I'm back from book release recovery and rolling up my sleeves, friends. I was going to ease my way back into my weekly routine with something nice and easy, but kismet had some other plans. Let me blow the dust off my soap box ...
I recently stopped by one of my local bookstores - a place I've frequented and enjoyed for decades. The manager is a good colleague, and she recommended a new company she learned about at a recent book expo: DartFrog Books. They are the first distributor geared exclusively toward independent and self-published authors, so my interest was piqued. She gave me a bookmark with their URL and the not-so-subtle hint that if I were to say she referred me, she'd get a finder's fee. So I went on my way.
It took me a few days to get around to looking DartFrog up. Something about the interaction gave me a strange vibe, and I was right, but I'll come back to that. Here's their mission statement: "Every year there are an estimated 450,000 self-published titles released into an overcrowded literary marketplace. Unfortunately, most of those books will live forever in total obscurity. But, there are within that mass of self-published books, some real gems. DartFrog finds those gems and distributes them to our partner bookstores."
O-kay. So, sounds good, but how does it work? I clicked on every link that looked as though it'd give me a straight answer. "About Us"? Mission Statement and glamour shots of the staff. "Why Dartfrog"? Buzzwords and all the stuff that sounds too good to be true, no numbers or details. "Our Standards"? Some stuff about quality control that's just a little bit condescending, if you ask yours truly... and it had typos. (I laughed. A lot.)
Oh, wait. "Author Agreement". Finally, I thought, something that should lay it out in black and white. Click: "The author agreement is a straight forward document that seeks to remove all the legalese that most of us don't read or understand anyway! But there are a few highlights that you should know." Not only is that on the edge of condescension ... but the full, actual text of that agreement isn't anywhere I could find on the website. Presumably, you only get it after you've started the sign-up process.
So I made a mock order for In The Cards. It asks some straight-forward questions about your book: did you edit/format it yourself, how long is it, what's the ISBN/genre, etc. But it doesn't even tell you what your order form is doing. Or how much it'll cost. I hit "proceed to payment" and was hit with the sticker shock: $350.
Let me reiterate: I still don't know what, exactly, I'm paying for, here.
I clicked back out of the cart - or, in the vernacular, "noped out like nobody's business" - and tried to dig a little deeper to see what that price tag entailed. The closest thing I could find to ANY detail about what my money would buy was on "Why DartFrog":
DartFrog evaluates your book to ensure that it meets a standard-of-excellence bookstores require. Those books that do, we make available for distribution to our network of partner bookstores. If your book is not ready for distribution, we will tell you what needs to be fixed and allow you to re-submit when the changes have been made. We do not charge an additional fee for a second evaluation.
Oh. So I'd be paying DartFrog $350 to pat me on the head and tell me my book is good, and then add it to a catalog they give to a (so far) very small list of indie stores. How is that any different than an agent or a publisher? I don't really think it is. Sure, that 70/30 split afterwards is pretty nice, but I'd have to spend an initially HUGE chunk of money that I don't have. There's very little about their evaluation team, so I don't even know if the people I'm paying to vet my book would be fair or unbiased.
Given that I had to do a half hour's worth of web surfing to find all this, I'm pretty unimpressed. If you're a web-based service, you're catering intrinsically to people who are used to very fast service: go to the site, find what you need, get it, get out, move on with your day. I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but self-published authors' time is precious enough without having to constantly verify and vet their potential allies and business collaborators. I could have spent that half hour connecting with my peers, making marketing graphics, preparing for my new collaboration release, or - oh, hey! actually writing more. Instead, I'm here. Because I get the increasing feeling that I need to share these experiences with you all, to save you the time and make your life as fellow authors a little easier.
We're all in this together. I've never felt that it's about the money - but saving it where and when we can is crucial. Being transparent and communicating about what works, what's fair, and what things really are is even more important.
In the end, I passed on BookFrog because I just can't spare that kind of money for a random person's validation. If you can, I don't judge: in fact, I'd love to know what you think. If you've had experiences with BookFrog, yourself, please leave me a comment or shoot me an email. I want to be proven wrong: I want to believe that there really are people out there who genuinely want to help find the good indie books, give them the love they deserve, and build a mutual relationship ... not just take our money and laugh all the way to the bank.
Until next time, dream on, write on, and stay amazing!
The more independent authors I meet, the more I realize just how diverse yet wonderfully alike we all are. No matter what the genre, no matter what our involvement in social media, our politics, our personal lives ... we all have stories to tell which we are incredibly passionate about. When an author's passion combines with a long-simmering desire to share those stories, the results often touch the heart: and Timothy Savage's debut, Davey's Savior, is no exception.
The eponymous Davey is a four-year-old growing up in Avila Beach with his single father, Sketch: and from the first chapter, we know they have secrets they are keeping from the community. Sketch goes out of his way to keep a low profile: it becomes clear fast that no one in Avila actually knows his full name. Davey's curious and outgoing nature is a dangerous counterpoint to this secrecy, and secrets begin to come to light when a whale shark is found washed up on the beach.
