Author Archives: Frog Jones

About Frog Jones

Frog Jones co-writes with his wife, Esther. Together, they've written the Gift of Grace series, as well as appeared in myriad anthologies together. When not writing, Frog spends his free time as a public defense attorney, the chairman of the board of a non-profit dedicated to housing homeless teens, and a Rotarian.

Frog Jones Year-in-Review

OK, they tell me I have a single blog post to recap one of the biggest years in my writing career. So, here we go.

1. January

January was actually relatively calm. We will think of this as the quiet before the storm.

FFG Cover2. February

February kicked off with my first time attending the Superstars Writing Seminar. Despite spending a third of the conference in bed due to altitude sickness, thereby becoming the black sheep of the seminar, I made a lot of great connections and met a lot of good people. Also, I was introduced to this group of authors who call themselves the Fictorians–you may have heard of them.

But wait, there’s more.

February also saw the release of Book 3 of the urban fantasy series I co-author with my wife. We launched the book live at RadCon in Pasco, Washington; the good folks at that con and the Central Washington Authors Guild helped to insure our best launch ever, putting us briefly in the top 40 list on Amazon’s Urban Fantasy category.

3. March

March saw the release of Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Magic. This is an anthology we were really happy to be a part of. The entire anthology is filled with stories in which close is good enough. Our story, “Some Kind of Way Out Of Here,” involves a thief who steals a number of magic wands–only to need to use their random effects in his botched escape attempt.

12998266_10154046171413080_5286021561999122271_oMarch saw us attending Norwescon, the largest of the regional conventions at which I’m a regular. The picture’s a little fuzzy, but the bowler stands out). In addition to being a big, awesome con that gives its authors free booze in the evenings (no joke there, just awesomeness), Norwescon is the home of the Fairwood Writers Workshop, which is a really amazing chance for me to give back to new authors in exactly the way I got my own start.

4. April

I’m going to cheat a little bit, here; while at Norwescon we recorded the first episode of 3 Unwise Men, the comedy genre fiction podcast I record alongside two other nimrods. Season 2 released in April, though; it was a six-episode season, beginning with the Livecast from Norwescon.

5. May

In May, I attended Miscon as a professional. Miscon was an amazing experience; I did dinner with Jim Butcher, drank beer with Kevin J. Anderson, and ended up in a sweet game of Fiasco with Christopher Paolini. In addition, with the help of the Fairwood Press table, we had our greatest single day of physical book sales ever. Possibly the most heady con experience I’ve ever had. There was a moment at Miscon where a fan walked up to the WordFire Press table, where my wife Esther volunteered, and asked Kevin J Anderson where he could find our book. That’s something that makes you really feel like you’ve arrived.

13415482_10208446988645564_8879850187004161903_o6. June

June is a time for getting things done. CampCon happens in June, a small gathering of professionals in the woods surrounding Mt. Hood in Oregon. We bring our laptops. We place them on picnic tables. And we throw down word count. Esther and I finished the draft of the first novel in our new series, Black Powder Goddess. When is it coming out? Well, that’s up to whoever buys it. But CampCon is an amazing experience, where the creative juices are flowing and nobody has an internet connection to distract them. That’s the group pic we took; there’s several new authors that come, but we also have Phyllis Irene Radford, Bob Brown, Sanan Kolva, Joyce Reynolds-Ward, and Blaze and Leah from Knotted Road Press.

13516369_10206756434249727_4232598126185580488_n7. July

In July, we did Westercon! Westercon was the first con at which Esther and I appeared at a table featuring our own books. We shared that table space with the great David Boop and Peter Wacks, and broke all of our sales records. Also, the Unwise Men made an appearance at Westercon. It was the last panel of the day for me, and you can tell that all three of the UWM were shocked to see us not only invited back to a convention, but actively advertised by that convention.

But wait there’s more.

