SJ Reads

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SJ Reads: Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

Published July 9, 2018 by admin

It’s Camp Nano time, so I figured I’d look at some writing/creative books for those who are of the mind. I fell into this title last year, read through it once, and really want to go through again step by step. I’ve sat in a few things Jessica Abel has done, and her mindset to cutting through the excess to help you figure out how to balance and schedule your creative work is one of the best I’ve seen.

We all know we have a lot on our plates. I think sometimes we think that’s a necessary thing, especially when we’re just starting out or trying to rebrand ourselves, or whatever. Sometimes, clinging to all of that at once, though, just isn’t going to help. That’s where Growing Gills comes in.

growing gills


What I love about this is that it’s motivating, but realistic. Abel also really makes the reader get into what’s going on with them internally that could be affecting how they work and how they perceive things. You definitely have to participate in this book and keep an open mind that the way you’ve always done things…the comfortable, good ol’ way you know how, just may not be the best thing for you.

Look, the glow of Nano is going to wear off. Don’t you want to know what to do with your work and how to move toward doing more of that and doing something with it?

This isn’t one of those things that promises that you’ll be completely fixed and all you need to do is believe and do a couple of visualization exercises. This is asking things of you, and asking you to be honest to yourself. But, it also isn’t judgmental and is very much the type of conversation a lot of us really needed to have way before whatever brought us to reading this book. This makes you put in some work, physical and emotional, but, it’s very much a real-world guide to improving your creative situation and making things better than where you’re at now. This will help you chart a path, and that’s something not a lot of us have either done for whatever reason, or completely know how to do.

Her blog is also awesome, and pretty much you just need to look up all of her media and advice, because you will find something between all the various forms it comes in to help you out.

Seriously, though, start by Getting this Book

SJ Reads: Save the Cat

Published July 2, 2018 by admin

I’ve also been trying to read more about writing, so today’s SJ Reads goes with that line of thought. I try to be aware of anything that will help me out, and I’ve noticed a lot of my writerly friends mentioning this title. I was skeptical at first, and then I paged through it at the library, and then I bought it, and then I obsessively read it and bought gigantic board to stick on my wall and five million index cards.

Of course, I’m talking about Save the Cat.

save the cat


You may be confused, because it’s a book on screenwriting. Here’s the deal – I will take any help I can get, and this book breaks down story development in really nice, specific ways. Some of it was not always the easiest to hear because we all know I like to be a little too clever-clever at times. The thing is, you can be that way, but also plan and follow a structure that will make things easier for you in the long run.

What I like about this is how it discusses ways to plan your overall basic story/theme in a pitch that I can definitely see helping not just in writing, but when shopping a project. Then, the discussion of beats and how limiting the amount and planning how energy flows ahead of time…this would have made some of my early writing so much easier, let’s put it that way. I also like the concept of using index cards vs trying to sit down at a computer and write out a giant outline or synopsis…or even to just start writing. This makes things feel more manageable, and I will take all of that I can get in my life. While the examples given aren’t always the most current, they’re still good examples and things are explained specifically and well. This is the kind of advice book that feels like the author actually has done this technique and used it, and it isn’t just something thought up to pitch an advice book. It does make you think and consider parts of your story or idea and how they’re working. It does make you do homework before you sit down to write. You know what, if it means I’m not trying to correct multiple points in time and aspects of a structure simultaneously, sure, I’ll try it.

Quick read, easy to understand, doesn’t talk down to the reader, enjoyable and feels doable. If you’re into any sort of writing, definitely check it out.

I do have the sequel, but haven’t gotten there yet, so I’ll update accordingly when I do.

SJ Reads: Paperbacks from Hell

Published June 25, 2018 by admin

So obviously, I need to rethink how to stay on a schedule. Welcome to your creative life: it’s always something. This time, though, I’ve been really leaning into a lot of writing, looking at where I’m at and where I want to go, that sort of thing. So good things in my absence.

But yeah, nuff of that, we can cover all that later, let’s talk books.

One of the things I’ve been doing lately is really expanding what I’m reading, focusing on different things, and picking up things I may have missed.

And my dudes, I love this book so much. Not only is the writing hilarious, but this is a documentation of a period of literary history you shouldn’t miss. I give you: Paperbacks from Hell.

paperbacks from hell

In all seriousness, it’s a fantastic book. I grew up in the heyday of trashy 80s paperback horror, but at that time it wasn’t my bag (I was more into carebears and my little ponies, the gateway drugs of alternate dimensions, demon possession, and other sparkly horror for young girls). I remember seeing crazy covers on store shelves when I got bored waiting for my parents to do whatever it is parents do in a store (I’m still not sure, honestly). I didn’t really understand where they sat in the genre, though, and certainly didn’t appreciate the history of them.

