SICK Part I – The Storgy Review

SICK Part I – The Storgy Review

The Sick Series Kindle Countdown Deal only 99¢ each 1/22/2018

Originally published in Storgy Literary Magazine

By Joseph Sale – I first read Sick back in July 2016. It was a half-hearted summer for sun – it almost always is in the UK –  but made up for by the fact that at that time I was enjoying what seemed to be the atomic boom of the independent book world. I discovered so many favourite indie authors, and many of them are still firm favourites today. For me, that was the summer which cemented a concept I already knew in my heart: that self-published authors and independent presses could easily compete for quality with the major publishing houses. As I scoured the internet for new authors doing interesting things in fantasy, horror and science fiction, I encountered Christa Wojciechowski. She’d written the novella Sick, and the blurb piqued my interest because of the way it dealt with disturbing themes in such a domestic, realistic setting. Sick stood out from the crowd, and still does, for its compellingly rich psychological insight. It stayed with me, remaining a unique point of reference. I found myself recommending it in almost every discussion I had that veered towards great books off the beaten track.

It’s hard to write a character that feels three-dimensional, rich, historied, as unpredictably human as you or I. And funnily enough, it’s the lead protagonists of most novels seem to end up being the most flat and two-dimensional of all the characters on offer. Christa Wojciechowski gives us two completely three dimensional protagonists however: Susan and John Branch. Sick is told from Susan’s viewpoint, and there’s not a single word out of place in that regard. The voice is so clear, and so distinctly realised, you’ll feel as though Susan is in the room, confiding in you in secret.

Susan and John are opposites, or appear to be: Susan is the dull, boring nurse, a plain and unremarkable woman longing for her knight in shining armour. John is flamboyant, charismatic, but physically weak and perpetually bedridden, requiring Susan’s continual attendance and care. Add to this another layer – John was from a wealthy family, used to having the silver spoon, but his fortune has been destroyed by his ill health, leaving them struggling to make ends meet in a hovel adjoining John’s old mansion (which is now owned by another family), with Susan working as hard as she can to keep them afloat. Christa brings the relationship to life with the intricate details – the pet names, the gestures, the conversational patterns, the habits – so the story feels so grounded it becomes like an undertow, inescapably gripping.

All is not as it seems in this marriage, there’s more than meets the eye. Why does the groundskeeper behave so oddly when Susan mentions John’s illnesses? How do john’s injuries manifest so quickly? And is Susan all she appears? Why does she pleasure herself at night, when she thinks John is asleep? And does John know? Early in the novella, we cotton on to the truth, but through a deft and ingenious use of dramatic irony, our viewpoint character Susan is left in the dark. Her unwillingness to confront the truth of the situation becomes an increasingly agonising tension, building until the novella reaches a startling denouement. The brevity and clarity of the novel means this ending really lands with the punch – not being clouded by the extraneous detail so often used to pad out novels to what is deemed as an ‘industry standard’ word length. Sick is distilled. It’s a shot of black vodka. And it kicks.

These characters, and their relationship, are the heart of the novel – and the portrayal of their marriage is masterfully handled. Quite simply put, you will believe in and root for these two people and the conflicts, pitfalls, triumphs and tribulations of their ‘love’ without a second thought. Christa manages to sketch a deeply troubled, mentally ill individual, whilst simultaneously holding up the mirror and demonstrating that we are all, most certainly, sick in some profound way.

Sick is really only the opening move, however. Later in 2016, Christa published Sicker – Sick Part II, a much anticipated sequel in which we learn the origins of John Branch, going deeper into his twisted mind… I’ll be reviewing that next, so stay tuned!

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SICK Part III – The Storgy Review

SICK Part III – The Storgy Review

The Sick Series Kindle Countdown Deal only 99¢ each 1/22/2018

Originally published in Storgy Literary Magazine

By Joseph Sale – When you’ve created characters people care about in a series, ending it can be impossible. How to do them justice? How to resolve those arcs in a satisfying way? Endings are hard enough, but the weight of your reader’s time and commitment makes it even more challenging. I was concerned going into book three of the Sick series, because I knew, as a writer, how hard this can be. I needn’t have been. Christa handles the ending with a sure and steady hand. Sick Book III is the best of the series, undoubtedly. The prose is electrifying, and after a certain critical event which changes the dynamic of the relationship forever, the book becomes un-put-downable.

Both Susan and John prove that they are not tired old characters returned for a third outing, but rather living, sinuous human beings, desperately shaped by circumstance and desperate to change their fate. The two characters grow immensely, and in often unexpected ways. Christa also plays beautifully with symbolism, irony, karma, and tackles the timeless themes of death and love in original ways. Once again she proves that it is in the micro-logical, the infinitesimally small details of the piece, that we find the truth of the whole. She speaks with immense authority about medical issues, legal and police procedures, cementing the narrative as a compellingly real story, whilst also moving the story towards epic, spiritual, redemptive territory.

