Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: "Things in Ditches" (Jimmy Olsen)

Phillip "Dutch" Cleland is a philandering husband whose unfaithfulness with a many-times-divorced-and-remarried woman, Vicky Johnson, leads inevitably to her murder.

Dutch flees the town he's always known and the humiliation he'd face if he were to be accused of the murder and takes refuge in the middle of nowhere to sort through his options.

Meanwhile, back in Willow River, an entire cast of colorful characters (including but certainly not limited to a developmentally disabled but personable young man; a sheriff with a political agenda in every public appearance; a chief of police whose single-minded focus on one suspect leaves him unaware of other possibilities; and several of the murder victim's ex-husbands, each more startling than the last) contributes to finding the killer and solving the mystery.

Written with unexpected humor, the precise diction that reveals an expert writer, and an excellent sense of how to maintain tension and keep a reader turning pages far into the night, Things in Ditches is author Jimmy Olsen's first mystery novel.

In truth, you'll enjoy the work if you like mysteries, suspense, thrillers, and crime fiction --- all of these genres make an appearance, seamlessly woven together into a coherent presentation whose conclusion, with all ends neatly tied together, will leave you wondering how you missed the clues that (then) seem terribly obvious.

Olsen is a versatile writer, working just as fluidly in nonfiction as in many fiction genres. (Check out my review of his short story collection, The Hero of Blind Pig Island, here.)

Nevertheless, it was clear from the very first sentence of Things in Ditches that he had done his homework and lived with the characters and the plot line for a long while, enough to ensure that his reader would feel as immersed as possible in the story.

With nothing else to critique in a constructive sense, I would simply note that future editions of the work would benefit from a quick final proofread before publication to ensure that the periodic typos and missed commas I came across won't pull future readers out of the story.

Twist after twist will keep you reading until long after you probably should have closed the book and gotten to bed, but the experience is more than worth the trouble a few sleepless nights could cause. It's a pleasure to highly recommend this book for your reading list.

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Author: Jimmy Olsen
Title: Things in Ditches
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Conference Insights: Getting It Down vs. Getting It Right

Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing, Devotion: A Memoir, and Slow Motion, among other varied works, gave an early keynote presentation at the 2014 Writer's Digest Conference East this past August.

She spoke about her writing process, calling herself a writer, what makes a writer's personality, and more.

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 via

One item that struck me from her keynote was a deliberate conscious choice she makes. She calls it the difference between "writing to get it down and writing to get it right."

Getting It Right

Writing to "get it right" keeps a would-be-published author foundering in fear and anxiety. Often, this writer neurotically writes and rewrites and re-rewrites the first chapter, or the first page, or even the very first line of a work-in-progress, and never gets past that portion of the manuscript.

The writer has excellent intentions. He or she wants to be very sure that every word is in the right place for maximum impact and effect. That's a noble goal, a worthwhile goal for a writer who wants to get published.

The problem is that when you focus so completely on getting every single word right, and in the right place, as you're writing, you'll probably never make it past the first line, page, or chapter. Certainly, you'll never get the whole manuscript written. And how many writers are out there who have never actually finished a manuscript?

Estimates suggest that an astronomically high percentage of people who sit down to start a book never actually finish it.

I'd like to suggest that overdeveloped perfectionism and the desire to control the entire process are two factors that contribute.

It isn't bad to want to get your writing right. What's bad is getting so locked in to getting it right early in the process that you never even finish the manuscript. Discouragement, depression, and burnout quickly follow.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking you have to get every word right the very first time.

Getting It Down

You can revise bad writing (as long as it's been written). You can't revise no writing.

If there are no words on the page, there's no way to correct word order, grammar, punctuation, syntax, spelling, voice, theme, consistency, or anything else. There's no way to align one sentence or page or chapter with all the others in the manuscript when there isn't a manuscript.

Image courtesy of artur84 via

Don't pressure yourself to write perfectly.

Instead, find ways to build the writing routine into your life.

Set measurable goals and write them down.

Mark your progress on a calender or in a spreadsheet.

Measure your progress by the number of hours a day or a week you write, or by the number of pages or words you produce.

Set up a small reward system for every several thousand words or every twenty pages you write.

Write early in the morning, if that's when you're most creative and have the most energy and free, uninterrupted time.

Or write in the evenings, after everyone else is in bed.

Or write on Saturdays --- keep the time sacred, and write from noon to five o'clock in the evening before you emerge. If you write five pages an hour, you'll have twenty-five pages in that span of time. A typical book is usually three to four hundred pages long, double-spaced. Twelve or sixteen Saturdays, and you have a completed manuscript.

