One Size Fits All? Cinderella Proves No Such Thing


In case you haven’t heard the movie Cinderella has already raked in nearly $70 million at the box office since opening, marking itself as a huge success.

As a male author who actually vastly prefers writing female protagonists this doesn’t surprise me. And yes, I better explain that last statement. No, I don’t have anything against my own sex; I just find it easier to write a compelling underdog story with female characters. Part of it is that they don’t have the physical strength that males have. Throughout history, just like in stories and myths, women have had to outsmart their enemies much more often than men who have often had brute force to fall back on.

Thus women protagonists can make for better storytelling in my opinion, and give more interesting possibilities for the main character’s path through the story or adventure. As a reader I’m hoping you see what I mean.

Back to the title of this post though; why am I even blabbing on about Cinderella? It’s a successful movie. So what? Yes, but the reason of its success can be found not in movies, but in books. There’s something timeless about the Cinderella story – something that elementally speaks to humanity the world over. The best stories on Earth aren’t usually unique, at least not in the overall sense. Look at Cinderella stories published and you’ll find that widely different variations on the Cinderella tale exist. Each culture adapts the most timeless stories in its own way, and there’s something precious about that.

You can partake of the Disney classic Cinderella, but for those of you who find your interest piqued to go back and read the Cinderella story because of the recent movie coming out, I hope you’ll consider other options too: the Spanish telling of Cinderella, or the French telling of Cinderella, or the German telling…and the diversity goes on.

There are many ways that stories can be retold to make them fresh or relevant for a particular time, culture, or place. Don’t forget that. Use that. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, don’t shy away from learning or putting your own unique mark on a timeless story.


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Move over, Lord of the Flies. Hello Monument 14!


If your childhood was anything like mine, my English classes – for the most part – forced me to read ‘classics.’ Now many of those so-called classics sent me one clear message as a kid: You should hate reading.

Sound familiar?

Yep, many of the classics we read in school contained a lot of assumptions which as an adult has me wishing I could jump in a time machine and talk to some of my old teachers. Assumptions like this: That reading should be a difficult, nasty process seeing stories written from a perspective completely alien to your own, so alien that identifying or empathizing with what you read should be considered a luxury rather than a goal.

For me Lord of the Flies was part of that process. Its pseudo-Freudian/Jungian assumptions of id, ego, and superego “types” divided humanity neatly into good (restraining urges) and evil (satisfying urges) and insisted that evil pretty much had its way 9 times out of 10. I was supposed to buy into all the psychological assumptions in Lord of the Flies, and for a long time I did.

Yet one of the great joys of being an adult reader who gets to make my own decisions about reading (thank you very much!) is that I’ve discovered some awesome and amazing books which have meant so much to me and spoken to me in ways that many traditional American/English classics never have.

Monument 14 is that kind of book. Its poignant, totally riveting story focuses on a hodgepodge of high schoolers and younger kids in the small town of Monument, Colorado, pop. 7,000 give or take, who are thrown together after being confronted by a series of apocalyptic calamities. They face challenges that make the kids from Lord of the Flies look like a flock of tourists who lost their map. The main character and the other kids have to survive the dangers of extreme weather, an earthquake, bio-chemical weapons…and the tension ratchets up a notch nicely as the book progresses.

But what makes Monument 14 so effective (and Lord of the Flies so ineffective by comparison) is that the mixture of characters have to contend with each other, with conflicting personalities, and with the frightening demands of survival, and yet… All of these conflicts are balanced by a REALISTIC view of human nature, that in extreme situations humans often cooperate and reveal the best in their nature too.

To me that was always Lord of the Flies’ fatal flaw and weakness; it didn’t recognize this simple truth of human nature, this simple goodness. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not a tree-hugging nature-loving idealist who believes in the inherent innocence of humanity. Far from it.

But I’ll take Adam Smith’s view and turn it to my advantage here. For those of who you wonder who the heck that is, Adam Smith was a bigwig thinker who famously pointed out that human beings are able to achieve extraordinary levels of cooperation BECAUSE of individual self-interest, not in spite of it.

