Eleven Questions for: Axel Blackwell

TWW
Timeless love.
Brutal cruelty.
An impossible decision.
So, The Timeweaver’s Wager, you guys. This book. People talk about page turners all the time, but this sort of redefines the term. It’s also dark and lovely and haunting and will stay with you long after you put it down. Do yourself a favor, and check it out. But do not open it until you have time to read it, because you will be really mean to anyone who makes you close it to do other stuff.
I was lucky enough to convince author Axel Blackwell to answer eleven questions about The Timeweaver’s Wager, writing, publishing, and life in general.

Q:
The Timeweaver’s Wager is the very definition of “couldn’t put it down.” Pacing is something a lot of writers struggle with. What’s your best tip for keeping the reader turning pages?
A:
If it’s boring, skip it. That’s what the readers are going to do, anyway. Save them the trouble. Both of my novels had a huge brick of text about halfway through—long boring explanations of backstory. This information was necessary to move the plot forward, but it sucked. In both cases, I slashed about half the scene, then broke up the rest by interrupting with current events or using other devices to keep the reader interested while I slipped the backstory in. It’s kinda like hiding your dog’s meds in a wad of ground beef.

Q:
You are being sent to live in the fictional world of your choice for one year. Upon your return, you may bring one thing back with you from that world. Where do you go, and what do you bring back?
A:
I’d probably go wherever they have dragons and bring one of those back. If you have a dragon you can pretty much get anything else you want.

Q:
Your books can get pretty dark at times. Have you ever scared yourself while writing a scene?
A:
When I was 19, I actually stopped writing (for several years) because I upset myself. The story was about an introvert who finally finds love. Unbeknownst to our MC, his other personality was very jealous, so he takes his girl on a moonlit walk through fresh snowfall at his mountain cabin—then chops off her foot and leaves her to die. It all made this horribly beautiful picture when I thought it up—the white snow, her white skin, the silver moon and a bright red blood trail to add a splash of color. But once I had created her character and his character, I couldn’t bear to do that to them. Fortunately, I have matured since then.

Q:
Planner or pantser?
A:
I have always been a pantser. Half the fun is finding out what happens next. When I sat down to write my previous novel, Sisters of Sorrow, all I knew was that Anna was hiding under a beached rowboat while the world was exploding around her, and something on the island wanted her parts. I had no idea, whatsoever, what the rest of the book was about, and no other characters in mind. However, The Timeweaver’s Wager is a rewrite of a story I first wrote in 2006 or 2007. The original, which was only about 12,000 words, acted as an outline for the final version. I was impressed with how much faster and easier the process went when I had a map to follow. So I am planning on experimenting with outlining my next project.

Q:
Fill in the blank: I cannot write a book without _____.
A:
Coffee. A good playlist helps, too.

Q:
Indie vs. trad is always a lively debate. What advice would you give writers who are just looking into publishing for the first time?
A:
I would advise them to ask someone who knows more about it than I. Seriously. There is an unbelievable amount of information available in various forums and online groups. And I would tell them none of that information will do them much good until they have written and published wrong a few times. There is so much to learn, and things change so quickly, OTJ training is probably the only way to get the hang of this gig.

As far as indie vs. trad, if you are just starting out I would say the traditional publishing route is a good idea IF you are willing to wait years for your first book to be published, willing to accept a pittance for your years of hard work and waiting, and willing to accept the high likelihood that your book will never be presented to a single reader, even if it is an excellent piece of work. But that’s just my opinion for beginners. If you make it big and the trads come knocking on your door, it might be worth your time to talk to them then.

Q:
Without getting into spoiler territory, if you were to sit down with Glen at those railroad tracks at the opening of The Timeweaver’s Wager, what would you say to him?
A:
“Just eat the damn casserole.”