That's a completed manuscript in three or four months.

And it won't be perfect. It's not supposed to be perfect.

Writing isn't about getting every single word right the first time you put it on the page. It's about discovering the edges of the story you're really telling, and what you're trying to say about human nature or life or love or friendship or loss.

Once you've got that figured out --- once the entire first draft is down on the page, as terrible as I promise it will be --- then you revise and work to get it right.

Do it in reverse, and frustrate yourself unnecessarily.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The 3 Things You're Most Thankful For

In the spirit of the week, I'm wishing you and yours a fabulous, restful holiday with cheerful company, good food, and wonderful memories.

Image courtesy of Michael Elliot

Let me know what three things you're most thankful for (yes, I know that phrase isn't grammatically correct, in a technical sense) today.

Not what you feel you should be thankful for (no judgment here!). Not what others are thankful for. Maybe not what others expect you to be thankful for.

Right here, right now, today, before tomorrow gets here ... what are the three things you're most thankful for?

Share, share!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

An Explanation

Abject apologies to my faithful readers ...

By now, today, I would normally have posted a book review for your enjoyment and edification. I regret to have to explain that --- in keeping with the true busyness of the holiday season --- my laptop rebelled and decided to contract several viruses.

Therefore, the laptop (with all my review material) is "on vacation" getting cleaned up and updated. If all goes as I expect it to, I should have today's book review posted by Saturday or Tuesday at the latest.

Thank you for your patience!

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Top Five: Best Writing-Related Articles from November 17-21

5. "Non-Fiction Books Everyone Should Read" on Huffington Post Books (Maddie Crum)


This "post" is a really quick read. It's mostly an infographic by designer David McCandless, based on his research of the most recommended nonfiction books to read. The list includes Stephen King's memoir and writing craft book On Writing, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Which recommendations have you read? What nonfiction offerings would you add that aren't included? Why?

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4. "32 Alternatives to 'A Lot'" on Ragan's PR Daily (Laura Hale Brockway)


Just a quick list of synonyms for one of the most overused phrases in writing. It isn't necessary to read through the list in a sitting; I just bookmarked it for future reference.

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3. "Kate Brauning: Five Things I Learned Writing 'How We Fall'" on terribleminds


In writing her debut YA contemporary novel, author Kate Brauning learned a great deal about the writing industry and the craft of writing. In this guest post on Chuck Wendig's terribleminds blog, she shares her insights. The post is full of invaluable information and guidance --- check it out!

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2. "How to Be a Better Writer: 6 Tips from Harvard's Steven Pinker" on (Eric Barker)


Steven Pinker of Harvard tackles the question of how to become a better writer --- who doesn't want to learn that, after all? --- from a scientific and psychological standpoint. He touches on points from playing by the rules (or not) to reading everything you can get your hands on, and everything in between. Another excellent post to earmark for future reference.

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1. "What Makes a Novel Millennial-Friendly?" on Thought Catalog (Julia Long)


If you're writing young adult (YA) or new adult fiction, you'll want to check out this post. Long profiles the average millennial and then explains four things to remember about what catches a millennial's (often fleeting) attention in a book. Don't miss this article!

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That's the lineup for the week. Let me know if I missed anything, or which article was most useful to you. Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Viewpoint: The Hype About Fan Fiction

Approximately, the definition of "fan fiction" is that which is written based on characters, settings, and/or subplots that already exist in published works.

Example: E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy was fan fiction based on the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.

Don't ask me how James got her BDSM adult erotica out of the vampires-and-werewolves paranormal novels Meyer wrote.

What's the deal with fan fiction? Good idea or bad idea?

A Growing Trend

In an article from the Washington Post, titled "From 'Fifty Shades' to 'After': Why Publishers Want Fan Fiction to Go Mainstream," reporter Jessica Contrera explains the rise of fan fiction to popularity, even with established and formerly skeptical publishers, and cites the upcoming development of another fan fiction spin-off as an example.

"After" is a story based loosely on the members of the boy band, One Direction, and it represents a "special kind of fan fiction: 'real person fiction,'" Contrera reports. With the names of the band members lightly edited to preserve their true identities (or something) and their connection adjusted (in the story, they're friends from college, not a band), publishers predict that it will take off in popularity.

Pros and Cons

Is fan fiction a good idea?

On the plus side for writers, fan fiction begins with already established characters or even actual people, and perhaps the same settings and themes as in their original publications. There's no need to spend time developing characters from scratch; just write a new plot and perhaps tweak the genre just a little, and you're in business.