As an author and avid reader, I like to see that truth come out in stories. And to me the mark of a good realistic survival story is that it shows this kind of true psychological depth rather than trying to fit human beings into easy stereotypes. Monument 14 shows how the characters work together not because they are all best buddies or because they all share the same values, but because of something deeply ingrained in their natures and the visceral human response to shared environmental challenges.

Monument 14 is an amazing book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes stories of adventure or survival. Get it here: I also have to shamelessly throw my own book into the mix here: The Princess Who Defied Kings has a trade paperback on Amazon for under $10. It’s a fantasy rather than apocalyptic story, but I’d like to think there’s a common thread between my writing and Ms. Laybourne’s. Princess is a story about a girl who faces extreme challenges of survival, but those challenges end up bringing out the better part of her nature instead of the worst. You can find it on Amazon here:



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Star Wars and the Need for Reinvention


Have you ever felt it was time to reinvent yourself?

Sometimes I wonder the same thing about some of the most well-loved universes in popular fiction, be it Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes, or you name it. Many of the most beloved characters and legendary stories have been reinvented over the years, and to stunning effect. Sherlock Holmes is a wow-ing example of that – just take a look at the cornucopia of movies and TV shows that have embedded him in the popular mindset – shows like Elementary, Sherlock, or the Robert Downey Jr. films to mention just a few…

Recently I saw a blog post over at Dear Author which mentioned that there will be a new series of Star Wars books released in tandem with the upcoming Star Wars film. (

We live in exciting times, do we not? And yet…

When is reinvention a good thing, a necessary thing, and when is it being “disloyal” to the source material or on the other end of the spectrum, simply not enough? That’s a difficult question that readers often have to face when they get attached to a particular fictional world and the characters who populate it. Particularly in today’s age, where longer book series are becoming more common, readers are more vulnerable than ever to being left out in the cold when it comes to their favorite storytelling universe taking unexpected turns.

Take Harry Potter as a perfect example. A series which began as a great magical adventure certainly takes a darker turn as the books progress. You can make a strong argument that J.K. Rowling “reinvented” Harry Potter as she went along, maturing its themes along with her protagonists, until she ended up with a very different story than the one with which she began.

Not so say that this is necessarily a BAD thing, and perhaps most of her readers appreciated that growth in her storytelling. It does make it harder though for readers to know that by the time they reach “The End” they will actually feel satisfied.

But do we ever try to reinvent things in ways that are harmful or just downright unimaginative too? The upcoming Star Wars books may be proof of that…though let’s hope otherwise. Now I’ve heard that many of the stories will follow the traditional Star Wars characters – Han, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia – you get the idea. For those of you who are die-hard Star Wars fans, maybe you’re salivating already.

Yet the truth is that if they’re focusing on the traditional big players of Star Wars yore, I think it shows a missed opportunity, an epic failure in imagination on some level. It’s a mistake to try to introduce an awe-inspiring universe to a new generation using the same old characters again and again. Sometimes reinvention requires destruction. A little annihilation. A delicious dose of chaos.

And that’s why I’m worried the new round of Star Wars stories won’t live up to the hype. We need NEW, (fresh!) heroes to root for, not just the same old faces. For the same reason I would vastly prefer a 2016 presidential election WITHOUT Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton as the two too-familiar frontrunner faces, I would love to see a Star Wars reboot series of books that does not focus primarily on the same overused characters.

What do you think? Should reinvention be a gradual process or something a little more violent? My two cents? An earthquake or two, a few seismic shifts in the Star Wars universe, not to mention several others, certainly can’t hurt!

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Brutal but Breathtaking

tigerqueensLet me start by saying I find it very difficult to put books in a ‘nutshell.’ Stephanie Thornton’s The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan definitely falls under that category. It reads almost like an epic, yet it shows an intimacy with its characters that rivals the least pretentious stories I’ve ever read. If the best historical fiction stories work like a time machine, immersing a reader in a fascinating era and place far removed, then Tiger Queens succeeds on every level.

