Tag Archives: books

There’s a dragon on the cover my book…

6 Dec

My brother-in-law gave me an early present this year–a professionally done cover for one of my books. It’s a great gift, but it introduces a new level of complexity that my simple brain has never dealt with before.

I’m planning on releasing my new book–Drag’n Drop–this month. This is my alternate history urban fantasy book that I actually wrote ten years ago, but never felt like it was ready for primetime. (This is another reason why I’ll never to go mainstream… or sell books, apparently.) The book is done, the formatting is done, but I’m waiting on the cover to be finished.

Thankfully, there is a dragon in the book–he’s one of the main characters. The first obstacle you realize is that… you don’t really have a good idea of what you want on your cover. In self-publishing, I’ve gotten so used to “I’ll just grab an eye-catching picture and throw it on a glitzy-looking cover” that I don’t even have a clue what I wanted on the cover. So I threw out an idea and the artist drew it.

It looked… really good, actually. However, she also did me the honor of actually reading the book, and gave me two more sketches from other scenes in the book that she thought might do better. And she was right! So I went with Option 3, which comes from a big fight scene, and the dragon is coming in and it’s looking cool.

Then we put in the text and… here’s where I have definite opinions. You can tell instantly from a cover whether the author themselves made it or not just based on the font. If it looks I could do it on my software, it’s not that good. However, if you’ve got wordwrap, or unusual fonts, it makes it more glitzy as a professional book and more likely to be bought. The “nothing attracts the crowd like the crowd” theory.

So I never imagined I’d have so many back-and-forths with cover artists, but I guess when you put in more money, you get more problems. Have you had any troubles with covers as a reader? As a writer? Have you had trouble finding these pictures that get thrown onto blogs? Let me know in the comments below!

When You’re Pressured to Read a Book

18 Nov

I am generally happy when I see my kids reading; they are very picky about what books they’re willing to tear into. However, my son feels the need to share what he feels passionate about. So after many prompting, he really wanted me to read Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger. Quick review: this book was really not meant for me.

I really, REALLY want to be positive about other authors’ work; writing a novel is not easy. It’s especially difficult because my kids are dyslexic, so getting over the hump to actually read text is a lot harder for them than it is for me. However, I’m flipping through this big text, wide margin book and I’m immediately realizing that this is written for a pre-teen audience. Fair enough–my kids are 13 and 10, so check that box.

Let’s start with Sophie, our main character, a young pre-teen girl who finds the world too loud… because she can read minds. Okay, promising start. Then there’s mysterious people following her. Better. Then we reveal her true heritage and fast track to the alternate world. Gee, this sounds familiar, I tell myself. In this case, the elf world is in a different dimension, not in the same world as us, but elves can and do jump between Earth and Elfland… but they’re not supposed to.

There are folks that think that Sophie shouldn’t be in Elfland because… reasons. She can do things that elves aren’t supposed to do. There are those mysterious people trying to capture her because of what elves aren’t supposed to do. There’s political fights and mysteries, all of which could be really interesting, but our POV character doesn’t have a lot of time to figure those out, since she has to go school.

What? Sophie is immediately shoved into Firefox Academy, tells her its the best school for elves, and if she doesn’t pass her midterms, she’s going to get kicked out. My first thought is Why would Sophie care if she flunks? She’s not going to get kicked out of Elfland. She knows nothing about the world… and neither do we!

I guess if we’re going to match the appeal of Harry Potter, she has to go to a school. However, schools are a rather new invention in the modern world–only three hundred years old, and that’s stretching it. Rich brats used to be tutored at home, they only went to university at… well, roughly this age. Poor brats were also tutored at home, but boys usually apprenticed with an older man to learn a career. Women had to work around the home or the father’s business and eventually get married off.

Mercedes Lackey did this in her Collegium series; she even has to lampshade this by saying, “Well, we used to just have the herald-mages apprentice with a master, but the demand is too great, and there’s not enough masters around.” I enjoyed that series, but in that case, I thought the world-building was done better. In Elfland… eh, you’ve got this weird insta-wealth system, and you get very little sense of how the elf world works.

