Monday, March 31, 2014

A first novel by a skilled writer: An independent review of The Devil of Light by Gae-Lynn Woods

I began reading Gae-Lynn Woods’ The Devil of Light in January, at about the same time I started watching True Detective on HBO, the gritty series starring Woodie Harrelson and Matthew MacConaughey, and was immediately struck by the similarities between the two stories.

Both stories feature victims of ritual murders, corpses found in bizarre poses and clues pointing to occult behaviours. Both stories also hint at a circle of sexual abusers of children, men who use their powerful positions in their communities to cover up their crime and enforce the secrecy of their cults.

And a further connection between the two: True Detective is set in the Louisiana coastal plain, just across the state border from east Texas, where you could find Arcadia, the setting of The Devil of Light.

This novel bears an uncanny resemblance to Project Truth, a police investigation in Cornwall, Ontario of a suspected ring of child abusers, men, including priests, who traded their child victims among themselves.

I was so struck by all the similarities that I even emailed Gae-Lynn Woods, author of The Devil of Light, to tell her about it. She responded that she had not watched True Detective, nor heard of Project Truth, but she was going to look into both.
But this post is a review of the novel by the independent author from east Texas, so let’s concentrate on that.

The story: A complex series of murders

The Devil of Light begins with a drifter, who adopts only the name Hitch, ritualistically killing an unnamed victim at the behest of an “old man.” Cassandra “Cass” Elliot and her partner, Mitch Stone, are assigned the investigation, which is hampered because the body has no identification. They suspect it’s a missing migrant worker, but before they can make much progress, a local businessman and hobby farmer, Lenny Scarborough, is murdered by his long-abused wife in a spectacular, if very rural way — she drives the spikes of a hay loader through his chest.

In Scarborough’s house, the detectives discover the motive of the murder: photographs of men having sex with young girls and with other men. All the shots are very close-up and show no faces; scars in one picture, though, match the murder victim’s body. It seems Angie, Lenny’s long-abused wife, had discovered the photos while Lenny was working in the cow barn, and that was enough to channel the anger from years of physical abuse into driving the specialized fork-lift truck through her husband.

The photographs lead the police to suspect their idyllic town harbours a ring of pedophiles, and the investigation indeed uncovers it — a ring comprising some of the most powerful and respected men in the community.

This being a crime novel, the bodies begin to pile up, as do layers of secrets and conspiracy.

Where a writer’s skill is critical

Woods is a skilled and talented author. She creates detailed and believable characters, people readers can picture and hear. The main character, Cass Elliot — who insists that the coincidence of her name with that of the late singer from the Mamas and the Papas is really nothing more than a coincidence — has an interesting back-story including rape and a scar around her breast, as well as an older brother serving a long jail sentence for something he may not have done. But Woods knows how to keep the back-story from bogging down her plot, and brings out details when they’re needed, just enough to keep us turning pages (or swiping the e-reader screen) to find out more.

Very few weaknesses
There are a lot of characters in this book, and sometimes it’s hard to keep them all straight — especially the younger minor policemen, most of whom seem to be blond and athletic. This is in opposition to most of the baddies, who in addition to sharing a compulsion to sexually abuse young people, share a propensity to obesity.

The family and social links among the police, suspects, victims and those who discover the bodies also get thicker and more tangled, enriching rather than confusing the story.

The main characters are clearly drawn and consistently presented — except for the main bad guy. The author never names him, and provides only enough detail to make us suspect he could be one of two people in Arcadia.

Overall, an enjoyable and thought-provoking novel

While this novel has an enthralling climax and satisfying conclusion, it did not solve the mystery or end the story. Again showing her writing skills, Gae-Lynn Woods leaves us on the last page of The Devil of Light with a reason — no, a need — to buy the sequel, Avengers of Blood.

Well done, Ms. Woods!


Visit Gae-Lynn Woods' website
Find The Devil of Light on Amazon
Find The Devil of Light on Smashwords

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What do writers read? Bestsellers reveal all!

Image: zoetnet via Flickr/Creative Common
In my continuing quest to blow your minds, I again present three very different authors whose answers to the same questions may surprise you.

Sydney Landon is a New York Times bestseller-listed author of romances, including the Danvers series; David C. Cassidy’s books, including Velvet Rain and Fosgate’s Game, defy categorization but might be called “speculative fiction” (but isn’t all fiction, by definition, speculative? Isn’t fiction a form of speculation?). And Patricia Sands is the award-winning author of The Bridge Club and The Promise of Provence.

Name three characteristics of books that you like.

Sydney Landon: Humorous dialogue, a strong introduction and a realistic plot.