There are certainly shades of Shawshank Redemption in this novel in terms of its approach to character and its themes of psychological imprisonment, as well as shades of the Dallas Buyers Club in its portrayal of a slow evolution of character in the face of utter disintegration. The latter half of the book, where we shift from Susan’s perspective to John, is page-turning and harrowing. The prose style brilliantly mimics John’s mental and physical journey, paring down, stripping away ornamentation, until we are left with a naked prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy; it cuts to the core of life’s biggest questions, and resonates in a deeply moving way.

However bleak this review makes Part III, the ending is surprisingly upbeat. Christa puts her characters through the abyss and back, and in the end, she earns a hopeful flame. Although, in keeping with the rest of the series, that flame is distorted with one final, dark twist – one I honestly did not see coming.

Sick’s final gift is its last line, as Gothic as anything in Edgar Allan Poe, sending off the series and her beloved characters with a fittingly warped triumph.


 

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SICK Part II – The Storgy Review

SICK Part II – The Storgy Review

The Sick Series Kindle Countdown Deal only 99¢ each 1/22/2018

Originally published in Storgy Literary Magazine

By Joseph Sale – Sick Part II is how you do a sequel. Told from the perspective of John Branch, rather than Susan, the prose is tonally worlds apart. Whereas the first book had a zest of the Gothic, Sicker fully commits, with John’s labyrinthine mind and vast intelligence unveiling a far more lyrical storytelling that seethes with undercurrents of repressed emotion. Writing from the perspective of a compelling or mysterious character is not easy, because the reader can always see through artificial charisma.  But Christa carries it off seemingly effortlessly. John’s perspective is hugely entertaining to read, and leads to some incredible insights that are eminently quotable: ‘What’s normal for the spider is chaos to the fly’.

Sick Part II is principally a journey into the past, John telling his tragic story. The way this second book compliments the first is truly astonishing, as it explains so much of his thought process: revealing key events that have triggered aberrant behaviour, childhood neglects which have led to warped thinking. John should be, by all accounts, an intensely dislikeable character: he is self-pitying, self-obsessed, self-destructive and self-entitled – you might notice ‘self’ is the operative word with John – but you cannot help but warm to him when you realise the extent of damage done as a child, and even more chillingly, realise that his conclusions about how the world works are exactly the conclusions anyone would draw in his situation. There is an infallible and disturbing logic to all his actions, and this revelation is so profoundly realised. If Christa ever offered counselling sessions, I’d sign up immediately. You’d think from this book she could get to the root of anyone.

Sick Part II not only develops John, but also many of the side characters, including, perhaps most critically, his mysterious and oft-absent father – John Branch II. Sick Part II cleverly mimics Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in that it is a framed narrative (John’s first person account couched in a third person novel), containing a deeper framed narrative (the first person narrative of John’s father).  As we move down through these layers, as though through the levels of consciousness itself, we get closer and closer to an awesome catharsis where we discover the truth of why the male Branchs have such a dysfunctional and unloving relationship. Buried at the heart of this is an image as iconic as that of Alexander the Great being born, amidst a river of blood, as the city of his birth lay assaulted and besieged by invaders, an image that is clearly at the heart of who John is. It left me shaking with emotion.

Though this second entry could well stand alone, the story is certainly not done by the end of it. In fact, really, the first two books have only been set up for Sick Part III which was released midway through 2017. I’ll be reviewing the third and final book soon, so keep reading!


 

The Sick Series

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only 99¢ each 1/22/2018

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Should an Author Publish His First Novels?

Should an Author Publish His First Novels?

Where I live in the mountains of Panama, the only change of season we see is from rainy to dry. This begins to take place in November. There’s a shift in the wind and the town braces itself for the Fiestas Patrias (Panama’s Independence Days). Strings of small plastic flags crisscross the streets and flap with a smacking sound as if applauding you whenever you drive beneath them. Grey clouds hover above the town as barjareque, (not quite rain, but heavier than mist) falls on the tourists and marching bands, covering them with a sparkling layer of microscopic droplets.

November also signals National Novel Writing Month, which I first participated in 2012. I had been wanting to write a novel my whole life, and the only thing that forced me to get a book started and finished was NaNoWriMo.

I completed my first ever book, surprising myself and triggering an addiction to finishing books ever since. Now when the winds of November change and I hear the echoes of the marching bands practicing for the Independence Day parades, I feel like a horse at the starting gate ready to race to my word count with all the other bucking writers.

