Resources for Readers

DaVinciWhat to read? When I was young (a very long time ago) my mother took my sisters and me to visit the public library every week. This was “free” entertainment, and as we were fairly poor, it was a great deal. However, there was that day when I’d read everything of interest to me in the children’s and young readers category. Again, this was a long time ago, when “young adult” publications were not a big category. I remember her guiding me over to the adult fiction section (meaning not for kids, but nothing racy—it was a public library) and she suggested some titles. My first reads from that section were what mom would term “mysteries” although romantic suspense would be closer to the genre of that time. The authors were Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, although I can’t remember the titles. So began my transition into reading for pleasure, an activity that is still a big part of my life.

Mom has been gone for a long time, as she had cancer and died before she should have, but there are plenty of other places to find recommendations for reading. I do belong to way too many Facebook Groups, and most of those have advertising that I largely ignore. For a time, Amazon was my favorite place to find books, and while it is a source for content, the weirdo reviews have made it less and less reliable for recommendations. Also, big A encourages authors to buy ads, making it even less relevant. If you are lonely and want to be inundated by promotional emails, there are lots of sites that promote books via that route, but by and large that content comes from paid ads, so it’s not reliable either. I read a lot of eBooks these days, and my public library has a few thousand titles, but I’ve noticed that far too many of them are “reprints” wherein established authors are giving their backlist titles new life, and I have either read those books are wasn’t interested the first time. So, what to do?

There are some solutions. First, check out Goodreads. It’s now owned by Amazon, but it seems to work quasi-independently from big A, so the reviews are more often by serious readers. Authors can have a “page” on Goodreads, too, which can be helpful. If you like a certain genre, typically there are blogs that feature books of interest. As a lover of science fiction romance, I like this blog: SFR Brigade. Some authors maintain a blog or a Facebook group, so check on a favorite writer’s web presence. Often writers will mention fellow writers or their own favorite reads. I’ve really enjoyed Susan Grant’s books and her blog, Come Fly with Me (now found via her website).

In addition to big A, readers sometimes leave reviews on traditional bookstore sites such as Barnes and Noble and Books a Million. As these sites primarily serve readers, the reviews tend to be written more literate customers. There may be fewer reviews, but I believe they are more reliable.

Also, if you know others who like to read, try forming a book club. My sister belongs to such a club, and members propose which books to read. She’s given me some suggestions of books that were well-received by her group, such as my current read: DaVinci, by Walter Issacs. It’s fascinating, and I would never have chosen it without the recommendation of that group over in Richmond, Virginia.

 

 

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.

 

Snow in the South

In celebration of a rare snowfall in Georgia, here’s a picture and a poem:

IMG_1559

The Snow Storm

Ralph Waldo Emerson – 1803-1882

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Guest Author Interview

catching-raven-volume-1-by-cb-tuckerFor a change from my usual topics, I am posting an interview with CB Tucker, an author who lives in northeastern Georgia. Tucker has been to approximately 132 countries and lived in 10. He believes that his worldly experiences beg to be placed into a book. Tucker is a Vietnam veteran, who was also in Iraq where he backpacked for 10 months from the Saudi border all the way to Kirkuk. During his career he has seen the horrors of war and the strains of peace and both heroism and cowardice. Tucker worked in the computer industry for several years. Prior to retirement, he spent six years working in diplomatic security with the State Department of the United States. 

Tucker is the author of Catching Raven: Volume I, Catching Raven Volume II, and Catching Raven: Elizabeth Raven Coming Into Her Own.


When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

While I was living in Virginia Beach with my first wife and three daughters, I realized that (including the female cat and dog), I was the only man swimming in a house of estrogen. I began writing stories about my daughters, figuring this was cheaper than therapy. The final push came when I was stationed in Dakar, Senegal, and my wife was sent home for medical reasons. Senegal has some of the most beautiful black people I have ever seen: Picture walking around Dakar and everywhere you look are Halle Barry clones. I decided that it would be wiser to stay in my apartment and write rather than go out. So I began writing. I had no idea what I was going to write, or where it was going. My ideas warped several times into the story that I have today.

What books have most influenced your life most?

The Bible. I was a computer tech for 30 years and had little time to read for pleasure. When I was stationed in Islamabad, Pakistan, I wasn’t able to go out, so I decided to down load books to my Kindle app on my tablet. I had no idea what book to start with, no idea of authors to read, so I decided to check the best sellers list, which was an obvious plan of action. The same book was on top of three different lists: 50 Shades of Grey. (I did say I was in Pakistan by myself.) There were parts I couldn’t bring myself to read, but I did enjoy the book for the interplay between the two main characters. Soon, I was reading one book a week. As time passed, I came to realize that my favorite author was David Baldacci.

How long does it take you to write a book?