Why does this startling book go beyond just extraordinary? In telling the story of Borte and other fiercely independent Mongolian women during the time of Genghis Khan, this book did something which very few books do well: it gave me a true glimpse into what it would have been like to live in a totally different culture and context. It revealed what it was like to be a nomad on the harsh yet beautiful steppes of Mongolia more than 800 years ago. The author deftly explores, with a poignant first-person narrative, the lives of several key women in the rise of the Mongol tribes, their triumphs and tragedies, and what happens to their families along the way.

This is some of the best historical fiction I have read, and in some ways it has a lot in common with epic fantasy. The stakes keep building, and the tension with it. We see Borte as a little girl, and then as she grows up and marries the man who eventually is destined to try to unite all the Mongol clans.

There is one caveat I should point out: due to the need for realism and detail, the author does not sugarcoat the harsher aspects of nomad culture. There are some brutal and tragic moments in the story. Borte’s captivity at the hands of the Merkid who want revenge on her husband is a prime example. Yet overall the strong narrative voice of Borte and the other women soars above everything else. We get to know these women and to feel their families almost as if they were our own.

The lush insights of the steppe environment itself, the political intrigue, the dynamic relationships starting with Borte’s struggle to protect her husband and family – all of it Ms. Thornton uses like an expert historian to truly ensnare us in the rich world of a Mongol civilization nearly a millennia ago. This is a book I will never forget. Well-worth reading for anyone who likes seeing things from a feminine perspective and enjoys history…and anyone else who just enjoys a great story! You can buy the book here:

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The Problem with Zombies – Taking it to the Beyond

worldzUntil more recently, I have had a real problem with zombies. No, this doesn’t mean that my next door neighbors were developing a hankering for human brains. I’m talking about zombie books (and movies) and the niche they seem to have carved out in popular culture. As an author I have always loved zombie stories on the primal level. Why? To me, survival stories represent this amazingly compelling recipe of action and adventure. When I first realized how much I loved tales of survival it was like discovering as a kid that chocolate chip cookies could have M&Ms in them – a new door to the world was unlocked for me, changing me forever.

All silliness aside, show me an awesome work of survival fiction, and I can show you a boon for inspiring new readers. Books like Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky take a gripping premise of survival, and throw the reader along a wild ride as its teenage characters learn the limits and capabilities of human endurance – the hard way, on an alien planet even. For similar reasons I have always viewed zombie stories as, at their very core, having this potential to be survival stories at their best: Seeing humans pitted up against the harshest, most brutal situations and coming out the other side, probably not unscathed, but covered in blood and a lot stronger for it.

And yet, this is where until recent years the genre of zombie fiction has failed in the most spectacular way. Book after book (not to mention films) depict zombies as harbingers of an inevitable apocalypse leading to the inevitable extinction of the human race. Even if the characters we are rooting for survive, like in the harrowing Omega Days series written by John Campbell, it’s almost assumed that sooner or later even our tough-as-nails survivors will wind up as brain food for the undead.

Can I say how wrongheaded this often is? This approach sometimes shows a laziness that strays  beyond just being unoriginal, and for too long it’s become a taken-for-granted part of the zombie landscape. Yes, early on zombie stories were popular as a social commentary, via story arcs like in the George Romero zombie films, which criticized a shallow, consumer-driven culture. Showing humans becoming extinct to the zombie herd/horde needed to be done to realize that message. Fair enough. But we’re not living in the 1970s anymore.

The zombie genre today can explore themes connecting to terrorism, climate change, and even economic upheaval that call for more subtle story arcs and outcomes than their original anti-consumerism origins.

And here’s the point I’m really getting at, that truly great zombie stories should have an optimistic, survivalist angle in their telling much more often than they have in the past. This is something we’re finally starting to see, too. Look at some of the more recent well received zombie books out there – Red Hill by Jamie McGuire or Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, not to mention World War Z by Max Brooks. In these stories the future matters. There is a post-zombie world which implies that survival at great cost isn’t a hopeless endeavor. Human fate is not preordained.