The owner of the local coffee shop, Anthony, is convinced that a blemish on the carcass looks like the face of Christ, and manages to make a photo of it go viral, drawing more and more people to the town. Among the visitors are a trio of Mexican nuns on a pilgrimage and a marine biologist, each with their own problems and challenges to face. As Davey and Sketch's secrets come to light, every one of them comes together in a climax I did not expect.
The novel starts out at a slow burn: Savage makes it very plain that Sketch and Davey have things to hide... big, potentially dangerous things. Aside from the discovery of the whale shark, this is the major thrust of the first third of the book. I admit that at first, I was frustrated by how much The Secret was dangled in front of my face: how often Sketch would fret and worry and obscure, despite any further clues to what he was hiding. I was so preoccupied with this that I missed the artful, tiny clues peppered throughout the story which foretold the climactic moments of the book. In retrospect, then, my frustration was negated, and I feel like I owe Tim Savage an apology for judging him a little in "stringing me along". What he did with his story is masterful: not just in its obfuscation of the plot twist, but in completely leading this reader in one direction at first, and then turning my expectations upside down in terms of theme, as well.
There were a few rough patches: notably the text conversations of Kendra, the marine biologist, which were a little jarring next to the prose, and some of the build-up between the whale shark's arrival and the furthering of the plot. But for those willing to forgive the novel its flaws, it has a fine reward.
When Anthony first hatches his plan to draw in customers through the miracle of the whale shark, readers may assume - as I did - that the titular Savior was meant to be Jesus Christ, and that the novel was about to take a heavily religious turn. The trio of nuns reinforced this ... but each character's own personal challenges eventually make it clear that this is not a novel about the saving power of Christianity, but the role of any form of faith in life. By setting the reader up and then dropping his twists and turns, Tim Savage makes them think right along with the characters ... connecting them to the book even more deeply. The book I found so slow to start was impossible to put down by the time I reached its second half. Davey's Savior is the literary equivalent of a log flume ride: you drift along for most of it, but the climb and the plunge at the end are so satisfying that you'll end up wanting to go again.
You can get your own copy of Davey's Savior here on Amazon. Tim Savage can be found most often on Twitter, and occasionally at his blog, Extemporalia.
I hope you've enjoyed my two cents this week, and that you'll join me again next Wednesday for whatever the moment brings!
Until next time, I remain your hostess,
Frequent visitors to Between The Lines will remember that back in January, I interviewed Sara Secora about her debut novel. After that interview, she was kind enough to send me a review copy ... and I am ready to share my thoughts on it with you all!
Throne of Lies is the first in a fantasy trilogy, written for Young Adults. Its heroine, Amethysta, is a princess unhappy with her destiny: to ascend to the throne of her kingdom. She also posesses a strange ability which has come to light just prior to the beginning of the story, and must keep it a secret from the kingdom for fear of how they might react. The typical duties of a queen-in-training - studies, social niceties, betrothal - all stretch Amethysta to her breaking point, and she begins to rebel in what small ways she can. When too many things go wrong in too short a time, she begins to finally seek out answers about her mysterious abilities, and where they came from. Her questions and troubles all come to a head at the ball where she is meant to formally assume the role of the heir to the throne, and by the end of the night, the stage is well set for the second book in the series.
Sara Secora's greatest strength as an author is her honest, straightforward portrayal of Amethysta. As a teen, she is subject to mood swings, a rebellious streak, and the confusion of first love ... and Secora handles them all deftly. The novel is told from Amethysta's point of view (aside from an attention-grabbing prologue), and her voice is not only convincing, but real. Some of the other reviews I have read lambaste Amethysta for being "wishy-washy" ... I consider this a great strength which lends to fantastic character development over the course of the trilogy. We know quite quickly, as readers, that we will be watching her grow up, and I have little doubt that the end of the third book will show her to have grown into a strong, capable woman.
The only complaint I have about the novel is not even a complete problem: the plot contains several standard fantasy cliches. However, they are each given just enough of a twist or alteration so that they are still enjoyable, even though the reader can make a pretty fair guess as to what will happen. Reading Throne of Lies was like going on a drive through the town where you grew up: the roads are all still familiar, but so much has changed along the way that there are still plenty of pleasant surprises.
Also of note is the amount of detail and work put into creating Amethysta's world. Her history lessons with her professor, the somewhat suspicious and memorable Gethin, showcase details of a richly layered history which hints at possible directions for the current plot. Secora's prose is in turns both simple and elaborate, flowing like the best of the high fantasy novels I grew up with: Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's countless Dragonlance trilogies and the work of Brian Jacques especially come to mind. If you know a teen who loves fantasy, or is struggling with anxiety issues, this book would make a wonderful gift. You can find it here on Amazon. For more information about Sara Secora, please feel free to visit her website!
Thanks for joining me this week, and I'll see you all back here next Wednesday!