David C. Cassidy: For me, a story has to have depth and feeling. It’s got to have characters I love, and those I love to hate. Above all, it’s got to be real. When you strip away all the obviously impossible stuff, the story has to hit me with reality at some point. The danger, the struggle — it has to be something I can feel. The best stories do that. Avatar would be just another sci-fi adventure without the deep-rooted threat to the indigenous people of Pandora — the threat to their core beliefs. For me, that’s gold, and James Cameron is a master at this kind of storytelling.

Patricia Sands:
  • A compelling style that immediately engages.
  • Strong imagery that draws me into the emotion of the scene, setting or location.
  • Creativity that captures the imagination.

What makes you keep reading a book?

Patricia Sands
Patricia Sands: All of the above (answer #1), plus a good plot and well-developed characters.

Sydney Landon: Connecting with the characters. Otherwise, I lose interest and have a hard time finishing.

David C. Cassidy: The characters. Whether they’re larger than life or just the guy selling hot dogs on the street, I’m always observing characters in books and movies. I watch. I listen. I learn. The best books have all those little nuances in the characters that make me want to follow them to the bitter end.

What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them?

David C. Cassidy: Abarat by Clive Barker; The Thief of Always by Clive Barker; In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom; Salem’s Lot by Stephen King.

Sydney Landon:  Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James; The Faces of Evil series by Debra Webb.

Patricia Sands: There are few books that I begin and don't finish.

Do you consciously try to emulate these books? If so, what form does that take: plot, structure, characters, settings, author's voice and word choice?

Patricia Sands: No, not consciously. However, I know that the more I read, the more I become aware of incorporating the traits I admire of other writers into my own style.

Sydney Landon: No. I believe every author has a certain style and that generally comes through no matter what. 

David C. Cassidy: It might be the sincerest form of flattery, but I don’t consciously do it. I would say most authors don’t, but I would also say that unconsciously, we probably do. It’s natural to emulate those we admire. I’m a photographer, and the only way I became the creative photographer that I am was by studying photographs of the photographers I admire. That didn’t mean I went out and copied their style. It meant that I learned new ways of thinking — new ways of looking at the same subject. Some of my biggest influences in writing have come from three very different authors: Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Mitch Albom — and I’m probably a hybrid of all three to some degree. I’ve studied their work and a lot of other authors from different genres, and have tried to incorporate their techniques in all facets of my writing. Not by copying strict rules or things that they’ve done, but rather their way of thinking or looking at the world and the characters who inhabit them in different and unique ways.

Do you try to avoid any of the techniques or conventions followed by your favorite writers?

David C. Cassidy: For me, each story has a different feel to it—the writing has a different feel to it. I just write it. I don’t worry if someone sees or doesn’t see similar techniques used by other authors. You can’t shackle yourself by saying, “Oh crap, King did this like this.” Why? Because at one point, King probably said, “Oh crap, Poe did this like this.” And Poe probably said, “Damn that Shakespeare. He took all the good stuff.”

Patricia Sands: No. Many of my favourite writers have decidedly different styles than mine. I believe it is important for each of us to find our own unique voice and hone that craft.

Sydney Landon: Not at all.  I never know where a story will take me and what means I'll use to get there.  I've probably tried them all.

What rules of writing do you intentionally break?

Sydney Landon: Grammar. Sometimes the rules say it's wrong, but it sounds so right!

Patricia Sands: None intentionally and probably several unintentionally.
What rules of writing do you intentionally break?

David C. Cassidy: Every last one. Even speling and grammer if I have to. Seriously, I do uphold one rule: There are no rules. I don’t get the whole “don’t do this, don’t do that” mentality with writing. I cross genre boundaries in stories—does it lessen the whole? Not for me. It adds to it. A great story is like a great photograph—the best photographs tell the story exactly as it needs to be told.

Thanks very much, all!

Sydney Landon lives in Greenville, South Carolina and has spent the last twenty-five years working in accounting. Sydney met her own prince charming in 2000 and received the most romantic proposal on a pier in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, thus creating her eternal love for the city. The fact that her future husband was a fellow computer geek completely sealed the deal for her. She credits him with keeping her calm and rational while also understanding her need for a new pair of shoes every other week. They have two children who keep life interesting and borderline insane, but never boring. The idea of the Danvers’ Series popped into her head and refused to go away. She started writing the first story never imagining that it would ever be finished. Three months later it turned into her first book, Weekends Required. Within a few months, it had quickly made the best-seller list on Amazon, and went on to make the New York Times Best Seller List.  Barely taking a breath between books, Sydney followed up with the second book in the series, Not Planning on You. Within the first month, this book also became a best-seller. The third book in the series, Fall For Me was released in February 2013 and became a New York Times Best Seller.  The fourth book in the series, Fighting For You releases in paperback in February 2014.  Sydney is currently working on the fifth book in the Danvers’ Series. When she isn’t writing, Sydney enjoys reading, swimming and being a mini-van driving, soccer mom.