During July, we also appeared at Capital Indie Book Con in Olympia. We had a table here, as well, and had decent sales as well as a couple of unexpected guests.

13699999_10206858004628923_3882587901125880649_n

8. August

During August, we took deep breaths and dove headfirst into revising Black Powder Goddess. In addition, we began drafting Graceless, book 4 in the Gift of Grace series. Normally in August we attend Spocon, the convention which gave us our start back in 2011. This year, Spocon took a year off after putting on Sasquan in 2015.

9. September

Easily the best-selling anthology to date for us is the great How Beer Saved the World.  Keeping a copy of this book on the table at any given con is difficult at best, and the online sales for it have been fabulous.

In September, Esther and I were proud to be a part of the launch of the second volume of How Beer Saved the World. Having two of these books on our table from here on our is really going to be quite something, because we cannot stop people from buying the first one. Here’s a quick marketing tip: if you want to sell an anthology, make it about booze. Half the people at a convention are already thinking about it.

10. October

October…sucked.

The editor of our first three novels, Sue Bolich, lost her fight with cancer in early October. Sue has been with Esther and I from the beginning of our careers, and losing her was a serious blow. I would not be the author I am today if it were not for Sue flaying me alive at every step. Sue, we loved you, and we are far better writers with far better books for having known you. Nothing we do in the industry would have been possible had you not ever-so-politely laid the skin from our flesh every time we looked at you. She was a great author and an amazing editor, and I still feel directionless in this industry without her.

11. November

November began with the release of Dragon Writers. a charity anthology put out by WordFire Press. If you’re reading the Fictorians regularly, there’s fair odds you’re going to see this mentioned a lot this month. Frank, Jace, and Kristin (and maybe some others I missed, sorry guys) appear alongside Brandon Sanderson, Jodi Lynn Nye, David Farland, and Todd McCaffery in this anthology of stories featuring (1) dragons, and (2) creativity.

In addition, Esther and I made yet another con appearance, this time at OryCon in Portland.

12. December

It is December 2nd as of this post. Who knows what the next 24 days will bring?

That’s me for the year. It was a huge year with our biggest releases, our most effective con appearances, and some of our best networking. For Esther and I, 2016 is going to be looked back on as the year we started going full-bore as professional authors.

 

 

Adapting the Past

I grew up on the Shannara books. I loved them. Oh, looking back I see them for what they were; Tolkien- ripoff hackery. They are not good books. But as a twelve-year-old just taking his first steps down this path, I loved them. And when I pick up those cliche tomes these days, I am still overcome with a sense of nostalgia.

So, last year, when I saw that MTV (of all channels) had decided to do a Shannara adaptation, I had two reactions, in sequence:

1. Sqquuuueeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

2. How in the heck are they going to do that?

Now, I am not alone in my Shannara geekery. For books that would never see the light of day if they were written now, they have a strong following. A lot of us, young in the eighties and seeking some form of fantasy, devoured and loved them despite their flaws. And a lot of us are very, very committed to the books; even the parts that suck.

But not enough of us to make an MTV audience. Let’s face it; most Shannara fans are my age. You had to be young enough to dig fantasy and old enough to live in a time where there weren’t other options. And most of them are male, because the Shannara books aren’t particularly great about depicting women. MTV, of course, does not even come close to targetting my demographic. So who in the world thought it’d be a good idea to put this niche show there?

And, as I processed all of these factors, my third reaction began to dawn, ever so slowly.

3. This is going to suck.

Why did I think this? Well, let’s start with this. This picture, just to the left here. You know what that is? That’s the original group of adventurers from the first Shannara novel. It’s a pretty racially diverse cast; you have a dwarf, a couple of Valemen, some humans, a druid, and two elves. Of course, they’re all white males, but still…diversity, right?

Now, I knew MTV wasn’t about to put that cast up on the screen. I figured we’d see some gender-swapping, and some characters would end up being not-white. Which I was OK with, really. I am not someone who believes you can’t gender-swap a character. Obviously, there are series that have done this, and done it well.

