Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Author Interview with Shirley Simon and a Giveaway

Hey all! Today I'm excited to welcome Shirley Simon, author of Sinister Ties, to the Underground. Shirley is an author living in Delhi, India with a love of thrillers ad the paranormal. My review of her self-published book, Sinister Ties, can be found here. There is also a giveaway for the book at the bottom of this post definitely worth checking out. If you'd like to learn more about Shirley and her writing, you can visit her website at http://superphoenix.wordpress.com

1) What draws you most to mystery and the supernatural?  

My love for mystery and the supernatural goes back to my childhood.

As a child, I grew up on stories of the unknown—of ghostly encounters, haunted houses, demonic possessions and people wasting away under the influence of black magic—stories narrated by family members and neighbors alike. People finding their things floating around their rooms in the middle of the night; apparitions stopping travelers and asking for a ride; of people traveling on a certain road finding themselves unable to move or drive away from a particular spot till a specific time passed or an apparition crossed their path. My aunt often bought these local horror magazines that featured supposed true stories of people who had encountered spirits and genies. I loved sneaking a peek into those magazines (Yeah... My brain is a little twisted that way)

I was always fascinated by these tales. Those stories fueled a yearning in me to know more—whether it was all real or not, whether creatures and spirits—existed beyond the human realm.

Those childhood tales gave rise to quite a vibrant imagination. An imagination that over the years has consistently been fed with a regular dose of vampires, werewolves, ghouls, demons and everything that goes bump in the night. The supernatural intrigues me. The thrill of the unknown, the possibility of there being something beyond what we call the real world and for me it is the perfect escape from the real world.

2) Are you a pantser or a planner? Do you do an outline before you write or let the story guide you?  

I hate to admit this, but Yes I am a pantser. Everybody says that you should plan your story, make an outline, get your character sketches done. I have never been able to get around doing things that way.
For me, it's always been about the story leading me. The first thing for me, have always been jotting down the story as it comes to me. I try not to control the story at this stage and usually let it take the shape it is supposed to. After it is all there on paper, then I start working on giving it a better form and structure, reworking/ molding the action, etc.

3) Aside from self-publishing your work, you also run a review blog outside of a full-time job. How do you balance your time? Any advice?  

*Blushing*  Honestly, I really don't think I have ever been able to balance my time effectively.

I've always loved reading books. The idea that I could actually reach out to like-minded people and let them know how I felt about a book, got me so excited that I started writing reviews on Goodreads and LibraryThing and blogging about books, authors, etc. I found it to be a great way to connect with others. Writing my own stories and sharing with the world was a very recent decision, but it's been quite an exhilarating (and exhausting) ride.  

Over the years, I've realized that there is no right way to manage all the tasks that tend to come up. I try to do what suits me best. There are days when I am only writing and days when I am a bookworm reviewing books or trying my hand at designing. And some days I am not able to get down to doing anything constructive. I believe it's all because of the state of mind one is in and one should do everything possible to keep oneself happy.

It is not possible to isolate yourself from everything around you. We all are social animals (even if we authors deny the fact), we like to have our loved ones close to us. We go out to earn money, socialize with friends and associates and come home to write mysteries, thrillers, fantasies, or undying love stories. We all need to find things to do that refreshes our brains and keep us happy—spend some time with our family, take up a small hobby, and when we just can't think straight, read a good book (and review it).

All I am saying is—do things that improve your state of mind. If you are happy, you will be able to balance your time better, have time to write and write well too. If you are not happy, it will reflect in everything you do, even your writing. And remember, there is always scope to improve. Keep learning... keep the fire burning.

4) What has been the hardest part of your publishing journey?  

I caught on to the writing bug only a few years back and like any other self-publishing author, the road was not an easy one. The need to get my story out there was so overwhelming that I ignored many crucial steps in my publishing journey. Aside from experiencing anxiety pangs and weird writing moods—I think the hardest part for me was getting over personal fears.