Until then, let your imagination lift you into the light,
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jette Harris since my early Twitter authoring days, and the good fortune to be one of her beta readers for her gut-wrenching thriller series “My Name Is Not Heather Stokes”. In between its first installment, Colossus, and the upcoming Two Guns, she began work on “Phoenix Rising”, a series of novellas which follows the sinister serial killer known as The Phoenix along the path which leads him to the man we see in Colossus. It begins in his youth, and is projected to follow him right up to the events of “My Name Is Not Heather Stokes”. Here is my unsolicited, unbiased, unvarnished review of the two existing novellas.
I must begin by saying that ALL of Harris’ novels contain unbridled scenes of abuse, both emotional and physical. If you cannot read such things, for any reason, I recommend that you steer clear. If you’re still with me, let’s begin.
Phoenix Rising, Book 1: Flint Ranch
We begin in rural Colorado, with young Thaddeus “Thatch” Adams. He and his mother live on Flint Ranch, a small horse farm, with his uncle, Jed. It is clear from page one that their surrogate home is anything but safe. Under Jed’s crooked, cruel rule of the household, nothing is allowed to remain innocent. Flint Ranch becomes a place where angels fear to tread, as the few allies Thatch and his mother have abandon them. When a pack of wolves menaces the farm, uncle and nephew are both pushed to their breaking point.
It is suggested that Jed’s business dealings are as crooked as his morals, and that backed himself into a corner with his dealings: one reason why he may be taking his anger out on his family. He is never fully fleshed out, which is for the best: it makes it easier for the reader to demonize him in the same way that Thatch does. The solace he finds in the horses is simply written, but poignant: they become his second family in scenes which are a perfect counterpoint to Jed’s abuse.
Thatch’s abuse is rough to watch, because Harris holds no punches. Her prose is raw and unapologetic, and there were times when I felt my throat and stomach tighten - particularly during one brutal scene in the barn. But Thatch’s first acts of rebellion are the seeds which will help him survive … and grow into the man who becomes Avery Rhodes.
The prose is quick, rough, and jerks from phrase to phrase, mimicking the anxiety and tension so perfectly that it’s hard not to empathize with Thatch, especially as he enters his teenage years and begins to fully comprehend what has been going on around him. Flint Ranch’s ending is abrupt, but it feels right: cut off with a final line as sharp as a gunshot. Even though the novella clocks in at under 100 pages, it carries an impact that lingers.
Phoenix Rising, Book 2: Salvage
Not long after the events of Flint Ranch, Thatch is sent to Colorado Springs. There, he enters the care of his father Wren Chares, a Greek mechanic. In the course of adjusting to his new home and school, Thatch begins to slowly recover from the abuse he suffered at Jed’s hands. But pieces of Wren’s history still haunt him, and they will come back to affect Thatch, too…
I was just as anxious as Thatch to meet Wren Chares. I, too, feared that he might be another abusive figure, but I was quickly proven wrong, and grew to love him as a character. His quiet demeanor and gentle insistence upon manners and sophistication, despite his lower-class stature, are a refreshing polar opposite to the horrors of Flint Ranch. Harris’ writing reflects this, losing a great deal of the brusque pacing and tension she strung through the previous novella.
Thatch’s post-traumatic state of mind is treated with a deft hand, showing us the lingering after-effects of abuse, both physical and emotional. One scene in particular, when Thatch is shown to his new room, is heart-breakingly beautiful, and his responses to what were considered “normal” locker room antics in the 1970s are revelatory.
Wren’s moonlighting job is handled with equal mastery, as Thatch begins to sort out his own opinions on the nature of the world, what he might want to do with the rest of his life, and his own attractions.
doctor as his father tells him stories of his own compassion and resilience, and learns first-hand by accompanying him on house calls to the brothel, where he begins to sort out his own attractions. I dare not give anything away, but the climactic scene of the novella is the birth of Thatch’s purpose, and brings joy mixed with tragedy. Where Flint Ranch was the record of Thatch’s pain, Salvage lays down the first, tentative steps toward his recovery… and ends on a note even more abrupt.
To wrap things up, I must stress that despite the graphic scenes which scar Thatch, there is far more to these novellas than shock value - if anything, it is not what happens to characters which is of note, but how they handle themselves in the aftermath. Thatch’s progression from victim to tentative survivor is what has me waiting on the edge of my comfy reading chair for the next novella.
You can find all of Jette's published works on her Amazon author page, here. Please also take a moment to follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and visit her Wordpress blog, where she frequently shares excerpts from her work in progress, and shorter pieces.
With that, I am going to tuck this blog in for a NaNoWriMo nap, and I will see you all in December! Thanks to all of you for your continued support - I wouldn’t be here without you!
Until next time,
Hello, everyone! Welcome back Between The Lines... I hope you're all ready for a thrill ride, this week, because I've got a fantastic one lined up for you! Before we start talking about the most breakneck-paced book I've read this year, I feel obligated to remind you that this is an unsolicited, unbiased review: I was not approached or compensated by the publisher or author in any way. Now that the legalese is out of the way, climb on in, stow your belongings in the mesh compartment in the seat in front of you, pull the bar down 'til it clicks, and get ready to follow me on a wild ride through Cori Lynn Arnold's novel Thin Luck!
