review of Circumstantial Truth by Ian Welch

circumstantialtruth

★★★★☆

reviewed by Cy Wyss

Circumstantial Truth is the story of Zach Carmichael and, to a lesser extent, his dog Shadow. Shadow is the loyal friend who stick by Zach during some tough times, including betrayal by the people he loves most. One day, Zach finds a dead body. He can’t help but go to the police, including a police detective who becomes suspicious of his find. Zach is then framed for the murder of the man, someone he’d never met. Zach spends much of the book in prison, where a series of coincidences has him meeting people who eventually lead him to the real killers. With the help of his cellmate’s sister, Zach works to clear his name, in spite of the police detective getting in his way.

I found Zach a little too passive, and the coincidences of meeting people who know each other to be too many. Surely New Zealand isn’t that small. And the setting is New Zealand, which took me a while to figure out. Their gun laws differ from those in America, they are much stricter. The book could have used some editing, as there are errors that will pop you out of the story now and again. Much of the story takes place in a tiny town away from Auckland, as well as in Auckland itself. The characters were interesting and fairly well drawn. Sometimes their motivation was a bit sketchy, and the main villain was more of a caricature. The story is what really carries the book. You want to know how Zach will clear his name (or even if he’ll clear his name), with so much stacked against him. Overall, a reasonable work with a measured pace.

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review of Dream Faces by Steve Shanks

DreamFaces

★★★☆☆

reviewed by Cy Wyss

Dream Faces is the story of artist Mark Stephens, a man blessed (or cursed) with foresight as he dreams of missing girls and paints them, months before they’re declared missing. Both the police and the bad guys (some small-time Russian mobster and his incompetent henchman) are very interested in Mark’s ability. Mark is just an ordinary guy, by his own admission not even a weightlifter or martial artist of any kind. How will he be able to stand up to the mobster and help the girls? The book is unpredictable, which makes it fun. I won’t spoil the ending by saying whether it is happy or not, but during the ride at least one unnecessarily grievous event occurs. The girls in Mark’s paintings are only thirteen, so putting them in peril is dangerous for the author as well as the characters. (I’m still of the old school thinking that children shouldn’t be unduly harmed in a story.)

There is a lot wrong with Dream Faces. I don’t feel the addition of angels and demons was necessary. Their antics mostly missed their mark with me. I guess the idea of allegory is interesting, but nowadays a more nuanced view of good and evil is expected. Also, some characters didn’t seem to have these guardians, most notably the police officers. The cops themselves are two-dimensional and their actions highly improbable. The bad guys are also shallow, without subtlety. The book needs editing, both in terms of grammar and diction.

In spite of all of this, I found Dream Faces impossible to put down. This is what critics or writing gurus mean when they say “story trumps all.” For, despite its shortcomings, Dream Faces is a good story. You can’t help but root for the girls and the artist, and wonder how the bad guys will be defeated. (Or even whether they’ll be defeated.) So if you’re willing to ignore some obvious structural and technical errors, get Dream Faces. On balance, I think the story is worth it.

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advertising your free book: a case study

In July, I took advantage of KDP Select and had three of my books free for 5 days each. I wanted to experiment with advertising these books, and here is what I found.

FreePromotion2016

I used three avenues of promotion: Facebook, the Book Marketing Tools submission tool, and BKnights from Fiverr. Here’s what I found.

Facebook is hit or miss

I used Facebook for all three of the books. Basically I just posted that the book was free, with a link to the Amazon page. For Eyeshine, I got a couple shares from influential friends, which seemed to make a real difference. The momentum (as you can see from the picture above) kept going for the whole five days. For Polygraph, there was little to no effect. For Bloodless Mask there was also little to no effect.

So, basically it seems like Facebook is hit or miss. It probably depends on who they choose to show your post to that day. Of course, it also might be that Polygraph and Bloodless Mask are less attractive than Eyeshine. (Eyeshine is a full-length novel whereas Polygraph and Bloodless Mask are short stories.)

the BMT free submission tool is a dud

If you go to Book Marketing Tools (BMT) one of their tools is a free submission tool. You do have to pay to use the tool, the “free” in its name refers to the fact you’re using it to advertise free books. Basically, the tool takes your information for $15 and uses it to submit to several sites that offer advertising for free books, like eBook Daily Deals and Frugal Freebies.