Am I writing anything good? Will people like my stories? Will they want to read my stories? …..etc, etc, etc... These doubts plague me still, but today I have a little more confidence of what I write and that helps a lot. Though, I am still coming to terms with the nuances of promoting my work to excite readers and encourage them to take a risk on me. I think that is the toughest thing for an author.

5) How did publishing your first book change your writing process? 

Publishing my first book had been more of a rash decision (not thinking at all, I would say)—to dive head first without knowing how to swim. My first reader feedback had me hungover with excitement for quite a few days. It was not a positive one, but it opened up a whole new world to me. I realized that I could tell stories — ones that could appeal to others and were different from the usual run of the mill ones that were going around. They had potential to be something big, but I needed to work on my writing skills—showing and not telling, grammar, tenses, amongst many other things. Today, I have more visibility of my strengths and weaknesses.

I cannot say that I have come any close to perfecting the art, but I am making conscious efforts to improve my writing. I am reading up articles, books, and blogs on the art and doing writing exercises. These are helping me to express better and write more engaging stories. I want to be able to bring to readers tales that will catch their breath or bite their nails and keep them awake for days.

6) What does literary success mean to you? What would be that ‘dream goal’ you’d like to achieve?  

I want my stories to be sought after by readers the world over. I want them to look at me as the author who weaves unique, enchanting tales and brings extraordinary characters to life—ones that will remain in their thoughts for a long long time.

7) What was the most difficult part of writing Sinister Ties? What was your favorite?  

I think the first chapter was the most difficult for me to write. It was also the first thing that I began writing on in Sinister Ties. It had to set the mood for the rest of the story and I was never satisfied with it and kept going back to it again and again.

My favorite part was Bodhi setting the house on fire. It was a tragic incident but Bodhi's innocence and purity of intent, adds a different dimension to the story. The incident brings out anger in the reader, a frustration that creeps in and wants you to just stop him somehow and yet you still like him, love him even and feel sorry for him.

8) What kind of response have you gotten from fans? Any stories?  

There have not been fan moments (yet), but I have received a lot of support from fellow authors, beta readers, reviewers, and readers alike. Their kind words have boosted my confidence and I am working to bring something more exciting in the second book in the series.

9) How has your photography and art affected you as a writer?  

I feel it has helped me to think better, visualize better and express a little more effectively. Trying my hand at art or photography gives me a different perspective of looking at things. It is also a welcome release from when I can't think straight and need a distraction.

With fiction and especially fantasy writing, a lot of what I write about does not always have a physical precedence to fall back on or get a reference from. Trying to create a scene or just doodling away, is inspiring. Working on the cover of Sinister Ties had me go back and rework a few scenes in the book.

10) What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are interested in self-publishing?  

A) Be open to learning new things and improving yourself. The world of self-publishing is very dynamic and at times tough. There is a lot to learn here and only when you have that zeal in you and the curiosity, will you be able to go through the journey and enjoy it too.

B) Save money. Self-publishing is not cheap. Keep some money aside—you will need it to get your work edited, proofread and promoted. Believe me, it's not cheap out there and no single (free) platform to rely on. I stepped into this world without any research or money in my pocket. I just wanted to get my story out there. I learned the hard way that that is not enough. You will end up with bad reviews and find that your perfect story is not perfect after all. Avoid the heartbreaks. Do some research, find the right resources and platforms before you publish. Things will be a whole lot easier.


Enter below for a chance to win an e-book of Sinister Ties. The contest will be open internally, so enter away! Contest closes at the end of the month.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: The Garage? Just Torch It

Book Review: The Garage? Just Torch It by Dylan D Debelis 

Goodreads Description: A rally cry for the healing power of wonder and the disarming catharsis of grief, The Garage? Just Torch It. balances themes of belonging, love, politics, illness, family and forgiveness with stunning imagery and an intense playfulness. Paced as if the reader is moving through the belly of a burning building, each turn of the page represents the uncovering of the long-hidden, buried, and the better-left-forgotten.