Okay, I’d probably say a bit more, but Glen was on a good path. He was putting his life back together. He had realized that his grief had gone from serving Connie to serving himself, and he had come to the point of decision. Most of the time, tragedy in the past cannot be repaired. One must learn to accept life on the terms it presents. Glen was just on the cusp of doing this, which is why the Timeweaver’s wager is really a dilemma for him. I guess if I had any words for Glen in the opening chapter they would be, “Hang in there, buddy. This is gonna suck. Big time. But you’ll be glad you did it.”

Q:
Which of your own characters would you have dinner with, and why?
A:
I’d have to say Alan. That guy is just a joy to be around, makes you feel good about yourself, laughs at all your jokes, and somehow, no matter what life throws at him, he always seems to come out on top. Also, he’d probably spring for dinner at a much nicer restaurant than I could afford. I’ll just have to remember not to ask him about his past.

Q:
The Timeweaver’s Wager is a very different book from Sisters of Sorrow, but at their core they have some things in common. What would you say draws you most to a story? What kinds of stories are you most interested in telling?
A:
The world is full of darkness. It is dangerous and it is scary and if you encounter the darkness you will be permanently changed. Violence and disorder are the default setting for the human race. The artificial safety bubble we are born into is fragile as frost. But with sufficient courage and love and the proper application of force a hero can repel the darkness. The life that acknowledges and confronts this truth is much more vibrant than one built on ignorance and wishful thinking. Kinda like how the blacker the black on your LCD TV, the more brilliant the colors. I love stories in which innocence and evil come face to face, in which the heroes struggle to the very last ounce of their existence in defense of innocence, in which—live or die—the hero knows they did not capitulate or concede to the darkness.

Q:
Who are your biggest creative influences?
A:
My biggest influence, by far, is Stephen King, which I guess makes me a bit of a plebe, but the dude is popular for a reason. He is a master of his craft and he understands people—which is critical if one intends to invent people and direct their activities. I am also a big fan of Dean Koontz. My early influences were Bradbury and Lovecraft.

Q:
Best writing snack?
A:
Right now I’m really into Costco muffins. They are necessary to soak up all the coffee I drink. I also like Costco trail mix. But I pick out the almonds—one of the little ways I confront and repel the darkness.


If you’re an indie author and you’re up for answering eleven questions, email me.

Crook and candy

Crook of the Dead
Look at that spooky cover, just in time for Halloween!

Lydia Trinket is all adventured out for the time being. CROOK OF THE DEAD is now available in both Kindle and paperback editions, completing the trilogy. I’ve got mixed emotions about finishing, because Lydia has been so fun to write. And I’m so appreciative of the emails from folks who’ve also found her fun to read!

As is often the case with new releases, my mailing list subscribers have been enjoying a 99¢ sale on the Kindle edition of Crook. Now that there are less than 24 hours remaining on that special price, I’m letting you fine folks in on it as well. It goes up to $3.99 on Tuesday 10/20, so don’t wait!

GHOST IN THE CANTEEN and PEAK OF THE DEVIL are celebrating Lydia’s sunset ride with Kindle Countdown deals, and are priced at 99¢ all week. It’s a great time of year to get into the series, if you haven’t already.

Speaking of a great time of year, who’s doing NaNo? I sort of am, but I’m cheating. I’m drafting a project right now and can’t sit on it until November 1, so it’ll be partly done by the time NaNo arrives, and the draft will be finished somewhere around mid-month. I may or may not use the latter half of NaNo to play around with something else, depending on how rigorous my revision looks to be.

Either way, I’ve already broken into the Halloween candy. Obviously. I’m kind of into the Three Musketeers this year, which is unusual for me. What’s your position on the best fun-sized candy bar?

Three awesome indie novels you should be reading right now

I’ve got two and a half releases this fall, so I’ve been busy, and neither posting much nor reading as much as I’d like. But I’ve been slowly creeping my way through my TBR pile, and I wanted to give a shout-out to three exceptional indie novels I’ve read over the past few months. They’re very different, so there’s something here for a wide range of tastes. Check them out!