This book is a necessity. If you love horror, if you’re a horror author, if you do panels talking about horror, I’d better see this book in your hot little hand. It explores the evolution of genre titles from late sixties (led by The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, etc), up to the early 90s when RL Stine and Christopher Pike ruled all. Each chapter goes by a type of subgenre, and it’s really a fantastic breakdown that also helps you understand where publishing was at the time and what the hell happened.

The thing I notice with a lot of people at smaller conventions is that they can namecheck Stephen King, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, maybe some splatterpunk or southern gothic and a few other things, but a lot gets brushed over. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist (tangent rant: reminds me of the time I was told by a co-panelist that horror comics don’t really play the same roles in genre and it turned into me proclaiming my love for them for a good five minutes at least. I expect this book will lead to similar performances re: horror writing history when I’m on future panels, so look out for that).

Guys, know your stories. Know what all is out there. A lot of the books mentioned are out of print, but you can still find some in ebook, still find some in yard sales. Not all will be your cuppa tea and that’s fine. I’d never heard of Elizabeth Engstrom, I went right out and read When Darkness Loves Us because of this book, and oooooh my gawd. Suddenly I have a huge influence to namecheck because it almost makes me angry how good her writing is. Plus, I mean if not that, killer babies, satanic whatevers, evil toys, monster animals and all that are tons of fun, amirite?

I also appreciate that the authors go into the place of Gothic fiction and Gothic romance within the timeline, and just generally make everything so easy to follow. Plus, they’re hilarious. I’ve loved Grady Hendrix’s novels anyway, but now I feel he and Will Errickson need to be my best friends. The narration in this book is amazing – I laughed so much reading this thing, I can’t even tell you. It never takes itself too seriously, and it’s infused with a huge love of every book that’s profiled.

Seriously, if you even half appreciate the horror genre, or want to ogle some epic covers, check this book out.

SJ Reads: Batman: Noel

Published December 20, 2017 by admin

batman noel


Time once again for another alternative holiday title to get you in the spirit! This week, we look at Batman: Noel.

I stop and start with the Bat family comics, but they’re consistently the only DC I really keep up with (though not so much once New 52 hit). In general, I prefer titles like this or trade paperbacks of arcs to individual issues. I have my own thoughts on what Batman is and isn’t, but one thing I love is that within the title, there are so many different facets to the character and to Gotham, itself. It makes ideas like this not only work, but become something really interesting and special.

The basic gist is that this is A Christmas Carol put through a Batman filter. We see Bob, one of Joker’s henchmen, be used as a potential pawn by Batman, whose world view has become even more black and white after the death of Jason Todd. Different heroes and villains take on the role of the ghosts as Batman/Bruce slowly succumbs to pneumonia, while also trying to take down the joker and deal with what he’s becoming.

Because Batman can be so many things, it’s interesting to see him as Scrooge, and not all that unbelievable. It’s also interesting to see Batman as not benevolent hero or hardcore badass, but something in the middle, someone who will do a lot to support their view of the world that’s slowly been affected by grief. You also get to see how others view him, plus there’s the obligatory action and fight sequences and solving the problem of the moment. Yet it still keeps to theme, still feels like a Christmas title. I also like that you do get a character arc from Bruce, you do get the sense that he’s working through things and learning somewhat, but it’s also believable and not something cartoony to fit the source material.

For me, especially, it vaguely reminds me of the animated series episodes where you’d take a brief look at some poor guy stuck in the middle of Batman and Joker’s constant battle, or see the main action through a side set of eyes. I love choices like that, and they really work for this title.

The art is just gorgeous, too. There’s a haunting quality to it, a cold realism that transcends typical comic book looks for me. I rememer not going into this one with any real expectation, because so often for me gimmicks like this just don’t work. I have to admit, I was very pleasantly surprised and read it a few times in a row – and got a different take each time I paged through it.


SJ Reads: Krampus Shadow of Saint Nicholas

Published December 11, 2017 by admin

Time once again to visit a holiday book for the season, and keeping with the inadvertent theme, we’re going to look at another graphic novel:


Note that this is not a comic/novelization covering the same story of the movie, though it is set in the same universe. If you like the movie, you’ll probably like the comic, and vice versa. Honestly, I think this even fleshes out the movie a little bit and gives more of a reasoning to things that happen there – it kinda gives a slightly different vibe to the last scene, because you have more of a sense of the full scope of things that are going on (and although it’s mostly subtext, I felt like there’s more of a feel of why, too).

This is somewhat more like Trick R Treat than Krampus, in that it combines different narratives in an almost anthology feel, but does a better job of blending them into one narrative at the end. A down-and-out mall Santa, a cop who runs into the person who ruined his life, and a rich businessman each earn a visit from Krampus, and each have to do their part to ward off the anti-santa and his minions and save the town’s Christmas.