My Review: I was given a review copy of The Garage? Just Torch It by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

The Garage? Just Torch It is a collection of poetry separated into four parts that tackle some pretty heavy topics. The poems have vivid imagery and beautiful use of language that had me pausing to roll the word combinations around on my tongue. This is not poetry that spells out things for you, rather, it speaks in the spaces between lines and paints images out of smoke. Read too fast and the image is gone, and so this book demands the reader pause to contemplate and savour each line. In a world of instant gratification, this poetry collection pauses to reflect on the beauty of tragedy and allows the reader to find the beauty in the moment. 

On the surface, the poems can seem disjointed and confusing at times, but when you see through the lines, the themes of a father's death begin to appear. It does at times present itself as a puzzle to piece together through clues in the poems, which I actually enjoyed. It allowed me to piece together an image of the poet and discover how the threads of literary lyricism all tied together. If you don't enjoy finding the story behind the lines, this collection may be frustrating for you, but if you enjoy the type of heavy metaphor found in university English class, this collection is a delightful read. 

TL;DR: All in all, 3/5 stars. A no-holds-barred poetry collection tackling the intensity of grief and loss.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Should Books Contain Trigger/Content Warnings?

Riddle me this, book lovers: should books contain trigger and/or content warnings?

This question has made its rounds in literary circles many times before. A few years ago, many editorials came out discussing the idea after university students began asking for trigger warnings on course material. You know, mostly to have a head's up in case a disturbing scene is just around the corner. I was amazed at the amount of anger such a consideration sparked. It was as if these students had asked for regular book burnings to take place on campus. Many of the objections boiled down to some simple themes:

1) You are ruining the Sanctity of Literature if you spoil plot points through trigger warnings.

2) These special snowflakes need to buck up and deal with it. Life doesn't come with trigger warnings.

3) Being able to "opt out" of uncomfortable situations or scenarios is unhealthy.

4) Trigger warnings will lead to banning books. 

So let's really get into this. Because I want to know what you think about all this.

For the purpose of this post, when I talk about trigger warnings, usually I'm referring to graphic depictions that could trigger someone who has a history of trauma. Things like suicide, war,
racism, rape, child murder, domestic violence, etc. When I talk about content warnings, it's usually in a broader sense and covers things that may not be triggering, but many still would like to be aware of, such as group or kink sex, swearing, drug use, etc.

Frankly, content warnings are something that should have been added to books years ago. Every other media has a rating system to let people know what kind of content they're about to walk into. From movies, to television, video games, comics-- all have their own system to let you know what kind of content it holds, from a G rating all the way through to NC-17. Even TV shows have general disclaimers to make audiences aware of swearing, nudity, and violence. These rating systems don't spoil content-- it allows us to be informed consumers.

Yet books are exempt from this? Why?

Probably because books pre-date any sort of rating system. We were dragging around dusty tomes before we decided what was offensive and what wasn't. But does that mean they should stay exempt? It's easy to excuse a novel from needing a rating system simply because you need to immerse yourself to actually get the full impact. A person strolling by a grotesque movie poster only has to glance at it to feel the triggering effects. A book, however, can look innocuous enough until you realize what those words are building towards. Of any type of media, books are most deserving of content warnings and a rating system because you often have no inkling of it coming before you're immersed in a very triggering scene. Movie trailers give you a much stronger picture than vague back covers, and yet there are still ratings and systems in place to make sure you go in informed.

Also, to add to the argument against "content warnings are spoilers" lets remember that according to the University of California, spoilers don't spoil. In fact, they often make the experience more enjoyable.

But what about real life? Nobody hands you a content warning when you walk out the door. And could it be harmful to self-censor yourself from upsetting content? Unfortunately, when we talk about people who have been "triggered" by content like this, it's not because they've lived sheltered lives. It's because that person has a mental illness that is being aggravated by this trigger. To be triggered often means panic attacks, extreme anxiety, hallucinations or flashbacks, and are absolutely debilitating. People who suffer through experiences like this, often stemming from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cannot control their triggers and are often hit by them when they least expect it. A traumatized individual could be triggered and not even know what by, which can create a life paralyzed by fear of the next trigger. Because of that, people will often avoid things they KNOW will trigger them, as they will inevitably be triggered by something they can't control anyway. Might as well minimize the damage, right?

