Welcome to my blog!

I'm so excited that my lifelong dream of becoming a published author has come true. If you'd like to go straight to excerpts, descriptions, and buy links for my books, click on the covers below on the right.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Goodbye, Ms. McCaffrey!

When I'm asked to name the influences on my writing, Anne McCaffrey is always one of the first names I mention, but I'm not writing this as an author. No, I want to say goodbye to her as a reader.

I first came to Pern by way of Half-Circle Hold and Harper Hall.

It was one of those summer days in Irondale, Alabama when no matter how much Mom ran the air conditioning in the car, my shirt stuck to my back when I got out. We were at the library, and I had wandered from the hardback section and found the round shelves that housed the young adult paperback books. One cover caught my eye, that of redheaded girl who looked about my age and who was surrounded by tiny swooping dragons in different colors. She stood on some rocks by the ocean and held in her hands what looked like a set of wooden pipes. It went into my pile, which would be finished within the week. I don't remember any of the others I picked up that day, but that book was Dragonsong, the first book in the Harper Hall Trilogy.

I don't remember exactly how old I was, just that I was struggling with the things most adolescents do: not fitting in, feeling unappreciated, and general annoyance at the stubbornness of the adults in my life who insisted on silly things like curfews. I escaped through books and found in the Harper Hall trilogy a heroine I could relate to and who did the things I could only dream of. In that pivotal scene, I was Menolly running my feet ragged over a pebbly beach trying to escape from the pressures that wanted to mindlessly devour me, the ones that hissed, "Be thin! Be perfect! Live up to everyone's expectations!"

Then, in the second book, Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern, I understood Menolly the misfit who had to deal with the silly shallowness of the paying female students at Harper Hall. It's tough to be a girl, especially a smart girl. Ms. McCaffrey got it, the struggle between being good at something and not wanting to stand out too much. Oh, and the importance of sassy boots. Finally, in Dragondrums, Menolly finds love, and it gave me hope that a geeky girl like me would eventually find someone. I did, and I didn't need the help of any randy fire lizards.

In spite of wishing hard and taking long walks on the Destin beach to find a deserted-enough spot (there aren't any), I never found a nest of fire lizards. It wasn't until I had cats that I figured out where McCaffrey had modeled her little psychic dragons from. My tuxedo kitty rubs me with his wedge-shaped head and rumbles when he's happy. He gets very persistent when he's hungry, although thankfully his eyes don't turn red.

I did eventually read the rest of the Pern books to get the context for the Harper Hall Trilogy, and I enjoyed meeting Lessa, F'lar, F'nor, Jaxom, and the other dragonriders, holders, and thieves. Menolly will always have a special place in my heart, and if I ever have a daughter, I will give her my well-worn copy of Dragonsong. Maybe she'll be able to relate and find hope like I did.

Happy flying, Ms. McCaffrey! Don't forget to bundle up well – it gets cold between. We'll miss you.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Process and Progress: Verbal Shortcuts

My heart got blessed when we were in North Georgia a few weeks ago, except I don't think it really did. Hubby and I were checking out at one of the many apple orchards near Ellijay and chatting with a friendly older gentleman behind the counter.

"Where are y'all from?" he asked.


"Oh, bless your heart!"

When we got to the car, Hubby looked at me and said, "I think we just got insulted."

That classic passive-aggressive Southern phrase got me to thinking about what kind of language shortcuts we use. As a psychologist, I can't help but wonder what they help us to say without saying directly. Consider the "Bless your heart" above. It was really, "Oh, you poor things! Our quality of life up here in the North Georgia Mountains is vastly superior to what you city folks experience."

Yep, nothing nice in that mound of condescension. The phrase actually means the opposite. Consider these other phrases in common use and what they really (really?!) mean:

"Not going to go there," but by saying this, you prompt your listener to.

"Awesome" can go either way.

"Wicked!" may be a musical, but my Yankee cousins were using it to mean awesome long before Gregory Maguire ever wrote the book the musical is based on.

"Oh, no you didn't!" and I can't believe you did!

The tricky thing with using these phrases in dialogue is that tone of voice conveys as much of the message as the words. My characters sometimes ask, "Really?" but for clarification, not as in, "I can't believe how stupid that was!"

There's also the timeliness of the phrase. Not everything spans generations like "Bless your heart." I recently read a draft of a Civil War era novel in which a character said, "Don't. Just don't." I marked it as "too modern." It could go the other way. I wouldn't have any of my characters set in a novel in 2011 say, "All that and a bag of chips!" That one always puzzled me.

What are your current favorite shortcut phrases? If you don't have any, well, bless your heart!

What I did with those apples:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What I learned about writing from Bad Movie Day

One of my writing/drinking buddies – yes, it's funny how those go together – hosted a Bad Movie Day at his house yesterday. Apparently his wife was out of town on a girls' camping trip, so she couldn't object. Even better, he home brews, so there was plenty of alcohol to help us cope with the visual and logical carnage that ensued.

Although the festivities started at noon-ish, Hubby and I didn't arrive until later, so we only had the pleasure (if you can call it that) of watching the last four selections. Here they are, with the IMDB descriptive blurbs and links should you care to read more about them yourselves:

Chupacabra Terror (2005): When cryptozoologist Dr. Peña traps the legendary Chupacabra on a remote Caribbean island, he smuggles it aboard a cruise ship with disastrous results.

Creepers (1993; original title Contagion .7): People from a small town are attacked by evil radioactive tree roots growing in the forest.

Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000): After enslavement & near extermination by an alien race in the year 3000, humanity begins to fight back.

Birdemic: Shock and Horror (2008): A platoon of eagle & vultures attack the residence of a small town. Many people died. It's not known what caused the flying menace to attack. Two people managed to fight back, but will they survive Birdemic?

Movies start as ideas that are turned into screenplays by writers and made visual by producers, actors, and directors. Not surprisingly, the same things that make for a bad story or novel can also happen to movies, but at many different layers. So what makes a bad movie?