On the plus side for readers, fan fiction is peopled with characters, situations, themes, and settings that are already familiar, so you don't have to get used to a whole new crop of people. You already know their ticks, quirks, personalities, and priorities; you just get to see them handled by a different writer. (Think the "Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries" by Carrie Bebris, based on the main characters from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.)

On the minus side for writers, fan fiction strikes me as building off another author's success rather than establishing your own credibility through the hard work it takes to start from scratch and build yourself a platform, a following, and a unique voice. If you use an already famous or well-known author as a jumping-off point, isn't that a short cut that might deprive you of crucial learning experiences and the opportunity to develop your own work?

On the minus side for readers, if the new author doesn't handle the original characters according to already established expectations, the work could end up being a disappointment and a total flop, the kind of book that a reader throws against the wall rather than suffering through.

The Best Intentions

Perhaps the best way to frame the situation is with this question:

What is the ultimate purpose of writing fan fiction?

Is it to give readers more of the familiar characters they love by other authors?

To satisfy readers' hopes for a sequel or a longer series long after another author has either passed away or stopped writing about those particular characters?

To practice developing a unique writing voice by mimicking the established style of another author, in much the same way that visual artists learn pointillism and techniques from van Gogh long before they paint their own masterpieces?

Or is it something far more avaricious?

Money-Making Enterprise

Perhaps the goal of writing fan fiction is to sell thousands or millions of copies of books and make as much money as the bestselling authors who wrote and published the original books in the first place.

Now, of course, making money isn't necessarily a bad or unworthy goal.

But is it fair to use established authors' success as a starting point for your own so you can begin to make money far sooner than they did by using their content as your own?

Such a motive requires almost no creative effort on your part. In fact, with that kind of an attitude, the situation reads to me just short of plagiarism ... and, indeed, one of the stickier issues facing writers of fan fiction is whether or not they have to or can obtain permission to use non-original characters and settings in their own, "new" works.

What are your thoughts?

Should established, bestselling authors be flattered or offended, even angered, if new authors "borrow" their original content on which to build new works?

What do you think is the typical motive for writing fan fiction?

Do you read fan fiction yourself? Why or why not?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Book Review: "In the Woods" (Tana French)

Warning: This post contains spoilers about In the Woods by Tana French.

In her debut psychological thriller In the Woods, author Tana French weaves an intriguing story between the past and the present time. Twenty years ago, two young children disappeared in the woods around Knocknaree, Ireland, outside Dublin, and the third child involved, friends with the other two, who was found and rescued but left traumatized and with amnesia. The case remains unsolved.

In the present day, that third child, the one who was rescued, has grown up: he's called Rob Ryan, a change from his childhood name, and he's a detective in the murder jurisdiction of the local law enforcement. He and his partner Cassie, a long-time friend, take a case set in the very woods surrounding Knocknaree where Ryan was rescued and his friends vanished so long ago.

Now, a young girl is found, brutally murdered, on the site of an archaeological dig where experts work frantically to rescue as many artifacts as possible before a government-sanctioned roadway is built straight through the area, contrary to most of the residents' preferences. The girl's family gives every indication that something is wrong, but without a thorough investigation that drags Ryan back through all the hideous memories resurfacing from his past, he and Cassie will never find out what it is, let alone where the girl was murdered, who killed her, and whether her death had anything to do with her father's stance against the new roadway.

If the back copy of the book had not told me that the work was a psychological thriller, I might have called it literary fiction. The writing is dense and rich, with lovingly detailed descriptions that painted beautiful pictures of setting and people and conversations in my head as I read. Stylistically, it's a long work, with a first-person point-of-view narrator (Ryan) and the occasional omniscient break-in (most of the descriptions aren't rendered in Ryan's voice) that French manages to make seamless.

My favorite character of the work was Cassie Maddox, Ryan's partner, for her down-to-earth practicality and sisterly determination to protect Ryan from the current case and what it might make him remember of his past. Their relationship, that of best friends or blood relatives, is both intimate and platonic, involved and easy.

Skipping between Ryan's experiences in the present day and his slowly returning memories of his childhood maintains the tension and suspense throughout the work to the very end, where --- to be entirely honest --- I really didn't suspect the person who turned out to be the girl's killer. It was a shock, and something of a horrified realization when I finally put two and two together and came up with five in my head (sort of a "So that's why things never added up ..." moment).

I was, however, disappointed in the work as a whole. By the final chapters, there is little closure or redeemable quality to the work.

Warning: Spoilers Follow

For instance, while the girl's killer is discovered, circumstances make it impossible to convince a jury of the killer's guilt. Meanwhile, Ryan makes a number of really irrational decisions and winds up distancing himself from everybody, even alienating his own partners on the case, and gets himself into serious career trouble. His partnership with Cassie is entirely demolished, without hope of resurrection.