The plot was… okay. The story got about three stars–wasn’t amazing, wasn’t bad–and I even was forced to read the next in the series. Exile–which was better, but not much. Like I said, this book wasn’t for me. If you have a pre-teen, they’ll love it, because frankly… they won’t have read these tropes so many times before.

Did you find these books interesting? Do you find the kid in mystical college idea done to death? Let me know in the comments below!

Did I Write That?

6 Nov

Every writer has probably experienced this: you read a story you wrote years ago—and cringe. Even if you don’t necessarily cringe, you can’t help noticing the errors you made in pacing, plot structure, characterization, etc.  At the very least, you can’t help thinking about how you’d write it so much better today, now that you’ve had more practice and experience. But sometimes, to your surprise, the opposite happens: you enjoy reading it and think to yourself, “Hey, this isn’t bad!”

This happened to me recently.  After Marcus’ post last week about Predatory Practices, a novel we co-wrote together (in Marcus’ typically modest fashion, he tends to downplay his contribution to it) almost ten years ago, I got feeling nostalgic, dug out my old paperback copy, and gave it a re-read.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was actually a pretty good story!

K’Nes Businessman by Ashley Cser

To understand why that was a “surprise”, I have to explain the origins of the novel.  Marcus and I didn’t set off to publish it—or even to write a book, really.  It was just something we did for fun, a game, a joke.  In short, we weren’t taking it all that seriously.  Perhaps that’s why it turned out surprisingly well—no pressure, no deadlines, no censuring ourselves to please editors or publishers.  I only self-published the book (when you run a small press, it’s fairly quick and easy) so our friends and family could read it.

It’s funny how time plays tricks on the memory.  I remember this book as primarily a comedy.  It was set in Marcus’ science-fiction Tech Infantry universe that he’s been writing about off and on since college in the 1990s.  In this universe was a little-mentioned alien species called the K’Nes, small anthropomorphic felines that could inflate and float.  They were also “cunning fighters and amazing traders”… and that’s it.  Nothing else had really been established about them.  They were a blank canvas to paint on.

K’Nes in power armor is by Kari Keller

I mean, come on!  Little floating cat-alien businessmen?  It was the perfect set-up for a joke, just begging for a punch line!  And, man, we took that idea and ran with it!  The result was an alien culture so obsessed with business and money that it permeated every aspect of their culture, from artwork (“You mean K’Nes high art is… advertisements?”) to war (“If blood were currency, my assets would be legendary!”) to even love and sex (“Do you plan to invest your growth industry in my private sector?”)  There was also a lot of snorting catnip, and sleeping for eighteen hours, and … you get the idea.  This 40-second joke commercial we made for a K’Nes bank should give you an idea of the kind of stuff we came up with.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to discover/remember there was a lot more to the book than just comedy.  Don’t get me wrong, it was funny—there were times during the re-read that I burst out laughing at our own jokes that I’d forgotten writing—but there was also shady business deals, political intrigue, spaceship battles, espionage, ground warfare, a romantic subplot, and more than one mystery. Normally I’d say that was too much to cram into one book, but… well, I think Marcus and I managed to pull it off somehow.

This isn’t a perfect novel by any means, of course—the first chapter is exposition-heavy, and the plot gets a little convoluted at times—but it was a lot better than I remember it being, especially for something that was only written half-seriously for our own entertainment.

And that’s why we’d like to share it with you.  We’ve lowered the price of the Predatory Practices ebook to 99¢ for the month of November on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, Apple iBooks, and the Kobo eBookstore.  The paperback is 330 pages, so that’s a pretty good deal for a buck.

What about you?  Have you ever read something you wrote long ago and been pleasantly surprised?  Or cringe? Let us know in the comments below!

How Come Everybody Want to Keep it Like the Kaiser?

3 Nov

I read an interesting post today – “If I’m not going to make money off my books, why don’t I give them away for free?” And I’m torn on the issue. Because although that might be a way to generate readership, people perceive free things as having no value.