I found little to no effect from the BMT tool. When I offer Polygraph for free with no advertising, I get pretty much the same results as I got above. Interestingly, Facebook didn’t work for Polygraph either.

BKnights works but is short-lived

BKnights of Fiverr cost me $15 (normally it would be $10 but I submitted fairly late so paid an additional $5 to have quick service), the same as the BMT tool. You can see from the graph above that there is a distinct spike for Bloodless Mask on the day of BKnights’ promotion. This didn’t seem to translate into any momentum, as then downloads distinctly trailed off, but it was interesting to see that BKnights really does work. For Bloodless Mask, I felt there was little to no effect of my Facebook promotion.

a ton of free advertising sites are out there

That summarizes my adventures with three of the free advertising sites out there. But there are a ton more. I list a few below, that friends have claimed they got good results with.

Most of the above are premium sites, where you pay to have your free book listed. I’m ambivalent about this. On the one hand, more downloads is more exposure. On the other hand, it’s a guaranteed financial loss. I guess, on balance, I would prefer not to spend money advertising my free books. It just seems counter-intuitive.

What about you? Are there sites you’ve had a good response with that I haven’t listed? Do you think it is worth it to pay to advertise your free book? Let me know in the comments below.

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review of Sasha: the ROE Chronicles Book I by Sean M. Campbell

sasha

★★★★☆

reviewed by Cy Wyss

Sasha Malenkov is a stunningly powerful telepath as well as teleporter, empath, and seer. The first book of the ROE Chronicles is her story. Sasha was kidnapped at age 6 by unknown forces. Twenty years later, a new breed of naval ship is created, one capable of traveling great distances by teleport. What does Sasha have to do with this? A doctor, Robert Wraith, aboard the ship has distressing teleportation dreams, which lead him to the incredible truth about the ship he’s on. To free Sasha, he would have to cripple the ship and enlist help. How he does this is the subject of the first quarter of the book, approximately.

Sasha is an interesting book. The author has chosen to restrict the main action to about the first quarter of the book. I would have expected an entire book for this. Yet, the book goes on for the next couple hundred pages, with small challenges and encounters fairly easily solved. The problem is, Sasha is so powerful that everything falls to her quickly. In spite of this somewhat unorthodox tack, the remainder of the book is highly readable. Even everyday life is interesting enough to form good stories. What unfolds is a utopic vision of what life could be like with what is (essentially) a benevolent dictator at the helm. The setting in space with advanced technology is icing on the cake. Campbell’s universe is part Babylon 5, part Star Trek, but unique enough to hold your attention until the end. I liked the book a lot and was sad when it ended. I only give it four stars because the last three-quarters, while eminently readable, were somewhat slow for an action-themed novel. Don’t let that stop you, though, especially if you like reading about fun and compelling world-building.

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review of Augment by Heather Hayden

Augment

★★★★★

reviewed by Cy Wyss

Vicissitude (Vicki) Wandel is a sixteen-year-old runner with a loving family and an unusual computer friend. Her government mandates that augmentation (by changing your genetic code) and upgrades (artificial implants) must be distinct: if you have augmented, you must not upgrade, and vice versa. Vicki has upgrades on both legs and in her brain after a terrible accident when she was younger. The upgrades have always worked well, so why are they now suddenly failing periodically? And why does her blood test indicate augmentation, when she was always listed as natural?

Augment is not a long book. I found it a bit slow in the beginning, but by the middle it went faster, and by the last third I was genuinely thrilled. Vicki is a sympathetic heroine and her adversary, Agent Smith, is also sympathetic, which made the conflict interesting. Other characters aren’t as well developed, but nonetheless managed to hold my attention. The plot is good, especially once things start happening in earnest. Overall, I liked this offering very much and don’t hesitate to recommend it.

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marketing: the impossible problem solved in 3 simple steps

Marketing is one subject of perennial interest to me. It also causes a lot of consternation. I don’t understand marketing. I’m not a sales mentality person. But, being a self-publisher, learning something about marketing is essential. I do have a little (very little) money to put toward it, but where would that do the most good? Recently I’ve read or watched several works on marketing:

So what did I learn? Too much, and not enough. Here are my takeaways.

successful self-publishers have a ton of books

The 3-step formula from Write, Publish, Repeat is in the title. Their (rather sanguine) hope is that if you just publish enough, you’ll win the lottery with something and people will suddenly start buying you like crazy. I like to think of this as the “Hugh Howey” method. He was publishing short works on Amazon, not having much success, and put Wool out there and forgot about it. Before he knew it, Wool was selling like hotcakes. I guess I could also call this the “no marketing is good marketing” approach.

