Thursday, June 26, 2014

7 Questions For: Author Steven Novak

Steven Novak is the author of the Breadcrumbs For The Nasties series of novels, Forts, Goats Eat Cans, numerous children's books, and a number of comics. He is an accomplished illustrator and has designed book covers for authors across the globe. He lives with his wife in southern California, has two cats, and apparently likes to stare at the sky dramatically in black and white photos. His work can be found online at

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Steven Novak has been writing, drawing, and creating stuff pretty much from the start.

Seriously, the guy has spent nearly his entire life hunched over a pad of paper with a pencil in his hand.

His spine is mostly crumpled.

After four years at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, Steven headed to southern California. It was there that he married his wife, Tami, and began his professional career.

Steven is also a cover designer for hire and I highly reccomend him as he's designed the covers for all of my books to date.

Click here to read my review of Forts: Fathers and Sons.

And now Steven Novak faces the 7 Questions: 

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

That’s tough. I don’t know. It’s hard thing to nail down. I still love The Martian Chronicles. I’m not even sure it’s Ray Bradbury’s “best” book, but it’s the first I fell in love with, and the one I always come back to. I read Fight Club when I was in high school and it blew my mind. As a lifelong comic book fan I’d hate myself if I didn’t mention Watchmen. Cat’s Cradle was a revelation back in the day. Then there’s Maus. Anything by John Swartzwelder is usually good for a laugh. The first book I ever loved was Harold And The Purple Crayon. Does that count?

Eh, who cares? I’ve already named more than three.

I’m a rule breaker.

Deal with it.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

I write in spurts. When I’m really into the process I can bang out a book in a couple weeks. When I’m not, I’m lucky to crank out three or four words in a couple months.

Honestly, I’m not even sure I like writing.

Scratch that, I’m fairly certain I hate it.

It’s a pain in the butt. Once I have the story worked out in my head, I’m mostly done with it. The act of transforming that story into a book feels like slogging through waist-deep mud in concrete boots. It’s annoying. And pointless.

Who buys concrete boots anyway?

Why did I waste my money on those things?

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

I was working as a freelance product designer for a company in Palm Springs a few years back. All of a sudden they no longer required my services. I was out of work, and the economy was garbage, and I’d grown so comfortable in the position that I hadn’t taken the time to secure much of a client list.

I was young. And a little dumb.

I ended up cleaning the bathrooms at the local Best Buy during the week, twirling signs on the weekend, and delivering packages during the holidays. It was a strain on my marriage and did very little for my already low self-esteem. While it put some cash in my pocket, it wasn’t exactly the most creatively fulfilling line of work.  

In order to stay sane I started writing the Forts series. I love those books. They’re the most personal things I’ve ever written. Technically they’re a mess, but who cares? I didn’t write them to sell them. That part just sort of happened. They helped me come to terms with some nasty parts of my past, and my father, and refocus on the most important things in my life.

Lemons into lemonade, and other hackneyed expressions.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

Creative people are probably born creative. The act of writing is mostly taught. I don’t necessarily think all writers are artists. Writing is sometimes a job. Like any job it can be repetitive, and silly, and not very creative, and honestly, sort of dumb.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing about writing is coming up with the idea. I don’t keep notes. I don’t plan, or storyboard, or do anything a good writer should probably do. If it’s not good enough to remember, it probably wasn’t that good to begin with.

It’s possible that’s just an excuse for laziness.

I can admit that.

My least favorite thing about writing is actually writing. I understand how stupid that sounds. I really do.

It’s also the truth.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Don’t listen to anything I say? Ignore me entirely and write a romance novel about vampires? I dunno.

I’m the wrong person to ask for advice. I’m a bit of a weirdo, and not “successful” enough for the masses to take notice. I own two pairs of pants and wear the same four shirts in rotation. I rarely shave. I’m the king of the introverts, standoffish in public and a goofball at home. I’m a grump and I like being a grump.