1. A single-dimensional hero with ill-defined motivation:

It's not surprising that many of the films that made it into the bad movie day queue are horror films because they tap into the most basic of human motivations: survival. The problem is that a hero needs internal motivation and conflict beyond that to be interesting to an audience.

Apparently Battlefield Earth got universally panned for many reasons, but the biggest problem I had with the movie was that I didn't care about the hero. Sure, he was gutsy and smart and somewhat good looking, but I just couldn't identify with him because he lacked internal conflict. Even his name, Johnny Goodboy Tyler, warns there's not much to him.

2. A single-dimensional villain with ill-defined motivation:

Okay, when you're dealing with murderous mythical creatures, tree roots, and birds, you can't really ask too much, especially when tree roots with their sassy whipping sounds are the best actors in the film. I actually liked the villains in Battlefield Earth better than the heroes because although John Travolta's acting wasn't great, his character Terl had some dimension to him.

With the other films, I wanted to know why these things were attacking people. In Chupacabra Terror, all we know about the creature is that its name means "goat sucker" because it feeds off the blood of goats. Okay, is it hungry? If so, it should've been sated after about two people because it's not that big. Is it pissed or scared that it's been trapped and taken out of its natural habitat? That would've been something that the cryptozoologist could have enlightened us about. In Birdemic, all we get to know are that the birds, which have somehow become explosive (and angry!), have started attacking people, and it just might have something to do with global warming.

Okay, so it's probably a stretch to think too much about radioactive tree roots, but if an author or screenwriter is going to use a device like that, they need to establish both the why and how. Sure, the roots had turned "carnivorous," but we were left wondering how, aside from asphyxiation, the tree roots were killing people. It's mentioned that they've turned into "predators," but how do they suck the nutrients from their victims? That would have made for some more interesting information and added a dimension of scariness.

3. Bad editing:

The best example of this was just about everything in Birdemic: Shock and Terror. You know something's wrong when the whole room is chanting, "Cut! Cut!" at the screen. The lesson for writers is to know or get feedback on what information is extraneous and cut it out. Stephen King in On Writing recommends cutting ten percent of your word count. Birdemic director James Nguyen should have cut about forty.

Another problem is transitions. After watching the Powerpoint-type curtain fade-ins in Battlefield Earth, not to mention the awkward tilted camera angles, we were all seasick. I once attended a talk by Alan Gratz, author of Samurai Shortstop, at the Harriette Austin Writers Conference. He suggested smoothing out transitions by ending one chapter with an image and bringing it back in a different way at the beginning of the next. Perhaps he should consult on films.

4. The preaching – make it stop!

I'm not going to say much on this one. I edited a translation of a book once that had a long, preachy section at the end that the author would not cut out. You have to trust your viewers – and readers – to know what the moral of the film or story is without beating them over the head with it.

I was told several times yesterday that I was thinking too hard about what I was watching, but as a writer, I just couldn't help it. One of my Twitter friends reminded me at the Decatur Book Festival that we learn as much if not more from reading bad fiction than good. These movies were so bad they were good for some laughs, both at them and the audience comments. Sometimes it's good to be reminded about what not to do and to do so in good company.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Metapost: A Little Light Self-Promotion...

In January, I entered publisher Buddhapuss Ink's Mystery Times Ten contest, and in March I got an email that I had been selected as one of the twenty finalists. This meant a lot because my story had impressed the teen panelists, who I figured would be the toughest of all. Then I got an email on a Friday in April that I was one of the ten finalists, which excited me because it meant that, even if I hadn't placed, I would be able to skip the slush pile if I were to ever submit a Young Adult novel to them. The following Monday, I got the very happy news that I'd placed first! Yep, I got a Kindle. This is somewhat ironic after my long debate over what kind of e-reader I'd buy. Between that and my Nook Color, I now have access to just about everything.

The books themselves came out on July 22, and my story "The Coral Temple" is the first one. One of the judges said the following:

"[This story] was fantastic! Seriously, so well-developed with a multitude of characters that come alive at once, a tautly wrapped up mystery, and that wonderful element of a mysterious far off place we’ve never been. The social hierarchy, the setting description, and the emotional pieces all work, too. Plus the characters are teens. Oh joy!"

This is my first major short story publication, so of course I'm very excited. You can order the book directly from Amazon here, or if you would like a signed copy, please email me at cecilia {at} ceciliadominic {dot} com, and I'll send you details about shipping, payment, etc.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On Process and Progress: Playing the Numbers Game

Three years ago, I joined a short story class led by a friend of mine who has published nine of them, but none for pay. I went on the first day, and when the teacher and other students asked what I wanted out of writing fiction, I gave them the honest answer: I want to do this for a living.

"Oh, that's going to be so hard!" one of the other students said, and (seriously!) wrinkled her nose as if to say, "Oh, that's so cute!"

The teacher* was even less encouraging. "There are three hundred million people in the United States," he said, "and less than four hundred of them are able to write fiction full-time without any additional support like spousal income or from another job."

US population map
(File by Jim Irwin on Wikimedia, used by general permission)

Well, damn. That means I have such a small chance of actually making it as a full-time, professional fiction writer that my computer calculator doesn't even want to give me the number without using scientific notation with a negative decimal point (1.333*10^-4%, or 0.0001333 percent). Giving that perspective, when I applied to a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology in 1998, the acceptance rates for those programs were between six and eight percent, which is, by the way, less than for medical school.

But this got me to thinking. That number is way too low considering the context. Let's break it down...

First, how many people actually want to write fiction? Let's start with how many people want or like to write. Okay, I'm pulling this number out of my ass, but as we all know, 36% of statistics (including this one) are made up on the spot. So, thinking of the people I know, let's say that one third of them actually write, and that's probably a generous representation of the general population considering I tend to hang out with other writers. That brings the starting number down to one hundred million. Forty percent of the book market goes to fiction (this seems to be a fairly consistent number across sources), so the starting number equals forty million.

So, 400/400,000 = 0.1% At least we're out of the scientific notation.

