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Okay, so… that happened.

15 Jan

I’ve been asked to review many books before, but children’s books aren’t necessarily my forte. On the other hand, I’m a father of two and have read MANY children’s books before, so I’m gonna call myself an expert. Let’s dive into Honeycake.

Honeycake is a evil child with special magical powers who threatens to destabilize the world economy by… no, of course not. Honeycake is our protagonist’s nickname, whose actual name is Nala, a mixed-race girl who goes with grandma and Uncle JD to give her leftover toys to charity. I mention that she’s mixed-race, not because I care, but because it’s the first thing you notice on page… two? (Could be four–children’s books are formatted with maximum space for small readers.) The child is black, the grandma is white; since the author (Medea Kalantar) is mixed-race herself, she’s basing it on her own life.

Okay, let’s move on, the art is amazing! There are so many children’s books where the art is either sub-par or they had a professional illustrator have to come in and save the day. This is done by the author herself and it is excellent. Since there is so precious little text in children’s books, this makes me move my review WAY up, because I give great respect to illustrators. After all, in a kid’s book, the art is over half the material.

Now I’m pretty cynical, and there’s not a lot of text in this book, so the author gets to the message rather quickly. “Talk less, smile more.” (blink) Wait, that’s Aaron Burr in Hamilton. Let me have the book tell it: “When you give a someone a nice smile, it makes them feel better,” said Grandma. (Grandma might need an editor there, or it’s supposed to be a delightful brogue, but it’s a kid’s book–so who cares?!)

So when Honeycake uses her special magical power of smiling, you show kindness, and spread sunshine wherever you go. Okay–good message.

Going through the visit, Nala’s experience reinforces her special magical power of kindness, and she learns that she can use her power to spread kindness wherever she goes. Nice. Although, having the stars around the phrase “special magical powers,” puts a ™ in my mind, as if the author trademarked it. 🙂

There’s not much else to review, because it’s only 36 pages, and half of them are art, so I’ll just say this is a great children’s novel. It feels about right for a 3-6 year old and it’ll probably have good repeat value. It’s got a story, a relatable character, so I think it’s worth getting. As much as I gushed about the art earlier, she does repeat many of the same pictures, so I’m gonna dock her a star in my review, especially because the best children’s books are those that are a little quirky and the message is not so blatant. But this is good and I’m sticking to it.

What are your favorite children’s books–the ones that are heavy on pictures and not much on text? Let me know in the comments section below!

Making you Book Text Look Professional

14 Jan

Today’s blog post is brought to you by frequent contributor Editor Ed, a small press publisher, author, and my dear friend. You can read his latest short story compilation, Sorcery Against Caesar, in the Amazon store.

Why Is Looking Professional Important? Because the Gatekeepers are gone, and readers know it. In the days before self-publishing, only big publishing companies could afford to print books. That meant every novel in the bookstore has been vetted by experienced editors, formatted properly by industry professionals, and met at least minimum standards of quality.

Those days are gone, and there are no quality controls on the books found online anymore. The unpleasant truth is that Amazon today is full of terrible self-published novels that twenty years ago would never have made it past the slush pile at a big publishing company.

Readers know this, and don’t want to risk spending money on an awful book (like this one Marcus reviewed). Consequently, they tend to shy away from self-published novels, automatically assuming—fairly or unfairly—that they’re badly written. After all, if it’s really a good book (so the thinking goes), it would have been picked up by a real publishing company… right?

The self-published author’s saving grace, however, is that readers don’t really know if “Excelsior Press” is a legitimate-but-obscure indie publisher with an office and a dozen employees, or an amateur high school student with a laptop. I suspect most shoppers assume it’s a professional small press unless you give them a reason not to—and that’s where looking professional comes in.

If your paperback looks amateurish, you risk losing sales. Although readers may not be able to consciously identify what exactly makes the text look professional, they’ll know when it just looks wrong.

So here are four tips on how to make your paperback interior look as professional as possible. They may sound obvious, but I’ve seen various amateur self-publishers make each of these mistakes.

Include Front Matter

Front matter is the stuff in tiny print at the beginning of the book that people rarely read—but will notice its absence, since it’s a clue the book isn’t professionally formatted. At the very least, include the following information at the bottom of your title page:

  • A Copyright Notice in this format: “Copyright © YEAR by YOUR NAME”
  • A similar Copyright Notice for any cover art or interior art, if a different person from above
  • The ISBN number (or, if you don’t have one, the assigned ASIN (Amazon), Google ID, etc.)
  • The name and city of the publisher in this format: “Publisher Name, City, State, Country”

Use a Serif Font

Nothing screams “amateur” like a novel printed in non-standard fonts like Comic Sans, Handwriting, or Gothic fonts. Professionally published fiction almost always uses a serif font like Times New Roman, Georgia, Baskerville, or Garamond (Amazon’s preferred font). So unless you’re doing Kindle/ePub versions only, use a Serif font.

