Book Review: Fire in the Dawn

fire in the dawn cover

Justin Fike contacted me in the summer of 2009. It had been a little while since he’d graduated from Brown University and he was trying to decide whether or not to commit to being a writer. He had a book in process, but the vision was huge. It might end up being a trilogy, he thought, and it seemed like a lot of work. Could he really make it as a writer?

I did five coaching sessions with Justin (he’s given me permission to share that publicly) and he did decide to push on. Some time later, he asked me if I’d write a letter of recommendation for the Master’s in Creative Writing program at Oxford University. I felt a little under-qualified, but I did it. Justin got in, graduated… time went on… he still hadn’t finished that book.

Justin and I have been in touch ever since. In 2016, we met again at a conference in Thailand, and decided to write a series of action-adventure/comedy books called the Stetson Jeff Adventures. Our main character is a cross between any Chuck Norris character (he really only plays one guy, right?) and Forrest Gump, three books have been published and several more are drafted as I write this.

But that story he was working on in 2009 still wasn’t done, until this weekend Justin finally published Fire in the Dawn, the first book in his Twin Skies Trilogy.

I give you all this background just to say that sometimes people with huge ideas and lots of talent can take a LONG time to get that book out. This in itself commands my respect.

I have learned a lot from Justin about story beats: the aspect of writing that involves keeping the reader engaged, tools and techniques to make you want to turn the page. Justin is whiz-bang at this, and I have a feeling that by the time we’re done with 9 Stetson Jeff books and he finishes the rest of his Trilogy, he’s going to be at a level we’d have to call masterful. So here is my review:

Fire in the Dawn is set in a fantasy world similar to Medieval Japan. Justin taps into a deep knowledge and understanding of cultures to construct a world that feels real, with a political landscape that has treachery on every side. There are social and racial themes throughout that keeps you guessing about how his main character will be able to accomplish his goals, and intriguing alliances. Like any good fantasy story, there’s a bit of magic thrown in that refers to the power of qi but some deeper magic too.

All told, if you’re a reader of lots of fantasy lit, you’re going to love what Fike has done with the genre. He’s gotten away from the trolls, orcs, dragons and wizards, and done something exceptional, fresh, and exciting.  And if you’re not into the fantasy genre, that’s okay– Fire in the Dawn has a literary quality that’s appealing to a broader-than-fantasy-readers audience in a way that’s similar to how I experienced George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Justin’s work isn’t as gory and doesn’t have the perverse sexual violence of Martin’s Game of Thrones, nor does it have the same immense complexity of a cast of characters of hundreds you have to track, so it’s definitely lighter reading in several ways. The comparison is being made strictly based on the fact that it’s literary. Fike’s world has plenty of depth and texture to explore, and a certain amount of intrigue. He keeps the action moving, so you never bog down with lengthy explanations of the world. The first few chapters you may find yourself wondering what is going on, and where you are, so it will be helpful to refer to the map!  I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy.

Also, check out that sweet cover art. Top notch professional work!

Justin’s promoting Fire in the Dawn on Amazon for free at the moment, but the promotion ends today, so get it now!

Also, if you’d like to check out the work that Justin and I have done together, here’s the link to The Stetson Jeff Adventures, Volume 1, which includes “Beatdown in Bangkok”, “Mayhem in Marrakesh”, and “Pandemonium in Paradise” plus a bonus short story, “A Very Stetson Christmas”, available in paperback and as an e-book.


Writing: The X Factor

There’s this thing called the X-Factor. It’s what makes your writing sing.

This is the fifth in a five part series on writing.

The X Factor is this is the unteachable element.

If something’s unteachable, you have to tack. Tacking is a technique sailors use when they want to take a sailboat directly into the wind. Well, you can’t do it. So you go at a 45 degree angle, sideways. Then, to stay on course, you go into the wind sideways the other direction for a while.

How do you tack when it comes to growing in the X-factor?

Tack left: engage the arts. Read. Read challenging things. Read the great Russian writers. See good art at museums or fine art galleries. Watch interesting films with plots. I prefer foreign films, they’re less predictable. Listen to music you don’t normally gravitate to.