Robyn Hughes was a successful TV reporter in Connecticut (a little ways from Aviario, perhaps?) before a terrible accident got her arrested. Now, after serving her prison term, she returns home, wanting nothing more than to reacquaint herself with her husband Nick and their infant son, Kyle. But Nick never comes to pick her up, and by the time she's able to get home, he and Kyle are both gone. With most of her resources stripped down, and no one willing to trust her, Robyn has to rely on her own street smarts and her investigative reporter's instinct to track Nick across the country so that she can get Kyle back. As the title implies, however, luck is not on her side, and a string of unfortunate mishaps begin to amass until Robyn is wanted once more, this time with her own criminal nickname: "The Bonnie Without A Clyde". When Detective Turner is assigned to track Robyn down, he must put together the pieces and bring her in ... but he discovers something else in her past which might change how things work out for everyone involved.
From page one, I wanted to know what was going on: who Robyn was, why she'd been in prison. Cori Lynn Arnold has a deft hand for suspense, stringing it taut between chapters like a violin. Robyn's cross-country quest to find Nick and Kyle is reminiscent of The Fugitive. I would say that it would make for an amazing mini-series adaptation, but it doesn't need one: Arnold's descriptions are at once rich and succinct, putting you in the scene without slowing down the story. Readers careen along with Robyn from one chance encounter to the next, and every stranger she meets is as richly detailed as our heroine. Things connect and branch off each other in unexpected, delightful ways, and culminate in a California showdown which left me holding my breath with every page turn.
My only thing which took me a little out of the read was the fact that Arnold switches from Robyn's first-person voice to third-person during the scenes with Detective Turner ... but it grew on me as the novel progressed. Hearing Robyn's tale in her voice not only makes it easier to see inside her mind, but helps wrap the reader up in it all and forget that outside of everything that Robyn is dealing with, life rolls on. When Detective Turner comes on the scene, only then do we catch glimpses of the ripples the plot is making in the "real" world, and asked to decide if we really do want to root for Robyn.
The little details really help this book shine: each chapter begins with Robyn's location, and the codes for whatever law she breaks in that location, leaving us to guess how it's actually going to happen. All in all, this was a fantastic novel: I read it in a little over a day, and after skimming through it to find the high points for this review, found myself wanting to read it again. Those who prefer e-books will find Chapter 18 worth the price, alone, but I expect that I'll be purchasing a printed copy for my shelf at some point in the future.
You can get your own copy of Thin Luck here on Amazon, or through Smashwords. Cori Lynn does not have a blog, but you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads!
Thank you for joining me for another indie book review! Please remember that reviews are what help independent authors like Cori and me sell books ... if you read something, review something! I hope you'll join me next week for another review - this one's a double-shot: two novellas by Jette Harris!
Until then, as always, I remain your hostess,
A short while ago, I was approached by Moran Press with an exciting opportunity: to conduct an interview with author L.M. Bryski for the event of her debut novel, Book of Birds. I was also offered a review copy ... so the review you are about to read was solicited, but is still completely unbiased.
Book of Birds tells the story of Elly and Dot, orphaned sisters sent to live with their maternal grandparents in post-war Canada, during the 1940s. Sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, Elly's keen observational skills have taught her how to survive the wilds of the pre-pubescent schoolyard, but she still finds herself somewhat of an outcast. She befriends fellow outlier Stanni, nicknamed "Stammer" for his speech impediment, but their friendship is tested to its limits when Dot disappears during a visit to a traveling circus. All involved, even Elly's grandparents, have a little growing up to do as the investigation unfolds.
The first thing that struck me about Book of Birds was its narrator's voice. Elly takes the reader by the hand and pulls them, without apology, down the path of those few turbulent months in her life. She speaks with the clear, no-nonsense tone of a young girl, calling the shots as she sees them and making the sort of observations most adults either forget or miss. L.M. Bryski seats herself so confidently in Elly's mind that we forget that Elly, herself, did not write it down for us. As children often do, Ellie makes remarks that are equal parts harsh and humorous, and the humor serves to carry the reader through darker scenes with a perfect balance. Those dark scenes are not written to shock or to disgust, they are simply told plain-faced, presented as they are, because Elly will not shirk from the truth of the telling.
Elly is not the only remarkable character in the novel, by far: there was not a single character who I felt was one-dimensional or flat. Every single person has a purpose in the story, and that purpose is woven in with traits and events that give them depth: from the school groundskeeper to the strange, outcast old lady who Elly meets outside after church one Sunday morning. While I was able to predict the "who-done-it" aspect of the story, it did not detract from how much I enjoyed reading it, or the tension which the author strung taut through the entire novel. This is a debut which I would happily read again and again: it deserves a place on the shelf with coming-of-age classics such as Where The Red Fern Grows and The Giver.
