Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Five of the best from POD-dy Mouth

The blog POD-dy Mouth was started by a commercially published writer to see if there were any gems amid the reams of print-on-demand titles. She quit after about two years, but in that time she not only discovered some great books but had some very informative posts about the industry.

Oh, and hilarious discoveries of What Not To Write. Dinner first, then dessert.

1. The Making of a POD Book

This is an excellent guest post from Christopher Meeks, author of The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, which has an intriguing title and a cover to match. Anyone wanting to self-publish a collection of short stories will benefit from reading this.

He also wrote about how he helped design a cover for his second book.

2. Cover Design

Susan Wenger, a book editor/designer at Wheatmark, discusses what writers can do to improve their cover art – especially if they’re creating it themselves.

3. More on cover art – including bloopers.

Perhaps my favorite--and quite possibly the nadir--was a book (that I cannot bear to publicize) about a satanic force that rises to rule the world. And on the cover was a huge image surely intended to be a pentagram.

It was a Star of David.

4. Opening paragraphs – and sentences – that don’t work

"Get your hands up!!!!!!!!" cried Milky Frothbean.

The rain, wet, cold, misty and murky, fell on our saturated, pruned skin, had us running the cold, hard pavement with such animated and excited fury, that we fell in laughter when we returned to the warm, dry fire.

Everyday [sic] was like Monday for Trudy Goldman, except Tuesday, which always felt like Tuesday to her. I don't know, you'd have to ask her why. But Monday, different story. She preferred Fridays over any day of the week, which was strange since it felt like Monday. To her, I mean.

Michael Swank would of [sic] saved Marshall Swank if he could of [sic].

They called her Labia.

5. Random notes to the authors of seven POD books

I'm not sure what this means: "He was everywhere and nowhere all at once; he smelled like tuna."

Uh, there is no September 31st.

The sun was blinding, her love was blinding, her hope was blinding, her will was blinding, her passion was blinding. I hope she saved some money for cataract surgery.

FYI - Julius Caesar did not invent the caesar salad.

Mickey Mack McKeldinroy. Not necessarily my top choice for a name for your protagonist--considering he's Italian.

I want to be very clear about something: Gynecological exams are never sexy. Absolutely never. Understand me: never. If only you had a cervix.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I am Hutterite

Did you know of a community of people called the Hutterites? Nearly five thousand strong, living in both the United States and Canada?

I didn’t either, until I read I Am Hutterite, by Mary-Ann Kirkby. It was sent to me for review by Thomas Nelson. Kirkby tells the story of her family, lifelong Hutterites, who eventually left the shelter of their colony and struggled to make a life for themselves in the outside world.

Of course I couldn’t resist that.

The main principle governing Hutterite life is the sharing of food and property. Meals are cooked communally – “twenty-five dozen buns and fifteen loaves of bread” for one colony each week. Men meet regularly to discuss major purchases which will be used for everyone’s good.

Like so many things in life, this has positives and negatives. No one goes hungry, but there’s no much chance of a private life either. And one day, the needs of Mary-Ann’s family conflict once too often with the wishes of the colony’s minister.

But the book actually starts with Mary Maendel, the author’s mother, and her marriage to Ronald Dornn. While this wasn’t fast-paced or dramatic, it was fascinating to read because it described the Hutterite mindset, daily life and history in detail. It’s like an adult, German-influenced version of Little House on the Prairie.

One warning, though. If you’re going to try this book, please have some food on hand. I got really peckish after reading about soft cheese sprinkled with caraway seeds and waffles soaked in whiskey.

Mary Dornn’s marriage resulted in seven living children, the youngest of whom was only four when her husband cut his ties with a community where his family was fed and protected but where he had almost no autonomy. For instance, he was denied permission to take a trip to visit his sisters in Ontario.

In 1969 he decided to leave, even knowing that was the most shameful thing a Hutterite could do. He had no money or bank account. He took care of the cows for the colony, keeping records of the livestock, but when he asked for one cow that request was denied too.

His daughter, the book’s author, was nine years old at the time.

Life went from the busy, bustling community to the loneliness of a single family in a dilapidated house, from fresh food to outdated groceries that were cheaper. The family adapted to their first phone, baseball and McDonalds. And Mary-Ann struggled to “transform from a Hutterite nobody to an English somebody” – all the while caught between two very different worlds.