I began writing Catching Raven in 2014, and I really didn’t finish it until 2016. I have follow-up books, and they took about two months each, but the characters are established. I actually write the book in my mind before I sit down to the keyboard, and then I iron out the flaws.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

How much I enjoy coming up with my own story. I find many of the stories I see on TV and in the movies to be stupid. When I write a story, I try to keep things logical and real. I want the reader to believe that what is happening is possible.

Is there a message in your novel(s) that you want readers to grasp?

In the Bible the book of Job is the story of a pious man who believed in God. The devil decided to test him and took away his family, his possessions, and all he had. Even living with the beggars with sores all over his body, he refused to deny God. For his steadfast determination to remain loyal to God, he was rewarded tenfold. That, in a sense, is what Samantha Raven goes through in my novel. She was steadfast in her belief that her daughter was a present from God and Tip, who is the young man she met at Wake Forest and fell in love with; he is the father of Elizabeth Raven. In the novel, Samantha spends her life doing right by her daughter. She remained steadfast and her mission was doing everything she for her daughter, including building a life without having her daughter’s father present. What I would like people to take from this book is the determination to do what is right and proper. In the end, Samantha, too, is rewarded tenfold.

How realistic are your books?

I hope everyone can believe what happened in this book. Can a man become a billionaire and go back to find the woman he impregnated as a young man? Can that woman be true to herself and him? Can a desk lamp warp into a chandelier? Most of what I describe, I hope can happen. I tried to write a book that can believed, even though it is fiction.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

Yes! I have traveled to 132 countries and I have lived in 10. I have lived in socialist and Muslim countries. When I was young, I studied martial arts and have belts in Taekwondo, Hap Kido, and Sansui. I’m not a bad ass, but I have had experiences in many facets of life; therefore, I know what people can do if they are driven to achieve it. When I was in diplomatic security, I was trained how to drive and shoot. I received training concerning human trafficking and the customs of different societies that I would experience. I try to incorporate all that knowledge and experience into my books.

What makes you passionate about being an author?

Hopefully, when people read one of my stories and come away with new knowledge and appreciation of something that they were never aware of, they will have new knowledge. Did you know that you could drive 60 mph in reverse? Did you know that even a one hundred pound girl could take down a two hundred pound man if she knows how? I hope readers realize that the core of every society is the family. We, as a society, need to protect families and help them succeed. It is those age-old truths that are often disparaged but when followed do succeed: Honor your parents, work hard, and get all the knowledge you can when you can. And don’t quit a job until you have a better one. Be true to yourself, and what you believe.


Thank you, CB Tucker for your detailed answers!

Why do writers need editors?

editing-apps-800x600Before you say, “Duh!” please remember that some people have lots of self-confidence. Others can crawl off into a mental state and ignore the world around them, which can be considered a skill in the writing biz, but conformity is comforting to readers. Other writers seem to think that the rules don’t apply to them, like ee cummings. A few insist on ignoring the red and green squiggles that the word processor uses to offer help in eliminating common mistakes. Writers suffer from any of those problems, or have other idiosyncrasies that make editing necessary. Yes, I considered dealing with editors to be something of a pain, because I am self confident and not afraid to break a few rules.

However, I have learned quite a lot from writing teachers and editors. Friends and family will offer a few tips, but if those friends really like you, brutal honesty is off the table. Sometimes the distance combined with authority that goes along with having an editor is transformative. My first novel was a hot mess when it finally got a full length reading at the micro press that ultimately put it through line editing. My second novel was better, but still needed a lot of work in the editorial phase, beginning at conceptual, then line by line, and finally, proofreading. At that time, WCP did not pay proofreaders, instead relying upon volunteers, which was a bad business decision. My work suffered from that lack, as a few errors made it into the printed work, and sales were less than optimal.

Publishers seldom take on a fiction manuscript that isn’t complete, which leaves out the project development phase. Once the novel is finished, most writers will attempt to put it into the hands of either an agent or a publisher. Problems with style or continuity may crop up at this stage, but if the work is compelling, those can be addressed. What most people consider editing is copy or line editing, which is a line by line examination of grammar, spelling, mechanics, and style. Any “big changes” in the manuscript probably occur at this stage. The back and forth over details can be annoying or even funny, but most problems in the work are solved at this phase. Once, an editor challenged me on a detail where I described a man wearing a glen plaid suit. I thought it descriptive, but she thought it was a weird description that no reader would understand. Ultimately, the description remained, but that is the kind of thing that comes up in line edits.

Before printing comes proofreading, when any style or content changes have been addressed—so what’s left is a last look at spelling, capital letters, and adjustments to make the page layout work. I remember the copy editor at Whiskey Creek Press had to substantially change one sentence to avoid a page with a single word on it, and I was okay with her changes.

A good editor makes printed work better—by questioning, suggesting changes, and insisting on being absolutely correct. Real editing makes the author’s work shine, without the distractions of mistakes or inconsistencies. Nowadays, many people think that word processors have made editors obsolete. Unfortunately, that is simply wrong, and writing is suffering mightily. Errors abound, and the solution is a great editor who reads and corrects. Technology is advancing, but it cannot replace editorial expertise.