Thank you, Angela, for giving me this opportunity to talk about Book of Birds. It’s been a great experience from very first plot thought to word drop on the page to publication date. It’s my debut novel, and, as the ole saying goes, you never forget your first.
You say in your author bio that the inspiration for this came in part from a Marx Brothers movie. Can you tell me a little about how that grew into Book of Birds?
I tend to look at stories as person, place, and inciting event. I had already toyed with the idea of Elly, a newly orphaned teenager, in my head. As well, the environment of a post-war prairie town is dear to my heart, being a backdrop for my own family’s history. I was missing the third leg of the stool, though, to kick-start Book of Birds into action. It wasn’t until I’d come across the Marx Brothers and specifically, Lydia the Tattoo Lady (coincidentally encountered in different conversations), that the story started to live. While happily humming the Lydia song after a fun conversation, I came across a vintage photograph of a priest blessing a travelling circus train. Bingo. I had my incident that stirred the story pot. A travelling circus comes to town. How would each character react within this new environment and its possibilities? What consequences would come of it? I started writing. And Book of Birds flowed out, in order, chapter by chapter, until it was done.
The book is a fantastic vehicle for metaphor… I enjoyed the way Elly kept such a careful mental ledger of different types of people and their behaviors, as though it were its own type of bird-watching. Where did the idea of the titular field guide come from?
I love books. Always have. And photographs and drawings. Love a mix of words and pictures that explain facts. Growing up, I had several favourite books to look through: Encyclopedia Britannica to pick out what pedigree cat, dog, horse or dinosaur I would some day own, encyclopedia volumes on Pompeii and the Arctic, Disney volumes on the history of Walt’s cartoon empire, and a field guide to Eastern North American birds. When thinking of Elly, the vastness of an empty, lonely prairie field kept popping to mind. But was the field really empty? Birds were always in the field, if you just knew how to look for them. A field guide to looking for birds became a field guide for Elly to help her look at life.
There are a lot of difficult scenes in this book. How did you prepare for writing them, both practically and emotionally?
I didn’t prepare for the emotional scenes. I just let my fingers go and typed them out. It was mostly not a problem as I was able to float above it. There was one notable exception. Just as I was writing the scene when Elly gets in a fight with Connie and hauls Connie out of a hotly contested school seat, I got into a tiff with a friend. It was a new friendship, and the first time we’d had a difference of opinion. I was surprised at the parallel emotion of anger in myself and in the character I was writing about. That taught me to be aware of what state of being was coming to life on my pages and to keep an eye that it didn’t bleed into my own life if it was a negative emotion. Doesn’t always work. Sometimes, I still have to catch myself.
I enjoyed the fact that Book of Birds takes place in the past … but how much different do you think it would be, had it been set in the present?
Communication tools would have been quite different. The mix of face-to-face interaction with texting would have given a different flare to how Elly integrated with her school environment and peers. Underneath it, the emotions would have remained the same. The feeling of isolation, of not being accepted, may have been amplified with the obvious exclusion from the cyber-friendships around her. As well, Elly’s access to books to read would have been very different, having a greater choice, with competing interests of television and internet. The town would be vastly different: either larger, with more integration with the world around it or a ghost town with abandoned buildings and weed-choked roads. The circus, itself, would likely have skipped the town, focusing instead on the big cities. It would have been a very different book.
Are any characters inspired by people you know?
Each character is his or her own creature. There isn’t a template for any one of them. Characters come to life in my head as individuals. In retrospect, I can say this or that quality comes from so-and-so, but there is no close match with others that I know.
You do an amazing job with Elly’s narrative voice. So many of her observations about being her age ring true, especially the passage about kids hearing more than adults think, and only wanting to understand. Is there anything in particular you had to do to keep yourself in the mindset of a young girl?
I love thinking of stories like plays. I love having conversations in my head between different characters, and I love acting as a different character in the soft and safe ‘sit-and-think’ parts of my life. It was easy to get into the mindset of each character, including Elly, as my mind is an ongoing stage for them each to walk across and have their moment speaking.
What is your favorite YA book?
There’s a mix. Narnia comes immediately to mind, followed by both Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy and other books in her series. Anne of Green Gables is another series that I avidly read, then had the pleasure of watching in later years. For wonderful weirdness, the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum, written in the early 1900s, has always captured my imagination. To round it out, Beatrix Potter. Bunnies. Always bunnies.
Any idea what’s next for you? Or are you just going to enjoy a little downtime after all this hard work?
No down time. Never for a writer. If you’re not actually writing, you’re either reading or thinking of something to write. Or you’re editing. The dreaded yet oh-so-necessary editing. I’m currently editing my uncle’s memoirs. I just finished a story that I did as a fun, self-imposed writing exercise. It’s not up to my usual standards so I might chop it up and salvage bits and pieces as short stories for another time. As well, Blood Chill, another of my manuscripts is coming back to me from development editing. I expect there will be a lot of work to do on that book. Another story is coming to the forefront in my brain. It’s set in a fantasy world and revolves around the making of a pocket watch similar to the famous supercomplication watch. There is a magical twist, however. I’m still fleshing the plot out. As always, I keep on with the day job.