I think anyone who’s participated in National Novel Writing Month start to look forward to it as a yearly tradition. It’s something to get excited about, and you are not alone in your enthusiasm and anxiety. You can connect with other writers who are on the same crazy train. NaNoWriMo helps to stop the usual procrastinating and put writing first for a whole month.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to participate in the last few years. My job consists of mostly writing now and my creative juices and tolerance for sitting at the computer are wiped out by the time I finish my work for the day. I’m often traveling during this time for the holidays, which makes it difficult to scurry off to some quiet place to write.

I also don’t allow myself to participate because have to stop piling up manuscripts. It’s becoming a problem. I wrote three novels in a mad dash and they are still left rumpled up and tossed aside like piles of dirty laundry on the floor. I have no business writing more Nano novels until I clean these up, right?

But I wonder… just because I wrote them, does that mean they should be published? Is it worth salvaging them? These were my first practice novels, before The Sick Series, when I had no idea what I was doing. Hell, I don’t even know if I should’ve released Sick on the world. I can just leave these drafts in some dark corner of my Dropbox and begin something with my new writing experience. Jack Kerouac’s debut novel was lost until 2011, and thank god it was because it was deemed sophomoric and might have barred him from the literary world.

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Victims of Self-Published Book Covers

Victims of Self-Published Book Covers

Designing graphics is part of my job as a digital marketer. Still, design is not my specialty. I never had any formal training and I feel like I have much to learn. Despite my insecurities, I decided to design the covers for my self-published books.

I had four main reasons for designing my own book covers: first, because I love my stories and want to craft every part of them; second, because it was fun; third, because I felt uncomfortable trusting another person with my vision; and fourth, because designing my own book covers saved me a nice chunk of money. Hiring a professional book cover designer for three ebook covers and three paperback covers would’ve cost hundreds, if not thousands.

The first step for me when I design a new cover is deciding on an overall concept. I usually start by brainstorming some keywords from the theme of the story. Then I go to Dreamstime to find a picture that conveys the statement I want to make. I buy the image with the appropriate rights, download it, and use it as the foundation of the cover design. From there, I put on some music, experiment, and let whim take over.

Here’s a look at my before and afters!

Sick Part I

This book starts in a hospital as Susan Branch watches her husband throw a tantrum in the surgical recovery room. I wanted something that captured the smell of antiseptic and skin and blood. I looked up “stitches” or “sutures” and found this photo.

I confess, I think it’s a picture of a woman’s C-section, but it was so perfect with the staples pulling at the skin, the redness around the punctures, and the seam of the wound cascading into focus.

All I had to do was crop it and add some effects and filters to bring out the details and give it a sickening hue. And Viola! Thanks to this woman who was willing to photograph her scar and let it be sold on the internet.

Sick Part II

Just like the C-section wound – another mystery, why and how does a picture of a bruised man end up being sold on Dreamstime? Does the hospital or do the police sell pictures like these? I don’t know, but I’m glad I found him, and I hope whoever he is, that he is okay now and doesn’t mind that his torso is plastered all over the internet.

I don’t remember how I came across this image. I think I searched up “bruises.” Because my character John Branch shares his gruesome story in a very intimate way, I thought it would be good to be up close and personal with his body for this cover. The nipple hair, the moles, and the bare skin – it’s almost too close for comfort, just like John’s story. Perfect!

As you can see, I chose the color of this book cover based on the background of the original photo. I wouldn’t have normally thought of turquoise in a million years, but in this case, it worked since it invoked that institutional vibe of hospitals.

This man in the photo looked older than my character. He is in decent shape, but a little too flabby and he has lots of skin imperfections. John is supposed to be slightly repulsive, yet strangely alluring. I had to give my cover man the slightest bit of liposuction in the love-handle area and I removed some of his moles (ick, just that word) and blemishes. I also added more bruises and boosted the color to make it more garish. 

 

Sick Part III

For the crowning jewel, I chose this image of a couple entwined in a yin and yang formation. Our first impression in the book series is that John is bad and Susan is good, but later we realize there is a spot of bad and good in each of them.

John and Susan are like Adam and Eve, who by discovering the truth about themselves, must live a new world of darkness and uncertainty. They’ve lost their innocence, and in this cover, they appear to be curling up and hiding their faces in shame.

I added a peeling texture to the skin to signify the disease of pain and denial that had been eating away at them. John’s plague seems to be spreading onto Susan. I used a dark pink hue instead of what would’ve been a more womb-like red so that it didn’t look gory. This is not your typical horror or suspense story, and I didn’t want readers to have the wrong expectation. John and Susan are the doomed lovers inextricably intertwined, floating and lost, gestating until they are either transformed or destroyed.

This book was laborious and frustrating because real life had interrupted its development repeatedly. During the stretches of weeks and months I couldn’t work on it, I used this image as my screensaver to keep the story in my unconscious. My characters looked like they were in utero, and I told myself they were incubating in the womb of my mind. When I did have time to get back to my writing, they’d be ready to be born.