Single-Space Your Text

The body text in professionally published fiction is almost always single-spaced. Double-spaced or even 1.5-spaced text is a red flag to readers that the novel was self-published by an amateur.

Indent Paragraphs

Professionally published fiction indents the first line of each paragraph, and doesn’t have a blank line between paragraphs. Text on the intent, however, usually doesn’t indent paragraph, preferring to separate them by a blank line instead (like this blog post). When the text in a novel is formatted this way, though, it’s another sign the book was self-published, and thus might scare readers away.

Only Use One Space Between Sentences

While two spaces is becoming more common and acceptable, especially in internet content like blogs and social media, the publishing industry still uses only one space between sentences.

There’s a LOT more I could say about presenting your book text in a professional-looking way. For example, there are some guidelines that apply only to paperbacks and not ebooks (and vice versa!), but I’ve run out of space. If you found this useful, say so in the comments. If I forgot something you think it’s important, let me know in the comments as well!

Biography with Submission

12 Jan

Phrases you read over and over again sometimes strike me funny–like “Biography with Submission,” which sounded like an erotic novel where a librarian gives into her dark desires. So many things out of context!

I wasn’t surprised when I went on Amazon and found, not one, not two, but seven different erotica based around librarians. I imagine there are lots of sexually frustrated librarians in the world, and not all of them male. 🙂 Often times this happens to me, where I’ll read some boring phrase and think, “Gee, that sounds funny,” and my mind will go off on a brilliant tangent.

“Client Acquisition” – A corporate headhunter is tired of getting rejected for job offers with his company, and in order to make the quota, decides to take things into his own hands. Kidnapping the prospective client, there’s only one way out of this nightmare… take the job!

Hybrid Publishing” – A struggling publisher decides they want to grow the perfect author. However, their experiment gets out of control–can they still keep the money while keeping his perfect author in check?

This is a fun story generating exercise–in fact, my next story project is based off my wife misreading one of the titles on our bookshelf. She saw Death in the Age of Steam and read “Death in the Age of Seitan.” After a big laugh, the more I got into the idea. What if there was a future in which eating meat not only became unacceptable, but outlawed? So I have the vision of a police detective in some rural area whose on the beat of the deer murderers. I’m still in the world building stage, and I’m also apprehensive about writing two sci-fi mystery novels in a row, but the idea intrigues me.

By the way, Death in the Age of Steam is a short story compilation including a story by Editor Ed, one of my frequent blog contributors, which is really good. There’s also another good story at the end, but it’s cyberpunk not steampunk, but the others… eh, I can take or leave it. But I’d recommend reading Underneath the Holy City. If you want more of Editor Ed, check out Predatory Practices!

What do you do to generate story ideas? What helps you build up your imagination? Let me know in the comments below!

The Battle for Downers Grove

10 Jan

Yesterday, I started a review of Salford World War by Mike Scantlebury. It’s a solid book, but it has flaws, and I’m not sure if the flaws are with the novel… or me.

The first thing that frustrated me was the book title–if you live in England, you might know where Salford is. I figure Great Britain is about the size of Illinois, the American state where I grew up. I know… most of the towns, and can probably rattle off most of the Chicago suburbs. However, that doesn’t help anyone who doesn’t live in the UK. That being said, if I named a novel Downers Grove World War, that still doesn’t make any sense. The Battle of Salford might work, or the Fight for Salford, but it still doesn’t grab me. The Fight for All at the Salford Mall might intrigue me, but “mall” has a different connotation in American English (shopping center) than in British English (wide avenue).

The second issue I have is the way that Mr. Scantlebury does conversations. As mentioned previously, I like the main character (Melia), but when she talks to people, the author doesn’t use quotation marks. That makes it real difficult to know if she spoke or not. For example:

Melia wanted to smile at that, maybe laugh out loud. It was ridiculous! People were checked, and double checked.

“I’m only saying what I hear,” Terry said, and walked away, back into the throng of technicians.

Mike Scantlebury, Salford World War, Chapter 4, p. 38

It’s implied that Melia spoke to Terry, since he responded, but did she just think it? I don’t know! AAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHH!!!

Now am a former history teacher–the conceit of the book is that since the assassination of Franz Ferdinand started WWI, then the assassination of a Chinese minister in Salford could start WWIII. Okay, I can buy that–I don’t need that repeated 3-4 times in the book. What I really needed Mr. Scantlebury to do is explain it clearly the first time. Then near the end, he starts throwing in tons of historical references for kicks… ugh.