I encourage you to check out L.M. Bryski.com, as well as follow her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Book of Birds is available through Moran Press. Please join me next week, when I'll have another review in store!
Until next Wednesday, friends & fellow readers!
We're two days away from my favorite holiday of all: Halloween. Also known as Samhain, it marks the end of the pagan year, the time when the bridge between the mortal and spirit worlds is its thinnest... and when all kinds of creeps and crawlies come knocking at your door with a spirited "trick or treat" and their best ghoulish grin or spooky scowl. Everyone has Halloween traditions: jack-o-lanterns, stretchy fake cobwebs, screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show or other favorite creepy movies ... but my favorite Halloween tradition is a 20-year-old computer game. Let me show you around Old Man Stauf's mansion, and tell you the tale of how it planted the seeds of Aviario in my mind..
was only in junior high - maybe 12, 13, or so - not old enough for serious horror, according to my parents. We were visiting family in Connecticut, and I came downstairs to find all the adults crowded around the little butcher block in the kitchen, where my aunt kept the little PC she'd bought for my uncle's home business. "Go over there," I heard them say. "No, that one, try that one!" They were all helping her play a game, and my grandmother handed me the box: a purple affair adorned with a giant red 7 and a beautifully creepy Victorian mansion on a hill. They were attempting to navigate the halls of the mansion: to this day, I can still tell you the area of the house they were in. Once they found the next puzzle in the game, we spent a good hour crowded around that monitor, trying to decipher it so we could watch the next piece of the story unfold. We never did solve it, but my father and I were hooked. On our way home, we stopped at Staples and bought our own copy. Within months, I had powered my way through ... and found myself re-playing it every year or so.
It wasn't the puzzles that captivated me, though I can do some of them in my sleep, now. It was the story of Henry Stauf, the Depression-era toymaker who made a bargain with evil spirits for fame and fortune, then brought six equally desperate people to his house to compete for the right to their "heart's most secret desire" captivated me. I even collaborated with my fellow writer and good friend, Jewel E. Leonard, to write a parody of it for a Halloween installment of the stories we were weaving together during my senior year of high school.
College came before that Halloween, however, and with it, a parting of the ways which is now very deep water under the bridge. I knew I needed to keep writing, but the characters I had been tending to were all so tightly linked to Jewel's creations that I didn't feel comfortable using them: all but two: the man I had created as my own homage to one of the denizens of Stauf's mansion, and his daughter. They were the very first residents of Aviario, and the plot of my first novel grew slowly around them, with help from a tarot card reading on a stormy night.
That first novel has been written and rewritten three times, and the end result is In The Cards, which is due out just in time for next Halloween. It's very far removed from The 7th Guest, now, and the only thing which remains is the house on the edge of town, full of secrets. But its owner speaks with Stauf's voice: a low, musical lilt that invites you in even as it raises the hair on the back of your neck. I won't mention him by name, though: that would be spoiling things. And I do know how readers love surprises.
As my Halloween gift to you all, I invite you to enjoy my favorite game. It has been remastered for the advent of its 20th anniversary, and can be found on GOG.com (for $1.49, WOW), and as an Android app for tablets. It's also available on Steam! If you decide to indulge, I do hope you enjoy your trip through Stauf's mansion. Tell 'em Ang sent you. And don't forget to try the soup.
Next week, I'll be answering some questions about my life as an author, sent to me by my fellow author, S. Hunter Nisbet! I hope to see you then! Until next week ... why don't you leave me a comment and let me know something that's made an impression on you? A book, a movie, a game ... anything. I love hearing what makes people's creative juices flow... okay, I came off as a bit of a creeper, there. Blame the game. I know I always do. ;)
Last week, I promised you a review of a new writers' resource site from authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Pugilisi. One Stop For Writers pulls together content from their already existing Writers' Thesaurus series, and adds brand new content that these lovely ladies researched for themselves so we didn't have to. To get detail on their settings, they went to any lengths they could: up to and including getting arrested so that they could have a full sensory experience! That alone is worth some serious acclaim, in my opinion... but we're here to talk about the website.
One Stop has a very clean, inviting interface that has a simple, classical feel to it. The drop-down menus are easy to navigate and understand, and the font is large enough to read for long periods of time without straining the eyes. The only caveat I would include about the site design is that some subscribers with light sensitivities may wish to dim their screen before prolonged use.
Anyone curious about the resources available before they start poking around can begin at the About OS page, or check out the breadth of tutorials that have been created for the site. These make it easy to quickly find whatever exact information you might need if you're in a hurry and not just wandering around for fun, like I was. As for the content, itself ... I haven't felt this excited about access to a broad wealth of knowledge since I got my first library card.