Sydney is a member of BestSelling ReadsVisit her website.

Author, photographer and half-decent juggler David C. Cassidy spends his writing life creating dark and touching stories where Bad Things Happen To Good People.

Raised by wolves, he grew up with a love of nature, music, science, and history, with thrillers and horror novels feeding the dark side of his seriously disturbed imagination. He talks to his characters, talks often, and most times they listen. But the real fun starts when they tell him to take a hike, and they Open That Door anyway. Idiots.

David lives in Ontario, Canada. From Mozart to Vivaldi, classic jazz to classic rock, he feels naked without his iPod. Suffering from MAD (Multiple Activity Disorder), he divides his time between writing and blogging, photography and photoshop, reading and rollerblading. An avid amateur astronomer, he loves the night sky, chasing the stars with his telescope. Sometimes he eats.

David is a member of Independent Authors International. Visit his website.

Patricia Sands lives in Toronto, Canada most of the time, Florida some of the time, and the south of France whenever possible. With a happily blended family of seven adult children and, at last count, six grandchildren, life is full and time is short. Beginning with her first Kodak Brownie camera at the age of six, she has told stories all of her life through photography. She is the author of the award-winning novel, The Bridge Club and her most recent release, The Promise of Provence. The latter is an Amazon best-seller that was also featured on the Movers & Shakers Digital list.  Thanks to reader demand, a sequel to The Promise of Provence in in the works! Put your feet up and be carried away to the south of France in this delightful novel.  Her stories celebrate the rewarding friendships of women and examine the challenges life often throws in our paths. Becoming a published author at this stage of her life was not on her agenda but she knows now she will never stop writing.

Patricia is a member of BestSelling Reads. Visit Patricia's

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book promotion steps to take before you publish

 Guest post by David Small, the Wandering Promoter

This Monday blog features guest blogger David Small, author, international hockey coach and entrepreneur. His new book, The Wandering Leader, launched on Valentine's Day and is already climbing the Amazon bestseller lists in non-fiction.

David hails from Kenora, Ontario — I town I spent many summer weeks in as a youth. It's not exactly known as a hotbed of literature, and it's been literally decades since I crossed paths with anyone from Kenora. I couldn't resist asking him to blog about his approach to self-publishing and his success in promoting his book — lessons we can all use. 

Over to you, David: 

A couple weeks ago I published my third book called The Wandering Leader. This book is about leadership, world travel, and chasing happiness. I define a “wandering leader” as someone who is in a leadership role, but doesn’t have all the answers. They sometime have to improvise or fake it until they make it. As JRR Tolkien said; “Not all that wander are lost.”  Sometimes I feel the same when I am promoting a product. I fake it until I make it. 

I want to share with you my marketing blueprint for how I ended up going from a nobody, to landing on the Amazon bestseller list. Hopefully my experiences in marketing and promoting my book will help you, or give you some ideas to promote your own products in the future. 

Pre-launch required reading: Platform by Michael Hyatt (hyperlink address:

3 weeks before launch week: write down different ways you can generate exposure during your launch week. Here are examples that I used during my launch week: 
  • launch team (very important)
  • media interviews/Press Releases
  • podcasts 
  • guest blog posts
  • images and social media production
  • promotions and giveaways.

If you don’t know an exact date your product with be available across all retail channels, it’s okay to let it be live on some channels and wait for all other channels to come live. You don’t need a big “pre-launch” or “official launch day” — just pick a day on the calendar. You’re the boss. 

2 weeks before launch week: Start to research blogs and podcasts that are in your field. For example, my book is about leadership, so I spent time researching podcasts and blogs in leadership, management, or coaching. I contacted about 30 podcast producers and 30 blogs. Aim for about seven to ten agreements in each category. This will drive traffic during your launch week. Ask that the post or cast be published during your launch week with links to your site or book. 

1 week before launch week: Talk to your book launch team. This is one of the most important ways for you to get exposure. These are friends, family members, and people you know who have a social influence. I was lucky to have NHL hockey players that I used to coach who were willing to help me during my book launch. One NHL player tweeted about my book and instantly 30,000 people saw it. That’s great, personal exposure. Offer to buy a copy of your new book (or whatever your product is) for anyone who helps you during your book launch week. 

Send out a press release to local media. They often like to do human interest pieces. Get on your local radio station to talk about your book and your goals. 