One of my favorite authors, David Weber, worked with his publisher and offered the first book in his space opera series, On Basilisk Station for free on Kindle and on his website. It’s a great book – I should know, I’ve been a member of his fan club for many years! As he likes to joke, “The first taste is free.” Like any good drug dealer, the hope is that you get hooked on the character and want to buy all the other books in the series.

So the concept can work. I’ve read many free books. I love the Little Free Library for just that reason; exposing me to books I would have never been inspired to read on my own. Some books I’ve wanted to keep reading in the series, others I’ve been like, “That was nice, but I don’t need to find out more about these characters,” and some I’ve been, “Ugh, I’m glad I didn’t buy this.”

But on Twitter, I’ve been offered books for free, and I download them but… sometimes I never even read them. In one case, I realized, “Oh, I hate mystery novels.” Sometimes, I’ve read halfway through the book and thought, “It started out good, but it’s just the same thing repeated over and over.” Sometimes I’ve read the free sample, bought the book, and realized far too late that all the good stuff was in the sample.

That’s why pricing is such a big deal on Kindle. $0.99 sounds good, but it also sounds cheap – am I getting a short story overpriced? On the other hand, I read a 10-book (quickly written) series for under a book and enjoyed it. I put all my books at US $1.99 which I figure gets me compensated fairly and still puts my books available for casual readers.

I think I’ve going to go halfway and give away a book for free for a week as a way of celebrating an upcoming novel (which is Drag’n Drop, coming out December 4th). I’d like to give away Fatebane, which is my favorite novel I’ve written and the only character I’ve written over three books, so there’s a chance at repeat business.

But what do you think? Is it a good idea to give away books? Have you embraced a free book to become a wild fan of the author? Or are free samples or short stories on their website enough? Let me know in the comments below!

Is there a decent Steampunk book out there?

1 Nov

When I read The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – the creation of Steampunk – I thought, “Wow, the first story is amazing, the second is okay, and… what the #*$& is this?” Since the beginning of that subgenre, I have yet to find a decent book written in it.

Now… what do I mean by “decent?” For me, any “-punk” has to have the tech as a major part of the plot. It can’t just be “and there’s airships.” For example, the first part of The Difference Engine was all about finding the really cool computer and what it did and why. The tech and the manipulation of the tech surrounded the whole plot.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “The Difference Engine is a book you like!” No, I like a story in that book. There are plenty of short stories which work well in Steampunk, but they can’t seem to expand into a novel. I read Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus and it’s pretty good, but it has some serious flaws.

I think part of the problem is that involves world building, and that takes a lot of effort that authors don’t necessarily want to do. If you have computing engines that work in the 1830’s (saying Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked), you have to ask yourself, how does this affect the history of everyone after that point? So in Buffalo Soldier, it’s set in the current day, so he has to explain 200 years of history, without slowing down the plot. He also throws in a failed American Revolution and Civil War, so “Albion” still rules half of the modern US, but not Canada, and that’s… interesting. However, he has everyone still in Victorian modes and dress, which is… difficult to explain for 2010.

The other problem is that… authors aren’t engineers. There are many computer programmers who are authors, but we really don’t understand how the tech around us works. We start with the idea, “I think the internet would be cool in 1880’s England.” Okay, but authors need to take the next step – “What does it take to create the Internet?” First you need computers, which requires a certain level of sophistication. Then you need to have a way for them to communicate. Which means there has to be a standard protocol to talk to each other (which is what the “P” in HTTP means). Then that transmitted information needs to be displayed to you. Do they have monitors? Vacuum tubes?

It’s easier to do that in a short story, because I don’t need to (or have time) to fill out all the universe’s details. Take, for example, a story I wrote called It is Dark Under the Lamp for a Steampunk anthology (that wasn’t accepted). I set it in 1920s Japanese-occupied Korea, where the point was the main character has to find a way to “hack” the foreign-controlled network. The computers… aren’t connected, but you can manually or automatically (taped) transmit. However, there are multiple telegraph wires with different feeds. So I avoid the protocol by having everything on the Asian-equivalent of Morse Code (a 4-digit code to represent a single character) which is what the Japanese telegraph was using at the time. For the display, I used split-pane panels, what we used to use for train schedules, with the clicky-clack thing… still within the tech of the time.