When he finally gets to the minister arriving, things pick up, and all the whodunit changes to whodoesit, and that’s very enjoyable. So the book ends on a high note and Melia saves the day. Or does she? The love interest (Mickey) who keeps showing up in the book just long enough to torment Melia, then disappears again, does a serious amount of badassery near the end, which helped, but since Melia is our POV character, shouldn’t she have done it?

Since it’s a spy/mystery novel, there’s a lot of stuff happening that Melia doesn’t know about, and is trying to get to the bottom of. However, I’m left with the sneaking suspicion that we should have been following Mickey this whole time. It would have been more interesting. And perhaps that’s the most frustrating part of it. It wants to be a spy novel, but spy novels involve travelling to interesting locations, getting involved in action scenes, doing the cool stuff you can’t do. That rarely happens–it’s actually a mystery novel, where people die and the investigator is trying to figure out the answer. But since the stakes are so high, the author has to keep throwing in elements that… honestly don’t work for a mystery novel.

As much as I complain, I finished the novel, and it ended well. I’d give it a 3 out of 5. Good solid story with some serious flaws. It’s worth a read–try it for yourself!

What do you think? Have you stories you like but can’t get over the formatting, or the tone, or anything? Let me know in the comments below!

The War Next Door

9 Jan

People say you should write what you know–so if you live in a suburb of Manchester, England, that’s where you set your world-changing spy story! But how do you turn suburban Britain into a international crime thriller?

Full disclosure–I was asked to review this novel by the author himself, and considering this is the third time I’ve done this, I’m… a little cautious about book reviews. As an indie author myself, I want to support my fellow writers, but I want to be honest, but polite. The first two books I read were absolutely awful–so I didn’t post those reviews here–but since this is appearing here, Salford World War doesn’t fall into that category. This is a solid book.

Okay, that isn’t glowing praise, but part of my problem with this book is that spy/mystery novels aren’t really my genre either. I don’t like puzzles, or figuring out whodunit, but I’ll enjoy watching the detective figure it out.

This book is fun–a young female spy who is stationed in Salford (instead of Manchester–why?) and is responsible for protecting a Chinese minister who’s visiting the town. However, not everything is as it seems. The Chinese immigrant community has one agenda, the Chinese government another, and her own agency (MI-5? It’s never said) seems out to get her. And what about her love for her fellow agent, who now can’t seem to give her the time of day? Has he gone rogue?

The characters are interesting, but there are a lot of them, and there is the implication that this character has met many of them before. Which leads to me a strike against me–this is obviously the third or four book in a series. Unfortunately, if you go to Mr. Scantlebury’s website, you have no idea what order the books are supposed to be in. I really wish I didn’t have to keep guessing what the previous job was that she was on with this guy, or what her relationship with the love interest was before this, or what she was doing when dating the guy before he was killed. If it was just to add flavor, fine, but it seemed an integral part of why I should care about this character.

However, I said there were a lot of characters, and even though they are interesting, they mostly show up for a scene, do their thing, and are never seen again. This is very frustrating–it goes along with why I don’t read short stories. If I’m going to invest my time in a novel, I want to care about what happens to the characters. The only two characters who are consistent are our heroine and the love interest… and even the love interest keeps flitting in and out, which seems rather rude.

I’m realizing that this review is running way over, so I’ll need to continue it tomorrow. Also, check out Mr. Scantlebury’s book for yourself–let me know what you think!

However, let me ask you–have you run into a book that you fundamentally like, but the flaws make it difficult to love? Let me know in the comments below!

When you put “Knife” in the title…

8 Jan

When you put “knife” in the name of something, it grabs your attention. Sure, a knife is a common enough item, but it’s also dangerous, and when you use it out of context (kitchen), your mental eyebrows go up. So let’s see what happens when you add “knife” to the conversation.

Take–for example–the book I’ve chosen. Lois McMaster Bujold is a great author; love her Vorkosigan books. To my shame, I haven’t read her Sharing Knife series, but that’s mostly because I love sci-fi and not fantasy. It seems silly, because there’s a reason why the two genres are lumped together. Both involve going to different worlds, both involve some sort of advanced ability/technology, and both meet alien species. Although in one it’s an extraterrestrial, the other an elf. For me, fantasy has to have some quirk for me to be interested, such as magic using calligraphy, or low-magic politics-heavy (Game of Thrones), or urban fantasy (Dresden Files).

