I’ve decided to start my monthly newsletter in earnest … just as soon as I figure out the proper format for it! Writers newsletters in general can be rather boring, so I’m trying to make mine brief and interesting. I’ll be including a very short story in each of them – 200 words or less. Readers are welcome to submit prompts for the following newsletter’s story.
Intrigued? Well, of course you are!
Join up here. I pledge to only use it for occasional contacts and to keep you email confidential. Think Fort Knox, here.
If you join via my listing on InstaFreebie you will also receive a free book of fantasy short stories by yours truly and co-author Janet Loftis.
As is usual for my blog (and, let’s face it, my personality), I’m jumping around from subject to subject – history, animals, TV, Amazon, woo hoo! This post is for the fiction writers among you, mainly self published but also traditionally published.
Story Grid Me, Baby
For a few years now I’ve been in a wonderful, amazing, transformative, insert-over-the-top-praise-here writer’s group whose goal is to look at our stories from a structural viewpoint using ex-New York editor of bestselling novels Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid principles. Coyne’s system is helpful when it comes to figuring out the major elements necessary in a story to make it “work.” And his ideas about genres’ obligatory scenes and conventions are just as revolutionary. While I think Coyne’s information is very helpful, it does go into too many details for me. When he says to list every story scene on a spreadsheet and graph it out my eyes glaze over. Gimme simple, please. I need simple. (Along those lines, a fellow writer turned me on to the 8 point story arc method, which I’ve been using with success.)
To learn more, you can buy Coyne’s book Story Grid or attend his pricey seminars, or you can read a bunch of articles on his site and listen to his podcasts and find out pretty much everything you need to know, though you will need to take said seminars if you want to become a certified editor yourself and work with clients.
No, Book Launch Me Instead!
The reason I bring Coyne up is that his marketer extraordinaire, Tim Grahl, interviewed him for a gazillion episodes of the Story Grid podcast while trying to finish his novel. Grahl, a marketer who has engineered bestselling book launches, also started a podcast called The Book Launch Show. Grahl pretty much does the same thing as Coyne did for the Story Grid podcast with the Book Launch Show: it teaches you what you need to know to launch your book successfully if you don’t want to buy his book Your First 1,000 Copies or pay for his pricey seminars in which you become a certified book launch coach.
So, that long-winded explanation aside, the Book Launch podcast provides much invaluable book marketing advice. I’ve been listening regularly since a writer named Valerie Francis (also a Story Grid Editor) came on the show to walk through her particular marketing challenges with Grahl as her mentor. That series begins on 11/20/2018 with Where do we start? The whole series is very informative, but one episode in particular has really hit it out of the park as far as I’m concerned: episode 44, The Magic Number. In it, you’ll learn:
why selling 1,000 copies is an important milestone in your writing career
average sales figures for an independently published AND traditionally published book during its first year
an actual plan for assessing the success of your marketing endeavors
why publishing your books is a long term game, with specifics
why authors fail at this long term game
why blog articles that have titles like “119 Ideas for How to Promote Your Book!” are a bunch of crap.
how to evaluate your marketing progress in a low-stress, easy way
The entire series is highly recommended, but this particular episode provides information in a manner that makes sense, is totally doable, and does not involve losing your mind over marketing.
Give it a shot! And let me know what you think. This marketing thing is a multi-headed beast and most of us writers need all the help we can get.
Are you in the mood for romance? Yes? Then I have just the thing for you! A promo with 46 – yes, 46! – free romance books. There’s got to be something you’ll take a fancy to. We’ve got some paranormal, fantasy, gay, historical, contemporary, and more! Perhaps Whiter Pastures, my historical humorous romance?
I wanted an air mattress to give company a nice place to sleep, so I scrolled through Amazon and settled upon a queen sized mattress with fantastic reviews. Well, they weren’t all fantastic. A sizable percentage of these poor reviews complained about the mattress’s poor quality. Hmmm, thought I. It’s a risk. But the price … it was so good. Surely I wouldn’t be one of the buyers to get a lemon. Right?
The mattress lasted for one night. The second time I tried to use it holes opened and it deflated. After the return date had passed. Of course.
