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.

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.

Everyone hail to the pumpkin song

Eleven things for Halloween:

1. The post title, of course, comes from the song “This is Halloween” in A Nightmare Before Christmas. This was the correct answer to the October poll asking for the best Halloween movie. Fifty percent of you got it right.

2. The other half of you chose It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which is certainly a good one. But you’re still doing Halloween wrong if you don’t know Jack Skellington is the pumpkin king.

3. Nobody chose either Halloween or Night of the Living Dead. I was especially surprised that Michael Myers did not garner a single vote, although I quite agree with you. (By the way, there is no November poll because mah book is being released next week and will be occupying the sidebar space where the poll normally sits. But I’m sure we can all agree that the best Thanksgiving pie is cherry anyway. Shut up with your pumpkin.)

4. ahsclownAmerican Horror Story, which was maybe the least scary thing on TV last year, is the scariest it’s been since Season 1 this year, and maybe even scarier. You really can’t beat a creepy clown when it comes to scares, and John Carroll Lynch is giving us the creepiest one since Tim Curry played Pennywise.

5. The adaptation of It in which Tim Curry played Pennywise was not scary, despite Curry doing a fantastic job. The production values were… not high. So there’s no point in watching that for Halloween, but you might consider reading it, because it still wins my scariest book ever award.

6. ‘Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary are my runners up for scariest Stephen King books. His son Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 is also really scary.

7. That family hasn’t got the corner on scary, of course. The Haunting of Hill House is a classic that stands up, and Poe will always be the master. I haven’t read much lately that genuinely scared me, though. (By all means, give me your recommendations in comments.)

8. If you want a movie instead, my personal picks for scariest movies are Seven and Silence of the Lambs.

9. Last year’s The Conjuring deserves a mention too, because it brought the scary back to scary movies. We need less of that nauseating found footage nonsense, and more good old fashioned scares.

10. I’m going to say it one more time, movie people: startle does not equal scare. Don’t just make me jump and call it a day. I’m not going to have nightmares about being startled. You’ve got to disturb me.

11. My fun sized candy bar of choice this year is Almond Joy. Yours?

Shine on, Danny

Spoiler content: probably nothing you couldn’t get off the flap copy of both Doctor Sleep and The Shining

I finally got a chance to finish Doctor Sleep, the much-anticipated story of what happens after The Overlook, while I was on vacation. Here we find Danny Torrance all grown up and, surprise surprise, a drunk. We’re to blame this, it seems, partly on the shining and his need to dull it, although not so much that it’s a cop out. While dealing with his own inner demons, Danny also has to help some old people die (but only the ones the cat tells him to) and save the world’s shining children from a group of shining-sucking-vampire types led by one of the better villains Stephen King has written in a while. It’s a tall order, but luckily for him, he’s got some help besides the aforementioned cat.

King says in the author’s note that he was a bit hesitant to write a follow-up to The Shining, and I don’t blame him. Bad sequels always seem to tarnish the original, and when the original is as good as The Shining – the book, mind, not the Kubrick movie – it’s hard to justify messing with it.

For the first twenty pages I thought: maybe he should have listened to his instinct. After that I thought: wow, this might actually be better than The Shining.

It is and it isn’t. King has written dozens of books and won a National Book Award between that book and this one, and it shows. The writing is better. And it’s a more well-rounded story. Whereas the Overlook Hotel was Evil Just Because, the villains in Doctor Sleep are real, developed, honest-to-goodness characters. Mostly you hate them, sometimes you almost feel sorry for them, but all the while, you understand them.

But The Shining has a keen, unforgettable emotional resonance that this book can’t match. (In fact, the closest it comes is during the inevitable return to the site of The Overlook, and I won’t spoil that for you, but. Have tissues.) Jack Torrance – again, book-Jack, not here’s-Johnny-Kubrick-Jack – is a complicated, heartbreaking character, and his descent into madness is horrible to behold. His desperation not to let his family down, combined with the inevitability of his doing just that in gargantuan proportions, make him almost Greek in his tragic brilliance.