The Information Desk can be bypassed if you are there for a quick fact run, because it deals with FAQs, the site's blog, and other "About The Site" components. The meat of the content is in two sections of the menu: The Stacks and the Thesaurus. I won't bore you with a list of everything, but the Thesaurus has the kind of details I didn't even know I'd needed. Sensory details and alternatives to describing different items are a huge boon for me: who hasn't wondered how to describe something in a unique way? The Setting thesaurus even gives a sample description for each location, and shows authors the ways a setting can be personalized to your characters, while still maintaining the qualities that readers will be able to recognize and relate to. There are other Thesauri which will help set the mood with color and weather, or weave symbolism into your plot ... so if you are the sort of author who struggles with finding or maintaining a theme, this will be a treasure in itself.
Once the Thesauri have been plundered for all the bounty you need for your scene, The Stacks are there to help you finish the job. They are more than the finishing touch: they are more like flying buttresses which can help support your beautiful cathedral of words. The tutorials for the Thesauri can be found here, as well as an Idea Generator for the blocked and bewildered ... but the star of The Stacks are its templates and worksheets. These are a NaNoWriMo Plotter's dream content: not just your standard outline or character creation lists, but ones which help you get to the heart of your story, the parts which make it really come alive and sing. Work out your characters' fears and emotional growth, or create reference sheets for each character and setting so that you don't have to flip back through your manuscript to remember if Professor Goddard's eyes were blue or green. In fact ... oh! Let's get that thesaurus out now that you've looked it up:
The Professor stared them down with the bluest eyes Nick had ever seen. In any other circumstance, he might have thought them beautiful, but in that moment, they were a frostbite that spread to him and chilled him through.
That's the color thesaurus at work! I wouldn't have come up with that frostbite line, otherwise - I may have gone with electricity, perhaps, but that's far too overused, and I would've had this song stuck in my head for the rest of the day (and likely still will). But that isn't even scratching the surface of what's available at One Stop For Writers. The search engine for cross-comparison helps you connect themes, colors, textures ... any thesaurus entry can be cross-referenced with any others that could apply to it. Just like that, you've got a wealth of ideas for description, instead of sitting slack-jawed, buggy-eyed, staring at your monitor. And in case you find things you want to use for later, there's a Notes feature built into the site that saves your notes directly to your profile and allows you to link back to the article you used when you're ready for it.
I had a grand old time with One Stop For Writers, and I can see that it's going to be an invaluable resource. Unfortunately, the Thesaurus I was anticipating most, Emotional Wounds, was not yet available on the site, and several settings are still in the process of being added. I can't use it for everything I personally need, but that isn't going to stop me from strongly recommending it to any fiction author. A free membership lets you access a limited amount of content and get a feel for the site so that you can see if it would be worth the full subscription, which is broken down into 1-month, 6-month, or yearly price brackets. If you consider that the standard price of one Writer's Thesaurus is $12, and there are several available ... a $9 one month subscription which combines them pays for itself. But here's the thing ...
Value isn't the biggest reason I enjoy One Stop For Writers: and it isn't necessarily the content, either (though that plays a very large part). The entire site is imbued with the spirit that I think every author should have: to take the knowledge they have gathered and share it with other authors, so that they can find their path to their own goals just that little bit easier to traverse. Thanks to Angela and Becca for letting me test it out and spread the word!
It's been ten days since I started the journey of suffering that is Chandler Bolt's Self-Publishing Summit, and I have to say that at this point, I am throwing in the towel and walking out of the ring. A large contributing factor to that was Mr. Bolt, himself. The over-acted charm of his repeated "Heeeeey, ev'rybody, Chandler BOLT here" was grating on my nerves by the last viewing attempt. While I'm grateful that he did manage to pull together a few people of use, I have no love for the man himself. His second planned book is called "How To Not Suck At Writing", and he wrote it because he admitted that his own writing was not very good. When viewers in chat posed the question of how he got to be such a best-seller if his writing was so terrible, Chandler pretended not to understand the question... three times. Pleading the fifth, anyone? On top of it all, he legitimately said "Right on, boy" to one of his presenters during the course of his hosting duties.
ANYWAY. Moving on. There were nearly fifty webinars in the Summit, and out of the dozen seminars I marked as useful for fiction writers, only three ended up being of use! A few of the presenters were flat-out jokes. One man's only published "self-help" book was a dating playbook (and he didn't have the benefit of being funny and multi-talented like Neil Patrick Harris). Most of these sessions were more about the speaker's individual success stories than the methods they actually used to get there. Many of the speakers were more interested in pushing business strategies and making money off of them ... these were entrepreneurs first and foremost, not authors, and many of them were young. I'm not about to say that young people can't be successful, but when half the people I watched looked fresh out of college and all but said "eh, I'm only in it for the money", it turned me off immediately. As I said in an entry last fall, I'm all about the story first, and the money second. Close friends will tell you just how much I dislike the concept of cold-selling things without getting to know people first... just thinking about it makes me feel like I need a long, hot shower and some brain bleach.
