Friday, August 28, 2015

A.D. 30: A Novel: A Book Review

Ted Dekker has been called, and rightfully so, the "master of suspense," and that's the way I've come to think of him as an author. His books, though Christian in nature, often shock, frighten, or thrill the reader and that's why I was so interested in reading A.D. 30. I surmised it would be different from his previous works.

Product DetailsI was both right and wrong. The plot centers on the seemingly-impossible predicament of Maviah (the illegitimate daughter of a Bedouin sheikh, Rami, who ruled over "Arabia's northern sands") when powerful enemies destroy everything she holds dear, including her infant son, and it falls to her to seek an alliance with King Herod, ruler of the Jews, unlikely as that may be. Hoping to save her people and grieving for her tiny son, she escapes with two men, both in the employ of her father. Saba is a dark-skinned man of few words, but a powerful warrior, and Judah is a Jewish man who hails from a people who read the stars and a tribe who followed one star to a manger in Bethlehem.

There is much intrigue, danger, violence, and historic back-stabbing in the book and in that regard, Dekker does what he does best--thrills, frightens, and shocks. But in my opinion, that's where the similarity to his other work ends. A.D. 30 struck me as a gentle tale, with powerful and sometimes grave and grievous components, that takes the reader across the relentless desert sands, into the palaces of kings and the hovels of common men, and straight to Jesus Christ.

Judah, with whom Maviah eventually falls in love, is an irrepressible sort, always optimistic and ardent in his desire to seek his Messiah. This desire leads them to Nazareth and Miriam (Mary), the mother of Jesus, and from there to Jesus Himself.

Dekker writes eloquently of the times, describing them in rich detail and as historically accurate as can be done when you consider that scholars have always argued over the timing of certain events. Maviah's journey is fictionalized, but within a framework of documented historical fact. That Dekker can weave even the most mundane detail of life in those days into a vivid tapestry of biblical times is a testament to his abilities as a writer. I highly recommend A.D. 30, and look forward to reading his next book, A.D. 33.

A.D. 30 is available in digital, paperback, and hardcover at Amazon, as well as at Barnes and Noble

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015



Donn Taylor

            I've posted this several times over the years, but it's important enough to repeat.

            Every writer must decide whether he should use words that are euphemistically described as "strong language," i.e.,"cusswords" and gutter language. These "four-letter words" so dominate fiction and film conversations today that these words often are the dialogue.

            I guess I've heard them all, first as an Infantry officer and then (worse yet) as a graduate student. And I've put a good bit of thought into their place, if any, in my writing. So I've come to reject the most common justifications of using these words in fiction and film.

The usual justification is a claim of "realism." First, it’s claimed that because people actually talk that way, realistic fiction must accurately report their words. Second, it’s claimed that four-letter words bring us closer to “real life” than other words.

            Neither claim can withstand examination.   

            The first confuses "realism" with literalism. Fiction is not real life: it is an artifice that creates the illusion of real life. So if the writer must report people's words literally, what excuses him from including all other elements of life? Must every fictional day begin with the hero shaving or the heroine applying eye shadow? And what about prayer? Depending on which poll one reads, some fifty to eighty percent of Americans pray every day. Yet prayers in fiction—except specifically Christian fiction—are rarely found.

            Thus, if "realism" does not justify literal inclusion of other elements in fiction, it does not justify literal inclusion of specific words.

            Further, writers are taught not to write dialogue as it literally occurs in real life. Real-life conversations wander and are likely to end inconclusively. But novelists cannot afford to write inconclusive dialogue. They have to shape and sharpen the dialog so that it reveals character and furthers the story line. Literalism here would cause the writer to go unpublished or, if published, to go unread.

            So if literalism does not apply to entire fictional conversations, why should it apply to the individual words within them?

            Similarly, the claim that four-letter words are somehow closer to "reality" cannot withstand questioning. Many uses of those words are, to put it mildly, figurative. Perhaps it once was amusing to attribute bisexual reproductive capability to inanimate objects. But if so, the idea is now so clichéd that it's no longer humorous.