Imagine PTSD as an allergic reaction. Every time you come in contact with coconut you break out in hives, so the logical thing would be to avoid coconut, would it not? You would want ingredient lists on anything you eat so you can know if it has coconut. If a teacher handed you raw coconut water and said you had to drink it for a grade, would you? Or would you protest, because this could severely hurt you, if not kill you?

Do people avoid certain topics and content? Sure, because everyone has preferences. At the end of the day, why should people be forced to read something they don't want to? There is no "book everyone must read" no matter what people say. Most importantly, due to life experiences, everyone will take away something different from a story. You may have found something beautiful in a book about a soldiers' journey through war, whereas an ex-military personnel may walk away feeling disgusted and horrified. It makes me think back to how media personnel vs military personnel responded to Trump's speech which honoured a fallen Navy SEAL, William "Ryan" Owens.

Media Reaction (left) and the Veteran's Reaction (right). 

Finally, will trigger warnings lead to banning books? I suppose I can see where the thought comes from, though to me it makes about as much sense as saying that if we offer people free healthcare they'll start running into traffic. In fact, everything I've seen when trigger warnings are put in place leads me to believe the opposite. Content warnings get people more excited about what's available to read. It's used as a tool to track down what you want through an over saturated market. To me, these 'warnings' are no different than tagging a book as sci-fi, fantasy, romance-- it helps to narrow down where in the world of literature this piece fits.

Before I came into the publishing world, I wrote fanfiction and participated in a lot of communities. Content and trigger warnings were STANDARD. It was EXPECTED. Often there were warnings on a chapter by chapter basis for longer pieces, so you knew exactly when the troubling content was coming. And how did people feel about it? Great! In fact, those content and trigger warnings became like lifeblood. Often, instead of turning people away from a story, it would engage them to click on and read. Back in those days, when I wanted to read a sweet romantic story featuring two gay men, I knew to look for tags such as "fluff" and usually the coded tag for that relationship (dating myself here, but in Saiyuki fandom, numbers were used to represent characters 3, 5, 8, and 9, so looking for a certain relationship meant looking for those numbers 3/9, 5/8, etc.) It worked amazingly. Going back to spoilers don't spoil piece, if people knew a story was especially dark, or contained graphic sex, or torture, tagging it as such let allowed people who were looking for those stories to find them easier.

When I transitioned out of the fanfiction world and started reading YA, I was thrown off by how little you are able to find out about a book. I wanted to find gay characters, especially as a teenager, and while in fanfiction such things would be easily tagged as such, in the book buying world I was flying blind. Unless the whole book focused around an Issue, you had to read the thing to find out if it had the content you were looking for. And then, Issue Books are often so formulaic and focuses so much on the problem that it can be hard to just enjoy the stories. Not to mention (especially for marginalized people) it's unfair that the only representation offered painted those people as People with Problems and forgot that they're just human.

Even today, when you look at how readers refer books to one another, you can see readers are concerned about content, not just when it comes to picking what not to read, but what to read as well. So many people on Twitter shoot out questions like, "Any recs for books with lesbian MCs/Disability rep/losing virginity/etc?" Yet if books had a content warning or rating page, it might be easier for people (especially teens) to track down the content they actually want to read about.

Content warnings don't have to be scary.
A content/trigger warning page doesn't have to be the end of the world. It can work like in the picture above, or a page like the acknowledgements listing out any troubling material, which can be easily skipped if you're not concerned and prefer to fly in blind. And if fanfiction is any indication, content warnings could serve to drum up excitement about books and reading. Would trigger warnings lead to censorship? Doubt it. If so, then we wouldn't have television, movies, video games... Besides, trying to slip in potentially distressing scenes in the name of Literary Sanctity, or to "teach readers" some moral or another, or because you know it won't be received well (slipping gay characters into Christian fiction, for ex)-- just comes across as, what we call in bird culture, a Dick Move.

I'm not asking for censorship. I just want the chance to be informed.