Finally, to my disgust, the unexplained disappearance of Ryan's two friends and his trauma in the woods twenty years earlier ... is never resolved. Ryan's memories slip away; no new clues emerge; there is no new evidence to point to what happened. I was left wondering why on earth that old story had even been mentioned in relation to the current present-day narrative, since neither apparently had anything to do with the other.

It seems to me that when a book begins with a prologue that lures the reader in so explicitly with a mysterious, psychologically frightening puzzle of the sort presented by Ryan's childhood story, the book is also making an implicit promise to the reader: to tie up the loose ends somehow by the end of the book, to provide an answer to the riddle or a solution to the puzzle or at least closure in some way.

As it turned out, I felt cheated, having read more than four hundred pages of close text to discover ... nothing.

I had hoped to be as impressed with In the Woods as other readers seem to be --- the work was a New York Times bestseller and an Edgar Award Winner, after all --- but I remain disappointed, and I can't see any reason to pick up her second book, The Likeness, though it seems to be a companion novel to this one, to find out whether there's any more closure by its conclusion.

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Title: In the Woods
Author: Tana French
ISBN: 978-0-14-311349-2
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: "Alpha Wolves" (DJ Swykert)

Author DJ Swykert is nothing if not dedicated to the industry. You can find my review of his book Maggie Elizabeth Harrington here.

Alpha Wolves is the sequel, rejoining Maggie Elizabeth's life a decade after the events recounted in the first novel.

Maggie Elizabeth, now known as simply Maggie because she's become a young woman, remains the point-of-view character in the work. Her voice is older, more mature, as she relates her continuing love for her childhood crush, Tommie Stetter, and her growing interest in Jeremy Paull, a young man who is clearly smitten with her.

After Tommie promised to return for her one day, he went away to school. Ten years later, he finally returns to town for the funeral of his father. At the very sight of him, Maggie knows that she has always loved him, despite his absence, and will continue to love him.

But his arrival also causes her great pain, for Tommie is now married with a beautiful young daughter. Not only did he lie to her in promising to return for her one day, he also betrayed her through marriage to another woman.

Nevertheless, perhaps naively, as Maggie herself admits more than once, she commits to continuing to love him, even when her relationship with Jeremy turns into an engagement and then into marriage. She falls into a kind of double life, leading one in public as the happily married Mrs. Jeremy Paull, and one in secret, meeting Tommie in one clandestine rendezvous after another to maintain their childhood love for one another.

Then she turns up pregnant. An accident at the mine where both Tommie and Jeremy work forces her hand. And her conscience awakens and begins to protest the double life she's been leading.

The final revelation is as comfortably familiar and inevitable as it is strikingly surprising.

The manuscript is tightly written, and Maggie's voice remains fascinating. She lives a detailed inner dialogue with the reader, explaining, justifying, planning, wondering, musing, and by the conclusion of the novel, she has matured even more than she clearly had at the beginning of the story.

Whereas, in Maggie Elizabeth Harrington, the antagonist was an external force (people within the community who wanted to harm the wolves Maggie was trying to protect), in the sequel, the antagonist is Maggie's own conscience and her sense of right and wrong. Is it right to continue to love both men in her life? Is it wrong to give herself to another man when she's already married? Is it wrong to want to be happy?

Such questions are those that drive the narrative forward and keep the reader, who by now empathizes with Maggie's dilemma and deep emotions, turning pages.

In a future edition of the work, a close line-by-line edit and work to break up the repetitively long paragraphs (which weighed down my interest in the story) would benefit the story line greatly, as would, perhaps, further effort to round out the other characters in the novel, like Jeremy Paull, in particular, as he's such a large part of the narrative.

Nonetheless, an admirable sequel to a memorable coming-of-age novel.

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Title: Alpha Wolves
Author: DJ Swykert
ISBN: 978-1311361646
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book free from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Top Five: Best Writing-Related Articles from November 10-14

5. "7 Tips to Find Your Niche as an eLearning Freelancer" on eLearning Industry (Christopher Pappas)


Here's a practical, user-friendly guide from an expert in the field --- writer Christopher Pappas is the founder of The eLearning Industry's Network --- that walks you through all the steps required to determine where you and your skill set best fit into the industry. The tips are applicable for writers in other fields, as well.

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4. "5 Ways to Avoid the Wrong Freelance Gigs" on How Design (Tom N. Tumbusch)


The life of a freelancer isn't an easy one anyway. The difference between a season of plenty and a season of want could very well be any gig that presents itself. But how do you decide which gigs to accept and which ones to reject? This article provides five excellent reasons that comprise a kind of plumb line against which to measure potential jobs.