So, the first thing that relieved me on this was where MTV decided to start. Oh, the great community of nerds had some things to say when we discovered that Sword of Shannara was merely backstory. That, instead, we would be dealing with Elfstones of Shannara, the second book in the series. Upon seeing this, it occurred to me that MTV had actually sat down, read the books, and figured out what the heck it was doing.

The Shannara Chronicles are not point-by-point true to the original book. There’s no King of the Silver River, Grimpen Ward is never mentioned, the Witch Sisters barely make an appearance, and the great mid-air confrontation between Allanon and the Dagda Mor is more of a couple of seconds on the ground. Special effects budgets, storyline, and the need to get some kind of episode-based rhythm account for much of it, but honestly, there’s something else.

The Shannara Chronicles is simply written better than the original books.

Remember what I said at the beginning of this article. The Shannara books are not well-written. They’re basically hackery of the lowest sort. I know, I know; if you’re an old-school geek like me, you remember them fondly. But you know what else I remember fondly? The Thundercats cartoon. I tried to re-watch it, once. bad idea.

The Shannara Chronicles cut down on the cast. Now, obviously there’s a budgetary reason for this; when you’re making a TV show, each new character is a new person you have to pay. But that also had the effect of streamlining the story, which the book very badly needed.

The series made the story one of the personal relationships. They did that for their demographic, of course, but doing it made us far more focused on the characters. Cephelo isn’t just a lovable rogue in the series; he is very, very dangerous. Eretria isn’t just “the other girl,” or “Wil’s second choice.” She’s a kick-ass survivor with her own set of priorities. And Amberle isn’t single-minded in her devotion to the cause; she has to examine what’s being asked of her again, and again, and again.

Wil, on the other hand, is all too aware of what happens after the heroism. He’s constantly worried about the price he’s going to pay long-term for his exploits, and he has the shadow of his father, Shea Ohmsford. Shea’s exploits from Sword are referenced, often in praising terms, but Wil’s problem is that he knew his dad as a worthless, drunken waste of humanity. And he fears, deeply, that he’s on the same path. Save the world, but lose yourself in the process.

All the characters are wrestling with their internal demons instead of just the external ones trying to kill them. And that kind of internal conflict makes the series simply better than the books.

***SPOILER ALERT – I’M GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE END OFSEASON ONE. STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT IT SPOILED***

The thing that most scared me when I saw that Elfstones was the adaptation was simple: Elfstones’ best story point is its ending. The heroes win, but there is a huge sacrifice to be made. Amberle must become the Ellcrys. She doesn’t die, no, but we’re talking about killing off one leg of your love triangle in the end of the first season. I was terrified that MTV wouldn’t have the guts to do it–and I’m really happy I was wrong.

***END SPOILERS***

The point, here, is that stories were a certain way in the 1980s. And they’re just better now. Our profession has gotten a lot more involved in the internal dramas, and beating the great evil thing using the Macguffin simply doesn’t cut it anymore. MTV took a story from the past, a beat-the-evil-with-the-thing work of hackery, and made it three-dimensional. It’s an exceptionally well-done adaptation, and it stands as an example of how to update an old, tired, tropey work.

Now that the season is done, we have a new question for MTV. Season 2 is in the works, and we know that it deals with the same characters. That’s really interesting, because…Wil doesn’t do anything else in the books. Wil Ohmsford, in the books, goes back to Storlock, finishes his studies to become a healer, and settles down with Eretria. They have a pair of kids, and those kids go on to have their own adventures. The next book in the series is Wishsong, and it’s not about Wil at all.

It doesn’t sound as though MTV wanted to rotate their entire non-Allanon cast to deal with Season 2. And I get it; you want your fans to become attached to a main character, not someone entirely new. But there’s another adaptation challenge ahead. Do they simply make up new storylines? Do they try to adapt the Wishsong storyline into Season 2?