It’s about time that zombie stories reached their true potential as gripping, edge-of-your-seat nail-biters about human ingenuity, (and yes, human depravity), but above all human survival. It’s easy to write about a world falling apart without taking the trouble to ‘what-if?’ some of those challenging solutions. But I think the more visionary storytellers in the universe of zombie lore are starting to recognize that the real world…and our human heritage…is a heck of a lot more complex than the old, tired Doomsday narratives would have us believe.

Ambling brain-dead freaks can be scary, maybe even relentless, but they also aren’t unbeatable. Future writers of zombie stories do us a service when they remember that. They also enrich a category of books that has yet to receive the full credit it deserves.


Below are some links to the books I mentioned above, and I also recommend The Seething: A Zombie Chronicle by J.A. Johnson and K.G. McAbee (

Red Hill by Jamie McGuire

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

World War Z by Max Brooks

Omega Days by John Campbell

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Oppose YA and Teen Books at Your Own Risk

Over this past summer an article for made huge waves among readers, especially readers of what we call “young adult” or teen fiction. Ruth Graham in her article Against YA makes a host of arguments for why adults should be “embarrassed” to read teen fiction and argues that teen books are intellectually and emotionally inferior to adult literature.

There have been several excellent responses to Ruth’s article, and I’m not going to rehash those arguments there. I do however want to bring up another point that was mostly forgotten in all the hand-wringing and debating.

Ms. Graham’s viewpoint commits the cardinal sin of any writer: over-generalizing and misrepresenting other authors’ work. If you enjoy reading (and hopefully you do) tell me if this sounds familiar: Have you ever had someone bash one of your favorite authors when they have only read 1% of that author’s total work? Have you ever had a friend say “Oh, that author’s terrible” but then he or she has only tried reading 1 of that author’s numerous stories?

That’s the level of Ms. Graham’s ineptitude. Playing by her rules, as a writer I could make the opposite argument and claim that adult literature was “out of touch,” or just plain “dull and unconnected to real human experience.” But then I would be stooping to her level and overgeneralizing about an entire, rich genre of work with readers who enthusiastically benefit from it.

That’s what has me completely baffled about the anti-YA crowd. They’re not seeing the writing on the wall. And as a booklover and librarian let me tell you – they’re losing the battle, and in a big way. If the proof is in the pudding, here’s some pudding:

According to research by Bowker, a trusted player in the publishing industry, over half of adults profess to read and actively pursue teen books to satisfy their reading cravings. Recently many library systems have looked at the hundreds of thousands of books they circulate and noticed another interesting trend: nearly 75% of library teen books circulating are checked out BY ADULTS. Even allowing for the fact that some of those adults may be checking out books for their teen son or daughter, that’s a massive percentage.

I wonder if the Ms. Grahams of the world truly believe that teen fiction is inferior to adult literature. More likely, my guess is that in the shifting avalanche of interest to stories which are more emotional, accessible and immediate to people (teen fiction), the Ms. Grahams feel left behind; the type of written word they preferred is on the descent and under threat.

The true answer to Ms. Graham’s dilemma has two parts to it:

1) Learn to embrace change rather than fight it, and

2) Relearn the old saying ‘There’s a book for every reader.’

Who knows, in our ever-more complicated adult lives filled with technology and a lack of social interaction, perhaps adult readers are gravitating to stories which help them reconnect with their emotionally aware, less-burdened younger selves – and with other human beings.

If that’s the case then teen fiction, YA fiction, or whatever you want to call it, is something to be embraced – not feared.

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What We Read for Guilty Pleasures


I’m going to make a confession that, as a sci-fi and fantasy author and reader, might come across as total heresy. I love romance. Yes, I am that rare thing – a young male who loves sci-fi and fantasy and yes, also happens to be an enthusiastic supporter of romance.

Now you may not like romance or be in the same position, but I would be willing to bet that you have some kind of guilty pleasure reading interest you might not reveal to someone you’ve just met – Am I right?