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3. "51 Books That Prove Reading Can Change Your Life" on BuzzFeed Books (Jennifer Schaffer)


As simple as it sounds, you might read through this list of books and notice one, or remember one, that changed your life somehow. Writer's Digest blogger Brian A. Klems did a post recently on ten books that have never left you, and it seems to me that these fifty-one offerings could well have been included.

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2. "Here's My Habits Manifesto. What's Yours?" on Positively Positive (Gretchen Rubin)


The word manifesto doesn't usually come with positive connotations ... but what if it did? What if you took time to write out your own manifesto, what you believe specifically about habits in your life? How would what you wrote relate to writing? What kinds of habits will move you closer to your writing goals?

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1. "Make the Best of Your Writing Talent With These Top Content Creation Tools" on SAP Business Innovation (Robert Morris)


For bloggers, freelancers, and writers, all of whom usually publish related content to build brands and platforms, this list of the ten best tools with which to create content will give you a place to start. If you know of others, let us know in the comments below!

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There's your top five for this past week. Let me know what I missed, and which of these resources turned out to be the most helpful for you!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Film Writes: On Being the Hero of Your Own Story

Movies can be so insightful for the writing process. Really, almost anything can be insightful that way: an off-handed comment, an applicable situation, a chance encounter that turns out to be the perfect metaphor for authors at work.

Recently, I went to see The Judge with Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Duvall. If you're on the fence about going, I urge you to make it a priority. It's a powerful story about the unforeseen circumstances that bring a truly dysfunctional family back together, though every inch of that journey is hard-fought.

Anyway ...

That aside, one of the characters makes a comment about two-thirds of the way into the movie that I jotted down (yes, I bring a notebook with me to every movie I see; I'm a writer).

Here's the line: "Whatever had or hadn't happened in the past, I was going to be the hero of my own story."

And I started thinking.

Writing a Memoir

What is a memoir if not an opportunity for you to be the hero of your own story?

You've studied your life as objectively as you can, being that you were the one who lived it and that always comes tangled up with baggage, uncertainty, regrets, hopes, ups and downs.

You've analyzed an angle of your life --- perhaps the rise and decline of a particular relationship, or a set of circumstances you survived, or how a road trip you took by yourself redefined your priorities. That's the angle you're going to focus on with your memoir. Every event, relationship, and memory you include will point back to that bigger picture.

Perhaps you've even got some, or all, of your memoir written. The draft is done, saved in a file or stored in a file drawer, maybe edited or not yet revised, maybe as complete as it's ever going to get.

I urge you to dig out that memoir, even if it's a couple of chapters or a rough outline or an idea scribbled on a napkin, and take a second look.

How Do You See Yourself?

How do you see yourself as you look back over your life?

Are you a victim of circumstances, someone that everybody else picked on, someone who missed out on whatever the world had to offer you because life isn't fair and fate can be cruel?

Are you angry, offended, defensive, bitter, with a chip on your shoulder and a point to prove, a sermon to deliver about what you've been through so you can feel vindicated?

Are you cynical and fatalistic, grieving a loss you doubt anyone else will be able to understand but determined to put it out there because you're dying inside not talking about it?

Wherever you are as you face the project that is or could become your memoir, your story, it's okay to be there. Whatever you feel is valid.

But I want to challenge you: What can you do to see yourself as the hero of your own story?

You: The Protagonist of Your Memoir

Think about something for a second.

You've already done something heroic.

In choosing to put your life story on paper, whatever portion of your life matters most deeply to you, you've made a stand.

You choose what events to put in your memoir. You choose how to show others. You choose how to remember the conversations you had.

You hold a great deal of power, and that makes you a heroic person, for having made the decision.

You're sharing intimate details of your life, things that maybe you haven't ever shared before. I urge you: don't hold back. If it belongs in the story, include it. Intimacy isn't gratuity; intimacy is choosing to be vulnerable for a bigger purpose.

You're writing to exorcise a demon or celebrate a victory or challenge a stereotype. I urge you: look outside your story. What universal truth does your life illustrate? How will others be able to relate to your story?

Heroism is about remembering others even in your pain. It's about moving forward despite feeling fear --- what we call courage. It's about giving yourself permission to be vulnerable enough to start your healing process, and inviting others to do the same.

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Are you the hero of your own story? How would you write or revise your memoir to make that a reality? What universal truth applies from your experience to others, and gives them something to which they can relate?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book Review: "Sharp Objects" (Gillian Flynn)

Before Gillian Flynn wrote Gone Girl, which became a #1 New York Times bestseller, she wrote Sharp Objects, a psychological thriller/mystery, in 2006-7. Sharp Objects was her debut novel, and its brilliance has been largely overshadowed by the rampant success of Gone Girl in the last few years.