Let's go a step further. Of that four hundred million, how many of them are actually serious about writing? By serious, I mean putting regular time into it (better than I have been about blog posting) and learning about the craft. For guidance, I turned to magazine circulation for the three big writing magazines: Writer's Digest, Writer Magazine, and Poets & Writers. Yes, my assumption is that people who are serious enough to study the craft of writing will subscribe to magazines. Here are the numbers:

Writer's Digest: 110,000
Writer Magazine: 30,000
Poets & Writers: 60,000

Sure, I'm not hitting everyone, but I'm sure there are others like me who take more than one, so we'll make the assumption that non-magazine reading serious writers are covered by the overlap. The total is now 200,000, and thank you, statistics gods, for the nice, round number!

One more step: lots of people start books, but who is serious enough to actually finish a manuscript and go through the agony of submitting it? For this, I turned to the acceptance rates for M.F.A. programs. These are the type of talented, driven people I feel like I'm up against. According to the Almighty Google, who has been very helpful with this process, creative writing M.F.A. acceptance rates are between 2.5 and 5%. So, that brings our number down to a range of 5000-10,000. Going with our initial starting point of 400 successful career fiction writers, the chance of success then becomes four to eight percent. This was actually close to my chances of getting into a clinical psychology Ph.D. program, which I did. And took four semesters of statistics, in case you couldn't tell.

Skewness Statistics
(File from Wikimedia)

Am I making a lot of assumptions with this process? Yes. Do I know for sure what my chances of making it as a fiction author are? No. But I have time to find out, a supportive spouse, and a day job that I enjoy. By the way, the teacher who first handed down that dour statistic has since become one of my biggest supporters who has said that he thinks I have what it takes. I'm going to take him up on his challenge to become number four hundred and one.

The kind of math I like: dessert on graph paper plate at Chocolate by the Bald Man in Philadelphia.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review: Pandora's Succession by Russell Brooks

It's hard to write, finish, and revise a book, and it takes courage and money to get it out there. Readers who are interested in self-published books but who don't want to waste their time on low-quality ones need a place to go for reviews. I'll post a review of a self-published book the first weekend of every month so that authors and readers can connect with each other.

If you're interested in getting your book reviewed, please email my assistant at bert{at}ceciliadominic.com

Title: Pandora's Succession
Author: Russell Brooks
Genre: Thriller
Publisher: CreateSpace (paperback), also available as an e-book from major outlets

First, apologies to Mr. Brooks and my blog fans for the delay on posting this one! Life has been hectic with all 2.5 jobs going full-tilt and some exciting writing-related news (see who's in first place). I also didn't want to post on Mother's Day.

Hero Ridley Fox was all set to leave the exciting life of an undercover agent to settle down with his fiancée Jessica when she was killed by the Arms of Ares, a Russian weapons ring. At the start of the book a few years later, Fox infiltrates one of their bunkers, where they are manufacturing Pandora, a nasty microbe that eats its victims from the inside out within seconds of exposure. The microbe is then stolen by Japanese pharmaceutical company Hexagon, which is under the control of a cult called The Promise, which wants to use the microbe for world domination. Or something like that. The head of the cult explains the entire plan like a good Bond villain when the hero is captured.

I almost designated the genre for this one as being "guy-lit." As opposed to chick-lit, where the single characters end up married, in guy-lit, you can pretty much predict the married guys are toast. It also has some of the hallmarks of my husband's favorite television shows and movies: a hero with a tragedy in his past that motivates him for revenge, bad guys with automatic weapons and good guys with handguns, women who tend toward uber-bitchiness, and lots of explosions, gunfights, and even ninjas.

The first two thirds of the book move quickly, and sometimes it's hard to keep the large cast of characters straight, especially since each of the evil organizations seems to have an unlimited supply of bad guys. The double-crossing is fairly clear, although sometimes the characters' motives aren't. The author does a good job of explaining a fairly complex set-up without dumping too much backstory in, and he keeps the action moving.

Everyone seems to have a tragedy or secret in their past, and one of the themes of the book is that people have a choice as to what they do with the pain. Fox uses it for revenge. Scientist Nita Parris is motivated by her past hurts to become an undercover operative. The villain decides that government and religion are behind his or her pain and moves toward an extreme solution (trying to avoid a spoiler, although the identity of the mastermind is revealed about a quarter of the way through the book). The Promise cult uses the pain of its victims as a psychological gateway for their brainwashing drug Clarity.

Characterization is one of the weaker aspects of the book. Although I applaud Brooks for trying to make his hero rounder than a James Bond or Jack Bauer, Fox's introspection can feel clunky. His eventual reconciliation with Parris, whom he dated and stood up in the past, seems awkward, and the final relationship between the two characters isn't clear. Parris also demonstrates some inconsistency in that she is obviously uncomfortable with the research she is doing at Hexagon, yet she's shocked when she discovers it's related to a cult. What else would she be brainwashing people for? I wasn't sure what she thought would happen to the research subjects after she was done with them.

Fans of action and adventure in exotic locales will brush aside character concerns for the fast-paced plot. The final confrontation, with ninjas battling Russian operatives for Pandora, and Fox having to defeat both to sabotage the disaster that Promise wants to unleash on the world is very well-written. Brooks' pacing is perfect, and it's easy to follow the complicated battle scene through the eyes of the two main characters and one of the bad guys.

I got this one from the author as a .pdf file, which I read on my Nook, so I can't comment on the physical book. There were a few typos and rare verb tense issues, but they weren't excessive. All of the plot threads tie up nicely at the end. Some of the descriptions of Pandora in action were a bit gory, but I think that's standard for the genre.

Bottom line: Not for germophobes, but thriller fans will love it.

Previous Reviews:
Gint Aras' Finding the Moon in Sugar
Perry Treadwell's From Sea to Shining Sea on U.S. 20
James Huskins' Silent Scream: A Groovy Mystery Caper
Laura Eno's Don't Fall Asleep: A Dream Assassin Novel
Donna Carrick's The First Excellence -- Fa-Ling's Map
Kenn Allen's The Golden Cockerel

Up Next: The Handbook of the Writer Secret Society by Carrie Bailey, et al.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book Review: Finding the Moon in Sugar by Gint Aras

It's hard to write, finish, and revise a book, and it takes courage and money to get it out there. Readers who are interested in self-published books but who don't want to waste their time on low-quality ones need a place to go for reviews. I'll post a review of a self-published book the first weekend of every month so that authors and readers can connect with each other. Interviews have been put on hold for now due to time constraints.