Here’s the thing, though: the world would be better off if readers worried less about being judged for what they read and could just be unapologetic about the variety of things they enjoyed. I’ll use this as an example – Brooklyn Ann is a historical / paranormal romance author who recently started her Scandals with Bite series (see the latest one here):

Her books are awesome, relatively quick reads which balance a reasonably dark paranormal element (vampires) with intriguing facets of history like the English Civil War – during which many of her vampires were “Changed”, i.e. lost their humanity. As a history buff who’s addicted to paranormal beasties, Ann’s books are a fun, guilty pleasure because they combine so many aspects that I enjoy in a good book. It’s not JUST historical or just romance or just paranormal. It’s this beautiful trifecta that isn’t afraid to mix elements and appeal to a wide audience.

This is something I don’t see enough of when it comes to “serious” science fiction and fantasy. To me love is a central part of life. Now perhaps I’m biased (I am married after all), but the fact is that most people go through life and fall in love at least once if not multiple times. Yet if one were to look at the overall compendium of science fiction or fantasy literature in existence, you would get the impression that romance was maybe 0.2% of the human experience.

It is for this exact reason that I have been forced inexorably, almost against my will – away from the science fiction and fantasy genre I used to read so exclusively and, as I get older, have gravitated more toward romance that leverages those sci-fi fantasy elements. To me, a sci-fi fantasy which needs to omit romance to be considered “serious” or “literature” is ultimately an uninteresting, narrow-minded idea of what great storytelling is. I just don’t have the patience for it.

Now does that mean that a story MUST have romance to be good? Of course not. It does mean though, that if your character is a human being, love should be a part of that person’s life. Maybe that doesn’t come through as romance. Perhaps it comes through other relationships – familial relationships, inter-species relationships, whatever. But science fiction needs to be about more than cool mathematical concepts or theories of genius.

Bottom line: don’t be ashamed of your guilty pleasure. You have guilty pleasures for a reason, and chances are that many, many other people have the same guilty pleasure you do. Guilty pleasures are in many cases things that have fallen in the margins between what society prefers to focus on, and that doesn’t make you as a reader wrong in your tastes; if anything it makes you a stylish rebel, and one who is true to yourself at that.

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Cover Artwork – Judging a Book By Its You Know What


As someone who reads genre fiction voraciously, one of the things that always strikes my curiosity is what does or does not catch a reader’s eye. What repels one reader sometimes attracts another. Recently this issue came into focus because I just finished revamping the cover of The Princess Who Defied Kings – my young adult fantasy adventure novel – after a professional artist helped teach me how to give it a healthy makeover.

Cover tips 101 says one thing above all else – does it communicate EXACTLY what the book is about the moment you glance at that cover image. So in my case, I asked myself “Does this cover communicate butt-kicking princess who can deal with adversity?” Hopefully the result above speaks for itself.

As a reader my challenge to you would be, think a moment about what really makes you pick up a book. We do it unconsciously all the time and seldom actually consider it. Ask yourself, do you have a bias or predisposition toward certain kinds of covers?

I confess, I definitely do. Personally I’m drawn to covers with faces, animals, or people on them, as opposed to more abstract covers. Yet there’s something to be said for covers that don’t spoil what the reader might envision in their own mind’s eye, a cover that doesn’t show TOO much. (What if you envision the character as a Native American, but the cover shows a pasty pale white guy or gal?)

The truth is that we can and often do have no choice except to judge a book by its cover. In the finite 24 hours in a given day, we simply don’t have time to crack open every book and see if it’s something which would truly tickle our fancy.

So – what are your cover artwork pet peeves? Favorite book covers of all time? Has someone ever republished a book you loved and done an ‘epic fail’ when it came to the newer cover? What do you see as adding the ‘wow’ or ‘awesome’ factor to a cover, whether you’re browsing a physical shelf or viewing online?

I’m interested in your take. (Meanwhile, I can only hope that my cover artwork above measures up. Comments on that, always appreciated.)