Sharp Objects is told from the first-person perspective of Camille Preaker, a newspaper reporter who works in Chicago but grew up in the sort of small town you want to flee at the first available opportunity when you're finally old enough to do so. Camille is sent back to her hometown after many years away to investigate and report on the grisly murders of two young girls, one recent, one a year ago.

Her presence back home torches off a flood of nightmarish memories from her childhood, when her younger sister Marian died of a long-term, unexplained illness. Now, Camille's trapped back in her childhood home with her neurotic, controlling mother; her colorless, voiceless step-father; and her bewitching, spoiled half-sister Amma.

She finds herself unable to handle the tension and stress of being back home, and realizes that she's not nearly as emotionally stable or as healed from past psychological trauma as she thought. Meanwhile, the police chief in town has nothing to say, and the homicide investigator from Kansas City, sent down to Missouri to help with the case, is surly, aloof, and similarly closed-mouthed.

Before long, it becomes clear to Camille that there are more secrets in her hometown, and more skeletons in the closets of its civilians, than anybody is willing to acknowledge. Further investigation reveals that there was something odd about her sister Marian's death, so many years ago, and that the three deaths, long past and more recent, may be tied together and shockingly interconnected to the most influential family in Wind Gap.

Thrillers by definition require quick pacing, and Flynn is more a master than most others I've read in the genre at maintaining the tension through the entire story line. Even descriptions of setting and people contribute to the psychological uncertainty that hangs over the story; Flynn leaves no detail untouched.

Further, Camille is a highly sympathetic protagonist; instead of becoming a victim and a martyr, her struggle to deal with her past has left her stronger and more rational than most everyone else she interacts with in her hometown, which is positively crawling with selfish, creepy people determined to keep their secrets hidden, whatever it takes.

One of the highest compliments I can pay an author of this caliber is to say that I could never have predicted that final revelation at the story's conclusion. "Shocked" and "horrified" don't begin to describe my feelings when I read those last several chapters and realized, truly, the wholly depraved depths to which people will stoop to get what they want and accomplish their own terrible agendas.

Sharp Objects is not for the faint of heart, but if you're someone who likes to be kept on the edge of your seat and laying awake nights until that last plot twist, don't hesitate to take my wholehearted recommendation for Gillian Flynn's work.

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Title: Sharp Objects
Author: Gillian Flynn
ISBN: 978-0-307-34155-6
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: "How to Find the Right Person to Date" (Celia John)

In relationships, abuse --- of women, children, and even men --- is an all-too-common occurrence. Statistics provide a sad commentary on how many people find themselves trapped in controlling, manipulative, hateful relationships that they then can't seem to escape.

Author Celia John knows that kind of feeling first-hand. Her book, How to Find the Right Person to Date: A Step By Step Guide to Finding the Right Partner and Detecting an Abuser, is her response to her own experience.

Her work is a nonfiction compilation of statistics, criteria, and questions for self-examination. She discusses the different types of abuse; the distinction between a good relationship and a bad one, and between a good partner and an abusive one; and guidelines for deciding whether you're in an abusive relationship, and for deciding how to respond and find help.

Having been in an abusive relationship myself, the information that comprises the book is familiar to me. I was most interested in the author's personal experience in an abusive relationship, but that portion of the book was very brief. I feel strongly that her work would have been more powerful and would have had more impact on readers if she had written a memoir about her victory over her past abuse.

As it stands, the book offers useful information, but in a dry, lecture tone that I found difficult to follow. The information is overly simplified and comes across as almost condescending.

Many of the sentences are written according to the same structure over and over, with little variation for interest or impact, and the repetition (both of sentence type and information delivered) was at first dull and eventually frustrating. Furthermore, many sentences are awkwardly organized; there are too many words used to say what a single word or phrase could more efficiently say; and assorted typos proved distracting as I tried to focus on the content.

As aforementioned, the work contains well-researched information, much of it backed and made credible by Celia John's personal experience. If she had written about her own story in detail and as a memoir or documentary, I (as a past abuse victim myself) would have found it much easier to follow her story and empathize with her.

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Title: How to Find the Right Person to Date: A Step By Step Guide to Finding the Right Partner and Detecting an Abuser
Author: Celia John
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Top Five: Best Writing-Related Articles from November 3-7

5. "SSH! Clandestine Secrets for Writing Suspense!" on Uncommon YA (Kym Brunner)


Don't let the host site turn you away. If you write thrillers, mysteries, or suspense novels --- and there's a good case to be made that you might be writing one even if you think you're writing romance or adventure (see #4 below) --- this post is for you. Find five fantastic guidelines for putting together a novel that will keep your reader engaged from start to finish.