Is there a decent Steampunk novel out there? Is there other obstacles that I’ve forgotten? Let me know in the comments below!

Making Aliens Believable

28 Oct

Starfish aliens, rubber-forehead aliens, or intelligent gerbils? Sci-fi writers are always faced with the problem of making aliens believable. Usually, this is passed off because the aliens are in the background. But what if your main character is an alien? How do you create an entire believable culture?

This was the challenge that my friend Edward Stasheff, known to my readers as frequent poster “Editor Ed,” when faced when he went to write his story. This was a collaboration with me and a group of other writers in the “Tech Infantry” play-by-email game that we played… gosh, ten years ago? Yeesh.

Anyway, we had a group of really good writers, and Ed thought, “I did a good job with this story – why don’t I publish it?” So he edited the heck out of it (because you have to explain the universe) and gave me co-author credit (because I did write some of it) and that became Predatory Practices.

So in that universe, the K’Nes were a floating cat-like species that was known for being incredible merchants but not the best fighters. Ed decided to take this race – which no one else had bothered to expand on – and really developed it well. He started with the merchant angle and extended it. What if all the cats were hyper-capitalists? Imagine government run as a business. In this case, he had a character that was part of a clan that was also a business. He also asked, “What happens to cats who aren’t good at business? Or who aren’t part of a clan?”

At the same time, he took his part of this massive space opera and really shifted it to become the cause of his character’s species. While he’s trying to save the universe, he’s also trying to woo his mate, and figure out who’s out to stop him – it made for some great subplots.

Plus there was the “floating” thing – he had to address the physiology we had established. Why do they float? What does that mean in terms of military tactics? How would that affect their architecture?

At the same time he was addressing these questions to make the K’Nes culture believable, Ed had to keep it connectable with the readers. The capitalism he talks about are terms that readers could understand. Although the wooing was done in terms of contractual obligations, it was still romance.

All in all, I think it turned out great and I really encourage everyone to read Predatory Practices. It is a great balance of sci-fi, humor, great world-building, wonderful characters, and a great romping adventure. Check it out!

What do you think are the main obstacles that you as the reader face to believing that an alternate world works? What are some of the things that would make you stop reading a book? Let me know in the comments below!

Preserving the Canon

26 Oct

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about blowing up the established reading canon. Matt Ryan disagreed with my guest, so I invited him to also talk. Matt is a high school English teacher from Massachusetts, as well as the host of #CanonChat on Twitter. You can follow him at @MatRyanELATeach.

Marcus: Why do you believe the existing canon is important for students today?

Matt: Why wouldn’t we want students to read the greatest books humanity has to offer? If I were to study painters of the Italian Renaissance, would I not study the works of da Vinci and Michelangelo? The same can be said about literature. When I teach American literature, I would be doing my students a disservice to not expose them to some of our most influential writers. The same writers, by the way, that our contemporary writers have all read. Additionally, classic texts teach universal truths, truths not defined by race or gender, but by human truths. They don’t reflect a particular ideology. They disrupt our own ideologies and nurture our own intellectual independence.

Marcus: What books are “canon” with the kids you work with?

Matt: I don’t teach every single one of these every year; some rotate in and out, depending on a few factors.

  • Freshmen: The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, A Raisin in the Sun
  • Sophomores: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The Crucible, The Awakening, The Great Gatsby, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Scarlet Letter, Sula, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fences, East of Eden
  • Juniors: Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Waiting for Godot
  • Seniors: Hamlet, Othello, Antigone, Oedipus Rex

It’s important to note, however, that I teach a number of newer titles that aren’t canonical. I’m not advocating that we teach only from the canon. What I typically do is pair texts together, usually an older text with a newer one.