If you love the over-the-top aspects of the movie like the evil toys and elves and such, you get much more of that here. You also get to see more of the realm inside Krampus’s sack, and honestly I feel like the limits were pushed much further here at times than in the movie. You also definitely get a moral – this isn’t just bizarreness for its own sake. Though it does feel like it almost runs away with itself at times, the creators do a great job at reining things in toward the end and giving the reader a fulfilling, complete journey. Definitely a great companion to the film, though you don’t have to see it to appreciate the book. I honestly read this long before I saw the movie and loved it a lot. Probably best for teens on up and those who like horror/can have a sense of humor about the holidays, this is a fun title that’s every bit as quirky and creepy as the film it springs from.






SJ Reads: Marvel Zombies Christmas Carol

Published December 4, 2017 by admin



I really considered how to do SJ reads this month. I have an addiction to Christmas/holiday fiction, and there are a TON of great titles out there.

My notes are also scattered everywhere, so I really need to re-sort and dig through. I decided to keep with the unintentional theme to finish out the year, though, and go with holiday graphic novels/comics (and not just because those are closest at hand).

I love a good holiday story, but sometimes it’s nice to see how other properties use the holiday season in their own franchises. You can find some really interesting, unconventional reads that way – and it’s sometimes fun to find holiday stories that are a bit unconventional.

Today, we look at Marvel Zombies Christmas Carol.

This was given to me a few years ago as a gag gift, and I think the person was a little shocked that I love it as much as I do. On the one hand: what the ever-loving hey. On the other, it’s a title that lives up to the name. While it doesn’t interact with any of the other Marvel Zombies titles, it is definitely A Christmas Carol with zombies. You’d think this would be stupid, but it actually ends up working really well. The basic premise is the plot of A Christmas Carol, but amid a zombie outbreak that’s overtaking the workhouses (admittedly it’s been a while since I’ve read it, and I’m trying to jog my memory while writing this). Setting Scrooge’s personal journey against an actual threat of death and destruction, while finding out that the whole thing may actually be his fault…it’s intense.

It stays true to the original story and takes time to get you through all the beats. While there are a lot of zombies, they’re not slammed up in your face all the time – they’re somewhat part of the environment, unless they’re illustrating the obvious metaphors of the story. It’s a really interesting twist to the tale, and highlights more of Scrooge’s plight and the whole life vs death theme that’s quietly going on underneath the original.

Granted, here’s the thing: to enjoy this you almost have to like horror, like comics, and like the original story. It’s not really a gag interpretation and it’s not over-the-top gore for gore’s sake or meant as some punchline. I’m actually fairly impressed by the care that obviously went into this.

While I’ve read worse in Walking Dead, there are some intense illustrations, and this book does carry a parental advisory. However, compared to most of the other horror comics I’ve read in my life, this is easily doable for teens and up who are into this kind of thing.

The day I was given this, I sat and read it a few times, because I expected it to be a one-note title, and I kept finding little nuances to appreciate. Plus, the art is vivid and grotesque in interesting ways, and the new twist really makes you appreciate the familiar characters and plotline. I definitely recommend a read through – it may not get you precisely into the holiday spirit, but it will help you appreciate what you have around you, for sure. Also a great gift for horror comic fans.

Find it here





SJ Reads: The Artist’s Way

Published November 27, 2017 by admin

This is another of those so obvious I probably shouldn’t include it, but it’s well-known for a reason.

artist's way


Confession: I haven’t made it all the way through this one. I’ve had to take it in spurts, and that seems to be the case for most people I know who own it. It’s definitely one you’ll probably want to buy (I recommend giving it a flip through at the library first to make sure it’s your speed), because it is involved and detailed. However, if you’re looking for something to jumpstart your artistic practice, this is definitely the book for it.

The thing is, this book is incredibly interactive. It gives you some initial basic practices and things to consider, and then you work through chapter by chapter. It’s kind of up to you how to interpret some of it, and while it’s geared to all types of artists, most of these exercises involve writing, so I feel it really rings true for writers in a special way. This book has really helped me look at my relationship through people where my artistic practices are involved, as well as my views on myself and my own practice, in general.

One of the biggest takeaways that seems to be universal is the morning pages. Whether you use it for journaling, brain dumping, writing whatever comes to mind – the thought process is to wake up and get three pages down to clear your head and get your thoughts together.

Admittedly, not being a morning person, this is not the easiest thing for me. I’ve played with it here and there, and I will say that I’m usually better off when I do it. It also helped me put a lot in perspective during a time when my thoughts about my writing were fairly tangled. For that takeaway, alone, I’m grateful to this title.

It’s one that deserves to be read the whole way through, but you can also skim or focus on the chapters that you think will serve you. As with anything else like this, of course there are corresponding workbooks and such, but really, the main title is all you need.

Get it here!