I’m honestly not sure, but I’m interested to see where it goes.

The Difference Between Darkness and Murk

When I was in my sophomore year, we all had to write a short story about whatever we wanted. Now, I’m not sure what I wrote; the assignment didn’t stick in my head because of what did.

No, the assignment stuck in my head because of what my buddy Jacob did.

See, Jacob went for the most gruesome splatter-based horror story he could. It was the sort of story you’d expect from a tenth-grader, badly written and dripping in gore. At one point a series of people got taken out by a snowplow. Amongst all our friends, it was generally agreed that Jacob had produced a work of pure genius, to rival those of Poe himself. He got a C-.

That story was so “awesome” to my tenth-grade self that I kept a copy of it. And while I was in college a couple of years later, I stumbled across it and re-read the stupid thing. I immediately concluded that “C-” had been generous. Grammar errors aside, the story structure had less cohesiveness than an average porn movie. Oh, the bodies were stacked up like cordwood, but that’s all the thing had going for it. That sanguine veneer covered exactly…nothing.

Now, none of this should come as a surprise to any readers here, save perhaps the fact that I’m talking about a writing assignment from High School at all. Of course it sucked-we were in the tenth grade.

But every time I sit down to try to write something dark, I remember that stupid story. I remember how fascinated I was by it, and then how terrible it was. Those two extreme reactions are interesting and paradoxical enough that they form the core of my thinking about writing dark. And they’re the reason I rarely do it.

Dark writing is often used as a way to cover up bad writing. And it should never, ever be.

There’s a lot of posts going on this month about pulpy fun. And that’s fine, so long as that’s the contract between the reader and the writer. Reader goes in expecting pulpy fun, reader gets pulpy fun, all is well in the world. But doing an intentionally pulpy story is one thing; being dark because it’s a substitute for being good is another.

Let’s take this to cinema for a second. You know why nobody liked Man of Steel? Because Grimdark Superman isn’t a thing. Zach Snyder took on the admittedly steep challenge of doing the Big Blue Boy Scout and completely muffed it. Superman’s a tough character to write specifically because you can’t simply go dark to get a serious edge to your story. You have to have a purely morally upright hero. It can be done–and done very, very well–but it pulls that crutch out from underneath you.

Which should only serve to point out that there is a crutch here.

So, writing good dark fiction requires that one be aware of the fact that going dark can be a crutch. Keep it in your head at all times, because every time you add to the body count there should be a purpose to it. Every murder, every horrible monster; you need to look at the thing you’re trying to evoke in your reader. If it’s pulpy, campy fun, then fine; be up front that you’re going to have pulpy, campy fun. But if you want a really good, dark, horrific story then the first thing you have to do is stop thinking of it as a dark story and just think of it as a story.

Your characters still need to be well-rounded. They still have to have real emotions, still have to think and be motivated realistically. If you have a villain–even one whose goal it is to go about gruesomely murdering people, then that villain needs to have reasons for what he or she is doing. Arguably one of the best horror villains written is Hannibal Lecter, and he’s not great because of his victims. He’s great because his murders stand out in stark contrast to his erudite intellectualism. He’s terrifying because we like him.

So, in short; the trick to writing good, dark fiction is to stop thinking of it as dark fiction. Write your characters. Give them a full life, and let the readers love them for who they are. Watching some random, faceless murdered commit atrocities is fun. Watching a character you love commit atrocities is terrifying.

The Aftermath of the Small Print

Alright, I’m a lawyer. Make your jokes now.

Now, let’s get to it. There’s two kinds of lawyers in the world: planners and litigators. Planners live a life of quiet intensity. It’s their job to look everything over and get everything right so that there’s no lawsuits, no drama. The life of a planner is asking “what if,” and if the planners did their job right, then no litigation ever happens.