Thanks to these two beautiful people with the perfect skin that I ruined. It took a long time to get this cover right, but now it’s my favorite.

So, there you have my three self-published book cover victims – a woman who’d just given birth by C-section, a poor man who had been assaulted or in a car accident, and two nude, nubile models in a spotless studio. These strangers are now part of SICK. I hope they don’t mind.

 

Did you design your own covers?

If not, what was your experience like working with a professional cover designer?

If so, what’s the story behind your covers?

 

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3 Degrees of Self-Mutilation

3 Degrees of Self-Mutilation

Self-mutilation. Think about that word. What first comes to mind?

In The Sick Series, most readers will find John Branch’s self-mutilation horrific and incomprehensible. He is deceitful, manipulative, and selfish, but his compulsions and desires are the spawn of self-hatred, neglect, and lack of love. What do you think we should do with a man like John Branch? Most people would probably say he should be locked up, put on meds, and forced into therapy.

But what is the difference between what John Branch does to his body and what happens under the plastic surgeon’s knife? Women and men who want attention from the opposite (or same) sex, are willing to get sliced and chopped and patched back together. They risk infection and death and deformity. They will stick foreign objects inside their bodies. Think about that. Slicing open your skin, sticking a foreign object inside, and sewing it up.

Swaths of flesh are removed to tuck the tummy. Nipples are cut out and placed elsewhere. Fat is violently vacuumed from asses. We aspire to self-love and self-acceptance and but our behavior show just how fragile our sanity is.

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Why I Dedicated My Book to the Freaks

Why I Dedicated My Book to the Freaks

This book is dedicated to the freaks and misfits, the broken and the scarred,

the ones who live in hiding and the ones who live out loud,

those who are frightened and those who are brave.

Love yourself. Grow freely.

You are beautiful and you are not alone.

Pain. Most of us go through great lengths to avoid it, numb it, or bury it. While writing The Sick Series, I spent hours researching one of the most gruesome and disturbing compulsions known to humankind – to mutilate oneself.

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SICK: The Book Viral Review

SICK: The Book Viral Review

This review originally posted on BookViral.com

A powerful and gritty novella that plumbs the highs of hope and the depths of despair, Sick proves a genuine page-turner with Wojciechowski delivering an extraordinary read. With relentless momentum we are drawn to her narrative as intrigue mounts, feeling sure there is a twist coming but deftly misdirected as events spin further out of control. Mining the darkness of the hidden psyche to show us a glimpse of a reality few will ever experience to leave us deep in thought, it’s an ambitious theme to tackle in a novella but here it works in Wojciechowski’s favour. Her prose are tightly spun and characters are superbly nuanced with dialogue which brings an unrelenting sense of immediacy, telling her story in short staccato bursts that are just enough to bait us and keep us off balance as Susan grapples with the uncertainty of Johns downward spiralling health. Like most issue novels, this is not an easy read, but it becomes increasingly poignant and transcendent as Susan begins to see through the veil of deceit the real John has hidden behind. 

 

Wojciechowski has clearly set out to write a highly compelling story that brings the trauma of Factitious disorder (formerly known as Munchausen Syndrome) into focus and her ability to tell a story that is so dark and full of pain speaks volumes to her talent as a writer. Highly original, it is recommended without reservation.

Thanks to Book Viral for their review of Sick Part I.

RECOMMEND SICK FOR THE CRIMSON QUILL AWARD

 

 

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Sick Part I Audiobook in Production

Sick Part I Audiobook in Production

I’ve been getting requests for The SICK Series in audiobook format and I’m thrilled to announce that I have partnered up with Tiffany Marz to bring Part I of the series to life.

Tiffany Marz is a talented and versatile actress, model, and singer. She was the first artist I listened to and I knew she was ‘the one’ right away. She has an amazing range of voices and accents, and her production is mint.

I will be interviewing Tiffany on the blog soon. I know you’ll all be interested in learning more about her.

Also, I will be writing about the process of creating an audiobook for your self-published books. Leave any questions you want me to address in the comments section below.

 

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SICK – The Complete Series Now in Kindle and Paperback

SICK – The Complete Series Now in Kindle and Paperback

Hello dear readers.

I know some of you were waiting for SICK Part III to come out in paperback. Well, it’s here and it’s beautiful! In fact, I reformatted the entire series in a smaller 5 by 8 inch size with updated covers in a silky matte finish that eerily feels like human skin.

Signed copies will be available for purchase on this site at the end of November 2017.

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"Anyone who has ever secretly longed for the significant other of a close friend will immediately identify with this well-written story set in the South of France. The dialog is sharp and the characters believable. The writing is both funny and poignant."
–Max Tomlinson, author of 
The Cain File

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