Readers may have a little difficulty telling who’s who and keeping track of all the people involved, and the story isn’t as dramatic as, say, Carolyn Jessop’s Escape. At times it was a little slow-moving, but then I’d come across an anecdote like this:

Hutterite dresses didn’t have pockets, so most of the women used their bras to store small items such as hairpins, safety pins and Kleenex. Esther, Annie reported, carried tea bags and sugar lumps that way too. When an outsider dropped in to see Esther’s husband, she sent one of her children for him and offered the stranger a cup of tea, nonchalantly pulling a tea bag and two sugar lumps from her bosom.

When she asked whether he took cream, the flabbergasted businessman jumped out of his chair and cried, “No thanks!” as he fled the scene.

Worth reading, I’d say.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Book of Obeah

Melody Bennet brings her grandmother’s ashes to be blessed and scattered in a Louisiana bayou, in accordance with her grandmother’s last wishes. But where ashes fall, secrets rise – and one of those is about a book which could change the world.

I first became aware of obeah after reading Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Two horror novels – Dean Koontz’s Darkness Comes and Graham Masterton’s Feast – also rely on aspects of voodoo. It was fascinating, especially the concepts of vévés and the deities involved, such as Papa Legba and Baron Samedi. I was looking forward to more of that in The Book of Obeah, by Sandra Carrington-Smith.

The book more than delivers when it comes to voodoo, but I’ll discuss a little more of the plot first. Her grandmother’s death leaves Melody nearly alone in the world, especially since her grandmother was the only person who knew that Melody sometimes sees things she shouldn’t – precognitive glimpses of unpleasant events. And yet Melody knows relatively little about her grandmother’s past, such as why her family fled the bayou.

When she arrives in Louisiana, though, a strange man approaches her and demands the book. Melody has no idea what he means, but during a voodoo ceremony to bless the ashes, she hears her grandmother telling her where to find the book. As she’s searching, two Catholic priests and a Cardinal arrive. They are also interested in The Book of Obeah, which combines religion and power.

A bit like Dan Brown, except with voodoo. One problem, though, is that Melody isn't the most active protagonist. For much of the story she travels to different places, talks to various people and reads books - first her great-grandmother’s diary and then The Book of Obeah. She was often confused and unsettled, not to mention a little too quick to embrace the beliefs of voodoo:

Melody was fascinated. The idea of God Energy being in everything and everyone made sense, and she desperately needed something to make sense.

It’s one thing to think that a religion has some intriguing beliefs. It’s another to feel that nothing else in life makes sense, hence the “desperate” need to believe in God Energy. The romance, which begins after the second half of the book, also felt underdeveloped.

On the other hand, the setting is atmospheric and very well done. Warm and steamy post-Katrina New Orleans comes alive, making me feel as though I was listening to jazz, tasting coffee and having the Tarot cards read. That and the author’s meticulous research into voodoo carried much of the novel.

The most interesting part of that religion, for me, is the symbolism behind the vivid and colorful objects and rituals. This book explained that in detail. However there were frequent jumps from past to present tense during such discussions, which were distracting.

…Catholicism was not viewed kindly; praying to saints is seen as idol worship.

Religious rituals have always disturbed her, as they seem to require people to beg of something outside of themselves. She believed Spirit was within, not external.

If those had been caught by an editor and if the heroine had a stronger personality, this would be an excellent read. The book certainly has a striking cover – what’s inside had the potential to be just as good.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

First ever royalty check!

It arrived today.

Writing makes me happy, as does feedback from readers. But there's nothing quite like being paid (and paid well) for something you've written. :)

Thank you to everyone supporting me in this journey, by liking what I've written or helping me promote my first book!

Image from: http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/97542941

Monday, May 17, 2010

A cliche of suspense

Cornered by a psychopath who wants to rape and kill her, the heroine fights back fiercely, usually with a weapon. Her efforts are rewarded and the psycho ends up face-down on the floor.

The heroine backs away, unsure whether he's dead or not. At which point he stops playing possum and, having bought himself a breathing space, attacks again.

The most recent example of this I've encountered was in the short story "The Gingerbread Girl" from Stephen King's Just After Sunset. And it's getting annoying. Rather than prolonging the suspense, it just makes me wonder why the heroine doesn't assume he's playing dead and take steps to ensure that he'll be out of commission at least until the cops arrive.

Maybe allowing him to get up and retrieve his butcher knife is playing fair, but it certainly isn't playing smart.

If the heroine is very ethical and just can't bring herself to kill the man who was trying to rape and murder her, she could at least try to render him unconscious or unable to chase her. In the King story, the heroine was in the psycho's kitchen. After he went down, playing dead, she pulled open a drawer to see if there were any knives inside but there weren't.