This also seems to be a common theme in the Gaughran book, at least in the author testimonials at the end of the book. Gaughran found 30 successful self-published authors. A theme seems to be “I did nothing but people suddenly bought my book and I woke up one morning to find success had found me.” Sometimes their first book performed like this. Well, I guess it can be interesting to read about, but I don’t find it helpful in terms of “do this and you’ll have a shot at success.” The advice on the whole amounts to “keep buying lottery tickets.” Someone will win, just not me.

there is no failsafe marketing approach

Also in Write, Publish, Repeat, there is a theme of “nothing replaces hard work.” It was good to see this, especially after the (slightly shady) webinars I watched promising me bestsellers up the wazoo if only I give them $500 or more dollars for their online course. One of the webinars seemed to be advocating seeing what was bestselling, slapping together a similar work, then putting it out there. Advanced basket weaving might be bestselling right now but I’m not going to be able to contribute much there. As with most authors (I think), I write what I like. It’s mainstream enough that I believe there is an audience out there, but it’s not likely to be the hottest topic of the week or month in any given time period.

If there’s no marketing that works, what is a self-published author who’s not selling to do? Fortunately, there are sources that are more optimistic about marketing efforts.

no…wait, there is a failsafe marketing approach, just give me money

There is a certain type of webinar aimed at self-publishing authors. It promises to reveal the secret formula to selling (say) 10,000 books and making 100,000 dollars in 18 months. Or was it 1,000 books a day for 90 days? Anyway, the promises are big and enticing. The webinar is disappointing, though, as you realize near the end they haven’t actually given any workable means of doing anything. The webinar turns out to be a half hour (or hour) long advertisement for their larger online course. These courses can have eye-watering prices, too: $500 and up.

I was thinking Nick Stephenson fell into this category. But then I realized that, no, he was actually giving actionable items in his 3-video mini-course about marketing. More on this next.

the 3 steps I’ll be attempting

Stephenson has hit the jackpot himself, clearing 7 figures in 2014. (Must be nice!) His videos are well-produced and easy to follow. Best of all, they’re free. Although he does have a premium course, you don’t get the feeling you absolutely have to buy it to hear some of the meat of what he has to say.

He has a 3-step process to getting tons of sales.

  1. Offer something widely, like a free book, giveaway, etc.
  2. In the offer #1, include a link to what you want the potential readers to do, whether it’s signing up for your email list (recommended), or buying a book.
  3. Offer something of value for doing what they’re supposed to in #2, like something else free, and good content, stuff like that.

He puts it more succinctly, but you’ll have to check out his videos for that, I don’t want to steal his thunder.

So, I’m going to try this. I already offer Sinking for free for signing up for my mailing list. So my idea is to make Polygraph (another Richter short story) free and include links to a sign-up page. That’s it. Stephenson says such a plan will make passive income with all the people signing up to your mailing list (people you can then contact when you have book launches, ad campaigns, etc.).

Will it work? I have to say, it seems like a sensible approach. But I’m also not expecting much. Stephenson says hundreds of people tend to get free books, and a certain (low) percentage of them will click the link and sign up. I’m going to take a guess and say that I’ll be surprised if I get a handful of signups a month this way. That’s a far cry from his 10,000 readers. On the other hand, it’s better than I’m doing now with about zero sign-ups a month.

Stay tuned! I’ll keep you posted about my marketing endeavors. What do you think? Have you heard about any marketing methods lately that made sense to you? Let me know in the comments!

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review of Ogden by Cory Abernathy

Ogden

★★★★☆

reviewed by Cy Wyss

A lab assistant accidentally pricks herself with a syringe that contains an experimental drug. This seemingly harmless incident leads to a deadly infection that turns people into zombies bent on consuming human flesh. The infection starts with one or two people and quickly spreads exponentially, leading to hordes of infected zombies staggering down the streets of Ogden. Law enforcement is at a loss for how to deal with such widespread devastation. One law man, Detective Desmond King, gets embroiled in the Ogden mess and tries to save as many of Ogden’s 1,200 citizens as he can.