That event sticks in my mind. Yes, experience is a hard teacher. But also, I should have known better. I’m a student of human nature, and such studies tell me that people (and companies) will always do what benefits them and what they can get away with. An online shop’s ultimate goal is to sell you a products, so what is to stop them from “adjusting” bad reviews on their system? And what’s to stop sellers from engaging others to write great reviews for them, for cash? Other than vague warnings of legal repercussions, nothing, it seems.
Forbes, NBC News, The New York Times, and other sites, agree. You are right to be wary of product reviews – good and bad. Yet what is your choice if you wish to make use of the ease of online shopping?
I’ve come up with a system that does a good job of supplying me with quality products. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a lot better than taking a blind chance. This applies to Amazon.com, but you can also use a modified system for whatever site you wish to use it on.
I use the search bar to find the category of products I am interested in. Say, trail cameras. Or Vitamin C. Or dog food. Whatever. I choose one product and copy the URL into a review verification site like Fakespot or ReviewMeta, both of which offer Chrome extensions. These sites employ specially designed algorithms that calculate the probability of false reviews. Fakespot provides a letter grade, while Review Meta gives pass, warn, or fail. I only keep products with a pass on Review Meta and A or B on Fakespot. It’s a good idea to use both because sometimes they do differ in their results.
If the product passes step 1, I take a look at the review chart. Here are examples of good charts (accessed by scrolling down the product page):
The idea is that there is a downward progression – the most reviews at 5 star and 4 star and the least at 2 and 1 stars. The “bad” reviews (2 star and 1 star) should be less than the 5, 4, and 3 review percentages.
I discard any products with graphs such as the below, where 1 star reviews are a higher percentage than 2 or 3 stars. The reason being that this discrepancy points to disappointed customers, and thus, fake reviews skewed toward 5 stars:
I also discard all products with such review curves from the same companies, the idea being that the company must have a policy of encouraging or allowing for dishonest reviews.
My final step is to look at the reviews themselves. What do the reviews tell me about the product’s pros and cons? I keep in mind that the most thorough reviews (which often include photos and videos) are probably from people who received the product free for their review. They didn’t have to shell their money out for it so may be more inclined to give the company a good review. You will find the best reviews – according to Amazon – under the “Top Reviews” heading just above the product’s first review:
These provide helpful information for the most part, but not necessarily perfect info. My final step, then, is to click on the down arrow next to “Top Reviews” and choose “Most Recent”:
For sketchy products you will often find reviews here that say: “How did this product get so many glowing reviews?” The recent reviews are most likely to provide you with the reactions of everyday buyers like you and I. If they are overwhelmingly filled with one or two stars then I reconsider my choice. All products have some low ratings but a large number of them in the most recent reviews points to a problem, possibly with a product’s reformulation or the use of new ingredients or suppliers.
With all this information in mind I compare prices and decide whether or not I want to purchase the item. If I don’t purchase it right away, I will save it under “Wishlist.” Occasionally the Amazon Android app will alert me when one of these items goes on sale, which can be a money-saver.
Like I said, it’s not a perfect system, but I find that it works well and has helped me to avoid any more air mattress fiascoes. Hopefully it will help you as well.
What about you? Do you use a different system? Let me know about it in the comments below.
For a recent freelance project, I found myself reading through scores of old articles about medical advancements. It’s been fascinating to see the discoveries of the latter half of the 19th century, and how the discovery of antiseptics, vaccines, and anesthesia wiped out so many of mankind’s scourges, causing the life expectancy to skyrocket. In fact, from 1900 through 1930, the death rate in the United States was slashed by half. Tuberculosis, Diptheria, and Cholera were some of the greatest killers, and to have them reduced by vaccinations was truly a Godsend.
Just as with today’s medicine, animals were the unfortunate recipients of many procedures that would later be tested on humans. While a necessity, it is still sad. And, in some cases, a bit ridiculous. After all, sometimes you just have to laugh in order not to cry.
One such account was relayed by an old doctor, Lewis A. Sayre, upon his retirement in 1897. In the days before X-rays, rather more inventive methods were employed to determine what was going on in someone’s insides. The good Dr. Sayre spoke of witnessing a remarkable demonstration by a famous surgeon, Dr. Senn, at a meeting of the American Medical Association.