Marcus: You reminded me – yes, we read To Kill a Mockingbird (great), The Crucible (eh), Beowulf (read later with a better translation), and Antigone (okay). From my perspective, I think that it’s often the language that throws me off. As I’ve mentioned before, I turned 180 on Homer once I found a better translation. I was able to read Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, but as I got older, I found I couldn’t read anything written before Hemingway. Nathanial Hawthorne, being a Romance / Victorian writer, uses a lot of phrasing which dates back to a time when people wanted more descriptive terminology… and now, not so much. The old joke that Dickens got paid by the word makes it difficult to wade through the verbiage to get to the story.

Matt: Language is most often the stumbling block with older texts. Knowing this, I generally approach these books differently. I’ll often start a book by reading it in class and discussing the language. Hearing me read the book is often a bridge to greater comprehension. I also share audiobooks with the students and encourage them to listen as they follow along with the text. And I assign fewer pages in a book I know is more complex.

Another stumbling block can be a lack of background knowledge. To give a specific example, when I teach Pride and Prejudice, I use the annotated edition by David M Shapard because it contextualizes a lot of elements foreign to a reader in 2020. Additionally, I work hard to make connections to their own lives. For instance, students often say that the rules that govern how people behaved in society are confusing and silly. So we talk about all the unwritten rules that govern interactions among teens, especially when there are romantic feelings involved. We’ve had some great conversations about how students “date” and promposals. Then they realize that we’re not all that different from the characters in the book.

We’ll finish our conversation with Matt tomorrow. Meanwhile, what do you think? Is Matt on the right track with his students? Or is he off base? Let us know in the comments below!

Fear of the Big “P”

11 Oct

I respect missionaries – their job is incredibly hard. Conveying a message to people who don’t want to hear it is a skill that is incredibly difficult and demoralizing. Even when it’s something you believe in, it’s demoralizing not to make any progress. Promoting your own book feels like preaching to the unconverted.

“Promotion” is a dirty word. No one wants to be bombarded with ads – eventually, they become part of the background. For example, there’s two ads on this page that you haven’t even noticed. What I find that works is that you want to be catered to; if you feel like you’re being courted rather than lectured, it’s far more effective.

Take elections, for example. Direct mailings – straight to garbage. Robocalls – turned off. Staffers calling you… okay, I’ll listen to you. Staffers coming to your door – I’ll be polite. The actual candidate showing up to your door? Wow!

I’ve voted for someone on my city council purely because they came to my front door and made their pitch. Wouldn’t have voted for them otherwise. I’m going to vote for my state rep, even though I voted against them in the last election, because they bothered to personalize their response to me instead of a form letter. It doesn’t take much to convince me, even though I know it’s probably just a staffer in her office. They bothered to try. I know what a form letter looks like, but you had a real person respond to me – you got my vote.

That’s why I use this blog – it’s a way of promoting my books in a way that… hopefully doesn’t annoy you. My hope is that you get a taste of my writing, you like what you see, and you want to see more. I’ve got plenty of free samples in my Stories page and I keep my Kindle prices low ($1.99) to help make it easy for you to get my books.

So again, I’m going to shill for my new book, Defending Our Sacred Honor, and ask you – what advertising seems to work for you? I can’t approach all of you in person and suggest you read my book. I can’t go to conventions at the moment so I can do that in a friendlier way. I don’t have your phone number (I don’t want your phone number), so what kind of promotions work for you? Doesn’t have to be book related. Let me know in the comments below!

Blowing Up The Canon (Part III)

8 Oct

In today’s blog post, we finish our interview with Daphne, who runs a non-profit dedicated to helping students with reading difficulties. She is the author of Read or Die: A Story of Survival, Hope and How a Life Was Saved One Book at a Time. You can contact her on Twitter at @confusedconfessions.

M: So how do you approach personalizing reading for your kids?

D: Each student in my room is provided the opportunity to bring a book from home, but rarely do they. Instead, the vast majority of students choose a book from my room where every single book has been vetted by children. Typically I bring over a stack of books to their desk and they go through them until they find one with an accessible vocabulary, and then I teach them how to make connections to the words…basically I try to teach them everything good readers do: think about themselves, wonder what happens next, think what happened earlier, wonder why things are happening, think about other books with similar stories, etc…on and on and on until they start actually reading. 