Which secret for writing suspense do you find most helpful to your situation? Which one had you already heard before? What can you do in your novel to introduce more suspense?

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4. "Don't Knock Thrillers" on Huffington Post (Mark Rubinstein)


How do you define a thriller (as opposed to, say, an adventure, or a mystery)? The answer put forth in this post might surprise you. Rubinstein suggests that even Shakespeare wrote thrillers, according to a certain set of criteria. Find out if you're writing a thriller and didn't realize it!

What do you think? Could any genre be categorized as a "thriller" in some ways? Why or why not?

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3. "Can You Write a Novel in a Month? Sure! Just Follow These Tips From Boston Writers" on (Maura Johnston)


If you haven't started a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) for November, it isn't too late. Some participants write the bulk of their 50,000-word goal in just a few days or over a long weekend, given enough determination, commitment, and coffee (or chocolate). This post includes recommendations from four different published authors about how to follow through on your writing commitments and get the job done.

Which author's advice did you appreciate most? Why?

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2. "Six Ways to Write Your Title" on Always Write (David Leonhardt)


If you're like me, you hate writing titles. There's something about having to summarize the content of your manuscript or poem or essay in a single word or phrase that drives me crazy. How am I supposed to put the essence of a 100,000-word novel into just three or four words? What kinds of titles make the most impact on a potential reader? It's a lot to think about. I bookmarked this brilliant post for future reference --- I hope never to have to struggle with writing a title again!

What about you? Do you have a hard time writing titles, or do they come to you easily?

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1. "Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies" on The Atlantic (Mark Yakich)


Some of us remember slogging through poem after poem in a high school or college literature class and mentally fortifying ourselves with the thought that we just had to survive long enough to pass the class. While an admirable sentiment, that's a depressing way to look at poetry. Yakich's post gives you twenty new ways to approach a poem so you can read it like you're reading poetry for the very first time --- with wonderment and curiosity, open to whatever the poem might teach you.

What's your favorite poem? How do you like to enjoy poetry? What other ways do you approach reading poetry that Yakich didn't mention?

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There's the list for last week. Let me know if I missed out on another post or article that was really insightful for your writing (or blogging, or freelancing). Which article was most helpful for you this time around?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: "Creation of Calm" (Mark Fraley)


The word evokes a different response from each person who sees or hears it. Maybe it conjures up a memory of a loved one's struggle, or a distant possibility you work to ward off with as healthy a lifestyle as possible, or even your own diagnosis.

For a beautifully written and illustrated perspective on a cancer diagnosis and fight, I highly recommend Creation of Calm: A Cancer Survivor's Sketchbook Story, by Mark Fraley.

As a husband and young father of two sons, Fraley was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and later, a second bout of cancer. He suffered complications from several surgeries, endured chemotherapy, lost his hair, and spent days weak and sick.

Sketch 1 (from book): Fraley and his sons

What makes his story different is his perspective.

He maintained journals throughout his illness, and added simple pen-and-ink sketches of his loved ones and the things about which he wrote. When his battle with cancer was finally declared victorious, Fraley had found something even more precious than remission: the absolute assurance that "a loving God [was] at work," despite the storms raging in his life (5).

Sketch 2 (from book): Fraley's wife and their son

Creation of Calm is a poignant and thought-provoking response to the kind of health crisis that can turn a life inside out and leave a person bitter and angry. Fraley never claims not to have been afraid, and he fought off misplaced guilt and shame on a regular basis. Yet he writes with compassion, characteristic honesty, and the kind of tender empathy that only someone who has walked the road of cancer can feel and extend to others.

Mark Fraley, Author
Images courtesy of Cladach Publishing

Without hesitation or compunction, I highly recommend Fraley's sketchbook for your consideration. Whether for yourself or a loved one, and whether you've experienced cancer personally or not, his clear, Hemingway-esque writing style and the directness with which he writes about his family, pain, faith, and discovery of art as a medium through which to filter and process all his experiences, will touch your heart and leave you encouraged.

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Title: Creation of Calm: A Cancer Survivor's Sketchbook Story
Author: Mark Fraley
ISBN: 978-0-98-910142-4

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: "The Codex File" (Miles Etherton)

Imagine that someone infiltrates the Internet. Suddenly, your computer knows everything about you, and that's the tamest part. It can even be programmed to end your life, should someone decide that you're a threat.

