Best of 2021

There’s a certain irony in the title of this post, as 2021 wasn’t a great year in some regards. Politics seemed crazy and crazier. People seemed to be getting over the virus, for the most part, but some were really sick or lost their lives. Healthcare providers seemed to get a handle on it, but not entirely. Oh, there were some bright spots in 2021, such as overall success for the stock market, and college football seemed almost normal.

And, entertainment, especially streaming video, always appreciated, became even more so. Everyone needs a break from reality. So, here’s some of the best books and shows I enjoyed in the past year:

On YouTube TV, hubby and I both very much enjoyed Yellowstone. This show is a modern western, with cowboys and rodeos, guns, big pickup trucks. The story reminds me of family shows of the past, such as “The Big Valley” which I saw in re-runs when I was much younger. However, the Dutton family is led by a patriarch instead of a matriarch, with Kevin Costner doing a fantastic job as the father of three grown children, and the head honcho of the ranch. His offspring are diverse and all interesting, if rather flawed. The Montana setting is certainly an important part of the series, and if you haven’t tried this show, unless you are extremely prudish or need a knight in shining armor to be the main character, I think you’ll like it.

Other streaming winners include the comedy series, Ted Lasso, which is now in its second season over on Apple TV, and Lost in Space in its third season on Netflix. Ted Lasso is a quirky story about an American football coach who is hired to coach a professional English soccer team. Lost in Space was originally a campy cult classic, but the modern iteration is more far more serious and has killer special effects along with good acting and quite a bit of suspense. The first season was amazing, the second season suffered from the sophomore blues, and season three is somewhere in the middle. Overall, it is one of the better space operas online, far surpassing any Trek or Star Wars recent entries that I have seen. (BTW, my son likes the Mandalorian, but I haven’t seen that, so the comment might not be entirely fair.)

The best book I read in 2021 was probably The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel. This novel is set in set in Europe, during World War II. In The Book of Lost Names, the point of view character remains the same, but there are some deliberate time skips as the story moves from 2005, wherein the main character, Eva, is quite elderly, and 1942-46, when a young Eva spent several months forging documents in order to save people from the Germans who were occupying France (and threatening all of civilization.) Eva’s story is a real page turner, as there are moments of suspense, of hardship, and (thankfully) success, both in saving children from the Nazi war on Jews, and in Eva’s growing affection for a fellow member of the resistance. While I don’t want to include any spoilers, the book in the title refers to a code added to an existing book in the library of the local Catholic church, and the code included the real names of children who were perhaps too young to remember their birth names, which had to be altered so they could travel using forged documents.

Other good reads included Walter Issacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, which I reviewed on this site. And, since I didn’t read them until 2021, I will mention Inside Marine One by Colonel Ray L’Heureux and Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration. None of the honorable mention books are fiction, which is rather unusual for me, as I am primarily a fiction reader. My most oft used source for fiction these days is a daily email from BookBub. Depending on the taste (or tolerance) of the reader, many eBooks are free or very low in price. Reading hasn’t been this cheap since I used to go to the public library every two weeks.

Inflation may be raging, but between streaming and eBooks, entertainment is fairly inexpensive these days. Gas and groceries are skyrocketing, but being entertained is fairly easy. Welcome, 2022!

Shaken (Quake Runner Book 1) by Kevin Tumlinson— brief review and commentary

This is a pretty good novel. The main character, Alex Kayne, is sassy, super smart, and just vulnerable enough to avoid the “heroine can’t die” syndrome that afflicts almost all comic book super hero characters, or Lara Croft (heroine of the Tomb Raider games/films). Alex is a fugitive computer whiz who needs something to do as she hides from all the forces who want to either kill her or “bring her to justice”, so she kinda does her version of “The Equalizer” in that she helps people who have a specific need. The needy person in Shaken is a surfer/marine biologist named Abbey, who lost an arm to an encounter with a shark. Abbey received a prototype bionic arm, in part due to her high profile injury, and someone stole it. The arm and it’s charger, gone. Who the heck steals a limb from an amputee? (Literate folks might respond with another story, “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Conner, but I digress.)

So, we have Alex Kayne, who manages to change her appearance, her lodging, her cell phone, and her method of transportation more frequently than anyone in any spy novel I’ve ever read. In this book, she is mostly hiding out in Disney World. Other characters include Eric Symon, the FBI agent who nearly nabs fugitive Alex, Abbey who needs her arm back, and a cast of suspects or villains, depending on how the mystery unfolds. The action in this novel is well told, and not quite believable, but that’s part of the fun of it all.

Readers who enjoy puzzles and/or action heroines and want to be entertained for an evening (or two) should try Shaken (Quake Runner Book 1.)

Now, for the commentary. This was my first book by Kevin Tumlinson, but I certainly intend to try another. At the end of this book there’s a note wherein the author explains that he didn’t plan to self-publish this novel, intending to put it in the hands of an agent. However, he thought better of it and put it into his self-publishing stable of products. For many authors (yours truly included) self-publishing is better, due to control of the process and potential financial gain. That decision is understandable, but when the author said he wrote the book in roughly 15 days, I was shocked. Shocked.