Well, come on. It's a kitchen. Pull out the drawers themselves. Drop the toaster on him. Don't get me started on what I'd do with the contents of the fridge. She had a momentary advantage, wasted it and ended up worse off.

Until the heroine sees a flatline ECG she shouldn't turn her back. I wonder if it's always a heroine, by the way. Does this ever happen to the hero? I don't read a lot of suspense, so is there anyone out there who knows?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Vanity presses and faulty reasoning

Writer Beware’s latest post is about the vanity publishing arms of certain commercial publishers (e.g. DellArte and Harlequin). They contracted with publishing services firm Author Solutions to set up their vanity divisions.

And the second comment to Victoria Strauss’s post is from Kevin A. Gray, a representative of Author Solutions, who uses some interesting arguments to support his position.

We are the first to say, if you can get a large advance from a major publisher; do it! Quickly! But, as you know, those advances are becoming fewer and fewer as the industry changes.

There’s no evidence that the publishing industry is changing in such a way as to offer “fewer and fewer” advances, so this just sounds alarmist.

I especially like the exclamation marks! Both of them!

These partnerships do indeed create revenues for publishers (most that I'm familiar with aren't set up as non-profits), but they also provide opportunities for authors.

What “opportunities” are these? The opportunity to hold a printed, bound copy in your hands? The opportunity to have books stocked in stores?

I’m willing to bet the one is more likely than the other.

Is it your contention that if authors can't get an advance from a traditional publisher, they should just give up on publishing their books?

This is a false trichotomy, which doesn’t acknowledge choices other than the three mentioned or implied. By this reasoning, you can either:

1. Get an advance from a major house (“traditional publisher” was a term coined by one of the founders of PublishAmerica to make it appear that their company was something other than a vanity press)

2. Give up on publishing.

3. Use a self-publishing service - which is really vanity publishing with a less off-putting name.

It’s intended to make Option the First seem too difficult, and Option the Second seem too depressing. Therefore, Goldilocks-like, you're meant to find Option the Third not so bad in comparison.

The answer to such a question is to mention all the other choices writers have. For instance, they can submit manuscripts to small presses or e-publishers. They can try real self-publishing – which doesn’t involve buying an expensive package from a self-publishing service. Or they can continue to write and improve their skills.

No one is forcing anyone to self-publish and no one is guaranteeing that if an author does self-publish he or she will reach Rowling, Palin or Grisham sales numbers.

But will they reach even mid-list numbers? Will they make back their investment?

What guarantees are there in this kind of self-publishing, anyway?

You can convince people to do something that will ruin their manuscripts’ chances and sabotage their hopes of a career in writing, without forcing them. Overly emotive language is another thing to watch out for.

Also, understand that authors' personal definitions of success vary as much as the books they write. Some want the NY Times Best Seller list. Some publish to support a business. Some to support a cause. Some for very personal reasons.

I agree, but that’s one of the concerns I have about vanity presses which try to pass themselves off as legitimate publishers. Or, for that matter, which hold out the hope that a writer printed through them may be picked up by the parent company (which is a commercial publisher). A writer who just wants to see their work in print may be satisfied with a complimentary copy and a few sales to family and friends.

What about the writer who wants the NYT bestseller list?

If their books are treated in the same way by a vanity press, it’s unlikely that the second writer will ever achieve it. And the press is equally unlikely to warn them, “If your definition of success involves the sales of thousands of copies, you’re better off refining your manuscript or improving your craft until a commercial publisher accepts your work.”

It’s because the authors’ personal definitions of success vary that there are several kinds of publishers and choices when it comes to publishing.

It’s also not clear how buying expensive publishing packages can support a business. Unless Mr. Gray meant that the business they support is the vanity press?

If an author has a book they believe in than they should publish it.

This is… disingenuous, at best.

Firstly, such a book may be very close to the writer’s heart but not necessarily good for the writer’s career. I’ve got five or six manuscripts on my hard drive, each of which I believed in when I first wrote them. With time, I realized they were not good enough for publication. They were learning experiences.

Every creative effort is not automatically suitable for public display.

Secondly, believing in a book doesn’t make it ready for publication. A book may need rewriting or editing. When writers leap from “I believe in this book” to “therefore I should publish it”, without any other reasons for said publication, they’re likely to be disappointed by rejections for the prematurely released manuscript. Which may make self-publishing appear more attractive in comparison.