With colleagues gathered all around, Dr. Senn proceeded to pull out a gun and shoot a dog. Then he placed a tube into the animal’s rectum, and inflated the dog’s intestines by pumping hydrogen gas into them. Hurrying to the other end of the dog, the doctor held up a lit match to the dog’s lips. The gas ignited the match, and thus demonstrated that the dog’s intestines had not been perforated.
Whereupon Dr. Senn pulled out his gun and shot another dog. Once again, he pumped the creature’s abdomen full of hydrogen gas, and held a match to the dog’s lips. Since no flame resulted from the lit match, it became clear that this dog’s intestines had been perforated. Then,
“Instantly performing laparotomy on both dogs, Dr. Senn demonstrated that his deductions had been correct and that the test could be used by the profession throughout the country as a test of whether laparotomy ought to be performed when men and women are shot through the abdomen.”
So, I suppose that in addition to being shot, victims of gun violence in the abdomen had also to withstand the ignominy of having a tube of gas pumped into them through their rectums.
Lest you think that meetings of the American Medical Association were seldom this scandalous, then consider another tidbit I came across from the 1938 proceedings of the AMA. One of the scientific reports given involved “the effect of politics on the intestinal tract.”
If today’s politics are any indication, the intestinal tract is quite distressed indeed.
No, this is not a bizarre idea for a new Christmas panto! Just a plain, factual statement of what took place in Norfolk in Georgian times.
From the late 16th century, thousands of geese and turkeys were walked the hundred miles from Norfolk to Leadenhall market in London each year. The journey would take three months and the birds wore special leather boots to protect their feet. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod (hence the contemporary phrase “to shoe a goose” for something difficult), so their feet were dipped in tar and covered with sand.
This year’s survey report is now available. It’s taken me quite some time to compile the results because … as you know I spent the last five weeks recovering from a plane crash.
The survey attracted 2418 participants from around the world – 84% female and 16% male.
A few highlights to whet your appetite.
AS IN PRIOR YEARS, THE SURVEY ATTRACTED HIGH VOLUME READERS– 72% read more than 20 books a year; 55% read more than 30
49% of participants USE SOCIAL MEDIA REGULARLY TO SUPPORT THEIR READING
GENDER MAKES A DIFFERENCE– among the differences—women read more than men and use social media more regularly in support of reading; men and women prefer different types of stories and different non-fiction
PRINT BOOKS REMAIN POPULAR– Of 2418 participants, 75% frequently or exclusively use print books
Not surprisingly, ENTERTAINMENT IS THE DOMINANT REASON FOR READING…
As far as fiction writing goes, I’ve been largely stalled, going over and over the first few chapters of my next book while weeping piteously and rocking in the corner like a war-traumatized orphan. Why no, that’s not an exaggeration at all.
When it comes to watching TV, though. In that I have succeeded wildly. And so in an effort to do some sort of writing other than what I do at my day job, here are a few reviews of TV shows I’ve binged on lately.
The Sinner (Netflix)
Super hot Jessica Biel, who spends most of her time looking disheveled and depressed, stars in season 1 of this 8-episode why-did-she-do-it (as opposed to who-done-it). When she visits a crowded beach with her small son and husband, she proceeds to murderize some young guy trying to get it on with his girlfriend. Here’s the kicker: she doesn’t know why she did it. A perverted detective played by Bill Pullman digs deep to try to discover just what was going on in the head of the murderous beauty.
This moody, addictive drama peels away the layers of the murderesses’ past with patience and a sense of looming disaster. Her psychology, revealed in snatches about her family life growing up, involves a fair amount of dysfunction, especially when it comes to religion (thus the series’ title). One of my personal pet peeves is that 98 percent of the time when religious characters are shown in modern media, these characters are evil insanoids. It’s become a cliche, even. Is there no one who goes to church, a la The Andy Griffith Show, who is a decent human being? Not if modern media is to be believed.
The culmination of the mystery is a bit of a letdown but despite this every episode was strong enough that I watched the whole season within a period of 5 days.