Y’all, fifteen days is like two weeks. I can’t edit a book in two weeks, much less go from beginning to end. Wow. I had a whole new perspective on the novel after that. I thought it was a good, if not spectacular read, with very few errors. However, the very idea that such a book could be dreamed up and written in such a short time is simply hard to believe. However, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, “There is no new thing under the sun.” Shaken is a bit like that, in that the elements in the story have been used before, but perhaps not in precisely this manner. The author’s website is a feast for those who want to know more about marketing and branding, especially marketing self-published novels. Clearly, Tumlinson is not just prolific, but also understands how to get the product to customers, too.

Resources for writers

Book Covers SFOver my almost two decades of writing and (occasionally) publishing, I’ve learned some stuff. Lots of stuff, actually. Some of what I learned (such as a great place to buy a box for a manuscript) is out of date. However, there are some resources that budding writers should utilize that are still quite relevant, so here goes—

While a novel (or a short story or screen play) is still in the drafting stage, consider getting editorial help. Informally, there are many writer’s groups which offer support and critiques. If you live close enough, consider that as a first source of assistance and career development. I was once privileged to judge a short fiction contest held by the Northeast Georgia Writer’s Group, and all of the entries were quite worthy. The group is active, with contests and guest speakers. Many libraries sponsor such groups. There’s a great list of writer’s groups in Georgia at ReadersUnbound.com.

Depending on genre, there just may be a writer’s conference waiting for you. Such conferences usually feature guest speakers, workshops, and opportunities to meet with literary agents, who are the typical conduits between writers and publishers. I was fortunate to attend a few in nearby Athens (at the UGA campus) which was sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, but there are a number of conferences, either general or targeting specific types of writing.

When the work is more or less complete, if there is no conventional publisher in the picture paying for it, an author seeking to self-publish or polish a manuscript for possible submission should really consider a paid editor. The Writer’s Digest magazine folks have an entire “store” devoted to such services. When I was working on my first novel, a publisher recommended that I go through a course with Writer’s Digest, and the experience taught me quite a lot about the value of editorial assistance.

Whether self-publishing a novel or developing a website and/or a social media publicity campaign, hiring a professional graphic artist is really important. For a web only publication, such as Kindle Direct, I might try the do it yourself method, but even then, it is good to use a site such as Canva.com. However, if there is any serious money going into the project, such as self-publishing in print or multiple platforms, then a cover artist is very helpful. Both The Gift Horse and the second edition of Trinity on Tylos have covers designed by an independent artist. There’s a list of cover artists over at The Creative Penn. By the way, I’d steer clear of Fiver. I tried that, and got nothing, not even a refund for my initial payment.

Once a book is in print or available as an eBook, most writers will want to help with marketing. This can be rather daunting for many writers. The publisher of The Gift Horse (Booklocker) has a companion site, Writer’s Weekly, which has some links to paying markets for shorter works, as well as articles about writing and marketing.

There are a lot of companies that offer “services” to authors. Be very careful to choose wisely, or money that should have been spent on editing and cover design will be frittered away on something else. While some of these resources have costs, others are cheap or even free. Regardless of how much money you spend, for a novelist the two most important resources are editing and cover design—in that order.

 

So you want to be a successful author—

book and moneyWhile I am pretty sure I don’t qualify as successful in the author department, I made enough mistakes to write (or rant) about the topic. Here are some tips, in no certain order, for those who are writing with the intent to publish a book, or for those who have published but are lacking in sales.

First, write the best book you possibly can. Yes, that should go without saying, but writing is like photography or cooking in that no matter how good you have done it, you can get better. There is no such thing as perfect in any of those endeavors. However, don’t publish unless it is really ready. Mistakes in print are embarrassing!

Next, find a real publisher if you can. Not necessarily one of the big companies (although if that happens for you, whoo hoo!) There are a lot of small and micro presses that can get a book into print and into at least some distribution channels, which leaves more time for the author to help with promotional activities and keep writing. A small company, Whiskey Creek Press, published my second novel, and while my sales were low, any money I spent on promotion was voluntary. My debut novel was initially accepted by a micro press, but when it failed, I ended up using a self-publisher called Booklocker.

Third, if you end up self-publishing, do so at minimal cost. Many authors have published via the Amazon Kindle Direct program, which is free. Yep, that’s right, free. I published the second edition of Trinity on Tylos via KDP, and my only expense was a fancy new cover by Dawn Seewer (which was entirely optional.) I disliked the first cover, which was done by an artist at Whiskey Creek Press, and I thought the book deserved a better effort, and Dawn did a great job for me. Another self publishing program that I am considering is Smashwords, which offers many free services. For most self published authors, the distribution channels associated with Smashwords are fantastic.