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“I Only Write for Teenage Girls” Syndrome

For those of who you love science fiction, fantasy, horror, and pretty much any other genre besides, there’s a magical event called Dragon Con, and it happens once a year in Atlanta Georgia. It’s a convention with a who’s who of popular genre writers, actors and actresses from your favorite sci-fi or fantasy TV shows or movies, not to mention artists and industry professionals – and that just scratches the surface.

While at Dragon Con earlier this month I got the chance to meet some amazing authors, but there was one interesting author interaction that is still bugging me. I’m going to address it here because it makes a big difference for pretty much any reader or author…

Have you ever read something that wasn’t something you were “supposed” to read? I know I have. Most of my friends have too. Maybe you’re that adult who loves reading teen books. Maybe you’re a teen who has varied tastes and read Lord of the Rings when you were 13 and The Hobbit when you were 10 years old.

Whatever your own personal experience, my point is that we as readers often don’t fit into the neat little marketing boxes that publishers (and sometimes authors) like to place their readers in.

One author I highly respect, Janine Spendlove, recently mentioned during a writers’ seminar at Dragon Con, “A good story is a good story.” An author who writes well is going to appeal to people beyond their ideal target audience, whatever that audience happens to be. That’s not a bad thing – in fact, that’s the beauty of writing. Good storytelling is so infectious that it usually has universal appeal.

So it was with some confusion that I listened to a certain YA paranormal author at Dragon Con tell her audience of adoring fans one evening that her books were written “only for teenage girls.”

Hmm. Really? The irony of the moment was that even as she said it most of the audience were NOT teenage girls.

In fact, teenage girls were the minority. It was a testament to the strength of the author’s work that a wide cross section of people had come to see her. I talked with people next to me who were well into their 40s, and who absolutely adored all of her books. When I asked one of them how she felt about the author’s statement, the answer was “Not good.”

Authors need to be careful about being exclusionary and caring only about their so-called “target audience.” Why alienate readers? Why limit your appeal? It’s bad marketing and it’s in poor taste. In fairness to the author I’m referencing, I don’t think she intended it to sound as off-putting as it came off. And the point is crucial for all authors: don’t let your publishers or your ego tell you that only 1 type of reader matters.

Welcome all types of readers- it’s good for the pocket book in addition to being the right thing to do.


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Milestones in Sci-fi & Fantasy

Although I normally limit myself to the typed or written word, it’s definitely worth noting that the sci-fi fantasy cultural universe recently tilted on its axis in the wake of a very unlikely success story.

The film Guardians of the Galaxy came out this past week, and many observers didn’t think it would make any big waves among audiences.

Happily, those observers were wrong, and there’s more than a few reasons to rejoice at the film’s success if you’re a sci-fi fantasy author like myself. A good portion of the sci-fi which I write  and enjoy reading – See my Omega Station story here  – involve the dynamic interplay of alien species with humanity. Through my stories I like to challenge the sometimes narrow mindsets we humans love to get tied up in, both culturally and morally. Stories like C.J. Cherryh’s books in the Foreigner series effectively challenge even our ingrained assumption that we humans are the gold standard in the universe, and bring up humbling ideas of what other beings might deserve a dominant place out among the stars. But it’s not just that. It’s that sci-fi fantasy makes whole alien civilizations and cultures come alive, to challenge people’s sensibilities, if they will just engage in the content and open their minds.

For this same reason, though, exactly BECAUSE of the demanding paradigm shift that alien cultures place on the average person, many people didn’t think that Guardians of the Galaxy would have a chance. The heroes in Guardians are composed of a motley crew including a genetically modified raccoon and a giant tree with a 3-word vocabulary. Those types of characters historically don’t do well – in any medium, written or on the screen, and they’re difficult for people to identify with.

Somehow Guardians did what many critics thought impossible, however. They made audiences care not just for their human characters, but for even the most outlandish, alien-like characters too. And that is something that should put a smile on the faces of sci-fi and fantasy authors everywhere. We can and should continue to push the envelope where other kinds of fiction seldom walk.

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