Ogden was a fun read, if somewhat clichéd. I found the simple prose easy to get through, and the style improved as the book really got going. The cast of characters was believable, although the part of William Decker, the maniacal National Guard leader stretched reality perhaps a bit too far. Still, every book has to have a villain, and Decker made for a decent, if overdone, bad guy. People have commented on the King’s two dogs, as they are almost the only domestic animals seen in the book. The dogs provide a bit of relief from the heaviness of the story and it is fulfilling to see them play a large role by the end of the story. I do have one question, though. What happened to the cow? Other than that very minor (and largely tongue-in-cheek) concern, the book has a satisfying ending. A reasonable read for a summer afternoon.

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review of Infernal by T. Joseph Browder

Infernal

by Cy Wyss

★★★★★

Richard Farris is a seemingly ordinary man, living in Kansas with his dog Charlie. During one particularly nasty winter storm, he finds a woman in his back yard who has been shot. Nursing her back to health threatens to be the end of him as sinister bad guys from an organization only known as BanaTech show up and want to end the woman’s life. By getting in their way, Richard makes himself a target. Tragedy ensues. Months later, living another life in another state, Richard is recruited by the woman to help her hide “the Key,” a necessary cog in BanaTech’s wheels. What follows is a madcap chase through not just Richard’s Earth, but twin earths in the multiverse. The author’s impressive imagination take us through other worlds and times to an explosive showdown, which I’ll try not to give away.

I liked Infernal a lot. At times I found the theology behind the multiverse distracting, as kind of a real deus ex machina for the characters. But the character of Richard (whose surprising identity I’ll leave to you to find out) really carries the show. I can’t imagine not rooting for someone who chose to go to prison so he could stop a vicious pedophile. Richard has a complexity of character that is rare in thrillers and it was a real treat to read about Richard developing and changing throughout the book. The plot delivered plenty of action and edge-of-your-seat thrills, as well as interesting and unforeseen directions. This book was hard to put down. Pick it up! You won’t regret it.

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the Indiana University Writer’s Conference was great!

IUWC_logo-150x150
This past week, from June 4 through the 8, I had the distinct privilege of attending the Indiana University Writer’s Conference (IUWC). You can find IUWC online at http://www.iuwc.indiana.edu. This was my 5th year attending (I’ve been going since 2011, only missing 2013). Every year I’ve gotten a lot out of the conference. Like last year, this year I attended absolutely everything, which was a hectic 5 days. It started with the SFF workshop from 9-11:30 a.m., then the lunch panels from noon-12:50, then classes from 1-5 p.m., then readings during the evenings at 8. A great program! What follows are some highlights from the experience.

SFF Workshop with Wesley Chu

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This year was the first year IUWC included a genre workshop and I was enthusiastic to see it was in SFF, as I just happened to have a manuscript to submit (the first 25 pages). Wesley Chu turned out to be a fantastic leader. He spent some time engaging us in writing, as well as discussing the business side of writing (the upshot of which was that he’s had quite a bit of success in traditional publishing). The workshop was a good size, at 10 people total (including Wesley). We workshopped each other’s stories, which involved reading an excerpt aloud and then listening to commentary by the other people in the workshop. I got some decent feedback which will hopefully enable me to rewrite the first 25 pages much more dramatically and enticingly. The weather played nice and one day we even went outside and workshopped in the Beck Chapel graveyard, amidst the bugs and shadows, under the fresh breeze.

I had read Time Salvager prior to the conference and was pleased to have it autographed. One of my favorite quotes follows.

“James sat her down and then filled in the gaps with the major events that had transpired on Earth since her time, from World War III devastating the planet to the decaying plague that had rotted the planet to the ice-caps melting and eventually swallowing 14 percent of the world’s landmass. Elise was so stunned that she had to sit down and then stand up multiple times.

“‘How did you idiots let this happen?’ she demanded…”

Micromacro: The Prose Poem as the Best Nest with Amelia Martens

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The first class after the lunch panels was by Amelia Martens. It was about prose poetry. I came in not even knowing what a prose poem was, other than a free-flowing block of text that usually broke the rules of grammar. Amelia gave us plenty of time to explore our own ideas with prose poems, and also gave us copious examples of the form. So what is a prose poem? It is a piece of text that is brief, humorous, compact, and psychologically intense. It’s a subversive, hard to define form, canonized in the style of (for example) Edson. I particularly like Amelia’s prose poem about Jesus working as a TSA employee. Here’s a punchy excerpt:

“By noon they pull Jesus from the line; his eyes and beard are making people uncomfortable.”