Fourth, once the book is ready to debut, get the marketing plan in motion. There are lots of books on this topic, as well as a gazillion websites. I’ve had some success with using Facebook groups, such as Ebook Rave, Kindle Book Authors, and Sci Fi and Fantasy Authors . Those have worked well in conjunction with sales and freebie promos, but bear in mind that I have low cost Kindle titles. Under “links of interest” on this site I have a few other spots that I’ve used for promotion, including “Book Goodies” and “Goodreads.” Having an author page on such sites is not necessary, of course, but doing so usually offers links for anyone who “googles” your author name.

Finally, the most important pillar in promotion is reviews, and lots of them.  If friends and family will write a review on a vendor site, such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble, that’s great, but most of us don’t have that many friends. Also, such reviews don’t carry as much cashé as a professional or semi-professional site. Do send your books to as many of those as you can find and afford. Don’t ever pay for a review, beyond giving a copy of the book. Paying for reviews is wrong on both sides of the equation. If the author pays for a review, then there’s a bias that makes the review worthless for the reader. Unless the book is an eBook only, then there is some expense in distribution of the ARC (that’s advanced reading copy) or published book, so it is best to send the book(s) to appropriate sites, because some sites only review certain genres. There are any number of review sites, and these do come and go fairly frequently. My first novel, The Gift Horse, had several reviews online within a year or two of publication, but apart from those on Amazon and one archived on The Midwest Book Review, they are gone! Therefore, if you get an online review, don’t just save the link, but archive the content, too!

When I first published The Gift Horse, I was invited to do some speeches to local clubs, and I sold a few books via that avenue, but as publishing and self-publishing became more common place, those opportunities dried up faster than blackberries in late August. I also got a book signing at a book store after Trinity on Tylos came out, but it was a very lonely afternoon. If those opportunities come your way, enjoy them, but books and eBooks must be purchased via online vendors in order to make any real money, and that means social media marketing. If you are here, clearly you know what a blog is, of course, and having an author website is usually a good idea. Marketing is an ever changing field, but as of this post, you must get to know Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other modern means of communication in order to build an audience for your books.

Oh, and as footnote to “finally” when readers like a book, they usually look for another book by the same author, so you’d best be writing another book, too.


A few books on marketing:

How to Market a Book

Guerrilla Marketing for Writers

The Frugal Book Promoter

Book Marketing 411 for Authors

And a couple on having a book worth the effort:

Don’t Sabotage Your Submission

Writing the Breakout Novel

Free for Three promo

For those who prefer to shop at home on Black Friday, here’s an unbeatable deal—my science fiction novel, Trinity on Tylos, is free for three days. Why run it for free? That’s simple, really. More readers should mean more reviews and some word of mouth testimonial. So, here’s a link to the novel, which is free on November 29, 30, and December 1.

Some Science Behind My Science Fiction

Having just read an article in Popular Science online about what a”Generation Ship” might look like, I was gratified to see that some of the core concepts in my science fiction novel, Trinity on Tylos, are firmly rooted in science.

The article speculates about what challenges the multi-generation inhabitants of a colonizing venture (based on an extrapolation of current space technology) might face. Topics addressed include propulsion, medical issues, livestock, and robot workers.

In Trinity on Tylos, the alien captain of the Archeonite III has a big problem: his colony of survivors died out, but he has the ability to grow little Archeons from stored genetic material. He just needs some baby mamas, and my characters Venice Dylenski and Alathea Duke end up with the task. In the Popular Science article, We Could Move to Another Planet with a Spaceship Like This, the author mentions that “speculators say it’ll take 20,000 souls to start a healthy population on a new world. One space-­saving tip: Bring frozen embryos and people to diversify the gene pool upon arrival.” That’s right out of my novel, where Azareel and his android medical team design the embryos that Venice and Alathea gestate.

As in the Popular Science article, robots are probably going to be the grunt workers of the future. In my novel, the Archeons use robots (as they take the form of their makers, I call them androids) as workers. A limited but technologically proficient population would no doubt employ robotic workers, freeing the populace to supervise or take on  tasks that require a more creative mind.

Trinity on Tylos is a complex story, because it goes beyond being just a space opera and delves into human relationships, made more complicated by the limited number of people with whom the characters interact. Also, it is a story of surviving on a somewhat hostile planet, solving such issues as having enough water to irrigate crops. The Popular Science article mentions farming as one of the most necessary activities once the generation ship reaches a new planetary home. Indeed, when I wrote Trinity on Tylos, I remembered the words of William Bradford, a leader of the pilgrims who settled Massachusetts, who wrote “what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, fall [sic] of wild beasts and wild men—and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not.” Survival is not easy, and the Popular Science article, although very positive in outlook, does not ignore the difficulties that might face the future generations of humans whose journey began with some adventuresome ancestors.

Technological progress and science fiction often go hand in hand, because what writers dream up, engineers can (sometimes) make happen. However, the reverse is also true— when creating a science fiction story, there must be some science blended in with the fiction. Trinity on Tylos is science based fiction, and it is available for your Kindle reader or Kindle enabled device; just click on the cover art.