Saturday, May 21, 2011

Indie Book Review: Hard Day's Knight

"I hate waking up in an unfamiliar place. I’ve slept in pretty much the same bed for the past fifteen years, so when I wake up someplace new, it really throws me off. When that someplace is tied to a metal folding chair in the center of an abandoned warehouse that reeks of stale cigarette smoke, diesel fuel and axle grease - well, that really started my night off on a sparkling note."

Thus starts Hard Day's Knight, first book in the Black Knight Chronicles.  I love this book.  It makes me happy in a way that hasn't happened in a long, long time.  Now, this is not lofty literature here, this is Jay and Silent Bob get turned into vampires, grow up a bit, and decide to become private eyes.   It's cute.  It's fun.  It's insanely well written.   If it were food, it would be a perfect chocolate chip cookie with just enough milk.  The kind of thing that makes you feel good after you've eaten it.

The plot is what you might expect if Keven Smith were to write an episode of Angel.  Jimmy Black, and his sidekick/partner Greg Knightwood  (The Black Knight of their detective agency and the title.) have a problem.  The client pissed off a witch big time, and needs help so his whole family isn't killed.  They go in thinking this will be an easy little case of use the vamp mojo to scare the witch and all will be fine.  But it's never that easy.  Turns out the problem isn't a witch, she's a possessed little girl.  And, in the meantime, kids have been disappearing, and the demon's got something to do with it.  What started out as a quick little job turns into a full on forces of hell in the black hats versus Jimmy, Greg, their best friend who's a priest, and a fallen Angel in the white hats. 

The characters may not be breathtakingly original, but once again, they're perfectly done.  Just like the chocolate chip cookie, it doesn't have to be original to make you happy, it has to be good.   

John Hartness' strength is great dialog, and he compounds that strength by telling the story from Jimmy's point of view.  Jimmy is literally telling us the story, which means John gets to use his best skill through the entire tale.    And once again, someone who's really good at a skill, using that skill, makes me very happy.

I'll leave one final bit of praise here, before I go from enthusiastic reviewer to mad fan girl: Dad, the priest, is actually a good guy.  Lately it seems like every third paranormal book has an evil priest in it, like the whole point of being Catholic and joining the priesthood is to rain terror and unholy pain down on innocents everywhere.  So, I'm pretty happy when I see a book that shows a man of faith using that faith to make the world a better place.

Hard Day's Knight is my first five star review of 2011, and it's well earned it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

So,You Want to Write Like A Yank

Hello Luvvies!

Today's post is for the Brits out there who'd like to do a convincing job of writing American (from the United States) characters.   Now, while in depth writing that will fool most Americans takes a lot of work and research, here are five quick tips so that your character doesn't scream British! every time he/she opens his/her mouth.

1)  The only curse word Americans use that starts with a B is bitch.  (Okay, we do say bastard, but it's rare.)  If you find yourself tempted to write bugger, bollocks, or bloody, don't do it.  Lord knows there are times when one of those words seems like the only one that'll fit, but nothing will convince an American that the character they're being asked to read isn't American faster than any of those three words popping out of the mouth of a character.

2) We say and write dates: month, day, and then year.  The Fourth of July is the big exception to this.  If your character says something like, "First January, 2011," it will sound very odd to us.

3)  Keep dialog sentences pretty short.  We usually don't speak in long sentences.  Granted some are fine (keep your character in mind), but less than fifteen words is pretty normal for most spoken sentences. 

4)  If most of your experience in hearing American speech is from TV keep this in mind:  most TV characters speak like New Yorkers or Californians.  If your character comes from one of those two places he'll sound a lot more realistic than if he's from Georgia or Iowa.  (Or God forbid, Texas.  There are more bad Texas accents written from people all over the world than from anywhere else in the US.  Gobs of Americans write bad Texas accents, too.)  Think of it this way, if you were going to suggest where a British character written by an American should live, based on how most Brits speak on television, would you suggest London or a tiny town on the Welsh border?

5)  Watch House MD.  Seriously.  Hugh Laurie does a flawless American accent that's fairly generic.  He could come from almost anywhere in the United States.  Study how he speaks.  If Dr. House would say it, it's probably an okay sentence.