I'm sure that entrepreneurs who like to write business tactic books like What Color Is Your Parachute and Raving Fans would get value out of these seminars, and even some people who blog non-fiction may, as well. But I went into this as a fiction author, and as a fiction author, I can say to my fellow fictionistas and affictionados quite confidently and adamantly: Chandler Bolt's Self-Publishing Seminar is not worth your time, even without paying for any of it. That being said, here are the few people I thought had noteworthy things to say.
Joseph Michael: This webinar was the first that I took copious notes on. Joseph spent several hours learning the ins and outs of Scrivener, and now shares his knowledge by teaching online courses so that other authors do not need to do the same. For me, half the fun of new programs is usually taking the time to play with them and see what does what ... but when you're writing, you don't want to be distracted by settings and options and tabs and toolbars. What would have been an entire afternoon of mucking around was accomplished in about 40 minutes (subtracting the time he spent on his backstory and the time Chandler spent trying to play Mr. Popular). Personally, I came away with enough to do what I need, but his self-styled "Scrivener Coach" nickname is pretty well-earned... even if there's a major typo on his personal website. (I edit, okay? I can't help it.) He charges a pretty penny for the course, but to quote someone in one of the other seminars I enjoyed: "Either you're willing to put the time and the hard work in yourself to get it done, or you have to save your money and hire someone else to do it for you." If you're interested and willing to pay for the knowledge, his website is Learn Scrivener Fast.
John Tighe: Kindle sales direct from Amazon are John's self-proclaimed specialty. He spent a great deal of time padding his tips with stories about himself and his company, so I only took away a few basics, which are not really worth linking you to anything of his for. They're useful, but really common knowledge to a point:
Nick Stephenson: Not only has this author earned himself accolade on my part for how much he shared about his mailing list process ... but he may have gained another reader, as well. As an aside: I went to get his website link for this blog post, and he lists "Homing Pigeons" as a method of contact, with a link to an eHow article. I can honestly say that he is the only webinar host I watched over the last week and a half who presented himself as a "real person", and not just a salesman or self-promoter. Thanks to Nick's advice, I'm going to be starting up a mailing list quite soon, and I hope you'll join me there. I've got a lot of fun things in store. But marketing tips weren't the only thing Nick dished out: he shared experience and advice, as well, and many of the things he said resonated with a lot that's been going through my head ever since I concretely decided to self-publish. He believes in getting to know his readers before he tries to sell them things, self-published his own novel before trying to teach others how to do it, and does not sugar-coat the fact that Just Writing Forever And Ever will not make you a successful author, unless you are willing to pay others to do the behind-the-scenes legwork for you. Writing is still a job, after all. I don't want to tell you everything, because here's the last thing that made him stand out from the pack: his video training is FREE, and you can find it here on his blog. Tell 'im Angela sent you.
So, that's my experience with the Self-Publishing Summit. Hopefully, some of you will find it useful, and the rest of you can imagine the amusing faces I made while listening to most of these people. See you next week!
Since writing is not what pays my bills and keeps me fed, clothed, and housed ... I have been trying to find as many close-to-free tools to help me in my journey to self-published status as possible. I figured that I should probably share with you all when I find something that works well ... or, in this case, something that doesn't.
I signed up for a free Self-Publishing Summit, this week ... several webinars supposedly designed to help writers who are looking to self-publish polish their book and get it out there into the world. They're offering people the "opportunity" to buy unlimited access to all of these webinar videos for $100, and the headliner's site charges even more for other summits and courses.
Bottom line: As of today, I wouldn't bother.
I watched the kickoff on Sunday. The headliner, Chandler Bolt, is a college dropout, self-made entrepreneur who wrote a book and made a ridiculous amount of money from it. He admits in the kickoff that it wasn't even a well-written book. From the start, that turned me off: this seems like a lot of self-promoting, buzzword-filled ... well ... let's just call it "cow crap" and keep things PG, shall we? But I decided to reserve judgement until I heard what the rest of the "summit" had in store. Out of a large panel of speakers, only five or so were touted as being useful for fiction writers. No big deal. That's fine. I made a note of them and added them to my Google calendar, since the webinars are only available for free viewing until 72 hours after they're aired.
Yesterday morning, I sat down to watch two of the Monday webinars: both on kicking that infamous writer's doubt so that you can get out of your own way and write. I gave up on the first one ten minutes in, because it was so full of fluff and buzzwords with nothing truly useful. As for the second, all I had to do was read the preserved user chat to see that it wasn't for me. The second speaker was just as self-aggrandized and egotistical as Chandler, to the point where she came out and said she was smarter and better than the clients she helped. Needless to say, I closed that tab without even clicking play.
The only thing I had on my list from Tuesday was a session on Scrivener, which I've been wanting to try, anyway, since I saw comrades from NaNoWriMo shouting its praises. So far, this is the only thing that's been remotely useful. I'll check in again next week once I've seen the rest of the seminars I marked to review.
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