afraid of four letter words and manages to use his crassness with a sense of style that so many fail at. But his voice is consistent, unapologetic, and conjures up strong imagery that is indicative of his fiction. The voice he uses on his blog will certainly steer people to his novels. It just may have to be done after work time.

In addition to these points, Wendig does several of the things on his blog that Scalzi does well:

    • He posts to his blog every weekday.
    • He encourages discussion through his flash fiction challenges and through comments on his posts.
    • He pays it forward by doing a series called Ten Questions, which uses a template to ask authors about how they employed their craft to create a book or product.

I think that many SF authors and fans would benefit by paying attention to what John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig do so well. With regularity and consistency, they continue to meet and exceed their audience’s expectations, delivering great content for free, while steering readers toward their fiction without coming across as used-car salesmen. Nobody tunes to a blog for the advertisements and these blogs offer a product that delights the customer.

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Review of The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig

16071824Title: The Blue Blazes

Author: Chuck Wendig

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Angry Robot

Review:

In the midst of Chuck Wendig’s successful Miriam Black series comes a new series. The first entry, The Blue Blazes, features an equally tough protagonist by the name of Mookie Pearl. He was a mine worker who eventually worked his way to the top of The Organization, a conglomerate of New York’s nastiest street gangs. Beneath the city is an underworld filled with monsters that long to stretch their dominion. There are goblins, ghost, golems, giant cankerworms and these strange shadowy figures that envelop their prey in the folds of their invisible wings. These creatures are invisible to the naked eye — that is unless one is doped up on the underworld powdered drug known as blue blazes.

Mookie’s role is simple — he takes care of business. Whether it’s fighting a pack of goblins (gobbos) or tracking down derelict members of one of the street gangs, he uses his brute strength and street-fighting sensibility to maintain order. The man is impenetrable aside from his one Achilles’ heel — his love for his daughter, Nora.

The word on the street is that Nora’s been spreading information that The Organization’s boss has come down with cancer. His only heir is his grandson, who by most accounts appears unfit to take the helm. These rumors incite disorder among the ranks and Mookie (whose fatherhood of Nora remains secret) must confront her before she winds up dead.

The situation for Nora escalates even further after she is caught on video committing a terrible crime and Mookie finds his loyalty at odds. He wants to save Nora while maintaining loyalty to The Organization, but the task seems impossible. Unless she is innocent.

A rumored drug called red rage holds the key to their survival and Mookie is willing to plunge into the depths of the underworld to get it. Upon his return, he finds that the above world is even less friendly. Suddenly, the entire fate of New York City rests on his shoulders.

Let me state the obvious here before I review the story — the cover art is amazing! Joey Hi-Fi does fantastic artwork for both Lauren Beukes and Chuck Wendig and it keeps getting better with every novel. It is simple at first glance, yet has so much detail and depth that ties into the novel. It probably deserves a review of its own.

As for the novel, Wendig has proven himself to be a reliable and prolific author. What I expect in picking up a Wendig novel is a tough, street-wise, smart ass protagonist with a hard shell and a soft spot inside. I expect punchy dialog, snappy prose, and a gritty narrative voice. With The Blue Blazes you get everything you expect and hope for out of Wendig.

In addition to being an urban fantasy, The Blue Blazes has elements of noir and mystery, with Mookie playing a dual role of an action hero and a pulp detective. His character is strong, but unlike Miriam Black, he isn’t what sticks with you after finishing the novel. For me, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its milieu. Many of the classic monsters from the tabletop RPG’s of yore hide in the mines, sewers and deep caverns below the city. We have been beat over the head with zombies and werewolves and vampires and here comes Wendig with a rich, fantastical world full of fresh, but recognizable monsters to battle. I loved the primitive weapons the gobbos used in fighting (e.g. a fanged, baby goblin strapped to the end of a stick) and the rock golems provide an uncanny twist to the world.

My criticisms of the novel are really quite minor and almost not worth mentioning. I did feel at times that the multiple points of view were a little jarring and it took me awhile to understand the true relationship of Mookie with his daughter and ex-wife. But criticisms aside, you won’t go wrong with this novel. It is inventive, edgy, and a joy to read. There are so many possibilities for the series in the future. The underworld drugs play a vital role in the plot development, turning mere men into superheroes and there are a rainbow of drugs to be discovered in subsequent novels. I also suspect that in the deeper crevices of the underworld we will find even greater foes beyond our wildest imaginations. If you haven’t read Chuck Wendig before, it’s time you get yourself acquainted. Feel free to start with this novel — with good characters, a fascinating world, and a satisfying plot, you can’t go wrong.

Review: Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

MockingbirdTitle: Mockingbird

Author: Chuck Wendig

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Audio (purchased from Audible.com)

I had a rather tepid review of the first Miriam Black novel, Blackbirds. The book had its issues — an overuse of crassness for the sake of shock value and some inconsistencies, I felt, in Miriam’s abilities at changing the future. But in my review, I was dead wrong when I said that Blackbirds was not a “particularly memorable read.” Here I was, months later, wanting to give the series another shot. Not so much for the plot, but for the character of Miriam Black. She is absolutely unforgettable.

You see, Miriam isn’t a run-of-the-mill, cardboard cutout protagonist. She’s edgy. She’s cool. She lives in the cracks of society where most of us don’t dare to venture. Oh, yeah — she has this unique ability to tell how and when a person is going to die after touching their skin.

In the first novel she was single — a drifter with ever-changing hair and a real hard attitude toward the world. In Mockingbird, she is trying to live a more stable life. Her hair is back to its natural chestnut and she has a place of residence (albeit a trailer on the Jersey shore). In fact, she even has a job working as a cashier, scanning items with her gloved hands in an effort to suppress her gift.