51REmDft85L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Wrecked & Yours, by CeeCee James
Family saga/romance about three homeless teens, the things that drove them apart, and what brings them back together.

Already known for her gripping memoirs, this is CeeCee James’s first novel, and at $2.99, it’s a steal. James’s writing is lovely, and I defy you not to shed a tear for these well-drawn characters. But don’t worry, those teary moments are deftly balanced with terrific dialogue and moments of humor. This story has the depth to deal with weighty issues, yet never feels heavy to read.

 


 

51+i+5vN5DL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_

Insylum, by Z. Rider
Horror tale of two buddies taking one last thrill ride before one ships off to Afghanistan, into the Hotel California of haunted attractions.

For those who like their touching stories about the power of friendship to be a little, you know, bloodier. And sometimes maggotier. I became a Z. Rider fan when I read Suckers, so my expectations were high, and Insylum did not let me down. I’ll warn you though, this book is graphic and not for the faint of heart. Z. Rider knows what scares you, and is not afraid to use it.

 


 

51NMivVa83L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Sisters of Sorrow, by Axel Blackwell
YA dark fantasy full of suspense and mystery, about teens abandoned in a world of sinister secrets, monsters, witches, and evil nuns.

Don’t let the YA tag fool you, this story is gripping at any age. From edge-of-your seat action to beautifully rendered description to engaging, likable, but appropriately flawed characters (Anna is not your average YA Mary Sue), it has it all and then some. The only downside is you might feel a little guilty for how much fun you have being drawn into such a creepy world. Make sure you don’t start it until you have time to finish it.
 


 

When it’s okay to tread old ground

Spoilers for the movie Sinister.

Sinister was on Syfy last night. Funny, the first time I watched it I remember I didn’t find it as scary as everyone said it was. Probably because it was predictable. You knew exactly where this movie was going, and it was frustrating that Ethan Hawke and Deputy Dawg took so long to figure it out. Have they never watched a horror movie before? Because there was nothing new here.

Snuff films: done. The concept that watching the terror on film/video will draw you in and make you part of the terror: done. Shaky, faux-home movie camera work: done. Family moving into a house where another family was slaughtered: done. One parent putting the family in jeopardy while trying to hide it from the other parent: done. Mysterious monster guys with weird white faces: done. Serial killers: done. Footsteps in the attic: done. Ghostly figures walking where the audience can see them, but the protagonist can’t: done. Lots of dark rooms with one light at the edge of the shot: done. Creepy children: really done. Relentless use of jump scares: do we even need to talk about this one?

Honestly, all we’re missing here is a van full of teenagers getting picked off one by one. The only place I’d expect to see this many horror tropes in one place is in a spoof. Which Sinister is not.

But I already knew all that last night when I watched it the second time. I wasn’t looking for anything fresh or new, so I just, you know, watched it. For what it was. And damn if I wasn’t scared. I began to see what all the hype was about, back when it first came out. That is a seriously scary movie, if you let it be.

Because the jump scares, while expected, still made me jump. They were really good jump scares. The creepy children? Some of the creepiest ever. Snuff films? Whole new level. The gore was done right, used frequently enough to be disturbing, but not so frequently as to desensitize the audience to it. The monster guy was monstery enough without being so over-the-top that you just kind of wanted to laugh at him. And the home movie footage did not make me nauseous, which is a huge plus. (Film makers, would you please stop making me feel carsick with that jumpyass camera work? It’s not scary, just annoying.)

A reminder, I guess, that as much as we like to throw around phrases like “a fresh spin on…,” it’s not always necessary for your spin to be fresh. As long as your spin is good.

Suckers

So here is the blurb for Suckers, by Z. Rider:

When worn-out musician Dan Ferry decides to take a shortcut back to the band’s hotel, he picks the wrong dark alley to go down. Within days of being attacked by a bat-like creature, he becomes consumed with the need to drink human blood.