That’s from her book, The Spoons in the Grass are there to Dig a Moat. She did a fantastic reading Sunday night which included that poem.

The Improvised, Critical Self with Walton Muyumba

faculty_wMuyumba
The second class (from 2-2:50 p.m.) was with Walton Muyumba, a soft-spoken, extremely eloquent faculty member of IU. In his class, we studied some examples of modern essays which comprised socio-political critiques. Walton set up a framework in which to view the texts and in which to write our own short pieces linking two socio-political viewpoints. I really appreciated his perspective, as I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced such rich interpretations of the pieces. Perhaps the methods he discussed will be helpful in future blog posts, too, should I attempt to delve into socio-political commentary (eek). Thanks Walton!

Finding the YOU in Your Story with David Crabb

david_crabb
The next class (from 3-3:50 p.m.) was given by David Crabb. He is a brilliant and funny storyteller; this class was a laugh a minute. It really woke me up during a time in the afternoon when I am usually crying for either coffee or a nap (or both). I suggest you run, don’t walk, over to The Moth and listen to the stories David has up there. You could also get his book, Bad Kid, which I bought and got signed. It is a tradition for me now, to collect IUWC autographs.

The class was about storytelling, and how to tell vignettes from our own lives in such a way as to really reach an audience. I loved David’s concise forms, such as the canonical story arc: (1) setup, (2) inciting incident, (3) rising action, (4) climax, and (5) resolution. It’s an arc that will be familiar to any writer, but one that bears repeating until we all know it by heart (and then some). I liked the links between (2) and (4) David posited for a chain of stories. It was a good class.

Better Words for Better Stories with Salvatore Scibona

Scibona-Carlos-Ferguson-croppedmore-2
Finally, occupying that difficult spot over teatime (from 4-4:50 p.m.) was Salvatore Scibona. His class looked at the micro level of a work, the actual words and sentences composing the text. I loved the adage he got from his teacher, Frank Conroy, that the problems of a story grow from the micro level of language, and what works grows from there too. In other words, if you want to fix problems in your story, focus on the words, focus on grammar and syntax, because sensory images, character, metaphor, symbolism, and all the fancy stuff of good writing grow from there. This gives me hope! All I have to do is edit, edit, edit at the word level and the work will improve. I always have issues revising; Salvatore gave a very doable approach to it.

As a bonus, I got the first couple paragraphs of my manuscript intensely studied in class. That, and the piece-by-piece critique of other works helped me understand the method. I have some of his points noted in my workbook:

  • Locate the action in the physical world,
  • use action verbs rather than being verbs,
  • trust the reader’s intelligence and knowledge (don’t teach),
  • police the perfect tenses,
  • use the active voice,
  • specify place in detail,
  • police your danglers (get the modifier close to the thing modified),
  • listen for false echoes,
  • look for comma splices (should be “.”),
  • police your commas, and
  • avoid ending on prepositions.

Those are only some of the great points Salvatore had in his class.

Overall, I learned a lot. I met a lot of people. I also met some people I’d seen before, such as Mary Anna Violi, a charming blogger from South Bend. It was great to see her and we had some fantastic dinners in beautiful Bloomington.

Thanks everyone!

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review of Lunchtime Eavesdropper by Joanie Chevalier

LunchtimeEavesdropper

★★★★★

reviewed by Cy Wyss

Lunchtime Eavesdropper is an episode from Marlee’s life. She gets into eavesdropping on others at lunchtime, but regrets her knew habit when she overhears coworkers speaking badly of her. This “Tragic Event” leads to Marlee changing herself: her hair, her makeup, her wardrobe, and her actions. As a result she is more accepted by her mean-girl colleagues, and they even invite her clubbing with them. But is that the life she wants? What will she lose if she keeps up the new pretense?

I found Lunchtime Eavesdropper a sweet and fun read. I loved it, especially the unexpected ending. Marlee is a character; I really liked the way she was developed throughout the story, using flashbacks as well as immediate action. The character of Larry was also well-drawn. Marlee’s mom, Hazel, is also a treat. With such loveable characters, how could the story fail to be a hit? It is short and left me wanting more. But that’s a good thing—it shows the author’s prowess. Looking forward to more.

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