Finally, writers need to be aware of what they want from a manuscript. Is it intended as self-therapy? In which case you can believe in it without publishing it. Is it intended for local sales? In which case you can believe in it while utilizing a local printer. Is it intended to sell copies to the largest readership possible? Then you can believe in it while sending it to commercial publishers.

But the idea that belief in one’s book = publication is misleading.

Image from http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/83150980

Monday, May 10, 2010


Years ago, I wrote the sequel to Before the Storm, During the Fire v. 1.0. Which sucked.

That turned out to be a good thing in the long run, because looking back on that particular Cautionary Tale, I can see exactly what mistakes I made and can be sure to do better in v. 2.0, on which I’m working right now. But one of those mistakes was so… striking, for lack of a better word, that I thought I’d write about it.

In v. 1.0 there were ten chapters, three of which were flashbacks. Now the story revolved around several murders that had been committed over a decade ago, and the flashbacks were meant to show everything that led up to those. But there were certain problems.

1. Length of the flashback

The longer a flashback is, the longer the readers will be away from the main plot. If something tense or fascinating is happening in the present, they may be justifiably annoyed at the time-travel to the past.

And if nothing especially exciting is happening in the present, and if the flashback is a long one, they might have forgotten what’s going on in the main plot by the end of the flashback.

So there’s really no excuse for a chapter-length flashback, much less three of them. I’d planned the book to be written in the zipper format, with the two timelines more or less converging at the end of the novel, but the fact remained that I could have condensed the events of the past to a page or two – which I’m doing now. And that page itself will be broken up into paragraphs dispersed through the narrative.

If the forward motion of the plot were a car, it would have a bumper sticker saying “I brake for flashbacks”. Brake too often, or too long, and the readers seek another conveyance.

2. Repetitiveness

One problem with the flashbacks in v. 1.0 – that I only realized after writing the book – was that since they explained what had happened in the past, it would be redundant for the protagonist to piece that together in the present as well. And yet he had to do so, or the crimes would have been left unsolved.

Flashbacks are better used for something the characters don’t or cannot know, or to show brief incidents in the past that illustrate the characters’ current feelings or motivations.

3. Flashbacks say what you don’t need to say

It’s always a good idea to consider long flashbacks and see if they’re telling the readers something they don’t need to know.

For instance, let’s say that at the start of the book, the protagonist’s marriage has broken up, and the rest of the book will be about how she slowly falls in love again. It wouldn’t help to have a long flashback dwelling on incidents in her marriage. If this occurs at the start of the novel, it might even give readers the impression that the story is going to be about how she gets back together with this person in the flashback.

And it may also be more effective to provide a few, specific points and let readers fill in the gaps. “I fitted into the second-hand Toyota. I was lost in the new X300” takes less time than explaining all the details and consequences of one person preferring the simpler working-class life while the other aimed higher and grew to enjoy wealth and luxuries.

Was writing v. 1.0 a waste? No. Not only did it show me what not to do in terms of plot, the worldbuilding in it is solid and I’m using that foundation to reconstruct the mystery as I work on v. 2.0. No writing is wasted if you put your heart into it.

Image from : http://www.shopwiki.co.uk/Backwards+Clock

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Guest blog : Fantasy meets romance

First monthiversary of my book's release! And there's another guest blog to celebrate it - this one over at Anna's Book Blog. I first discovered Anna's blog when I was researching Samhain, because she's got a very interesting interview with one of Samhain's editors, and her blog is simply fun to browse as well.

So I wrote about the combination of fantasy with romance.

Fantasy is the Little Black Dress of the genres. It goes with everything – science, romance, history, horror – and usually makes a good thing even better. I love writing in it, and combining it with other genres for the best effect.

The addition of fantasy elements to a romance has to be done carefully. They can’t be wallpaper, because readers expect good world building. And they have to be internally consistent. A land where bride abduction is common is unlikely to be one with a strongly matriarchal culture.

Want to read more? Plus, there's a giveaway - so please read and comment for a chance to win!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Using other people's characters

Inspired by the fanfiction post, I thought it would be interesting to make a list of books (and a play) which use other people's characters.