If your ball lands on my lawn, I’m keeping it!

I’m that guy.

I suppose the best advice I can offer is to write because you love to write. That’s it. Don’t plan on getting rich, because so few do. Even the writers who are actually selling books aren’t “rich.” They’re paying their bills, and feeding their families, and that’s great, and it’s a heck of a lot better than digging used tampons out of those little metal boxes in women’s restroom.

Trust me on this.

No matter what you pursue in life, make sure you love it. Life’s too short to waste it doing something you hate.

Also, never root for the home team. Be different. Same is boring, and in the long run same is always forgotten.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?


That dude’s gotta be wonderfully weird, right? It would make for an interesting lunch. What would he eat? His old-timey money would be useless so I’d probably have to pay. He’s a little guy though. Probably wouldn’t eat much. So that’s a plus. We could complain about stuff together.

I’d show him a video on my cell phone and watch his head explode.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book of the Week: FORTS: FATHERS AND SONS by Steven Novak

WARNING: This story is upper middle grade trending toward young adult. Most readers should be fine to proceed, but there is some light adult language and adult themes throughout. Uncertain parents should probably read this one for themselves before giving it to their children (which is far preferable to complaining after the fact). Get involved in your children's reading, parents:)

First Paragraph(s): A thousand years of peace had come to an abrupt and violent end. Off in the distance, trees that had stood eons longer than there have been inhabitants in this quiet, peaceful world collapsed to the ground. The thunderous boom resulting from the massive structures meeting their untimely demise echoed throughout the red forest.  The creatures that called this very old, very simple place home felt tremors for miles in every direction. In response to the commotion, frightened groups of these thin, pale-skinned beings took to the treetops, hoping to learn the cause of the disturbance.  Making use of limbs longer than the whole of their bodies, they scurried up the sides of the massive growths. One by one large, egg-shaped heads containing grotesquely large eyes parted the densely covered foliage, breaking the crest of the afternoon sky. Like a flock of birds, their heads moved in silent unison, focusing on the ruckus in the distance. Less than a mile away, patches of trees toppled to the ground as great plumes of dust and smoke rose toward the sky to take their place. The monstrous wall of debris began to spread across the forest, blocking out the light of the three sister suns.  
For the very first time in  its history, this place was slowly being enveloped by a darkness brought on, not by night, but something else entirely - something evil, angry, and aggressive – something that would change it forever.

Do you like a nice middle grade story involving plucky protagonists literally sucked into a fantastical world where magic happens, Esteemed Reader? Of course you do, you're here:) You're going to love Forts and you should pick up a copy straight away.

It should come as no surprise I'm a fan of author Steven Novak. He's a writer of gloriously violent horror fiction for older readers as well as enchanting stories written primarily for children. He's a man after my own heart:) He's also designed the covers for my books, including the newest, a middle grade book revealed last week. So you know I think his artwork is top notch, but can the man write?

Esteemed Reader, he can and how! I've enjoyed his Breadcrumbs For the Nasties series immensely, but as with most of the adult horror stories I read, I won't discuss it here. Instead, I recently read Forts: Fathers and Sons, a decidedly upper middle grade tale, and enjoyed it so much I'm looking forward to volumes two and three. 

The first thing I couldn't help but notice, given my great appreciation for Novak's artwork, is what a really great looking book Forts is. Seriously. If you're thinking of publishing your own middle grade book, this is the way to do it (I read it just in time). It's well formatted and the wonderful illustrations throughout enhance the reading experience. Even after reading the book, I find myself flipping through the pages to enjoy the pictures again. 

So, Esteemed Reader, as you can no doubt deduce from the first paragraph above, the magical land of Fillagrou is in a hard way due to warfare being waged by the Ochan Army. It's tough times, but as it happens they've been waiting for five children to come and restore order to their world. Fortunately for them, in the first few chapters of Forts, we might five such children. 