I have this question I ask people, “What is your most important book?” It’s such a great question because people have the most beautiful and surprising answers, but I never meet a child who can answer this question. Unless a child comes from a house of enlightened readers (rare, rare, rare) or they are taught with a method in school involving real choice/independent reading they don’t have a most important book, and they all deserve one.

M: Hard question to answer, since I love so many books, but let me throw out a weird one – The Man Who Never Missed by Steve Perry. It’s a short sci-fi novel – hit me at around 14 years old, so when I was most impressionable – but it really changed how I like to see universes, write action, and drive the story well. He’s a cult following level author but I love Perry’s writing style.

D: Awesome important book answer! I haven’t heard of him, but I’m going to look him up. 

M: What about you? What’s your most important book?

D: The most important book for me is also a hard question, but I became who I am as a reading teacher because of reading the Book Thief. By the time I read it I had been teaching for seventeen years and writing for 8…There’s a scene where a girl lives BECAUSE of a book and you realize the author has been saying, “Books Save Lives,” the entire book and you then realize he dedicated a significant amount of time and effort to say books save lives and here I was, sitting in a room of kids that I should be teaching as if BOOKS SAVE LIVES so that’s when it happened. I changed everything I was doing and dedicated my career to repeating over and over again, books save lives and that’s how I teach, like every book matters and the more I can get inside a child, the better. Hence, my book and screenplay because I can’t say it enough. 

M: Thank you, Daphne – I have a feeling that we’re going to have more of these conversations from now on.

Did you enjoy this interview? What is your most important book? (Not your favorite, your most important.) Let me know in the comments below!

Blowing Up The Canon (Part II)

7 Oct

In today’s blog post, we continue our interview with Daphne, who runs a non-profit dedicated to helping students with reading difficulties. She is the author of Read or Die: A Story of Survival, Hope and How a Life Was Saved One Book at a Time. You can contact her on Twitter at @confusedconfessions.

M: But what’s wrong with having the whole class just read one book so they discuss it and break it down?

D: With the canon there are multiple problems that I could rant about all day so I’ll try to limit myself. First of all, I can’t even get everyone in my friend group or household to agree on a book. It’s impossible to get 30 random children who will/can read a 300 page book they care nothing about so they either are clever and use SparkNotes and engage the teacher in conversation as if they’ve read or they don’t read it and they fail. I have yet to meet anyone who read their assigned books in school and the number of readers is declining, not increasing. In addition, the book is assigned, the themes are decided by the teacher (who probably used SparkNotes to decide what the themes are), and all the questions have preconceived answers.

M: Interesting point – so simply ASSIGNING the book makes it very difficult for students to care about reading it in the first place. Using my son as an example, he has dyslexia, which has the effect that unless he’s REALLY into a book series (Harry Potter, Keepers of the Lost Cities), he doesn’t like to read. It’s physically difficult. They assigned the Hunger Games as a book, and knowing the violence would upset him, we got the teacher to accept an alternative (Ready Player One). However, he STILL didn’t finish it… he barely started it. Because he had no internal drive to want to do it.

D: It’s imperative that he feel empowered which is the opposite of what happened when he gave up on Ready Player One (which is the position teachers put their students in ALL OF THE TIME by assigning books, it’s maddening). Teaching him to use resources and allowing him to use resources to pass English is something that will carry him forever AND you might be able to still have a reader in your house. Teachers constantly destroy the love of reading and they don’t even know it.

I don’t want the canon replaced, I want the entire concept of ‘assigned’ books and ‘assigned’ reading levels to be destroyed. In fact, the way you were taught by the teacher who thought you ‘walked on water’ is exactly how every single child in America should be taught. I don’t have many kids like you were, but they all have that potential if they were just allowed to have their reading journey hand curated by a teacher who thought highly of them and wanted what is best for them.

M: So if a kid came to you and wanted to know what book he/she should read, what would you recommend?

D: My class could not function without The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, Tyrell by Coe Booth, Drive By by Lynne Ewing, Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and the Bluford High Series.

Have you heard / like these books? What books would you recommend to kids? Let me know in the comments below!

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