As one can expect, Miriam’s stable life doesn’t last long. It’s just not her and after a run-in with her boss, she takes off her gloves (literally) and goes after her. Through this confrontation, she sees that a killer is about to go on a shooting spree and she steps into her newfound role as heroine. A gritty and scrappy, take-no-prisoners heroine, that is.

Miriam later becomes acquainted with a hypochondriac teacher named Katie at a troubled girls school who wants to know if she is about to die. To Miriam’s surprise, Katie is about to die — of pancreatic cancer of all things. The teacher’s death is but a blip of what is going to happen at this school. Miriam accidentally reads the death of one of the school’s students and learns that a serial killer is loose and this girl will be one of his victims. With the help of her one-eyed trucker boyfriend, Louis, Miriam embarks on a journey to save this girl and rid the world of a terrible monster.

In the first novel, Miriam comes to grips with her hard, loveless attitude toward pretty much everything. She uses her gift for good rather than her selfish devises (originally believing that events are controlled solely through fate). In the second novel, she understands that in rare circumstances, she can circumvent fate’s hold. But it is hard work and rather than embrace her gift, she tries to conform to society. Whether or not to use her gifts is the first bit of complexity in her character.

She also fights her internal feelings of self-inadequacy, preferring to leave Louis for his own good, rather than dragging him down to the low depths of her morality. She was once uncaring for anyone, but now is willing to form friendships even when it leads to future hardships. Throughout the novel, Miriam reluctantly forms relationships, even with the foreknowledge that it will cause pain in the end.

Mockingbird reads like a superhero novel in that she has supernatural abilities and acts as a vigilante to stop an archnemesis. Her archnemesis, who is unknown throughout much of the book, also has a certain ability that makes Miriam aware that she is not alone in the world. Some might even consider her heroics a mission of revenge, bearing many similarities to the comic book and movie hero, Eric, from The Crow.

The biggest question that remains with me is when can Miriam change fate? After reading two novels, it seems that she can only change fate when the reader has an emotional stake in a person’s death. While this is convenient in plot development, I would really like for Miriam to understand her gift a little bit better (note: see comments for what I oversaw in the novel — spoiler warning) 

There are some unanswered questions that still remain (in a good way) — are there supernatural forces outside of her that are giving her and Louis visions or is it all inside her head? Does she have telepathic abilities to communicate?

After a hesitant start to the series, I will be reading future Miriam Black novels, hoping that Mr. Wendig will continue to push deeper into Miriam’s psyche and abilities — explore who she is on a deeper level and not hold back as she tries to distance herself from those around her. Good improvement in this novel and if you liked the first one, you will definitely like the second.

Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Title: Blackbirds

Author: Chuck Wendig

Rating: 

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Kindle eBook

Review:

Take a broken, drifting female protagonist — a bit misguided, but tough as nails. Maybe you compare her to Lisbeth Salander (you know, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy), but instead of having a hacker-level of tech savviness, she has an ability much like Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone — she can foresee the cause and time of death of everyone she encounters. Throw in some punk frat boys, a gentle giant trucker, a con man and some of the vilest, sadistic people you have ever come across and you have the cast of Blackbirds.

Before I give my thoughts on the book, I think it is necessary that I give a bit of a warning. This book is crass. I’m not talking about several four-letter words being used here and there. This book taught me words that I would have been much happier never knowing the definition (e.g. blumpy). The experiencing of reading Blackbirds is akin to watching the torture porn as seen in the Saw franchise. My comment is more of a warning than a judgment, so let’s begin the review.

Miriam Black is a twenty-something woman with the unique ability to see how and when a person dies whenever she comes into contact with them. Because of past events, she sees this as more of a curse than a blessing. We don’t really come to terms with how she gained this ability, but we learn that it isn’t something she was born with.

She is somewhat of an antihero throughout the first half of the novel. She wanders somewhat aimlessly, stealing money from people whose death she foresaw in previous encounters. When a large, benevolent trucker helps her out during an altercation along the roadside, she is changed. She sees that she is responsible for his death and makes it her personal mission to make sure that it doesn’t happen.

Chuck Wendig’s talent in this novel lies mainly in the narrative voice. The novel is primarily (though not exclusively) told through Miriam’s viewpoint. Her vile thoughts are almost masculine in nature, often drifting to excrement and genitalia, but she is spunky and resourceful — someone the reader can cheer for. There is a trend in fiction for gritty characters and Miriam epitomizes this character trait. She’s cynical and filled with angst, but inside there is a dim light that wants to overcome her internal darkness.

Much of the novel deals with Miriam’s interactions with the various people she meets. We are told the death stories of dozens of characters (some of which leave little to the imagination) and each of these encounters has a burdening effect on Miriam. She grows distant, accepting fate for what it appears to be.

Blackbirds is not the first novel to tackle fate versus free-will, but to be honest, I really don’t tire of the subject. The whole novel hinges on her ability to change the future, which experience has taught her is an impossible task. She has already come to terms with this fact, which makes her keep her distance from others — not wanting to be the cause of anyone’s death (our first glimpse of good in her).

The pacing is quick and the novel is short, making it quite easy for me to finish it in a day. The book is much like what you’d find in an old Stephen King novel, which for me brings back many memories. I enjoyed reading the story, cringed in several places and the ending left me somewhat satisfied. Aside from the vulgarity, I would not call Blackbirds a particularly memorable read, but it was a good book to pick up after making my way through some 600-page marathons as of late. For those who want to read a dark, gritty supernatural thriller (and have the stomach for the vile), Blackbirds is a fast and exciting read.