If you're interested in getting your book reviewed, please email my assistant at bert{at}ceciliadominic.com

Title: Finding the Moon in Sugar
Author: Karolis Gintaras Žukauskas, aka Gint Aras
Genre: Tragicomedy, Coming of Age
Publisher: Infinity

Andrew Nowak hasn't figured out how to get it right yet, "it" being life. He tries to do the right things – hold down a job, take classes at the community college – but he ends up in debt and dealing drugs. He has a mother with a sixth sense about when he has money and who applies the right balance of guilt and insult to get it away from him. His sister is a meth-head who ends up living with her mother-in-law. So when lovely Lithuanian internet bride Audra takes an interest in him, he goes with it even though she's married to someone he fears. He's so smitten that when she gets an American passport and returns to Vilnius, he sells everything and follows her.

In spite of the interesting premise, it took me a while to get into this book for two reasons. First, Nowak isn't the type of narrator I find sympathetic, and he spends enough of the book either drunk or high that after the second or third time, I was thinking, "Enough, already!" In fact, the title is taken from something he does while out of his mind on vodka after a funeral. Second, it's written as though it's his memoir, which he's writing to look at the past and "figure stuff out." It took a few chapters for me to ignore the misspellings and grammar mistakes that are part of his writing, e.g., "cauze" instead of "because." Also, after he goes to Lithuania, he starts substituting "make" for "have" like his Lithuanian friends do, but outside of dialogue.

In spite of his substance use and writing difficulties, Nowak grows on the reader, especially after Audra becomes unstable, and he has to take care of himself and find his own way in a strange country. Aras demonstrates his own prowess with language while staying in Nowak's voice with phrases like, "And she blew this line of smoke, like a rope for Gidas to hang himself" (page 109). I also really liked, "I could feel the big difference between a girlfriend and a wife, like how a wife would get old if you don't [mess] it up" (page 178, language lightened for the blog). There are also several interesting parallels between Nowak's history and his experiences that were fun to ponder after reading the book. Sure, Andy has fried a few brain cells, but he has good observation skills and insight into his own and others' motivations, which is how he survives Audra's most self-destructive act.

The book for this review was a courtesy paperback copy from the author, and it's beautifully done from the cover to the layout on the inside. It was hard to tell what might be a typo since the narrator isn't a proficient writer, but nothing stood out. You can get signed or electronic copies from Aras' website.

Bottom Line: A sweet novel from a rough narrator. Well worth the time to read.

Previous Reviews:
Perry Treadwell's From Sea to Shining Sea on U.S. 20
James Huskins' Silent Scream: A Groovy Mystery Caper
Laura Eno's Don't Fall Asleep: A Dream Assassin Novel
Donna Carrick's The First Excellence -- Fa-Ling's Map
Kenn Allen's The Golden Cockerel

Up next: Russell Brooks' Pandora's Succession

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On Process and Progress: Ponderings from Pennsylvania

Hubby and I recently took a trip to Philadelphia to visit Babysis, who's in school up there. While she recovered from finals and took care of sick bunnies, we went wine tasting along the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail.* On Sunday morning, we visited Longwood Gardens, where they were holding an Orchid Extravaganza! I didn't really mean to put an exclamation point on that sentence, but it seems like the word "extravaganza!" requires one.

Since it was Pennsylvania in March, the orchids were housed in the huge Conservatory, which is seriously bigger than the college where I met Hubby. It took us an hour and a half to walk through it. Not that we moved quickly. The crowds weren't excessive, but the flowers were meant to be enjoyed mindfully, and there were lots of them. As we walked, I had a couple of writing-related insights.

Hubby took pictures with his camera, and I got a few with my Blackberry Torch, which actually has a decent camera on it. The funny part was that our picture strategies tended to be consistent with our personalities. Hubby, a Myers-Briggs ISTJ, tends to be focused on the details, and as an INFJ, I'm the big-picture person. His pictures were of individual flowers or clusters of them, and mine focused on juxtapositions and arrangements.

I'm currently struggling with editing my novel A Perfect Man. I enjoyed working out the major plot points, but guess where I'm stuck? Line editing. The flowers and arrangements were a good reminder to me that the individual blooms, or sentences, need to be perfect and healthy for the arrangement to stand.

We walked into one room where a gloomy tropical scene had been set up, and plants dripped long, string-like tendrils to brush the heads of those of us who are tall. Hubby walked in first and made a creeped out noise that I cannot reproduce in type.

"That's what I get for being married to an aspiring science fiction writer," he said.

"Thanks, sweetie," I replied. "Now please let me get a picture of that still, dark pool."

"Is something going to come out of it and eat me?"

"Not if you're good."

Poor guy…

Back in Philly, we visited the historic area of "Old Town," the home of Constitution Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were drawn up and signed. The park ranger who gave us our tour had several interesting things to say, but one that really stuck with me was that the Declaration of Independence was edited for two and a half days to reach its current form.

This was news to me. I always imagined that Thomas Jefferson, being an introvert, of course (okay, I don't know if that's true, but work with me), had put several weeks' worth of thought into it and penned it perfectly on his first try. Apparently the Continental Congress or whoever they were at the time hated it. So yes, even Thomas Jefferson, who is considered to be one of our first great American writers, was thoroughly edited. To be fair, the original with the corrections has been lost to history, so there's not actually any proof that the intense government committee editing improved it, but it got the job done.

Philadelphia is full of statues, but I particularly liked this guy, named "The Signer." I don't know who the artist is, but I think they captured the sense of triumph perfectly. To me, he seems to be saying, "I finished my manuscript!" or "I got a book deal!" I'm going to have to get a print of him and hang it up in my writing space to remind me of how great it will feel when I finally do get that novel edited and accepted somewhere.