I’ve done a little planning work in my career. It’s not my cup of tea, though. No, I’m primarily the other thing; I’m a litigator. And the reason wasn’t personal choice; it was the clients who were available to me. When I did civil law, rarely ever did one of my small-town clients come to me until after everything had gone completely to heck. And half the time, my first interview with a prospective client went something like the following:

Me: OK, well, I see that you signed away basically everything under the sun in this ironclad contract that the people who are now your corporate masters paid an entire staff of planning attorneys their own weight in frankincense to draft. So what seems to be the problem?

Prospective Client: Well, I don’t like the terms now. They’re bad.

Me: Oooookay. But you don’t meet any of the criteria in the termination clause.

Prospective Client: But look at how unfair this is!

Me: Well…why did you sign it?

Prospective Client: I, uh, I didn’t read the small print.

Me: Yeah. You’re screwed. Maybe come talk to me before you sign a thirty-page contract next time.

Now, don’t get it twisted up; this isn’t the talk-to-a-lawyer-before-you-sign rant. I’ve got that rant, and I can bust it out at a later date if called for, but the subject this month is talking about what happens when things go bad.

So, I’m going to assume that you’ve already completely screwed the pooch. A publisher has your rights, they’re not giving them back, they’re not actually publishing your work, and everything you worked for is taking a spiral journey down the porcelain waste-hole.

Now what?

Here’s a couple of things to remember.

1. Double-check everything.

Not everyone’s planning attorneys are great. Oh, I know I just painted a scenario wherein a lawyer tells a prospective client that they are screwed, and that happens a lot. But not always. It’s worth it to take the contract into a lawyers office, get it double-checked for something. Perhaps the termination clause has a trigger you can pull. Perhaps there’s a good-faith obligation on their part to do a thing that eases the pain. I have no idea what your specific problem is, so don’t take my word for it that you’re screwed. Take this thing to a lawyer who can look at it from every angle and determine that you are. If you’re a SFWA member, they have folks that can help with this. If not, well; find one yourself. It’s worth it to double-check.

2. Denial is your enemy.

I’m going to assume that your attorney didn’t find anything. Now you’re the client in the above scenario, you’re screwed. And you love this IP. You crafted these characters from portions of your soul. Now, thanks to some stupid small print in a contract that nobody ever reads, you’ve lost them. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And you hurt, and it sucks, and you feel like, for you, there is no justice in the world. And it is perfectly OK and legitimate to feel those things.

But.

One of the most common ways we deal with emotions like that is good, old-fashioned denial. We convince ourselves, despite what everyone is telling us, that there is a way to make it all OK. Because if we can believe that, then we don’t have to face the cold, hard truth that we destroyed the thing we love. This right here? This is where so very, very many clients of mine have absolutely screwed the pooch. They believe that their side will prevail because, emotionally, they need to believe that.

As a result, anyone who tells them they won’t are either liars or incompetent.

This kind of denial is a downward spiral. It’s the worst possible thing you can do to yourself. Because if you are screwed, then the fastest way out is step #3 (see below). Denial makes you wallow in the past like a pig rolling about in its own filth. It keeps you fighting when everyone around you sees you’re tilting at windmills. Denial will suck away your pocketbook. It will prevent you from doing anything new. It will, in fact, destroy you more thoroughly than a bad experience with a contract ever did, because until you accept that you completely screwed the pooch when you signed that contract, you will never be able to:

3. Move on.

This is hard.

You’re hurt. You’re bitter. You’re disillusioned with this whole writing thing. You’re not in denial anymore; you know you screwed yourself over, but you had characters and a world you loved, and now they’re gone. You screwed up and sold them, and they’re not yours anymore.

Do the next thing. Work on the next project. The only way over it is through it. Some things can’t be fixed, and there’s not reason to quit being you. Learn from your mistakes, and go on to do the next thing. You can write more books, make more characters, and do more projects. Put a smile on your face, then go on with your life. Because milk has been spilled, and the thing to do here is to pour yourself another glass of milk.