However, I remembered the name, didn’t I? Which is the point of this blog post–“knife” grabs your attention.

Take this electronic dance party (EDM) band–Knife Party. If you’re even peripherally into EDM, such as myself, you’ve heard of these guys. They are really good and throw in fun quotes by some serious sounding woman saying, “You blocked me on Facebook, and now, you’re going to die.” Again, the word “knife” grabs your attention. After all, a knife party is not something you want to be invited to. It’s like playing stabscotch–sure, it looks cool when someone else is doing it, but when someone is trying to stab a knife between your fingers over and over again, it’s not so fun.

Do I want the sharing knife? But I am curious… what is it? It doesn’t have the same effect as saying, “Year of the Cat.” But maybe if we add “Black Cat,” would you be more likely to pick it up? It’s hard to come up with another word that grabs your attention like that. Okay–“sex” always grabs your attention. But unless you want to put in that book section, your list of grabbing words shrink.

Can you come up with some other words that grab your attention? Let me know in the comments below!

And the 2020 Bantha Award goes to…

31 Dec

There are so many book awards, would anyone notice if I just made one up? When I see an award on someone’s book that I don’t recognize, I always check to see if it’s legitimate. How true is that for the rest of life? And how much do I want to fact check everything?

For example, there’s a book by an acquaintance of mine, and as a result, I really want to like it. It has a seal that says, “Readers’ Favorite, Five Stars.” I’ve tried reading it twice–the story’s okay, but the formatting is so awful that I don’t understand who is talking and when–I never got past page 20. You spent so much money on a custom cover, sprung for a sticker because this is self-published, and someone to sell your books at a con, and you couldn’t spring for an editor?

It turns out that Readers’ Favorite is a website that does free book reviews, has contests, and offers proofreading services to authors and book access to readers. However, since you can just buy a roll of stickers to put on your books, as long as your free review got five stars, it makes me wonder how authentic this is. Plus in 2020, they proudly proclaim that they are “featuring 800+ winners and finalists in 150+ categories,” makes me think I could sweep the alternate history urban fiction category this year. 🙂 Okay, this is obviously a money-making ploy, and it’s a good one, but how many people would do the research to catch it?

About 30 years ago, the accreditation movement started getting steam–it might have started earlier, but as a new teacher, this was the first I had heard of it. ISO 2000 certification was the rage in the factories I worked with, but in the early internet, no one outside manufacturing executives had any clue what ISO was or why they should care. It’s actually rather impressive when you research it, but it only really impresses other manufacturers, not your customers.

Private schools and public colleges suddenly all got accredited by these mega-agencies that no one had ever heard of. Unless you’re working in a private school, have you ever heard of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges? No? Well, it’s very important if you want to convince American colleges to accept your high school graduates if you’re teaching them in Malaysia. In fact, this accreditation got so bad that now there’s an accreditation association for accreditation associations!

Damn–I wish I got in on this scam. Convince people that you’ll make them authentic and pocket their money; you’re selling air! It’s gotten so crazy that there are fake accreditation agencies for fake colleges! You know, the diploma mills for schools that don’t actually exist? On a more insidious path, there are fake colleges that have an office that purely exist to allow foreigners to come in student visas, and rake in Department of Education funding.

This post is getting way too long–so I better continue it tomorrow. However, I am curious, what are areas that you’re familiar with that you know people are trying to scam with fake awards/certifications/accreditations? Let me know in the comments below!

The God of Continuity

28 Dec

Plot holes can go undetected for years or covered up rather clumsily. They can throw your audience out of the moment and you may never get them back. So how do you avoid that problem?

The easy answer? Get someone to read your story before you publish it. There are so many things that can be caught by having a fresh pair of eyes. For example, in my most recent book, Drag’n Drop, I thought I’d throw in something really cool for the villain to say: “And then I will become the singer and not the song.” To which my friend, “What on Earth does that mean?” Whoops–not everyone got it. So I actually included my friend’s quote in my hero’s response, which allowed my villain to explain what the heck he meant.

In my old writing circle, all of us had one superpower that helped out the rest of us. For example, one of my friends was the Technobabble God. He was more interested in science than the rest of us, so if you had trouble with a particular technology that you were trying to make sound believable, he could give you a line of BS that sounded good, and you put that in your story.

I was the God of Continuity; I found your plot hole and ensured that whatever wacky #*$&@($ idea that you got in your head to put your story that somehow, someway, it would makes sense as part of your plot. You happen to use a digital gate in your story, because you just read Piers Anthony, and thought that turning a ship into an energy signal, and then rebuilding it on the other side was a cool idea. And it is… except that you’ve already established that we use hyperspace gates. So… why another method of travel?