Terrified of what will happen if he doesn’t get his fix–and terrified of what he’ll do to get it–he turns to his best friend and bandmate, Ray Ford, for help. But what the two don’t know as they try to keep Dan’s situation quiet is that the parasite driving Dan’s addiction has the potential to wipe out humankind.

You’ll note two key phrases there: need to drink blood and potential to wipe out humankind. That tells me it’s a vampire apocalypse novel. It takes serious balls to release a vampire apocalypse novel. The only way to write to a more saturated market would be to throw in some zombies. It’s a major challenge, and not for the faint of pen, to pull this off. Justin Cronin pulled it off. Z. Rider does, too.

I mention Cronin because sometimes Rider reminds me of him. Sometimes of Stephen King. Those are both big compliments in my world. But more importantly, she mostly doesn’t remind me of anyone. She owns this story. This story, despite having all the elements a horror story requires, is not one you’ve read before.

The bulk of the credit for that goes to the characters. Dan and Ray are interesting as individuals, but they’re even more interesting when taken together. Their relationship is a big part of the pull that keeps you turning pages when you should be doing laundry. As it’s burdened by greater and greater challenges, you want to know how much it can take. And you root for it not to fall apart.

This is a story about friendship, addiction, and then horrifying blood sucking gore. Don’t get me wrong, the horrifying blood sucking gore is quite horrifying. But it takes all three to make it work. This works very, very well.

And extra points for the mention of coffee regular. It’s been many years since I left New England, but that took me right back to my old morning commute. I don’t especially miss Boston. (Boston is great, but you know. We have sunshine and shrimp & grits here.) I don’t especially miss coffee. But I totally miss that delicious marble cruller. And also the years when eating a delicious marble cruller every day would have zero effect on my weight. Ah, youth.

And the point of that little aside is: it’s a great skill to take one detail like that and use it to evoke a setting so well. This is just good, solid writing.

Go read it.

My newsletter subscribers are more awesome than you

Because they got to read the first chapter of book two in the Lydia Trinket series, Peak of the Devil, last week. Now you can read it here and be awesome too. (Warning! Contains adult language. Reader discretion is advised.)

The Kindle edition of Peak of the Devil will be 99¢—that’s 75% off regular price—April 28-30 only. All editions, including print, will be widely available at major online retailers the last week in April.

Newsletter subscribers will get a release announcement, so you can both safeguard your awesomeness and make sure you don’t miss the sale by joining my mailing list.

And don’t forget that all eBook editions of Ghost in the Canteen have been permanently priced at 99¢, so as to be sure there are no barriers to entry into the series. If you aren’t awesome, I’m afraid you have nobody to blame but yourself.

And I think that’s about all the shameless self promotion we’ll be having around here, until I’ve got the cover to show you all.

Search terms: you ask, I answer

This is one of my favorite games to play on my other blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever done it here. I feel it’s only polite to try to help those who visit me seeking something specific. Luckily, WordPress can tell me what they were looking for.

real dornish peppers: It would have been better for you to hear this from a loved one, but I’m afraid there’s not a real Dorne. I imagine you could substitute any of several varieties of chili?

things that are not scary: Macaroons. Napkins. Toothpaste. The Blair Witch Project.

sansa loves lemon cakes: Yep.

jen rasmussen hawaii nude: Not that I recall.

richard armitage butt: Seriously, four of you in the last thirty days? I am not the proper resource for this. Meaning no offense to Mr. Armitage, there aren’t very many people whose butts I care to know stuff about.

american horror story briefly topics: Ghosts, aliens, medical experiments gone awry, odd explanations for the Black Dahlia, creepy clowns, creepy nuns, creepy war criminals, completely uncreepy and nonsensical witches, serial killers, and ladies who want babies. Not in that order.

info on murder of jen rasmussen: I imagine I’d be the last to know.

we found a witch may we burn her: How do you know she’s a witch?

jen scary thing: Not generally. Maybe if that Hawaii thing was true.

where do you send for letter to cary fukunaga: I can’t help with this, but if you write to him, tell him I loved his Jane Eyre!

four and tris with supernatural powers: I agree this would be cool.

excessive planning: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS.

i would always rather be happy than dignified: Jane and I both approve.

mr rochester x reader lemon: This is almost certainly code for something, but as I’m not a Cold War spy, I don’t know what. Perhaps my commenters can offer suggestions, if it wouldn’t blow their cover.