Book launch week: Start your promotion. Don’t spend money on click advertising; instead, buy cool prizes from companies you love and give them away to people who buy your book. I am a big support of Star Alliance air network, so I gave away travel vouchers (fitting because my book is about travel). This cost me approximately $400, which was the most I spent on advertising during my entire book launch. 

Give yourself a target to hit during that week, and a deadline to hit it. This creates a sense of urgency with your buyer. People like to support a race or goal. If you ask your friends and family to buy your product and you think they’re going to drop everything and do it, you’re wrong. I have some family members that I love dearly, but who have never gotten around to buying or reading any of my work. People just don’t really care. If you ask them to buy your book within a given week, so you can reach your sales goal, they’re more likely to do it. I said I want to reach 500 sales within the book launch week. 

Learn about the bestseller list. The Amazon bestseller list can really help you out (if your product is available on Amazon.) This list is updated hourly, and looks at overall popularity, as well as sales within the not-so-distant future. Because I asked people to order my book during book launch week, it put my book sales up to a high point during the first week of availability. Then in the second week all those sales landed it on the Amazon Top 100 list for the categories the book is published under. Being on the Top 100 list is huge because it gives people another reason to get off their butts and buy your book. You can ask them “help me reach the #1 best seller on Amazon by ordering a copy of my book today.” This gives your buyer a sense of urgency and a feeling like they’re a part of your success. I had 136 clicks and 127 orders in 24 hours. This in turn shot my book up to #7 on the bestsellers list. Which then gives you even more fuel to light a fire under your customers’ butts. If you’re that close to the #1 spot, people will get crazy and buy four or five copies of your book in hopes you’ll keep jumping up the list. 

My book passed authors like John Maxwell, Dan Millman, Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, and Dr. Phil in the category Books > Self-Help > Success. I used their names to grab attention in my social media campaigns and keep people interested. I also reengaged my book launch team for a second round of social media sharing with the target to help the book get to the #1 spot. 

For my book launch team, I created a guide and a hidden page on my website for them to use as reference. There I put sample tweets, images with quotes on them, link short codes, and excerpts from the book. People are busy, so make it idiot-proof for them. Copy and Paste and they’re done.  

When you’re promoting a new product, don’t get discouraged when people don’t leap up to buy it. Be genuine. Use your relationships and personality to ask people to buy it, but don’t harass them or spam them (until you make the bestseller list, then spam everyone you know — the higher you climb up the list, the more likely people are to help.) Good luck! 

How have you promoted your product launches? What worked for you or didn’t work for you? 

About the guest blogger:

David Small is the author of the bestselling book The Wandering Leader. In this book, David explains how leaders don’t need to be perfect, but they should get things done. He focuses on seven areas of leadership that everyone can grow in; career, financial, social, physical, spiritual, intellectual, and family. David has been a professional ice hockey coach for over a decade and is an officer in the Canadian army reserves. David has guest lectured and been a keynote speaker at leadership events around the globe. 

Visit his:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What do great writers like to read? Terry Tyler and David Vinjamuri stop by

Creative Commons/Flickr
In the sporadic series where I ask bestselling authors about their reading habits and inspiration, I again turn to two very different authors.

David Vinjamuri is the author of bestselling military thrillers Binder and Operator, as well as two books of non-fiction.

It’s hard to categorize Terry Tyler’s writing other than as “contemporary literary fiction” — or maybe, “really good contemporary fiction that you can’t put down until the last page, even if you’re not the type of reader who normally reads contemporary literature about believable characters.” She has published six novels since 2011, including her latest, Full Circle, plus a collection of short stories, Nine Lives

Their books are very different, but both David and Terry are talented, professional authors who know how to spin a smooth, gripping tale. I asked them about what they look for when they open a book. 

Name three characteristics of books that you like. What makes you keep reading a book? What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them?

David Vinjamuri: Three characteristics of books I like:
  • a great “hook” in the first sentence that surprises or intrigues me
  • deep and realistic characters and relationships that don’t smack of wish fulfillment by the author
  • brisk pacing — a sense that every scene in the book is integral to the overall plot.

Terry Tyler: I like back-story that’s another story in itself; Jackie Collins does this particularly well. I love to read lots of different characters’ points of view, and novels that keep moving from one dimension of the story to another, like GRR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series (Game of Thrones).

What keeps me reading I find impossible to put my finger upon; it just depends if it has a particular spark that appeals to me.

Books I can’t put down: Something In Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard — even on its umpteenth reading!  A perfect book.  Anything by John Boyne or Phillipa Gregory.  Recently, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  I remember reading Jeffrey Archer’s A Matter of Honour in six hours all in one go, about 30 years ago, when I was meant to be going out somewhere and didn’t — many people criticize him, but that book’s plot was outstanding.