One thing I really liked about Forts is that the chapters are written from various perspectives, allowing us to spend time with all of the children. But if we have to settle on a protagonist, the most likely main character is 14-year-old Tommy Jarvis, even if he is a rather unhappy child:

Instantly, Nicky recognized that his brother was in bad shape. His hair was a mess, his head hanging low, his expression tired and forlorn. The look on his face vaguely resembled the looks Nicky had seen on the animals at the zoo a week earlier when he class had been on a school field trip - sad, lost, and hopeless, as if they were meant to be somewhere else, to see something more but yet had been completely and totally unable to do so.

I love that simile:) Tommy has a lot of reasons to be as unhappy as an animal in a cage. When we first meet him, he's fresh out of detention and he's soon attacked by a bully and his gang. This is a smart move on Novak's part, introducing Donald the bully this way as, small spoiler, he's one of The Five. But the main reason Tommy and his 11-year-old mute brother Nicky are unhappy is their mother has died and their father, Chris Jarvis, has since become an abusive alcoholic:

“I don’t believe a God d**n word you’ve said to me, Tommy. You’re lying to me, and I can’t stand liars. I’m gonna teach you not to lie to me, Tommy. I’m gonna show you what happens to little boys who lie to their fathers.” 
Up the stairs went the mad pair of wildly flailing bodies; up the stairs and into the bedroom at the end of the hall; the terrifying noise muffled by the heavy slamming of the door. 
With his every limb shivering, Nicky Jarvis crawled back in front of the television, grabbed the remote and turned the volume up high. It was not that he did not want to hear the sounds that came from upstairs, but rather that he somehow instinctively understood that his brother did not want him to hear.

The Jarvis brothers immediately had my empathy and I was particularly touched by the way Tommy draws pictures for his little brother to cheer him up. If ever two boys were in need of a fantasy adventure in a far away place, it's these two. More, I like that Novak treats this element of the story so seriously. Because their issues are presented authentically, the fantastic is all the more believable and magical. 

But don't worry, Esteemed Reader. Though there are sad parts, Steven Novak is very funny and there are plenty of laughs:

Before Donald followed, he put his arm behind his back, poking questioningly at the seat of his jeans. After confirming that he had not pooped his pants, he quickly caught up with the two.

And the reader doesn't have to wait too long before the fun starts. The Jarvis boys and their neighbor Staci are visiting a fort when they're attacked by Donald and his gang. Tommy and Donald fight it out and end up in a rushing stream where this happens:

Like the dark green, hungry monster Nicky had imagined it to be, the water gobbled them up and swallowed them whole. Tugging their thrashing, oxygen-deprived bodies into itself without an ounce of sympathy or remorse, it drew them down furiously and spit them out toward a fate already determined and a world that would change them forever

And that's about as much of the story as I can reveal without spoiling. There's a nasty prince bent on seizing power over Fillagrou (isn't there always) and though the odds are far against our five heroes, if they can somehow manage to work together, there might just be hope yet.

Forts: Fathers and Sons is a fun title and it ends on a cliffhanger, so you may as well buy book two as you're reading book one. The writing is highly descriptive, proving Steven Novak can create striking images with his words as well as his usual art supplies. There's plenty of suspense, and a bit of gore, which kept me turning pages, and the characters are memorable and easy to root for. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Forts: Fathers and Sons:

As he started to toss the sack over his right shoulder he noticed that the one functional strap was torn, rendering it useless. He stared at it for a moment, allowing himself to fully absorb the stinging pockets of pain sprouting up on various parts of his body like the glow of lightning bugs against a pitch black night.

Every last ounce of blood in Chris Jarvis’ body quickly rushed to his head, slamming into the underside of his brain like a train smashing into a car left on the railroad tracks.

He loved his father, but not quite as much as he hated cars, and grease, and working under hot cars while covered in grease.