            And on representing reality, let's consider the so-called "f-word." The early English (probably pre-Anglo-Saxon) from which it descends was a savage language appropriate to those savage times. Then, perhaps, the word may have accurately described physical relationships between men and women. But many cultural changes have altered that reality.

            One change was the twelfth-century invention of romantic (courtly) love, popularized by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Chrétien de Troyes. And in the 1590s, Edmund Spenser synthesized various love traditions into an ideal combining the romance of courtly love with the intellectuality of Platonic love and a dash of physicality from Ovid—all justified within marriage, one of the seven sacraments of the church. Spenser's synthesis held general acceptance until about 1900, when it was eroded by naturalistic philosophy and Freudian psychology.

            The point for "realistic" fiction is this: If the "f-word" today accurately describes the physical relationship between a man and woman, it does so only because the couple is immune to the cultural experience of the past millennium.

            So if customary justifications cannot withstand examination, the real reasons writers use "strong language" must lie elsewhere. Writers are taught that conflict is basic to all good fiction. Frequent use of “strong language” helps lazy writers gain the appearance of conflict without the hard work of creating genuine conflict, which is always generated by a story’s narrative structure. In other words, "strong language" substitutes for genuine creativity.

            Profligate use of such language will always be chic, of course. But as screenwriter Morrie Ryskind put it, "The chic are always wrong."

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Over Socialized

Use social media, they say. Get yourself out there! 

So I did.

I'm on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Goodreads, three blogs, and now Pinterest. I make friends and post fun pictures all over everywhere; create ads and memes and distribute them among all the sites that allow them. I respond to people who post, tweet, comment, follow, link, join. It's fun. And time consuming.

When a Trojan horse galloped through my computer and started gnawing on everything like it was pasture hay, I had a hard time getting things back up and running, and when I finally did, I discovered I'd used up the bulk of the 10Gs my internet service provider allots in my plan by mid-month. I either had to keep buying time or get off the internet entirely for a while. Because I had a client for my editing business, and because most of my resources for that business are online, I ended up having to do both. But I discovered something: Life off the Internet can be liberating.

During all that free time, I read books on book marketing and started developing a plan for when The Final Ride is released. I started outlining the entr'acte between Give the Lady a Ride and The Final Ride, called A Ride in the Shadows. I made the most of my time while off the 'net, and when I was on it, I did what I had to do and got off. 

The best marketing tool for selling books is to write more books, and spending the crazy amount of time that is required for social media, when combined with real life and real life obligations, can severely eat into your writing time. Of the sites I've joined, Facebook is my playground, so I devote most of my social time to it. I have my primary blog 777 Peppermint Place, connected to all the sites I can connect it to, including my Amazon page, I have my Facebook and Google+ pages linked to Twitter, and Goodreads linked to both Twitter and Facebook. Everything links to everything else--which is no substitution for actually being on the other sites--but it is a great help for cutting down on social media time.

I have a scheduled time to run through all the sites (except Google+. I'm just not a fan), and give extra time to Facebook through out the day when I feel like rewarding myself with a quick visit to friends. If I'm being extra diligent, I set a timer to force me to move along. Because my job isn't socializing--it's writing. And the amount of time I spend writing should be far greater than the amount of time I blow playing on social sites.

How do you manage your social time?

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Friday, August 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Virgin of Small Plains

If I could just say one word about The Virgin of Small Plains: A Novel, I think it would be 'Wow!' Released in 2006 by Nancy Pickard, I can easily see why this book spent some time on the New York Times bestseller list. It also won the following awards: Reader's Choice, Agatha, Macavity, A "Killer Book" (by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association), and Kansas Reads Book of the Year (2009); and was nominated for: the Edgar Award and the Dillys Award.

I happen to be lucky enough to have met Ms. Pickard several times in the last few years, including shortly after Virgin was released, however, it wasn't until this spring I picked up this book, though I'd read several of her popular Jenny Cain series over a decade ago. Ms. Pickard happens to be quite involved in one of the local Sisters in Crime chapters in Kansas City, and is a founding member of the organization, as well as a past president. That in and of itself should make the average mystery reader sit up and take note. However, I truly have to say that you are missing out if you don't take a chance and read this book--whether you love mysteries or not. For any writer, there are elements that can be learned.