The answer–the digital gates were an experiment by the government to improve space travel. However, they were so expensive that they could only be used on one established route. Duh-da! Your prayers have been answered, writer!

For my father-in-law, he built a world where the colonists had been medieval reenactors who wanted to get away from the modern world. It happened to be a world where psychic powers could be mistaken for magic. So when you run into a ghost of one of the original colonists, and he sees this computer, he didn’t know what it was. Except he should have–and one of his fans pointed this out. So in the prequel, he had to put in a bit about erasing their memories, so that the original colonists wouldn’t be having second thoughts about leaving. Plot hole closed.

If a friend won’t read your book, then it helps to wait a while between finishing your story and publication, then come back and read it again. Sometimes, just giving yourself time to breathe between finishing the first/second/fifth draft and getting it ready for print that you can realize, “Oh, Sancho Panza disappeared for two chapters!”

Is there an easier way to detect (and close) plot holes? Do you have an army of beta readers who can figure these things out? Can you lend them to me? 🙂 Let me know in the comments below!

I Spit You Out Of My Mouth

21 Dec

Looking over what I’ve read this year, I realized there weren’t a lot of middling books. There were books I loved, books I hated, but rarely “okay.” Is that a reflection on the books I choose to read or me?

So I started looking through my list and seeing a lot of fives and ones. That seemed rather odd. While I’m scanning these books, a strange biblical quote came into my head.

So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Revelation 3:16 (NIV)

Am I just naturally gravitating to the books that I find really good or really crappy? So my next thought was, “Maybe I’ve just read a lot of crappy books?” Ever since taking up the challenge of expanding my network, I’ve been asked to read other people’s work that I’ve met online, as well as read other independent authors to help the cause. A couple are amazing – Programmed to Serve by Jenna Ivey is an amazing erotica story – and that is REALLY not my favorite genre. But then there are books so awful, I didn’t want to even give their titles, lest karma comes back to curse my own books.

Then maybe I considered, “Perhaps my tastes have changed.” For example, I just finished reading Mamelukes by Jerry Pournelle… or actually written by his son and David Weber, but it was solid military sci-fi. However, I’ve read a lot of military sci-fi, so I know what I enjoy and what I don’t. So I treated it like popcorn, had fun, but wasn’t wowed by it. Similar was Pirates of the Milky Way by Jaxon Reed – solid, enjoyable sci-fi, but nothing that blew me away.

So because I’ve been jaded from reading so much, it’s easy to go from love or hate. The Emigrant by Leo Champion really surprised me on how good it was whereas The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams showed me what a travelogue pretending to be a novel looks like. And I’ve reread a lot of my favorite books, because sometimes you want something you know you’ll enjoy.

Have you found this in your own reading habits? Are you getting more intolerant of the same old, same old? Or is there a warm spot in your shelf for popcorn reading? Let me know in the comments below!

Tired of Riding Your Cash Cow

14 Dec

L. Frank Baum ended up writing thirteen Oz books–he was the J.K. Rowling of his time–The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was insanely popular. The problem with reaching success, you fall into the fallacy of forgetting what got you there.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the best selling children’s book for TWO whole years (1900-1902) as well as a widely popular stage play. Baum probably thought, “Okay, now that I’m known, people will buy whatever I write.” When The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus came out in 1902, it… didn’t do well. People didn’t want just more fantasy, they wanted Oz.

So he had to go back to writing Oz sequels, but he kept declaring, “I’m done with writing Oz!” Then when Queen Zixi of Ix failed to sell copies (even with “Author of the Wizard of Oz” written on the cover), you go back and write more Oz sequels. It made him fabulous well-off… until he dumped a lot of his money into making these new motion pictures and it didn’t do so well. After his death in 1919, other authors wrote an additional 21 books.

The lesson? Don’t forget the gal who brought ya to the dance. Jim Butcher probably really doesn’t enjoy writing the Dresden Files books anymore, but he never disavows writing another, because the Codex Alera ain’t gonna pay the bills. He himself indicates that he loves sword and sorcery fantasy the most… but that subgenre was last in vogue in the 1950’s.

Of course, it’s good to stretch out, because you never know what might take off. One of my favorite authors, David Weber, started a different series on the planet of Safehold which can only be described as… um, Reformation Wars with a little sci-fi. I enjoyed it… mostly. There was one book where he deliberately avoided the wargasm which it had been building up for, but he paid it off in the next one.

What other examples can you think of? Authors who obviously didn’t like what they were writing, but kept cranking out sequels nonetheless. I’m sure I could think of some film examples, especially with actors. Let me know in the comments below!

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