Oh, and here are the Philadelphia food pictures. First, a cheesesteak "wit wiz":

Now a molten chocolate cake with mini-shakes and chocolate ganache in the martini shaker from Chocolate by the Bald Man:

Apparently Max Brenner, the Bald Man, is an aspiring novelist but has been too busy learning how to make incredible chocolate yumminess and starting restaurants to actually write it. Hang in there, Max! You'll get there, and then you, too, can be as triumphant as The Signer!

* Winery reviews and tasting notes are at my Random Oenophile blog. Direct links are:
Day One
Day Two

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Metapost: The Great E-Reader Debate

I'll admit it, I'm a late adopter for technological stuff. I only got on Twitter because my husband and sister both have accounts, and in a paranoid moment, I became afraid that they would tweet about me. I've since surpassed them both with followers, and after having met some great people, I'm thinking that sometimes paranoia pays off.

My motivations for getting an e-reader are a little more straightforward. First, I love books, but I live in a small house, and my bookshelves are quite crowded. Second, I'm reviewing self-published books on my writing blog, and some of those aren't available in hard copy. Also, well, books are comfy for some of the household residents, which isn't conducive to actually reading them:

Once I decided to get an e-reader, I faced a host of other questions: back-lit vs. e-ink screen? Price point? Market share of reading materials? Do I go all out and get an iPad?

"Just go to Best Buy and Barnes & Noble and play with them," my exasperated Hubby told me after I'd been obsessing about the decision for a few days.

No, no, I wanted to figure it all out for myself because I'm stubborn like that. I found myself down to the two main e-reader choices, Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook. Both have really appealing features. The Kindle isn't back-lit, so it's likely more sleep-friendly, and Amazon has 47-48% of the e-book market share. The Nook Color is, well, color, and has more capabilities, and my Blackberry Torch has served as a gateway gadget to get me hooked on touch screens.± It can also be hacked with an Android platform to turn it into a tablet and has external storage. Cost wasn't really an issue because I'm trading in credit card reward points, and they're about the same.

At this point, I took the most logical step possible: I engaged my social networks and took a scientific* poll of my Twitter and Facebook friends.

Twitter results:

Votes for Kindle: 3
Votes for Nook: 1

Facebook results:

Votes for Kindle: 8
Votes for Nook: 2

The funny thing about both kinds of e-reader was that everyone loves whatever they have. It reminded me of being in social psychology, or maybe it was cognitive psychology, class (those painted cinder block walls in the psych building at UGA blended together after a while) and talking about decision-making. The principle is that, when faced with two equally good options, people will rationalize whatever choice they make and convince themselves that whatever they don't choose wasn't right for them, anyway, which made me suspect just how much people love their e-readers. Poll results: out the window because, darnit, I'm going to figure this thing out for myself!

I was still torn, so I did what I should have done in the first place: I went to Best Buy and Barnes & Noble at Edgewood and played with them. I was hoping that a Best Buy geek would appear to answer questions for me, but apparently I wasn't in the big-ticket item section, and they never appear when you actually want them. The ladies at the B&N were really helpful, and they showed me that it is possible to manipulate the brightness and contrast of the Nook to minimize the back-lit impact.

So that's what I got, a Nook color. Thanks to everyone who helped me with this decision, and especially to Hubby. I went and played with the e-readers on Friday, which was his birthday, so I was able to give him the best birthday present a woman can give a man: I told him he had been right all along.

Now I have to be patient and let the darn thing charge before I can play with it…

± I'm really hoping the next step isn't an i-thingie.

*Okay, not really.

P.S. Here's what I got for Hubby's birthday. Chocolate mousse cake, which was more like creamy chocolate mousse with flecks of chocolate on a chocolate pie crust. Yes, it was chocolate heaven and almost worth admitting he was right.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review: From Sea to Shining Sea On U.S. 20...

It's hard to write, finish, and revise a book, and it takes courage and money to get it out there if the author wants to self-publish. Readers who are interested in self-published books but who don't want to waste their time on low-quality ones need a place to go for reviews. I'll post a review of a self-published book the first weekend of every month so that authors and readers can connect with each other. Interviews have been put on hold for now due to time constraints.

A disclaimer: I'm going to start with books by authors I know through real-life connections and through Twitter. If you're interested in getting your book reviewed, please email my assistant at bert{at}ceciliadominic.com or follow Bert on Twitter and message him there.

Title: From Sea to Shining Sea on U.S. 20: Boston to Newport, Oregon
Subtitle: Driving through the history of the expansion of the 13 Colonies across the continent
Author: Perry Treadwell
Genre: Travelogue/History

I have to admit, I'm not a big history buff. I enjoy going to museums and seeing how people lived in the past, and I like going to historic sites, but my eyes tend to glaze over when reading historical accounts with, "and this happened on this date, and this happened on that date…" In From Sea to Shining Sea, Perry Treadwell connects history with geography in a way that is both entertaining and informative.

U.S. 20 is a non-interstate highway that crosses the country from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon with only a brief break in Yellowstone National Park. Treadwell traveled it from end to end in ten years and five trips. He did the first three for the Western part (Chicago to Newport) first because it seemed less built up and therefore more interesting. However, he is fascinated by the past, and the Eastern part (Boston to Chicago) encompasses a lot of history integral to the founding of the country and the establishment of religious freedom.

I found the first half of the book to lack some organization. Treadwell had to choose how to discuss the many historical events that occurred during the founding of the country, and doing so geographically makes sense from the perspective of the book, but the history jumps around as a result. Those with a good background in history would likely be able to follow it better, but I found myself skimming descriptions of battles heavy on dates and casualty numbers.

As I mentioned above, Treadwell researched, traveled, and wrote the second half of the book first. It was this half that grabbed me and kept me coming back, possibly because I could feel Treadwell's initial passion and enjoyment. It's also lighter on war stories and has more anecdotes about settlers and their challenges.