Do you consciously try to emulate these books? If so, what form does that take: plot, structure, characters, settings, author's voice or word choice?

Terry Tyler: I would never (not even subconsciously, I hope!) try to emulate someone else’s work. However, one thing I did nick from Susan Howatch was telling a story in the first person by several characters, having one pick up where the last one left off. There are five of her books that take this form — Cashelmara is my favourite. What I like about writing a novel this way is that you can show not only two (or more) sides of a story, but also the different aspects of a personality: how people see someone, and how they really are, inside. Not all my books have this structure, but in the ones that have I enjoy working out the best character to tell each part of the story.

David Vinjamuri: My Michael Herne books are partly an homage to the Matt Helm series written by Donald Hamilton from 1960 to 1993. So there’s some intentional similarity in tone and structure. One of the things I loved about the Helm series was the noir-ish realism. The Herne series is reviewed by a U.S. Army Special Warfare trainer at Fort Bragg for technical accuracy.

Do you try to avoid any of the techniques or conventions followed by your favourite writers?

David Vinjamuri: Herne is not betrayed by his love interest in each of my books as Helm tends to be in Donald Hamilton’s series.

Terry Tyler: No, I don’t think so.  Most writers I read these days don’t write in my genre — I read mostly historical fiction, or thriller-ish books with a male protagonist, or non-fiction.  One thing I do try to avoid, though, which appears in many books, is too much description.  I skip-read it, as it doesn’t make me visualise the place or the people any more than if those words weren’t there.  This is why I rarely describe rooms, for instance.  I think readers conjure up their own pictures.  

What rules of writing do you intentionally break?

David Vinjamuri: I don’t break rules, but I do always think of John Steinbeck when I write.  I ask myself whether there's a way to write something more concisely, economically, efficiently?  Though many well-regarded literary novels spend pages and pages on description, internal dialogue and characterization, I’ve never felt like I have that kind of time in the thriller genre.

Terry Tyler: I haven’t read any “how to write” books, nor indeed an article of that type for ages.  Someone told me a while back that “you can’t have a big chunk of backstory”; if that’s a rule, it’s one of which I take no notice; I write as much as is necessary.  If it seems right to start a sentence with “And” or “But,”  I do it — not too often, though.  I use metaphors and similes if they fit, and the odd cliché if it really serves a purpose, too.  I don’t think I know any of the other “rules,” but I expect I break loads of them. 

With such “how to” articles and books, I know more experienced writers can get a bit sniffy about them, but they’ve served to remind me about many bad habits it would be easy to fall back into: using too many variations on “he said,” for instance, or writing sentences like “bad habits it would be easy to fall back into”!  I don’t know the grammatical term, but I think “it” used like that is very sloppy – when the “it” refers not to an item, but something like “it was raining outside.” Can anyone tell me the name for that?  I hope I’ll always be open to advice and learning more. 

Thank you very much for appearing on my blog, David and Terry.

Terry Tyler has published six contemporary drama novels on Amazon, and a collection of short stories.  She has a writers’ blog on the UK Arts Directory, about books and self-publishing, and a personal one on which she writes about everything else.  She has just finished a longer family saga (publication date to be announced), and hopes to spend the rest of this year on its sequel, and a Christmas novella.  Terry lives in the northeast of England with her husband.

Read a review of her novel, You Wish, published on this blog in June 2012.

The bestselling author of the thrillers, Operator and Binder, David Vinjamuri also writes the “Brand Truth” column online for Forbes, where he covers brands, advertising and publishing. In addition to the thrillers, he is author of Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands and Understanding Self-Publishing: 2013David has appeared on television as a brand expert on the BBC, Fox Business News, Bloomberg TV and MSNBC and has been quoted in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, BusinessWeek, and Investor’s Business DailyDavid is Adjunct Instructor of Marketing at New York University and the founder of ThirdWay Brand Trainers, a leading brand marketing training company. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

True Detective: A TV show writers can learn from

Image from HBO's True Detective opening
I know, it’s been more than a week since the conclusion of this innovative show aired. But I’ll argue that I have let my impression process in the back of my mind, and now I’m ready to make a more carefully considered evaluation.

True Detective, in case you missed it, was an eight-episode series on HBO starring Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rust Cohle, investigating a series of ritualistic murders. Through the series, the two detectives pursue clues that lead them to a group of "devil worshippers," who abuse and kill children from poor, marginalized communities, including prostitutes, as part of their rituals. While the geographic setting stayed on the Louisiana coastal plain, the series jumped between three time periods: 1995, when Rust Cohle, the new guy on the force, joins partner Marty Hart; 2002, when the partners fraught relationship finally breaks down almost irreconcilably and Cohle leaves the police force and Louisiana; and 2012, when on Cohle returns to Louisiana in pursuit of the same cases he had started on in 1995, which leads to an internal police investigation.