First, an overview. This story is told from multiple 3rd persons views, and also utilizes multiple flashbacks to tell the story from 17 years prior. While I don't usually read this format, it's not unheard of, and I found it easy to keep up, though I was usually waiting none-too-patiently for either of who I felt were the three stars of the book: Abby, Mitch (who didn't really come on stage until past the 100 page mark, at least not in the more recent time frame), and Rex. In the 1986 & 1987 sequences, the three lead characters are teenagers. In 1987, Rex, his older brother, and father (the sheriff) discover a frozen, bloodied girl in their pasture during a major snowstorm.

Mitch, the same night, is with Abby, at her parents' house. While sneaking down to get 'protection' from Abby's dad's office (who's a doctor), Mitch sees the sheriff and Abby's dad mutilate the dead woman's face. The next morning, Mitch's mom and dad (a powerful judge) whisk him out of town, leaving Abby and the rest of his friends with no explanation. For the next 17 years, different theories in the town of Small Plains abound about what Mitch did that made him disappear so abruptly, especially since the Virgin (as the murdered girl is referred to) was found that same night.

Even Mitch doesn't know entirely why he was whisked away. Seventeen years later, after his mother died, Mitch decides to come back to put the past to rest. At the same time, Abby, who's overheard Rex's mother talking to 'The Virgin' about what had happened, gets curious and starts asking questions around town about what they remember about the time surrounding the discovery of the girl. Which, in my mind, juxtaposes Abby and Mitch perfectly to come together again.

What I loved:
This book is set in the fictional town of Small Plains, Kansas which sits in the fictional county of Muncie. However, I know pretty well where this is 'supposed' to be since I grew up not far from the towns and other counties that are actually there. Okay, Kansas-girl aside, I love the fact that this book is set in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Ms. Pickard beautifully describes the Hills--to the point that I could envision my many travels at dusk and dawn through them at various times of the year. It brought tears to my eyes more than once. Nancy makes the Hills a character in this book--from the snowstorms, to the gusty winds, to the violence of a tornado, as well as the history of the Kansa Indians that once roamed the area, chasing bison.

Small Plains reminds me a lot of the town I grew up in, though bigger. I loved that since I could identify so well with how everyone knows everyone else's business, yet some of the most important things are twisted forms of the truth, or nowhere near truth at all.

The human characters are as well drawn as the place in which they live. I loved Abby immediately--she is a lot like me in some ways, different in others, but I think I fell in love with her because she suffered so much when Mitch left, and never knew why he'd left her, why he never called or even wrote. I could identify with that, not so much because I've experienced that (I haven't), but because my own character, Amanda, suffered in a similar way when her fiancé died.

While I did like Abby the best, the other characters--good and bad--were well characterized. You immediately hate Nadine (Mitch's mom) when she tells Abby that Mitch left because of her--so he wouldn't be tethered to the small town because Abby got pregnant (which the couple hadn't ever had the opportunity to!) You're never quite sure what to make of Mitch's dad, and you're constantly kept on your toes about what the townsfolk know, what they're hiding, and what they suspect. Rex, who takes over as sheriff after his dad retires, it's slowly revealed knew the murdered victim, and you're never quite sure how much he knows about her until the very end of the book.

What I disliked:

I really can't think of anything I honestly didn't like about this book, except a few of the characters, or the fact it took so long for Abby and Mitch to get back together--or even see each other. The one thing I was disappointed in, and this is probably more me picking up on things a lot sooner than I used to, was I did finger the Virgin's murderer relatively early on, though there was enough doubt brought in after that I wasn't 100% certain all the time.

There was also a long series of scenes where a tornadic storm is approaching Small Plains. This is shown from multiple points of view. What made me dislike this series of scenes is that one scene with Mitch, prior to the storm, interrupts the series, and while what he does is important to the overall story, if it were me, I'd have moved this earlier in the book, then pick up with him again at the same point when the storm actually approaches and he first goes to see if Abby's place is okay (and subsequently, Abby), then goes into town to help the townsfolk he hasn't seen in almost two decades clean up from the damage.