Okay, so that's a somewhat tongue-in-cheek list.  But truly, if you do want to write convincing American characters the single most important thing you can do is get an American or two to read your work and suggest substitutions.  We all speak English, but we use it differently, and it's easy to get tripped up on things you'd never even think of being issues.  (My own crowning moment of attempted Brit writing glory was a story where the hero sat down on the bedspread and then talked about the view out the counterpane.  I thought it was a synonym for window.)  Good luck and happy writing!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fotolia for Cover Art

Spooky Haunted House
Recently I received an email from a lovely lady at  She wanted to know if I'd be interested in a free trial subscription to Fotolia so I could blog about it here.  After I spent a moment doing my happy dance, I responded with a polite yes.

See, one of the most troublesome aspects of Indie Writerhood is that we have to do it all ourselves or hire out for it.  And while many of us can master basic programming, how to format our novels for digital and print publication, and social networking, most of us are not visual artists.  We may have an idea of what we want our covers to look like, but we rarely have the skills to make that image come to life.

But there are wonderful places, like Fotolia, online that sell something called stock photos.  And stock photos makes life a lot easier for the Indie writer.  We no longer have to become master artists or photographers.  We can buy images and either using what talent we currently have, or hiring out for someone who knows graphic design, get a good cover.

Bond, Jane Bond
Fotolia works on two different options, you can buy credits (I'm not sure why you buy credits instead of paying straight off the bat, but, well, I don't really need to understand either.) or you can buy a subscription.   For most Indies looking at setting up maybe one or two covers at a time, I'd say the credit plan is probably your best bet.  If you're looking at producing a lot of covers, either as a cover artist yourself, or because you've got a ton of work that you want to get ready for publication, the subscription plan may be a better deal.  (And by a lot, I mean you need more than $200 worth of art in a one month period.)  When you use credits a standard sized image (about what you'll want for a straight electronic copy) runs a few dollars.  For a large image (what you'd probably want for a physical book cover) prices generally seemed to run from ten to fifteen dollars. 

Fairy Forest
Besides the change in size, what does that money buy you?  The standard license gives you the right to make derivative works (mess around with the image, take a bit from this picture here, a bit from that one there, and put them together) for all print and electronic media.  You can't resell the original.  You can't give it to your buddies.  If you want to upgrade your license and spend a bit more than $100 for the image, you can use the image for goods for resale.  So if you want to go on a major marketing campaign with your cover art, use it on t-shirts, mugs, refrigerator magnets, then you'll need the upgrade.  If you just want a book cover and images for your website, the standard license will do. 
The White Queen

How about selection?  Well, as you can see from just these samples, they've got a wide array of styles and themes.  (And these are the merest tip of the iceberg of pictures I liked.)  There are millions of them on the site.  I tried all sorts of off the wall search queries, and the only thing that didn't bring up any hits was "Scottish Laird."  (Though Highlander turned up over 100 results.) 

So, if you've got a complicated image in your mind.  Like say a male, red-haired, light-blue skinned elf with a celtic knot in ivy vines down his left arm, they probably don't have it.  But you'd also probably be amazed at how close you can get.  The White Queen looks a lot like one of my main characters.  Crop the image properly and she's dead on.  And if you're looking for something a tad less specific than my red-haired elf, you should have many, many options to work with. 

Go check it out, see if they've got the pictures you need to make your dream cover.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Indie Book Review: The Judas Syndrome

Okay, so supposedly, when you see a bad review, it's a case of the book not living up to the expectations of whomever purchased it.  That makes sense.  You rarely see reviews that state something like, "I absolutely loathe horror stories.  So in a masochistic fit  I picked up Seven Co-eds Get Horribly Murdered In A Haunted House.  It was a horror story.  I hated it."  (And if you do write that review, you deserve to be smacked upside the back of the head Gibb's style.)

No, usually bad reviews go something like this: "I purchased Seven Co-eds Get Horribly Murdered In A Haunted House because I love horror stories, and there were a bunch of great reviews.  Then I cracked it open.  I don't know what the other reviewers were smoking while they read it, but it didn't live up to the hype."

So, you see a book, you read the write up, you check out and the reviews and develop expectations.  You read the sample and develop more depth to your expectations.   Having done that, I expected The Judas Syndrome to be Red Dawn redone with a whole bunch of teen stoners.

