I blog on writing tips, write book reviews, share anecdotes about military life, and point out issues that crop up frequently in editing. I'll also share guest posts and interviews with my clients. My thoughts on the similarities between writing and woodworking can be found here.

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The View From the Cheap Seats

Posted on July 7, 2016 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Book Review: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman


First, a confession: I am a fan of Neil Gaiman's storytelling, and his speeches, his proclamations on the value of art, of creativity, and of reading. And I cannot help but grin whenever I hear or read of him encouraging new artists to believe in themselves, to go for it. To make their art and to make it good. He's a beacon for all those, like me, who feel the dark times are always just one meager word of discouragement away.

I'm also eternally indebted to Mr. Gaiman for providing me an excuse to have the most amazing adventures and bizarre encounters whenever I pop off to the store for a bottle of milk. My children thank him, too.

Gaiman’s latest, a volume of selected nonfiction, is as fine an introduction to the author as any new reader could ask for. It is also, in turns, a pleasant conversation with and love letter to long time fans, to books, to words, and to the world of reading in general. That world (which Gaiman has inhabited since childhood like a wizard’s familiar crawling the shelves in the master’s library) is presented in Cheap Seats so vividly that readers may well come away with the sense they’ve been invited round for tea, asked to stay for supper, and then, in the morning, realize there is no front door to exit through, nor any sign of how they got into the house in the first place.


As his best and most enchanting stories treat us to magical, thought-provoking adventures and mysteries, so too does Gaiman’s nonfiction. The View From the Cheap Seats is a collection of anecdotes and episodes from Neil Gaiman’s life as a writer of comics, television shows, and films, and as a book reviewer, colleague, and friend to his fellow authors and artists. It is well worth reading from start to finish.


I learned so much from this book. And not necessarily about Neil Gaiman. The anecdotes I had not previously encountered showed me, well . . . things I did not previously know were true about Neil Gaiman. But that all feels so thoroughly secondary to the education I received in mythology (a refresher course in many ways, and a graduate-level seminar in equally as many others) and how the worlds of comic books and film really intersect, and what goes into producing artifacts in either of those media.


I learned a few new words, too.


Gaiman uses words like oneiric (of or having to do with dreams). At first I did what I think most readers do when they hit an unfamiliar word. I skimmed it and hoped the context would help me understand it. Then, when I found myself still not illuminated, I quickly forgot about the word and continued reading. Like any good teacher, Gaiman used the word more than once, forcing me to pick up my desk copy of the Webster’s New World Dictionary and leaf through for the answer to my problem.


That the answer wasn’t there (I have a 1980s edition of the NWD), and that I had to resort to Professor Google’s Search Bar, is of little consequence. I still hold that a good physical copy of a dictionary is better than a quick Internet search, and especially when the tome is used in service to comprehending the likes of Neil Gaiman. It just feels like the more appropriate thing to do.


If you’re strictly a reader of his stories, you may find his dry English wit too pervasive in this collection of essays, speeches, introductions, and anecdotes (for my money, I can’t get enough of it, but I’m an unapologetic Anglophile). If you listen to his books, to him reading them, then you’ll likely feel right at home in Cheap Seats. Gaiman’s inimitable voice comes through in every line. Each sentence is communicated with the same patient, welcoming warmth he uses when inviting you into his narrative fiction. Like the friendly gnome showing you the path through the woods, promising you it will lead you home, Neil Gaiman is as sure and safe a guide as you could hope for. Just be aware your path may detour, ever so slightly, once you start reading.


Cascade Writers

Posted on February 6, 2015 at 11:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Cascade Writers Workshops

I just learned about the Cascade Writers Workshops this morning. The workshops present a great opportunity for new and developing writers to meet as colleagues, network, and learn about the writing craft and publishing industry.

The Cascade Writers are a non-profit bunch, running on volunteer power and a lot of goodwill from the genre writing community. I'm told their workshops are similar to what you'd experience at a TEDtalk, with much of the program being offered free and open to the general public. One look at their list of previous teachers should tell you these folks are serious about the writing craft and about maintaining a high level of productivity and quality in genre fiction.

If you're in the American Pacific Northwest (Kent, WA) this July 23-26, and are able to attend, they've got a solid lineup of teachers and workshop leaders planned. Visit them at Cascade Writers for more information.

Author Interview - Justin Robinson

Posted on September 16, 2013 at 9:30 AM Comments comments (1)



If my review is to be believed, Justin Robinson wrote a fantastic book in City of Devils.


Even if you don’t believe me, check the reviews over at Goodreads.


I had the good fortune of chatting with Justin about his favorite parts of the story, his protagonist, crowdfunding in today's publishing world, and a lot more. Snap open that lighter and watch for falling pianos while you settle down for this one.


AS: City of Devils blends movie monster camp and film noir suspense into a wild ride through an alternate history Los Angeles, and I loved every scene and character, start to finish. Do you have a favorite scene or moment from the story?


JR: This might seem like a weird choice, but the conversation between Nick and Serendipity in her apartment. I felt like the dialogue was really humming along in that sequence, and those are two characters I really enjoy writing. The other would be the reveal of Fer-de-Lance, which was sort of the big idea of the book. What does a brothel look like in a post-sexual world?


AS: This is your second book published by Candlemark and Gleam, and your backlist includes graphic novels, comics, and novels in the speculative fiction realm. What was your path to becoming an author like? Any fun stories or words of warning you’d like to share?