I give this series 4 out of 5 stars, for an interesting premise, great acting, and fascinating execution. I will definitely watch the 2nd season, which has recently been announced. It will feature different characters than the 1st season.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon)
Hunky Jack Ryan, portrayed by John Krasinski, is not just a rehashing of Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan of days gone by. He’s taller, more muscly, and scarred from past traumas. He’s still super smart and not too thrilled to be cast in the action hero roll, though. Unlike in the films, he has a rocky relationship with his mentor and boss James Greer, who is as scowly and grumpy as they come. Cathy Mueller is an infectious disease specialist who becomes Ryan’s love interest. The antagonist is Mousa Bin Suleiman, a coldly intelligent Islamic terrorist who he loves his brother and his kids. He’s less fond of his doe-eyed wife Hanin, who is instantly sympathetic as a character.
The show gives equal screen time to the bad guys and the good guys, which I liked. It relies on fast-moving military action, a number of explosions, murders here and there, and various and sundry other types of violence. Tension is skillfully maintained over the first season’s 8 episodes to an emotionally satisfying, if abrupt, ending.
This gets 3 and a half stars out of 5, for great characterization and plenty of twists, turns, and surprises. If there’s a second season I will probably watch it.
On the lighter side of things is this comedy about a high-functioning autistic boy, his family, and their friends and love interests. Sam, a senior in high school with autism, is obsessed with Antarctica and its penguins. He has at least one major freakout per show, and also regularly says and does inappropriate but hilarious things. His sister Casey is perhaps the show’s strongest character as Sam’s younger sister, a track star who dresses (and wears her hair) like a 12-year-old boy from 1975, complete with striped socks. Elsa, the overprotective mother, is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who at 56 years of age, does not have saggy skin or wrinkles, but does have that weird look of not entirely successful plastic surgeries. The temptation she faces by a sexy Latin bartender is a major plot point. Doug, an EMT, is Sam and Casey’s good dad and Elsa’s lackluster husband. He has as much charisma as a soggy bowl of oatmeal.
Sam’s attempts to deal with the “neurotypical” world is showed through interactions with his cute-as-a-button therapist Julia, his quirky support group filled with fellow students with autism, and his job at Techtropolis where his best friend Zahid dispenses hilariously bad advice. Girlfriend Paige is energetic, endearing, and amusing. Each character has their own distinct personality and struggles within and outside of the family during the show’s 8-episode first season and 10-episode second season.
The show gave me plenty of laughs, and an escape from the drudgery of life, so I give it 4 stars out of 5. I’ll definitely watch a third season if it continues.
From the first page, the novel weaves a spell of another world – a harem in the Ottoman Empire, filled with the scents of cinnamon and cloves, and heavy with desire. Young eunuch Olin fights his lust for the beauties around him while navigating the Byzantine politics that pit wives and mistresses against one another to win the favor of their opium-enthralled sultan. The atmosphere of luxury is enhanced by Neil’s talented descriptions and impeccable historical accuracy. The names of the harem women, such as Crimson Petal, Red Tulip, and Peach Blossom, serve to add to this atmosphere, and to the lyrical quality of the writing. Sex is currency here in the harem, and death, if one is not wary.
Olin is a well-rounded, sympathetic character who struggles with courage, duty, and honor. When the beautiful odalisque Dark Star offers him a magical pendant he unleashes the power of the jinni, one which will change his world forever.
If you like your historical fiction with a touch of magic you can’t do better than this addictive novel.
Photo by Dustin Davis, story by Tom Demerly of tomdemerly.com.
It is an image of fierce defiance frozen in a terrifying moment. A powerful vision of what many people see as the American condition. As I type this, over 15,000 people have shared it from my Facebook page across social media that I can track. As of Monday night, another person shares it every 15 seconds. While I despise the colloquialism “going viral”, there is no doubt something about this image has resonated again and again with the current collective American consciousness.
It is the Taylor Creek Fire “Don’t Tread On Me” photo.
Dustin Davis, 32, of College Place, Washington, shot the photo of a rattlesnake frozen in its fiery death throes on Wednesday, August 8th, 2018 at 12:55 PM local time during the early stages of the Taylor Creek fire in Oregon. Davis was fighting the fire as a…
If you want to discover Alaska without breaking the bank, that 99 cents will pay for itself many, many times over. The book includes tips on finding good cruise prices, how to anticipate or avoid hidden costs, information on public transportation, and many ideas of great things to do in port for little or no money.
I highly recommend an Alaska cruise, especially if you like wildlife and nature. If you dedicate some time to watching the water, you’re almost guaranteed to see marine life from the deck of the ship. If you want to see a glacier, Alaska’s the place…