Although I enjoyed this book, there were a few things that would have enhanced the experience. The first is maps. In spite of this being a travelogue, there are no maps aside from what's on the cover. Sure, the reader can go online and look for Google or other maps of the areas, but I prefer to read away from my computer, especially in the evenings. Having a map of U.S. 20 and the cities it crosses in each chapter would have been really helpful to anchor the journey in my mind. More pictures would have been nice, too, especially of the odd geographic structures out West. Second, I found a lot of typos in this manuscript. Treadwell has dyslexia and said he makes use of editing programs and beta readers, but there seemed to be more errors than one would find in a traditionally edited manuscript. Some were unintentionally funny, like the "serge of pioneers" he mentioned at one point, which prompted mental images of settlers in coonskin caps and plaid jackets and breeches.

I'm putting my third criticism in a separate paragraph because I realize this might just be me. U.S. 20 crosses just north of the Finger Lakes in New York and at the southern end of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Treadwell mentions a wine-growing area in Ohio in passing but completely neglects to mention wine as a major industry in these two areas. That's history I'm interested in, but maybe others aren't, and perhaps it occurred later than most of the events Treadwell recounted.

The two things I really liked about the book were the descriptions of how religious freedom grew and became formalized as part of our country as well as the acknowledgment of women's roles in the history of the U.S. Treadwell also deserves credit for not glossing over the horrific treatment of the Native Americans, and he demonstrates throughout the book that trying to define the "good guys and bad guys" is tough when it comes to the founding and expansion of the United States.

Bottom Line: An entertaining travelogue, especially for those who love history. It certainly piqued my curiosity about U.S. 20.

For those who are interested in self-publishing and its history, check out Treadwell's web site. He was self-publishing and blogging before it was cool to do so.

From Sea to Shining Sea is available from Lulu in paperback and .pdf.

Previous Reviews:
James Huskins' Silent Scream: A Groovy Mystery Caper
Laura Eno's Don't Fall Asleep: A Dream Assassin Novel
Donna Carrick's The First Excellence -- Fa-Ling's Map
Kenn Allen's The Golden Cockerel

Up next: Back to fiction with Gint Aras' Finding the Moon in Sugar

Disclaimer: This review was of a courtesy copy received from the author for no charge. My opinion of the book was not biased by this or by the fact that Perry and I are friends.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On Process and Progress: The Write Space

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a time management seminar sponsored by the Decatur Business Association. The hardest part was admitting I need help in that area, but with my own practice and a budding writing career, who wouldn't?

One of the things professional organizer Jonda Beattie of Time Space Organization spoke about was the importance of having an uncluttered space. She mentioned that every task results in a natural entropy, which then needs to be straightened out. Yes, Mom, I realize that you've been telling me to clean my toys up for 30+ years, but for some reason, it just didn't make sense until now. Consequently, I have been on an organizing spree in both my home and professional offices.

As you can see from the pictures below, this organization has been much overdue.

Desk before and after:

Floor and shelves before and after:

Yes, Jonda (and Mom) were right: it is easier to work in an uncluttered space. I still have some tasks, which are now on a list, such as find places to either donate or recycle books I don't want anymore (suggestions for resources are appreciated), but I feel like I'll be much more likely to come in the office and do what I need to do. The next task? Scheduling writing time.

Oh, and others are enjoying the newly cleared space:

Now if only I could teach her to take out the recycling...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book Review: Silent Scream: A Groovy Mystery Caper

It's hard to write, finish, and revise a book, and it takes courage and money to get it out there if the author wants to self-publish. Readers who are interested in self-published books but who don't want to waste their time on low-quality ones need a place to go for reviews. I'll post a review of a self-published book the first weekend of every month so that authors and readers can connect with each other. Interviews have been put on hold for now due to time constraints.

A disclaimer: I'm going to start with books by authors I know through real-life connections and through Twitter. If you're interested in getting your book reviewed, please email my assistant at bert{at}ceciliadominic.com or follow Bert on Twitter and message him there.

Title: Silent Scream: A Groovy Mystery Caper
Author: James Huskins
Genre: Historical Mystery

My father loves mystery novels, so I grew up reading books by Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Dick Francis, and other greats that I "borrowed" from his shelves. Consequently, I was excited to get the chance to review Silent Scream: A Groovy Mystery Caper by James Huskins.

Silence, whether it's for years or hours, can be deadly, and the different meanings and consequences of silence are the theme of this novel. Silent movie star Nora Bates and her cohort have kept quiet about an unsolved murder and a host of other scandals for years. The imminent publication of her memoirs causes someone to panic, which leads to two threatening notes, one attempted poisoning, and a murder. Main character Yancey Dunkle struggles to keep a secret from his boss, publisher Joseph Fitzroy, and everyone else. Fitzroy charges Dunkle to figure out what's going on, but after Dunkle is caught snooping by a real detective, the hapless driver becomes the primary suspect for the current murder.

If you're wondering what era the Groovy Mystery capers are set in, and the title doesn't give you a clue, consider that an Amazon.com search for Groovy Mystery pulls up a bunch of Scooby Doo books as well as Silent Scream. However, Dunkle, Bates, and the others precede the fictional Mystery Machine crew by about nine years and could be their parents or grandparents. There is no dog, but Dunkle does get to drive a pretty sweet car. Huskins describes 1960 Los Angeles and Palm Springs with enough detail to give a sense of place, but not so much as to be overwhelming. He also seems to have done his research into Old Hollywood and the culture around the transition from silent movies to "talkies."

Celebrities are a neurotic bunch in any era, and conversations about the past and old photos give Dunkle clues about motives and hidden relationships. As a lowly driver, he blends into the background, eyes and ears open, and has access to informative hotel staff. When his own secret is revealed, it adds unexpected depth and sympathy to his character, which has potential to grow during the planned series.

At first, the cast of characters seemed overwhelming, and I did have to refer to previous pages to keep everyone straight, especially once Bates and retinue get to Palm Springs for the official book release. Huskins adds a few more characters to the mix just before the climax, and earlier reference to those personalities and why they were important would have been helpful. There is one point-of-view shift away from Dunkle's perspective toward the beginning of the book, and it was a little confusing and unnecessary, as we got to know those characters through Dunkle's eyes immediately after.