Without permission, though that's partly because most of the works are in the public domain. But I'll keep the list handy because in a fanfic debate, someone's sure to suggest that using other people's characters shows a lack of originality, creative bankruptcy, laziness, etc. So here's the list:

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard
The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall
March, Geraldine Brooks
Mrs de Winter, Susan Hill
Good Morning, Irene, Carole Nelson Douglas
MacB, Neil Arksey
Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, Linda Berdoll
Bored of the Rings, by the Harvard Lampoon
Heathcliff: The Sequel to Wuthering Heights, Lin Haire-Sargeant
Return to Wuthering Heights, Anna L'Estrange
Desire and Duty : A Sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Ted Bader

In a couple of cases, the characters' names are changed slightly. For instance, MacB (based on Macbeth) has Banksie and Duncan King rather than Banquo and Duncan, the king of Scotland. But on the whole, it's interesting to see how many published works borrow other writers' characters. And this is just the tip of the iceberg - examples I found in ten minutes.

Special mention goes to Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. Margaret Mitchell's estate may have authorized this sequel, but Mitchell herself felt the story stopped where it had to stop.


There's been some discussion on the Internet about Diana Gabaldon's disapproval of fanfic. I read about this first on the Absolute Write forums and then on Maria Zannini's blog.

The debate is an old one. I didn't really like the idea of fanfics until last year, when I was burned out from a slew of rejection letters. Suddenly I wanted to write a story that wouldn't be rejected.

So I wrote some fanfics. I enjoyed it, and it revitalized my interest in writing. Since there was no pressure to publish my work, I could experiment with different styles. After a few months, I resubmitted my manuscript and got an acceptance letter.

As a result, here's my take on fanfiction.

Objections to fanfic : what I agree with

1. Lawsuit potential

In 1992, a fan of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels claimed that the latest Darkover book stole an idea that she had sent to a fanzine Bradley ran. Because of the legal complications that resulted, published writers are warned not to read fanfics.

I think this is a case of a few bad apples spoiling it for the rest of the barrel, but it's also something published writers have good reason to be concerned about.

2. Copyright infringement

Using someone else's characters without permission is copyright infringement.

It makes me wonder, though. If I were to take characters that are in the public domain, such as Jane Austen's, and publish a novel about them, why would that be more acceptable than my writing a fanfic? Surely I don't have permission from Jane Austen to discuss her characters' love lives or to make said characters vampire slayers.

It seems to me like a moral grey area, though I'm willing to be corrected on this.

Also, there's copyright infringement which robs the writer (such as piracy, which I'm completely against). I don't think fanfics do this. Instead, when they're good, they can encourage and maintain interest in the original material.

Objections to fanfic : what I don't agree with

1. "Why not make up your own worlds?"

This is like saying to someone who likes singing karaoke, "Why not make up your own songs and music?" It's missing the point. Sometimes the fun is in telling a story set in that particular world, with those particular characters.

If I wanted to have an adventure set in a world of Gothic horror, I'd play Ravenloft. If I wanted to write a story about a battle between giant robots who turn into vehicles, I'd write Transformers fanfics (which, incidentally, I do). If I wanted to be published - and it's by no means a given that everyone who writes fanfics wants this or should want it - I would come up with my own worlds.

Which I also do.

2. "Most fanfics are poorly written."

Can't argue with that, though a lot of manuscripts in the slush pile are also poorly written. I've read fanfics that were beautifully crafted, published novels that weren't, and vice versa.

Besides, there are sites like Fictionpress, where original work can be posted to the Internet. If the quality of fanfiction is an argument against it, surely the quality of original work should be criticized too.

3. "It's disrespectful to the source material."

That depends on the fanfic, IMO. I've read some that were horrible, some which left me indifferent, and some which I loved. I think it's overly emotive to say that all fanfic "tramples" on the original work.

But personally, I would always respect the writer's wishes regarding the world. There are a few Song of Ice and Fire fics on the web. I wouldn't even look at those, because George R. R. Martin doesn't approve of fanfics regarding his work.

So if I ever reach the point where other people want to write fanfics about my work, I'd be fine with it, as long as they weren't making money from such fanfics. I would never read them. But I'd hope other people did.

What are your thoughts on fanfiction?

Guest blog: Secondary characters

“I confess right now that I have a secondary character fetish,” J. R. Patrick said here.

Why is that? I wondered. Something along the same lines had happened to me with my editor, who told me she found a secondary character in my debut novel “fascinating”. She said she hoped to see more of him in the sequel.

So I wrote a blog post on why secondary characters might upstage the protagonists, and J. R. Patrick was kind enough to host it here. Click and read!


Also, my online friend and fellow blogger Hazardgal is holding a contest for her book The Holler. Two words that made me want to read more: "Raw Head". I'd enter but I'm on the wrong side of the border... so I hope lots of other people do!