Enter The Codex File by Miles Etherton.

In this political cyber-thriller, follow Michael Robertson, whose wife Colette is brutally murdered for her involvement in what he only vaguely understands as "something to do with computers." When Michael is released from a care facility after a breakdown and returns home, he starts to meet key people who worked with his wife and who not only know why she was killed, but also might have had something to do with her death.

The novel shows a great deal of potential in its premise. In an age of Internet- and electronics-dependence, and of super-computers and iPhones smarter than their owners (think auto-correct, usually), I can imagine an entire generation of readers --- mainly late teens through about forty years old --- that would find itself fascinated.

Furthermore, themes and elements like betrayal, conspiracy, government corruption, underground movements, computer hackers, secrecy, torture, brutality, and technological brilliance and advancements will also appeal to a wide array of readers.

However, there is also a lot of room for improvement.

The timeline for the novel attempts to be one of the up-and-coming popular parallel story lines, back and forth between past circumstances and present circumstances, but instead, it comes across as complicated and confusing, especially given the flashbacks to Michael's memories of his life with his wife and daughter before their untimely deaths. The relevance of those flashbacks seemed unfounded.

In the characters, there are glimmers of potential for expansion and three-dimensional appeal, but with each character using approximately the same speaking style, vocabulary, and tendencies, it would have been impossible to differentiate one voice from another without the attributions (which erred heavily on the side of words other than "said" and therefore tended to distract me from the surrounding text).

A great deal of the novel is written in long, wordy paragraphs --- either in dialogue, thoughts, or scene-setting --- that I found myself skimming or skipping entirely. In a thriller or suspense novel, it pays to keep paragraphs short, the tenser the scene or circumstances, to maintain tension and character involvement.

Much of the long paragraphs' content comprises a lot of complicated information that might be better received if it were worked into the text and the forward story line more seamlessly. Head-hopping --- bouncing from one character's perspective to another in the same scene without warning --- is common. And there are errors in consistency, passive and active voice, and the cause/effect of writing character actions (e.g., "Bob shrugged his shoulders as he heard Jill's question," which is incorrect because he had to hear her question before he shrugged his shoulders in response: cause and effect, or action and reaction).

In a future edition of the novel, prior to its release, a thorough edit and proofread would serve very well to mine the gem of a story idea and potentially intriguing characters that exist, to ensure that readers stay as involved and invested as possible.

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Title: The Codex File
Author: Miles Etherton
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: "In Search of Rwanda's Genocidaires" (David Whitehouse)

The word "genocide" evokes a lot of visuals and memories: images of countries torn apart, whole people groups in combat, women and children slaughtered just as commonly as men.

Perhaps the most renowned country known for one of the most horrific instances of genocide in history is Rwanda, where war between the Hutu and the Tutsis raged for years, the former oppressing and quelling the latter, and the latter largely unable to fight back. Thousands died in the resulting bloodbath, while European countries like Belgium and France, with vested interests in Rwanda, looked the other way.

To this day, justice remains elusive and even improbable for either side of the foray. Denial, claims of non-involvement, and refused extradition requests make the process of finding and convicting those responsible for the massacre not only an uphill battle but also one that may never been won, despite the best efforts of those who advocate tirelessly on behalf of the victims.

British journalist David Whitehouse paints a powerful picture of the reality of the Rwandan genocide in his book, In Search of Rwanda's Genocidaires: French Justice and the Lost Decades. Drawing on extensive research and intensive interviews with those involved on both sides of the issue, Whitehouse compiled a documentary-style account that is as unbiased, academically sound, and thought-provoking as if I had conducted the research and interviews alongside him, personally.

He draws a connection between the experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961-1962 on the question of authority, during which participants were ordered to give test questions to subjects (played, in actuality, by actors fully aware of the experiment and its purpose) and to administer increasingly powerful and even life-threatening electrical shocks (also fake) to the "subjects" when they answered questions incorrectly.

The results were astounding, so far as how many participants were willing to deliver punishing electric shocks to their own peers, people just like themselves, simply because an authority figure had ordered them to do so and refused to waver in the face of nominal protests.

Whitehouse contests that it is possible to draw insightful parallels between Milgram's experiments and the circumstances of the Rwandan genocide as a way to study the genocide objectively. His work is an evocative, compelling narrative, replete with personal testimonies and life stories of both victims and advocates on behalf of the victims, that made me rethink what I knew about the genocides in Rwanda as much as it gave me an intimate look at the lives of those affected.

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Title: In Search of Rwanda's Genocidaires: French Justice and the Lost Decades
Author: David Whitehouse
ISBN: 978-1-927079-29-4
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.