JR: Well, in my mind, small presses begin and end with Candlemark & Gleam. Working with them, and specifically Kate Sullivan, the big cheese, is a dream. While I’m grateful to all the people I’ve worked with, Kate has really put in the extra mile to make sure she’s doing the best she can both for my book, and for my career at large. She’s a really awesome person.


I started out in comics, doing a lot of editing, and got hired by a film company to adapt a screenplay into a graphic novel. I worked for them for a little while script doctoring and developing ideas. What I learned was that studio executives aren’t readers, and it’s a lot more fun to write for people who like to read. I had been interested in prose, and started to take it seriously around then when I turned a novella I wrote into what later became Nerve Zero.


If I had any words of warning to share, it would be about agents. I wasted a year trying to get one after being told (by agents, of course) it was the only road to publication. After being strung along and ultimately rejected many times, I started looking into small presses. What I found was a welcoming group that -- even when they rejected one of my books -- seemed genuinely interested in the work itself. Aspiring writers should skip the middleman: go directly to the publishers, either through contests or ones who take unagented submissions (there are a ton of them).


Self-publishing is also a great option, but a word of warning: it’s easy to do, but hard to do well. Also, do yourself a favor and hire a cover artist.  After getting a couple books published, if you feel like you have too much money, get an agent.


AS: Among others, you’ve cited Dashiell Hammett and Douglas Adams as inspiration. City of Devils definitely shows your tastes for their writing. I was curious that, living in and writing about Los Angeles, you don’t mention Raymond Chandler. Was that a purposeful omission? I ask because there’s a definite sense of Chandler’s Los Angeles in your story (fantastic elements notwithstanding), and that’s meant by way of compliment, not accusation of literary thievery.


JR: I love Chandler. I just love Hammett slightly more, so when I want to give people an idea of the kind of thing I write, I generally name only one noir author.


AS: Candlemark and Gleam are running a Kickstarter for the print edition of City of Devils. It’s closing in on 600% funding and ends on September 18th. The campaign has unlocked several ‘escalator’ goals already. Were you involved in determining those?


JR: Kate and I throw ideas back and forth, trying to strike a balance between the stuff I can do (like the short story and etiquette guide) and the stuff she can do (like the anti-monster kit). We also want to keep the costs down. I also don’t want her to have a heart attack, because Kate will gleefully decide to do incredible things because she wants the book to be as cool as possible, and then kill herself getting them done. For the release of Mr. Blank, she agreed to hand-sew plush chupacabras. She’s a crazy person.


AS: Have you run any crowdfunding campaigns on your own?


JR: I ran a kickstarter for my book Coldheart, which turned out well. I was thrilled to have that one come to fruition, since it came from an idea I had when I was thirteen.


AS: What was it like running the campaign with your publisher?


JR: Like everything that comes from working with Kate: incredible.


AS: You wrote Nick Moss as a veteran of the Second World War and The Night War, which determined the fate of Los Angeles (and the world) as monster territory. In your alternate history, it seems that WWII ended rather badly, but there's not much detail "on stage" in the book itself. Care to let readers in on the backstory a bit?


JR: I have a whole timeline in my files. Basically, the war ends in much the same way as it did in our timeline, though directly afterwards (some say because of the atomic bomb), monsters started appearing around the globe. The Night War was well and truly underway by 1948 (when, in one of my history jokes, Dewey defeats Truman in the presidential election), and by 1949, the bulk of the human population was gathered in makeshift communities. World history is also different, though it doesn’t matter too much to a human in L.A.


AS: Also on the military angle, Nick draws on his battlefield experiences while he's on the case of a missing mummy. You did a fine job of describing Nick's experiences and included details that added authenticity to the tale (Basic Training in Georgia, jumping over Normandy with the 101st, for example). Any military background yourself, or was that a focus of your History degree?


JR: My grandfather served in the Marine Corps and was captured on Corregidor at the beginning of WWII. I almost made Nick a Marine to honor that, but ultimately decided against it because while I can sling around racist terms for Germans, I can’t do the same for the Japanese. I made Nick a paratrooper because I wanted to subtly convey the idea that he might be a little tougher than he comes off initially. I’ve always enjoyed the irony that the 101st, though trained to jump from planes, only did it twice, on D-Day and then into Holland for the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. And Nick missed the latter because he was shot in the ass at the time.


AS: One more question about Nick Moss. He's your standard private dick, full of sharp talk and devotion to solving the mystery, but you've also done a fine job of crafting him to be an original character, rather than an updated Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. I'm thinking of Nick's pathological inability to light a cigarette, but there's more to him that makes his character feel original rather than carbon copied. Can you give us some insight into where Nick came from?


JR: Nick Moss started as being how I would imagine the Coen Brothers would write a character for Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Once I had that baseline, I layered in his history and the world around him and I had Nick. I have no idea where the cigarette thing came from. Sometimes I’ll just think of something and it makes me laugh, so I put it in.


AS: How about a giveaway? Readers of my review will know how much I loved City of Devils. It's a book I have no complaints with. A favorite element for me was the killer robot deterrent, which I’ll still leave a mystery here. I’d like readers to come up with their own version of how to stop a killer robot, with you judging their efficacy.


Three winners will receive a DRM-free digital copy of City of Devils. Entries should be submitted as comments below or tweeted to Justin directly @JustinSRobinson with the following rules in mind.


Killer Robot Deterrent must:


-be easily concealed inside a coat pocket

-require minimal operation (think simple devices or objects here)

-force the killer robot to change course, select a new target, or stop in its tracks

-logically affect the killer robot somehow (think carefully about this one folks)