Tack right: work on the basics again. Do the four exercises from the previous four weeks. Grow in all four of the other areas, tack towards the muse, and you’ll grow in this area too. You’ll learn to recognize it, for one thing, when it happens to you.

The last thing you have to do is keep consulting the compass as a good sailor would to make sure you’re still headed where you want to go. This means getting feedback from writers you respect, and taking them seriously.

I’m still tacking a lot. My two books are The Art of Motivational Listening (2015) and White Buffalo Gold (2012). See the bookstore for how to order.

Tying up loose ends in the final draft stage of writing

Wednesday morning I got up at 5 AM fully intending to get all the final stuff I needed over to Iva (my editor) so we could print the galley proof and see what this book looks like in the flesh — that is, with ink n stuff on paper n stuff.

There’s always more than you thought. Monday I had sent her my final revisions (third, fourth or fifth draft? Lost track.) Wednesday I was looking over the .pdf and found that she’d missed all my revisions on one chapter. The rest looked great. By 7 AM I thought I was done. Later in the day I was working to find one or two more illustrations, adding a link to a friend’s blog, re-captioning a bunch of illustrations … the list went on. The better job I do on the details, the better the galley will look. The better the galley looks, the more likely we can publish it after seeing the galley, without revisions. (Yeah. Right.)

I have this love/hate relationship with the details. There comes a point when you take that book and send it to the editor and say “I want nothing more to do with this steaming pile of horse radish, you deal with it” and then they punt it back to you for revisions a few times, and finally right before the end, the very bitter end, the end with coffee dregs gagging you, you just want to say “give control back to me NOW because this has to be perfect” and they do, because it’s yours to screw up if you must. Like, I had this crazy idea that we’d break the rules and NOT underline the title of a certain book which is mentioned multiple times in one particular chapter. (I have my reasons, mainly that underlined stuff looks like a web link these days. I’m about done with underlining.)

In coaching, we say that leaders take responsibility for their lives. Well, that goes for writing too: writers take responsibility for their manuscripts. You have to give it up to the editor to some degree, and you have to also realize that no editor is ever going to care about your book the way you do, just like no renter ever takes care of the place the way an owner does. When the book is done, Iva will go off to another project while I try to sell the darn thing.

This is the time when people start asking you “are you excited” and your primary reply is “I’m exhausted” but of course there is exhilaration as well. Then there’s the whole “now I gotta market this thing” stuff that has you tied up in knots. Dealing with loose ends while you’re tied up in knots, and people think a writer’s job is easy. Ha.

But I have no complaints. Getting that book in your hands is one of the most satisfying things a person can do.  Flipped on the radio Tuesday and caught the tail end of an NPR article. They were saying that 20% of books are now read on e-readers. I know there are lots of gurus out there saying that you can make a living selling e-books, but that’s mostly for people writing genre fiction, the $0.99 garden variety, here-today-forgotten-tomorrow pulp fiction which has come roaring back from the 1920’s. I contend that if you’re going to be any sort of a speaker, coach, trainer, doing any conferences, basically if you’re going to be in front of people AT ALL, you better go ahead and invest in some paper copies. Sure, it’s overhead, but it’s also still how 80% of your readers will prefer to consume your work.

Plus, there’s that feeling you get when you hold your book in your hands like an infant, warm, cuddly, crying out “somebody read me!” That feeling that makes your toes tingle with glee. That feeling of “oh Lord may the world appreciate everything I love about this baby at least a tenth as much as I really hope they will” is similar to the feeling parents get when they hold that infant and say “the world is cruel, little one, but pay no attention to the critics.”

The critics, after all, are spending their time criticizing rather than writing their own book.

In a few days the final touches will be finished. We’ll cut the cord, tie the knot, and send this book out into the world to live in a straw or brick house like a little pig, or watch her go in her cute little jacket to visit grandma and hope that it doesn’t get eaten by the big bad wolf of international Internet indifference. Good luck, little book. And God bless you!

Oh, yeah. The publisher told me yesterday he’s thinking of translating it into Spanish already.

“Yeah, I wrote this book. I can’t read it, but I wrote it.” Hmm. I kind of like that.