Overall, I enjoyed Silent Scream and finished it in less than a day. Huskins' love of the era and his subjects come through in his writing, and I look forward to the rest of the series. Although Huskins describes his book as a "gay mystery," it should appeal to a wide range of mystery lovers. I'll likely give a copy to my Dad.

Silent Scream: A Groovy Mystery Caper can be purchased in paperback for $12.99 or for Kindle for $4.99 from Amazon.com.

Next up in March: Venturing into nonfiction with Perry Treadwell's From Sea to Shining Sea On U.S. 20: Boston to Newport, Oregon

Previous Reviews:
Laura Eno's Don't Fall Asleep: A Dream Assassin Novel
Donna Carrick's The First Excellence -- Fa-Ling's Map
Kenn Allen's The Golden Cockerel

Disclaimer: This review was of a courtesy copy received from the author for no charge. My opinion of the book was not biased by this or by the fact that Jim and I are friends.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Friday Flash Fiction: Melt

The wind is quiet, but I can hear the branches scratching against the window screens. We wait, silently, hoping that they'll think no one is in here. That's the advantage of human brains over brains made of snow – they're not that bright.

"Snowpocalypse!" the news media deemed the snow and ice that blanketed the city. With a ratio of about one snowplow to every million people, that's pretty much how it ended up. That first day, with the snow soft and only starting to get its hard layer of ice, the kids got out and engaged in that ritual that they'd only heard of from their Northern cousins: making snowmen. Some went all-out authentic with coal eyes and carrot noses, and others got more creative. One odd commonality: Mardi Gras beads. Whether it was a snow drag queen (that was in Midtown, I'm sure) or a snow bunny in Decatur, they wore beads.

"What did they show to get those?" my husband asked after we'd passed our third festive snow creature on a careful walk around the neighborhood.

"I don't know," I replied and righted myself after an almost-fall. "It sure puts a different meaning to the old phrase, 'colder than a witch's tits.'"

"Most witches I know are pretty hot," he said with a wink.

After the third day of no school and minimal openings except for bars and lightly staffed restaurants, the natives got restless, and not just the parents with small children. The weather would "warm up" to around freezing or a little higher, then hard freeze again at night. The snowmen and creatures mimicked the appearance of Hollywood starlets on crash diets, thinning out in odd places, and then getting their hard shells at night. A traditional snowman on Ponce de Leon Avenue took on an insectoid look as its head, thorax, and abdomen melted and flattened. The snow bunny's ears drooped, and its eyes grew big and skeletal.

It was that fourth night that we heard the noise the first time, a "scratch scratch scraaaaape!" on the neighbor's window. We peered out our dining room and saw it, the snow insect, its branch legs barely able to hold it up. Its beads swayed and sparkled in the light from the streetlamp.

"There must have been some magic," I started to sing under my breath, but my husband grabbed my wrist. The ice bug ambled toward our house, and we ducked into the kitchen, barely breathing as it repeated its scratching query on the screen.

The telephone rang, and the noise outside stopped. We let the machine take the call, and it was our neighbor from down the street:

"I just saw a zombie snow bunny with Mardi Gras beads!"

The next day, of course, hordes took to the streets to find and destroy the creatures, but they were nowhere to be found. I suspected that they were hiding in the woods, and my suspicions were confirmed that night when we saw them again, this time with sturdier branch legs.

By the fifth day, the ice had mostly melted off the sidewalks, although the roads were still bad, and the usual contingent of joggers and health nuts who consider five miles to be an "easy run" had taken to the streets again. We saw one of our neighbors, Michael Magee, on his usual route. He'd usually run up and down the streets of the neighborhood five times. After the third time, he disappeared.

"Honey?" I asked. "Did you see Michael go by recently?"

"Nope." We called our neighbor down the street, and she bundled up and joined us in front of our house. We retraced his route and found a thickly wooded empty lot where the snow and ice had been disturbed in a path running from the sidewalk to the trees. Blood stained the snow and dripped down the edges of jagged pieces of ice that had been torn up during the scuffle.

"Oh, gods!" my neighbor said with one mitten over her mouth. "We have to call 911!"

"Or the Ghostbusters," my husband added.

The police, of course, were not much help and warned us to stay inside. We went back home, cranked the heat up as far as it would go, and armed ourselves with a hair dryer and crème brulée torch. Not that they would do much good against a creature that could take down a healthy, full-grown man.

So here we sit, sweating and silent, as the creatures scratch at the windows. I feel it's only a matter of time before they figure out how to take down the power supply to the house, and food supplies are getting low, so we hope that the predictions of the imminent Great Thaw are true. Although I don't call myself a witch, I can feel the wild energy swirling outside, driving the clink of beads and scraping of branches. They say Mardi Gras brings out the wild side of people. Snowmen and ice creatures must feel the same.

There must have been some magic…

Yes, that was a snow bunny we saw on Sycamore when we could finally walk to downtown Decatur that Wednesday. Pretty much all of this story up to the creatures coming to life is true. If someone can explain why people decided to put beads on their snowmen, please do so – it was a very strange trend. The idea of them coming to life was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend about what the snowmen turned into as they melted and refroze. They did look pretty freaky.

Oh, since this is my first foray back into #fridayflash in a few months, here's a bunch of goodies from the case of temptation at Alon's bakery:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writing Goals for 2011

Having my own business has skewed my sense of time. For me, 2010 stuff didn't end on December 31. I still have tax things to gather for my accountant, and I'll also be doing some organizing and cleaning out since next week is somewhat quiet. Not snow days quiet, thank goodness, but still a little slow, as things tend to be this time of the year.