O Hai!

My apologies for my lack of attention to your blogs and such. I’m trying to catch up. I’ve been in and out of it, and I’m not going to whine too much, but man, the flu is BAD this year, peeps. It’s a lot like World of Warcraft, actually. Just when you think you’ve put it behind you for good, it sucks you back under.

As a result of my hermitizing (sure it’s a word) I haven’t even seen the last Hobbit movie yet. DON’T TELL ME. But I’ll be reviewing it here once I do.

I have been reading, but I never did finish Revival. I’m sure I will at some point. I like curling up with a good historical love story in the winter time, although I shy away from the erotica end of things, and that is all the rage in romance these days. I’ve read the first couple of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series, and it’s pretty darn graphic, but enjoyable nonetheless because it’s a cool period and I like her weaving in of the gin trade in London. It adds meat to the story, but isn’t so preachy that I have to roll my eyes and go read something else. The books aren’t entirely historically accurate, but what historical romance is? At least these heroines are products of their time and conflicted about sex, which is a dimension I like.

I keep trying, and failing, to finish the second Outlander book too. I guess I’m showing a lack of commitment these days, but what can I say? Too many books, not enough time. Even the likes of Stephen King and Diana Gabaldon have to stay sharp and keep me interested, because I have so many other choices to move on to if they don’t.

Exception: George Martin, you don’t have to be sharp or interesting. Seriously, I promise, it’s okay. Just send them the draft. We don’t mind. Statistically speaking, I’m past the halfway point in my life now, and I need to know who Jon Snow’s mother is before I die.

Actually I take that back. You can take your time, George. If you don’t tell me soon, HBO will. But is that really how you want me to find out?

Astute readers will note that the cover for Ghost in the Canteen has changed. (Yes again, but only once since publication, so that makes it okay.) The change is populating around all the many nooks and crannies of Amazon and the interwebs that book covers live in, so it may be inconsistent for a bit. (For example, the Amazon widget in my sidebar is still showing the old one as of this writing.)

While working on the cover for Peak of the Devil, we decided on a slight change to the look and feel for the series as a whole. One of the challenges with dark snark is that it’s by nature contradictory. Conveying that it’s bloody and scary but in a totally funny way can be difficult, but I think the new look strikes that balance better.

Peak is moving along on schedule for a release the last week of April or first week in May. After that the remaining three books in the series will be coming along faster, three to four months apart.

Nonetheless, I want HBO to know that if they’d like to offer up some spoilers by buying the television rights and producing it faster than I do, that’s totally okay.

Pie, Revival, and telling me my butt looks fat

Finally coming up for air after all the holiday festivities. I hope all my American peeps had a great Thanksgiving! Do you still have pie? I still have exactly one piece of pie, which I’m strongly considering having for breakfast. But that’s just because I made my mom make another pie right before she left. Was that mean? Otherwise I’d have been out, despite having a 2:1 person:pie ratio at the table last Thursday.

Thanksgiving was late this year, which means if you celebrate Christmas and left it until after like I did, you’re already behind on your holiday shopping. Luckily for you, Kindle books are so easy to buy and give, and Ghost in the Canteen is just 99 cents all week long!

Speaking of which, I’m not that author who lets her mom write a review. Or her sister, or her best friend, or even her beagle. I do know some of the people who’ve left reviews so far, but they’re real people who’ve really read the book. (Or at least I’m pretty sure they’re real, although I’ve only ever met them online.) And they are not those people in your life who would hesitate to tell you your butt looks fat, you know? The upside is that I know, and you can rest assured, that my reviews are legitimate and honest.