Unlike the potential negative reviewer, I was very pleased to see my expectations were not met.

I'd say the first quarter of the book followed the traditional post-nuclear Armageddon script pretty closely.  We meet the main characters and the secondary characters.  We see them party and do a ton of drugs.  They come home and find the world has been blown to smithereens.  They huddle together for survival.  Up until this point it looks like a sophisticated version of many teen fantasies of life hiding out with your buddies, an unlimited supply of drugs, no parents to kill the buzz, and enough danger to keep everything interesting.

And then the story begins to shift.  We move from teen fantasy mode into metaphysical questioning mode.  We go from nothing deeper than getting laid and the next joint to an in depth exploration of a psyche at the breaking point.

This is not a light fluffy read with a happy ending.  The title, which I barely paid any attention to when I was thinking about the book before I read it, is a warning about how it's going to work out.  Joel, is a frighteningly well done psychological profile of a man slowly burning out and arising from the ashes not a phoenix, but a devil.  The world is gone.  Family and most friends have died horribly.  As the seven month course of the book continues, more friends die.  This is more stress than most people could possibly handle, add in the paranoia inducing effects of large quantities of cannabis, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

It's a compelling read, heartbreaking, but emotionally very, very real. 

There are however, aspects of the story I found jarring and out of place.  Joel and his friends are too young.  They're high school seniors, seventeen or eighteen years old.  And while I do not subscribe to the belief that all teens are twits, I can say that all the teens I've personally met who were as interested in drugs and partying as these kids were twits.  They needed more time to grow up.   College seniors would have worked better, post-grad students, better yet.  Basically, I just ignored how old they were supposed to be, and mentally advanced them to twenty-six ish, it made the story work a lot better.

What actually happened seemed quite fuzzy, too.  We know the terrorist mastermind had nukes.  We learn he had a lot more than anyone thought he did.  We know Joel and his buddies live in some middle of nowhere farming community, 200 miles from the nearest big city.  When they get back from their camping party weekend, they find town destroyed, sort of.  People are dead, some of them.  Some look like they died peacefully in their sleep.  Some are covered in burns.  Some are running around looting.  Some places the buildings have burned and cars are toppled.  Some are just fine.  What happened?  Is this some sort of fall out from a bomb over 200 miles away?  Did the terrorist have enough weaponry to go after little, middle of nowhere farming communities?  And why didn't any of Joel's group come down with radiation sickness? 

Joel's home and a nearby barn are perfectly set up for surviving the apocalypse it turns out.  And while I get Poetl didn't want to spend too much time dealing with the physical hows of survival, the set up was just a bit too convenient.  It's not only that everything is already set up with generators, but that they also manage to find a tanker truck filled with gasoline so they could run those generators.  

What Poetl did want to spend time on was ripping away everything Joel knew or believed about himself.  He built his character up, turned him from a lay about stoner into a leader, and then as stress piled on stress, turned him into a paranoid addict.  And from there things only get worse.  As I said earlier, not a light and fluffy read. 

Joel is the only fully developed character of the lot.  And I'm not sure if this is intentional or not.  We get the story from Joel's POV.  So are two dimensional secondary characters an indicator of lazy writing or of Joel's inability to really see and understand the people around him?  Part of the reason I'm not sure if this is intentional or not is that the writing as a technical matter of grammar and construction ranges from great to error prone.  When I see technical mastery of prose, I assume that things like the shallow secondary characters when told with first person POV is intentional.  When it's not, I'm not sure if it's another indicator of sloppy writing or an indicator of deep writing with limited technical skills.

Voice, assuming you pretend Joel is twenty-six, is well done.  Action scenes are believably chaotic.  (Though, as others have indicated, the sudden military prowess of a crew of high school seniors wasn't.)  Joel's descent into self-destructive madness was extremely well done.  You almost don't notice he's slipping away because he doesn't notice he's slipping away.  The ending isn't much of a shock.  Once you realize the title isn't kidding, and the last line of the description really isn't kidding, you know how this is going to end.  And while not a shock, it still evokes the pain of losing a character you wanted more and better for.
More careful editing, and more attention to making the setting/characters match the gravity of what happened, and this would have been a five star book.  As it is, I'm comfortable calling this four stars.