The mystery:
The mystery in this book was well drawn out. Ms. Pickard does a fabulous job of giving you enough information in one scene to either have you completely off balance, not sure what's happening, or to have you thinking for sure that X is what's going on, but the next scene has you thinking it's Y. Enough of the backstory was sprinkled in over the course of the book that it left you second-guessing what was happening in the 2004 time-line.

I'd heartily recommend this book to the mystery-lover and the non-mystery-lover alike. While it may not be for everyone, it's definitely engaging... and I could see it being made into a movie (please!--I know a few perfect little towns in the region that would be perfect to play Small Plains!)

What this book made me learn:
I think the most important thing I've learned from this book is how to utilize description effectively, but also to use setting effectively, to the point it can be its own character. (If memory serves, I believe Donald Maass' book that I reviewed in December used elements of Virgin to illustrate this very thing--reading the entire book only heightened my awareness.) While not all books are ideal for this, Virgin was and I truly felt that anyone who hadn't had the pleasure of visiting the Flint Hills region would be able to picture it. Infusing the love of the land was something that made the descriptions sing in this book.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

3 Biggest Mistakes New Authors Insist on Making

As a multi-level editor of award-winning work, I receive many requests for work. They come in bunches, of course, so that I’m always either swamped or...well, I’m always swamped since I also field half a dozen requests a month for book reviews, which I take seriously.

My editing process is risky to my professional reputation in that I allow writers to look like idiots if they so choose. Sometimes I ask that they not use my name in connection with their work when they insist on making mistakes that make it look like no editing was involved. Of course there are always trolls who bark that finely edited material needs major work, but that’s not something we can control.

The biggest errors my authors insist on perpetuating?

Point of View, 
Fooling the Reader, and 
Rushing to Publication

This post will not address how to properly address these issues—there are plenty of lessons on that already. But you really want to know why I let people pay me to allow them to look like morons or hacks or perpetuate the reality that self-published work makes everyone look bad, don’t you?

I’m babysitting a rooster. My job is to nurture you, provide comfortable surroundings, explain the rules, but it’s not my job to isolate you from the hens who insist on telling you how handsome you are. If you choose not to listen to me, and believe that the best pickings are outside the confines, you leave, you get eaten by a fox or run over on the road. The end result—you provide a meal—is the same. You either provide the public a delicious meal or you feed a colony of blowflies, and I get the catering fee either way. I do have a list of people I will not work with again, no matter the money.

Some clients want to learn, but they’re few. Mostly I get ardent arguments about why untrained new author is correct and I am wrong. Hey, I used to be that way—in my head—while being edited by professionals before and after I got contracted by publishers.

Here are mistakes I’ve seen this past year (situations changed slightly):

Point of View problem: Thinking the reader is not smart enough to follow you.
Character finds a lost pet, beloved of an Owner who is searching for lost pet. Finder gives pet a name which is vastly different from Owner’s name, yet author insists Finder use the original Owner’s name for pet in the narrative. So the reader will know it’s the same pet.

Point of View problem: Thinking the reader is too smart to follow you.
Character is being followed, but doesn’t know he’s being followed, so author stops to tell the reader, narrating the action between Followers and what Character doesn’t know is going on in the shadows.

Fooling the Reader
Opening the story with a group of adults discussing a non-problem in chapter one, then spending the bulk of the story in the childhood of one of the Characters, then closing the last chapter with why Character turned out that way. This is not an adult novel; it’s not a tween novel; that’s not really even a novel.

Rushing to Publication
E-mail: “I just wrote my first book and it’s going to print next week! Can you edit it?”
Me: “No.”

Please don’t do this. Writing your first book is a delicious ritual. You miss steps, you end up with a copy full of errors. Give it a few months. Spend time doing it well, figure out your audience and get your pre-marketing in place. You'll thank me later.

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