The downside? I don’t have enough reviews. So if you’ve read Ghost and enjoyed it, please consider leaving an honest reader review on Amazon.

My own honest reader review, thus far, of Stephen King’s Revival is this: Revival is on my Kindle. The new WoW expansion is on my PC. In my scant bit of unwinding time before I go to bed each night, I look from one to the other. And I choose WoW pretty much every time.

I’d say I can’t remember the last time I was this unengaged in a King book, but I can: it was the last one, Mr. Mercedes, which was, if it can be believed, even worse than The Tommyknockers. So a bad streak here. Revival is better written than Mr. Mercedes, and the characters are interesting, but maybe I’m just not clicking with it. I’m about 35% in and it just lacks momentum. There’s nothing keeping me coming back. If it was almost anyone else’s book, I’d have put it down by now. But since it’s King I’ll probably tough it out. It is creating a backlog in my TBR pile, though.

So that’s my update. I KNOW YOU WANTED AN UPDATE. You can go back to stimulating the economy now.

Did we learn nothing from Pennywise?

This post contains spoilers for Stephen King’s It and last week’s American Horror Story, but not this week’s, because I haven’t watched it yet. I don’t mind if you spoil it when making comments, though.

American Horror Story has made me sad. They had such a great thing going with that clown. But they ruined it. No no, not by killing him. I mean, I’m kind of bummed about that too, because it’s too early in the season to lose their best feature, but I could have handled that.

But first they had to give him an origin story, and that’s where it all went wrong. Horror rule, you guys: leave the clown alone. Resist the urge to mess with the clown.

Do you remember when you read It, and Pennywise was just the most terrifying thing? And then the makeup came off and it was just, like, a big bug? That was such a letdown. The only thing that kept it from ruining the book was that the rest of it was so damned scary that you could forgive even that big a flaw. American Horror Story just made the same mistake, and they haven’t got Stephen King’s skill to talk their way out of it. (Don’t feel bad, Ryan Murphy and friends. Nobody does.)

Because you have two kinds of villains: villains who are uncomfortably like the rest of us, and monsters. The former are relatable, and that makes them both scary and tragic. You might hate them, but you get it, how they became what they did, the things that make us crack, the darkness within all of us. Nobody likes to look too long into that darkness, and these villains work because somewhere in the back of your mind you’re afraid that, given the same circumstances, that could be you.

These are good candidates for origin stories and mask removal. We need to know their motivations and we need to understand them. They need character arcs of their own. They don’t work otherwise, and they come off flat.

But monsters work the opposite way. They must be mysterious. The source of their terror is their otherness, their inhumanity, the sense of something bigger and badder than any of us. It’s great for them to be disguised as something familiar, especially if it’s something related to childhood, like a clown or a doll. That only adds to the effect. But you must make me imagine something awful under there without ever, under any circumstances, showing it to me. Take off the mask and give me a big spider, or a sad man who hasn’t got the capacity to judge the right or wrong of his actions, and you’ve just replaced the mystique with something I can deal with, even something mundane. The trick to the monster is understanding that you can’t scare someone better than they can scare themselves.

Where American Horror Story went wrong is that they started with a monster and then at the last second tried to swap it for the human kind of villain. Once you’ve put someone in a clown suit, he is not that kind of villain. He is unequivocally a monster, and there’s nothing you can show me under his makeup that will be scarier than him with it on.

Okay, fine, maybe they didn’t want him to be scary anymore. But why not? Why ruin all that terror momentum they had going, just on the off chance that they could use a few minutes before they killed him off, after we’ve been watching a monster for weeks, to make us see a sad man instead, and feel sorry for him?

There’s no point to that, and also, it didn’t work. The origin story wasn’t interesting or good. And going for the cheap gross-out with that jaw? Totally ruined a perfectly good evil clown. It’s like Pennywise all over again.

Just leave the clown alone.

Props for getting Wes Bentley though, AHS.