The mystery begins with the discovery of a murdered girl, 

her body blindfolded and tied in a praying position in front of a tree. Antlers are tied to her head and strange symbols are painted on her back. Clues lead to a similar cold case from years earlier, and the detectives then find the same symbols on the bodies painted on the wall of a ruined rural church.

McConaughey's character, Rust Cohle, took extensive
notes during his investigations. He created a believable,
if emotionally damaged persona.
As the episodes progress, the clues seem to point to involvement of preachers, politicians and other prominent men in the area. A preacher, Billy Lee Tuttle, attempts to take the investigation away from Hart and Cohle in favour of a special task force to investigate anti-Christian crimes. 

The series jumps between 1995 and 2012, with occasion glimpses into 2002. The main visual clue is hair: while Harrelson only has to remove his toupee to age, McConaughey goes from a typical cop haircut to shaggy hippie/dirtbag look, with full handlebar mustache.

The strength of the show was the writing. 

The plot was sharp and engaging, the characters flawed, vulnerable and absolutely believable. The dialogue was genuine and perfectly credible. 

Even though the time setting kept changing, it was never hard to keep track — the hair was one visual clue, but that was the least of it. The dialogue and the progression of the story always made it clear what era we were watching. Every scene made me want to see the next one, even though the subject, ritualistic sexual child abuse, was the toughest imaginable.

The story actually reminded me of two things: one was the actual police investigation in Cornwall, Ontario, of a pedophile ring including priests and other community leaders who shared their victims; and the other is an excellent book by Gae-Lynn Woods, Devil of Light, a mystery set in east Texas with a plot very similar to the first season of True Detective.

The only downfall to True Detective was the final episode. 


I cannot believe I just told part of my audience to stop reading my review. Ah, well.

The whole show seemed to be building up to the two cops busting open a decades-long scandal, a ring of men, including some prominent and "respectable" community and state leaders, kipnapped, abused, raped and murdered children, then covered it all up. But when Cohle and Hart find the centre of the abuse ring, the abandoned "Carcosa," they only find two men, neither of them prominent or powerful. There is a satisfyingly gruesome final fight scene, the bad guys are killed and the good guys vindicated.

But it felt, to me, like a cop-out. 

The evidence implicated powerful, rich men in the state, including senators, religious leaders and teachers, but none of those were ever caught. There is a throw-away line: "We didn't get them all," one detective says to the other at the end. "No, but we got some," is the reply.

In the final episode, the heroes take the battle to the enemy's lair. But what the heck is this thing?
While that may be more authentic — the Project Truth inquiry certainly did not lead to widespread convictions in Ontario. But it's not satisfying from a storytelling point of view. As a viewer, I want tom find the villain, and I want to see him/her/them if not defeated, then  at least some kind of acknowledgement. True Detective alluded to the villain, and then forgot about them in the final episode, where the story becomes more of a straightforward cop shoot-em-out.

In sum, True Detective was an excellent series: engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking. Well worth watching live or recorded — and a lesson for anyone who wants to know what good writing is.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book launch: Toby's Neal's newest Lei Crime mystery — Shattered Palms

Bestseller Toby Neal has just launched her sixth Lei Crime novel. I asked her how she has changed as an author since she launched the first novel, Blood Orchids, in 2011.
I know my characters so well now that dialogue really flows—banter between Lei and her partner, Pono, interdepartmental meetings with Captain Omura, therapeutic phone calls with Dr. Wilson, Lei's therapist, interviewing and depositions in different settings that are part of the investigation, and most of all, scenes between my protagonist, Lei, and her fiance Michael Stevens. Their bumpy romance began in book one and culminates with a possible wedding in this book!  
I also have the steps and "rules" of a police investigation fairly well memorized, so plotting the scenes of the book is easy compared to when I first started writing police procedural and had no idea how police actually went about investigating. Now, hundreds of hours later, with friends and fans in police circles training, coaching, and reviewing my work, I actually think I could be a helpful addition to a homicide investigation, with my psychology background. 
I also have confidence now that I didn't have then. Confidence that, even though I don't know what the "twist" at the end of my book will be, my brain will come up with one by the time I need it. Confidence that, whether everyone "gets" it or not, I'm doing a good thing with these books by shining an entertaining light on current society and Hawaii issues. Confidence that I can write a first draft within three months and get four books out in a year. Confidence that  I can breathe life into even small characters, like the hippie lady with dreadlocks in the lime green Prius who helps Lei in Shattered Palms.  
I have confidence I can give readers what they want, leave them satisfied and yet hungry for more—and to me, that's successful storytelling. 
Thanks for the friendship and support, Scott!Aloha
So, what's Shattered Palms about?