Whereas others have already done their examining and generating of writing goals for 2011, the best I've done is a hasty list put together while waiting for an appointment. I have, however, been reading some stuff and have realized that, in 2010, I made the following mistakes. It pains me to admit them, but I need to confess before I can move on to my goals. They fall under the general heading of missed opportunities:

1. I stopped posting as part of the #fridayflash and #tuesdayserial groups on Twitter. It happened after I read a blog post by a Twitter writer I greatly admire asking "who are you writing for?" The audiences of those groups are mostly other writers, and I wanted to reach readers. So, I bailed on both, and I stopped writing for everyone. I also cut myself off from a source of support and encouragement.

2. I didn't follow through on connections I made with other writers. Admittedly, most of these were associated with the Georgia Romance Writers conference and Village Writers Group meeting at the beginning of October, when I was moving my office. If you've never moved a business, it's a detail-frought organizational nightmare, and I'll admit it, I got overwhelmed. My natural anxious tendencies also took over, which didn't help.

So there you have it. I'm a writing dumbass. Oh, well, time to move on…

Here are my writing goals for 2011:

1. Write one new short story per month plus one #fridayflash per month.

2. Have at least five stories under submission at a time with less than one week turnaround in case of rejection.

3. Send out five queries a month for Wolf Vector novel. Same rule for rejections.

4. Have a total of at least ten submissions of any type out per month. This follows logically from adding the previous two. Yes, that math major in me creeps out occasionally.

5. Re-work Perchance to Dream as a YA novel. It's wanted to be from the beginning.

6. Revise A Perfect Man to be query-ready by summer.

7. One post per week on each blog. This includes the professional blog.

8. Online news site column (more about that later).

9. One self-published book review per month. A Bert the Catfish interview with an author if I have the time and Bert pays attention for once.

10. Continue with mystery novel collaboration.

There! I'm not ambitious or anything, am I? I've been beating myself up (see the theme?) about what I haven't accomplished. Don't get me wrong – I've been very happy for my Twitter friends who have gotten stories published and landed book deals – but I've skirted the edge of the "I haven't found the right luck" trap, and it's time to move on. That's my other theme. No one is going to do it but me. I'll keep you posted on the progress, at least once per week.

Ohyeah, I'm going to get started on these goals immediately, but I'm giving myself the week to get things out. I've already got a story under construction.

Oh, don't worry, I didn't forget your goodies. How about some brownies?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Review: Don't Fall Asleep: A Dream Assassin Novel by Laura Eno

It's hard to write, finish, and revise a book, and it takes courage and money to get it out there if the author wants to self-publish. Readers who are interested in self-published books but who don't want to waste their time on low-quality ones need a place to go for reviews. I'll post a review of a self-published book the first weekend of every month so that authors and readers can connect with each other. I'm also going to try and get author interviews so that readers can meet the people behind the books. At first, reviews and interviews will be posted separately due to time constraints.

A disclaimer: I'm going to start with books by authors I know through real-life connections and through Twitter. If you're interested in getting your book reviewed and are willing to be interviewed by an otherworldly catfish, please email my assistant at bert{at}ceciliadominic.com or follow Bert on Twitter and message him there.

Title: Don't Fall Aslep: A Dream Assassin Novel
Author: Laura Eno
Genre: Science Fiction (Character-Driven)

As the main character observes in the movie Shrek, ogres have layers. In Laura Eno's book Don't Fall Asleep: A Dream Assassin Novel, so do people and cities. Cassandra Dade lives in a mansion perched on a cliff and considers herself to be outside of society because of her rough upbringing and her unique talent: she can go into people's dreams and assassinate them. Nathan Wilder weaves dreams for others. Cassandra sees in him a potential partner, and he perceives her as an opportunity to escape from his past and finally solve the mystery closest to his heart.

At this point, Eno could have gone with a typical master/rookie scenario with romantic elements, but she demonstrates that this plot won't be so predictable: Nathan Wilder is gay, so any relationship between him and Cassandra will be platonic. She also warns him that vengeance is not the reason to become a Dream Assassin, and he agrees with her to a point, but he wants to find out who assassinated his lover Jeremy DuPree. Both characters have layers of personality and secrets that they gradually reveal to each other and the reader, and Cassandra finds she has to be uncomfortably vulnerable with Nathan to help her battle a foe from her past and keep her sanity.

One of the great pleasures of this story is the world that Eno has built. Altair IV sounds like a beautiful place, although it is far from idyllic, and it reflects one of the themes of the novel: appearances are deceiving. Although the genre is character-driven science fiction, the setting and its vagaries become a character in itself. The capital of Altair IV, simply known as The City to its residents, has developed into a stratified society with The Street at its base, The Halfs in the middle ("Because if you live in them, you're either halfway on your rise to the top, or halfway on your fall to the bottom…"), and Topside, which is where the rich and influential make their homes in climate-controlled domes.

The two Dream Assassins find unique challenges at every level as they search for answers as to who is hunting them. Being able to see past external features and to the heart of a person's "essence" is what sets Cassandra and Nathan apart from others, but also why they become targets of a powerful person, known only to them as "Dunbar." The plot becomes convoluted at times, particularly in the middle when two unfortunate residents of the Halfs are killed, and it seems that the author leaves threads dangling and forgets to tie them up at the end. For example, the murderer is killed, but it's never explained by whom or why, although I came up with a guess after reading the novel for the second time.

My other complaint is that the formatting is strange for a print book. The text is blocked as though it's from online content, with no indentation and a blank space between paragraphs (like this blog). I found it jarring at first, although the story quickly drew me in, and I forgot about it. Chapters always start on an odd page, which leaves even pages blank if the previous chapter ended on one. It's not traditional formatting and may turn off potential readers. On the other hand, it's really good for taking notes.

I enjoyed Don't Fall Asleep and look forward to Eno's follow-up, which should be out early this year. Meanwhile, I'll be reading her hysterical webserial starring Death and Chronos on The Penny Dreadful website.

Don't Fall Aslep: A Dream Assassin Novel is available at Amazon for $9.95 for the paperback and $1.99 for the Kindle.

Previous Reviews:
Donna Carrick's The First Excellence -- Fa-Ling's Map
Kenn Allen's The Golden Cockerel

Up Next in February: James Huskins' Silent Scream