In every direction trees were tipped over and shattered. Clumps of dirt and grass were strewn as if the earth had been lifted up and tossed into the air with no regard for where it might land. A thin cloud of brown dust and dirt permeated the air, blanketing everything for miles in every direction.  Vision beyond short distances was almost impossible.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

GUEST POST: "Tie Your Camel and Trust in Allah" by Kurtis Scaletta

Are you there, Esteemed Reader? Ninja here. I've been ignoring this blog since my two-part post Swimming With Sharks in which I warned readers that some publishing professionals are not to be trusted. Traffic since that post has exploded and I've found it easier to stay offline and  focus on my upcoming release rather than engaging Esteemed Readers in a debate over this issue.

But one of those Esteemed Readers who came to the post and had some thoughts of his own was our old friend Kurtis Scaletta, author of Mudville, Mamba Pointe, The Tanglewood Terror, and The Winter of the Robots. Kurtis has generously made time to compile those thoughts and share them with us.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Esteemed Readers, please welcome Mr. Kurtis Scaletta:

“Tie your camel and trust in Allah,” is one of my favorite proverbs. So it goes with publishing: it’s all well and good to put your hope in God, or the fervency of your dreams, or the ideological premise that good things happen to good people, but what will best keep the camel from wandering off is a strong rope and a good knot. 

If you’re in the market to pay for editorial services, you are taking care of fundamentals. You are tying your camel, not making a sacrifice to Allah in the hope that His magnificent benevolence will reward you with a book deal. It’s not a secret handshake. It’s just about putting yourself in the best position when you hit the submission trail. 

Unfortunately, the camel-tying business is one without credentialing, so it’s hard to know if you’re investing wisely. What can you do to make sure you’re spending your money wisely?

First, reputable editorial services will be clear about what you get: a critique of your manuscript with comments on its strengths and weaknesses, with attention to voice, structure and plotting, character development and so forth. They’ll be upfront the scope of their comments, the turnaround time, and the cost. You are paying for a knowledgeable opinion of the manuscript, suggestions on how to improve it, and perhaps—not always— tips on how to place it. You are not buying a space on an editor’s desk, a fast path through the slush pile, or an introduction to an agent. If the service suggests anything like that, you should be wary. 

It should also be clear that unless they specifically say so, few professional editors are copyeditors or fact checkers – that is, they are not going to check all your commas or look up whether or not you’re right when you say passingly that Fargo is the capitol of North Dakota. They may highlight a few howlers that they can’t help but notice, but copyediting is a final phase of editing that comes separately – one you don’t need to do for submitting your manuscript (though it doesn’t hurt), but should do if you are self publishing, unless you have a sharp-eyed and knowledgeable beta reader. 

Second, look for the credentials of the person doing the listing. They should have industry experience, e.g., be published authors, experienced editors, and/or former agents. They should have helped usher books into the world, and they should be able to list the titles of those books and the names of people they have worked with. 

Third, look for referrals. If you’re spending hundreds of dollars, you should be able to find a couple happy clients. 

Finally, know that what you are paying for is a person’s time. It is that simple. If you’re struck by the cost attached to it, remember that someone is taking ten hours or more out of their own writing life to help you with yours. The time they’ve taken should be evident in their response. 

A more difficult question might be whether you need an editor at all, and it’s not one I can answer for you. If you’ve been through multiple revisions, exhausted your friendly and honest readers, and have hit the slush pile with nothing but silence and form rejections, it might be time to take this step. You can get the feedback agents and editors won’t take the time to give because they are moving on to the next manuscript. But it is a big investment, and there’s no promise that it will be the critical step towards publication. I know writers who do credit their freelance editor for finally selling a manuscript, but it’s no guarantee. 

As a final note, you might buy the rope and take a knots-tying course, but it’s still your job to tie the camel.  An editorial letter is a big homework assignment, and often a daunting one. If you’ve gotten a good one, you probably feel sick to your stomach after reading it, because the flaws of the manuscript are suddenly so obvious, and the path to fixing them so arduous. If you feel that way, it’s probably money well spent.