Maui is lush mountains, cloud forest and exquisite birdsong—but for Detective Lei Texeira, arrows break that peace.

Someone is stalking poachers that are capturing Maui’s rarest birds, and Lei pursues the case with her usual leap-first, look-later style—but will she be able to catch a killer, save the birds, and still make it to her own wedding? Shattered Palms is a roller coaster ride from the top of Haleakala to the beach and back again, with extinction at stake.

“Toby Neal creates a captivating balance of the beauty of the islands contrasted with the ugliness of murder, and complicated by the trials of Lei’s personal life. A must-read for Neal fans.” — Thomas K. Matthews, author of Rejection.

You can get it NOW on Amazon

Best-selling author Toby Neal was raised on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where she lives today after “stretches of exile” to pursue education. A mental health therapist, Toby credits that career with adding depth to the characters in the Lei Crime Series. She is a member of BestSelling Reads. 

  • her BestSelling Reads Author page
  • her website and
  • her blog.

Monday, March 10, 2014

If you publish your writing, you're an author

Whenever I watch TV  shows like Downton Abbey, or movies like The Remains of the Day, stories that centre around servants in a thankfully extinct era, I am always struck by the attitudes of the servant class — the way that they reinforce their own subjugation, partly because it allows them to abuse those lower on the social hierarchy than themselves. 

Does it matter whether you're a professional or am amateur, as long as you want to see the sky?
Image from Wikipedia Commons

I think the same sentiment is behind a recent blog post by Michael Kozlowski on his Good E-reader blog, "Self-publishers should not be called authors." Kozlowski called for a clear definition of “author.” 

The post raises questions, but not the questions that the author wanted to. Kozlowski wants to start a debate among the “publishing industry,” defining what an indie author is.
The question I ask is "Why?" 

Why do we need a definition of a professional writer versus an authentic author, versus a self-published author?

Let's look at this from the audience's point of view. As a reader myself, when I buy a book, I want an engaging story about characters I can believe in, if not identify with. I want a tale that rings true, that satisfies my desire for a story and that answers the questions it asks. 

From this point of view, the author's credentials, whether self-applied or bestowed by an external authority, do not matter.

"Indie author," "self-published author," "commercially published author" and so on are only labels that anyone can attach to the cover of book.

What about someone who sets up a business, and registers it, which publishes the business owner's book? Is that self-published or commercially published? Does that change if the same business publishes books by other authors?

Kozlowski's proposition is that there is a minimum for writers to be able to call themselves authors  —  he suggest that a writer should have to make a minimum amount of money to be able to call him/herself a professional author.

There are two problems with this idea. First, what is the standard? Is $1000 enough, too little or too much? How do we determine the threshold? Based on what? Is the standard universal, or should there be different standards for writers of fiction and non-fiction, or for writers of different genres?

The second problem is, who's going to enforce this? Who will determine the standard, apply it, and sanction violators? And what would the sanction be?

A solution in search of a problem

If there were some kind of professional standard for "author," it stands to reason that would come with a designation; a writer who achieves the standard of earning, say, $1000 from writing in a year would get to append "PW" after his or her name. 

"Scott Bury, PW." Nope. Don't like it one bit. 
Some professions have formal, strictly enforced designations: medicine, engineering and law, for example. These exist to protect the public, particularly those who pay for their services. There are many reasons for this protection, among them: 
  • poor professional decisions and practices can have catastrophic consequences
  • the professional acumen of the professional is not readily apparent to those not schooled in those disciplines.

Neither of these conditions occur with writers. Reading a book by an  untrained, unskilled writer may disappoint you, but that consequence answers the second reason for a professional designation — bad writing is obvious.

It's also subjective. Some people enjoy reading Michael Ondaatje, others like Stephenie Meyer. But reading either of them, or any other book, won't kill anyone and it's highly unlikely to land them in jail. At least, in this country.

Sure, there are a lot of bad books on the market, and with the e-book explosion, there are more than ever. But independent authors have no monopoly on bad writing. The commercial publishing industry, yes, the Big Five, have been responsible for publishing real stinkers for centuries.

And this is the crux of the problem, which even Kozlowski missed: commercial success or sales, are not the same as quality. Selling a minimum number of copies does not mean a book is any good.