Dan Torrance, while also complicated, hasn’t got the same sort of struggle. No matter the mistakes he makes, no matter the occasional red-seeing, there’s never any doubt that he’s basically a nice guy. Toward the beginning of the book, he does the worst thing he’s ever done, the thing that will haunt him always (or at least for the duration of the story). Contrasting that thing with his father’s worst things makes Danny’s fear of the monster within almost laughable. He just hasn’t got the capacity for evil that Jack had, so the story hasn’t got the same heartstring-pulling, can-he-fight-it-or-can’t-he tension.

The comparisons dispensed with, Doctor Sleep is, on its own, just a straight-up good book. It’s got everything you’ve come to expect from King: compelling characters, memorable images, creepy moments, funny moments, and some really good scares. Danny’s struggles with his past (sometimes actual physical struggles) mix with the troubles of his present in ways that are satisfying and, with one possible exception, rarely feel contrived. The pacing is mostly spot-on.

I did miss the mastery of setting that you so often get from King. When you read a Derry or Castle Rock story, or ‘Salem’s Lot, or Bag of Bones, or several of his other books, where is inextricable from what and who: the story simply couldn’t happen anyplace else. Here, the setting feels like it could easily be swapped out for a dozen others without it affecting the story much. It’s the kind of thing I notice because immersion is so important to me, but overall, it’s a minor complaint. In the end, this is still just a really good yarn. Which is what you’re buying a King book for, no?

Things writers can learn from Skyrim

Video games aren’t known for their high quality storytelling. They tend to be derivative and clichéd and trope-embracing. You want to give people something familiar to work with as they jump in to play, and while you’ve got to have both story and backstory, you don’t want any of it to be particularly hard to figure out. Nobody wants to spend more of their gaming time trying to work out who Jon Snow’s mother is than actually killing stuff. Or, in the case of me and Skyrim, decorating their house, because I really only kill stuff in support of my search for a really good vase to put between the shelves in my library. Stop judging me!

But plot and characters aside, setting is where video games like Skyrim shine. Forget that it’s a story about killing dragons by scolding them really loud. That world feels real. And yeah, because graphics. But also because a lot of effort has been put into making you feel like your story isn’t even most of what’s going on in that world, let alone all there is to it.

Very few of the NPC’s in that game are nameless. They have more specific and personal things to say than “Death to all who oppose us!” when you click them. (Not that I object to “Death to all who oppose us!” I always answer my door with either that or “The reckoning is at hand!”) They have histories and petty arguments with their neighbors and quests of their own to deal with.

Same goes for every town and city. They’re not just sets you’re passing through so you can sell all the junk you’ve picked up. (Or, you know, stolen. From corpses.) They’ve got politics and threats and complicated histories. Okay, and sometimes also vampires, which annoy me as a story element, but I’m not saying the game is perfect either.

The point is, Skyrim always feels like a place that was living before you came along, is continuing to live all around you as you go through your storyline, and will keep right on living after you leave. And I wish I saw this done more often, and better, in novels. I don’t mean high fantasy – people who write high fantasy pretty much know they’ve got to create a whole world – I mean everything. Horror. Romance. Thrillers. I wish the authors of stories about accountants drinking coffee set them in meticulously constructed worlds.

Not that it’s easy. It can be very hard to toe the line between providing enough detail to make the reader feel like they’re there, and boring the stuffing out of them by spending two paragraphs describing a chair. And every reader has a different threshold. But I love reading about what they ate at the Hogwarts Halloween feast and Joffrey’s wedding feast. I love all the bits of history Tolkien scatters around. I love Derry and Castle Rock and the way Stephen King takes the time to flesh out even the most minor character, and I love everything Jasper Fforde does, ever. I love Tom Bombadil. There, I said it.

The common thread there is that I don’t want to read your book, I want to fall in. And nothing kills immersion like shrinking your world down to the size of your story.