At risk of coming across as a right-winger, I say: let the free market decide. Lower the barriers to entry (done — thank you, Amazon, Smashwords and all the other tools that allow individual writers to publish e-books) and let readers make their own choices. As for Michael Kozlowski and people like him, I say: may your biggest problem be choosing a good book to read.
Image by ginnerobot, licensed under Creative Commons.

To everyone else, I say: if you sell your writing, you're a professional writer. Your sales will indicate how well you connect with an audience.

Don't let anyone else tell you what you are.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

What do best-selling authors like to read? Two different views

This week, Written Words once again pairs two very different authors to discuss what they think makes a good book.

Raine Thomas is the bestselling author of an award-winning series of YA fantasy/romance novels about the Estilorian plane, including her latest, Return of the Ascendant.

Doug Dorow is best known for his innovative thriller The Ninth District.

Name three characteristics of books that you like. 

Raine Thomas: Strong characters, witty dialogue and compelling story lines.

Doug Dorow: I've found I prefer to read third person versus first person, though I'll read both. Character and action keep me engaged along with a unique setting. 

What makes you keep reading a book? 

Doug Dorow: Cliff hangers make me turn the page. I keep reading because I care about what is going to happen next to the main character. 

Raine Thomas: The desire to find out what happens to the characters. If I connect with the main characters, I want to know what happens to them. That’s the sign of a great book.

What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them?

Raine Thomas: My favourite genre is romance, so just about anything by Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb and similar authors will keep me up reading past my bedtime. I’m also fond of stories driven by mystery and intrigue, like those by Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen.

Doug Dorow: I got totally engaged in Stephen King's Dark Tower series back when it first came out. Today, I'm a big fan of Lee Child's and Michael Connelley's books. One that met my 3 characteristics above (character, action, unique setting) was Trevanian's Shibumi. One of the few books I've read twice. 

Do you consciously try to emulate these books? If so, what form does that take: plot, structure, characters, settings, author's voice and word choice?

Doug Dorow: I don't think I consciously try to emulate a book, but by reading so many of them, I believe that their pace, structure and beats become internalized. If something really jumps out at me after I've read a section I will stop and think about what it was that captured my attention and keep it in mind for my future writing. 

In my thriller, The Ninth District, I did try to create a character that the reader would care about and put him in a unique setting and location (underground in the tunnels and sewers that run under Minneapolis) where the setting almost became a character itself. 

Raine Thomas: I don’t consciously try and emulate another author’s style; rather, I write stories that I want to read. That said, I’ve found that my dialogue sometimes mimics the style of Ms. Roberts’, as does my depiction of male characters. I suppose it follows that my writing would incorporate elements that I most like to read in other books.

Do you try to avoid any of the techniques or conventions followed by your favourite writers? 

Raine Thomas: I’ve never consciously avoided any writing techniques by other authors. It’s important to me that I maintain my own voice, so the styles of other authors don’t enter my mind when I’m writing. 

Doug Dorow: I don't think I consciously try to avoid any techniques or conventions, but I do tend to write in third person, though I've dabbled some in first person. 

What rules of writing do you intentionally break?

Doug Dorow: I'm kind of a rule follower. I look at them more as conventions and norms and try to give the reader what he or she will expect in the thriller genre, but in a new story with new characters. 

I am attempting some novella writing, trying to provide a thrill in shorter snippets that may not allow the same in depth character insight a reader will get with a regular novel. 

Raine Thomas: One rule I break relates to paragraph length. If I want to emphasize a single word or sentence, I’ll make it stand alone as its own paragraph. I’m also not afraid to switch points of view within a story (though I’m careful to keep to one POV per scene). I prefer to write in the third person and allow the reader to experience the story from several different perspectives. But, hey…aren’t they more guidelines than rules, anyway? ;)

Thank you very much for the different perspectives, Raine and Doug!

Minnesota thriller author Douglas Dorow’s FBI thriller, The Ninth District is available in ebook, paper and audio formats through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Visit his website and blog, and Amazon Author page. Follow him on Twitter @DougDorow.

Raine Thomas is the award-winning author of bestselling young adult and new adult romantic fiction. Known for character-driven stories that inspire the imagination, Raine recently signed with multiple award-winning producer Chase Chenowith of Back Fence Productions to bring her popular Daughters of Saraqael trilogy to the big screen. A member of Best-Selling Reads, Raine is a proud indie author who is living the dream. When she isn't writing or glued to e-mail or social networking sites, Raine can usually be found vacationing with her husband and daughter on one of Florida's beautiful beaches or crossing the border to visit with her Canadian friends and relatives.

Visit her webite, blog, and Amazon Author page, and follow her on Twitter @Raine_Thomas.