The book of the year?

The price we pay book cover
Lots of books are published each year, and I can only read a few of them. But, when a really important general interest book comes along, I often put it on the top of my “to be read” pile. In September, Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon associated with Johns Hopkins, released a book entitled The Price We Pay: What Book American Healthcare—And How to Fix ItSince most people in America eventually get sick or have an accident, and only a few of us are fifty rich, this is the ultimate general interest book.

In Part I, entitled “Gold Rush” Makary doesn’t have to travel far—he visits “health fairs” at local churches, where salespeople disguised as medical professionals do screening tests and scare participants, mostly those on Medicare, into unnecessary and rather expensive procedures, such as placing stents into leg veins. In the second chapter, he discusses the lack of transparency in hospital pricing, as well as the astronomical rise in common procedures. For instance, a medical center in New Jersey offers joint replacement surgery for $135,400.00, which rose a mere 76.8% in a single year. BTW, Medicare only pays 13K for that procedure. For his third chapter, Makary travels to Carlsbad, NM, where the medical center seems to have overcharged and then sued almost everyone in town. Back in Virginia, Makary visits the courthouse to learn more about similar shenanigans at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg. Sadly, this hospital is supposed to be a “not for profit” hospital, and thus receives favored tax status, too. Also in this section, Makary provides an analysis of the proliferation of for profit helicopter ambulance services, which charge somewhere between $40K and $60K for a ride that I could make in an hour in my Toyota.

In the second portion of the book, Makary delves into some medical practices that can be improved by focusing on individual physicians. One OB doctor in Florida had a reasonable rate of C-sections, until figuring in Fridays, when the rate rose 80%. Why? The good doctor didn’t want to be bothered on the weekend, so moms who were in labor on Friday got the surgery. This section of the book also discusses the opioid crisis, and Makary admits that he had to learn to write fewer prescriptions for pain pills, after learning about the misuse of all those pills.

Part III of the book is about “Redesigning Healthcare” and it does offer several solutions to problems, but one chapter in this section explains how drug prices are affected by middle men (pharmacy benefits managers) who don’t supply anything other than a big bill for their services. Here’s an example: A pharmacy is paid $34.94 for 90 40mg doses of Zocor, but the employer is charged $442.85–and the PBM gets over $400 on that one transaction. Another chapter discusses problems in health insurance, which less and less helpful except in catastrophic circumstances, and there is even a chapter on “wellness” and how those well meaning programs are far too costly, especially as they often mean an invasion of privacy, or worse, over-treatment for minor issues.

Makary doesn’t make the mistake of only discussing problems without discussing solutions. Several positive programs are mentioned throughout the text, including websites such as ImprovingWisely.com, and the last chapter is a bit of a call to arms. In short, legislators and employers need to be educated on these matters, and healthcare consumers should do everything possible to demand transparent pricing for upcoming procedures.

The Price We Pay is a very important book. This should be the topic of your next book club, a gift for your friends and/or family, or even a holiday gift for your doctor or your legislator. Please buy this book, read it, and pass it on. Knowledge is power, and as this text has lots of information for Americans, this may well be the most important book you will read this year.

My video is reaching students!

NASA nebula

A still shot from NASA

Way back I took classes in “podcasting” and “movie-maker.” Afterward, I came home and practiced what we’d learned in class. I made three videos, which are a lot closer to Powerpoint presentations, if the truth be told. Anyway, one of them has had a bit of success—”A Brief History of Science Fiction.” This video was designed with a few still images, mostly screen shots from NASA such as the one I featured on this post, and two audio tracks. We’d been warned in class about using commercial music, so I downloaded a freebie track that I thought sounded dramatic. The second audio track is my voice, reading story boards, in my rather strong Southern U.S. accent. I did write the story boards, based upon my study of the science fiction genre, my training in English literature, and what of that matched up with the still images that I managed to acquire at the time.

Science fiction is an ever changing literary and film genre (with more than a dash of animation) so my video is already a bit dated. Still, I was most gratified when reading a very valid complaint about the loud musical soundtrack. The complainant stated that my little YouTube video was required for class. Gosh darn! My Brief History of Science Fiction is required by a teacher (somewhere?) for a class (in something?) I’m flattered. Really.

If you don’t mind hearing that awful musical track, head over to YouTube and see A Brief History of Science Fiction. While you are there, the link to my “book trailer” for The Gift Horse is still live also.

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.

One hand…the other hand…Amazon

handsWe’ve all heard the old saying that states it is not good when “one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing.” Basically, when an organization gets too big or too disconnected from itself, then there is at a minimum a loss of cooperation, and at worst, the organization works against itself.

A while back, I had to strip out all of the links to Amazon from this blog, due an email directive, and I have posted a screen shot of that message, which states plainly that I am no longer an Amazon Associate (a means of funding via promoting products.)

Screen Shot 2019-09-24 at 7.53.52 AM

Yesterday, I got another email from Amazon. It seems they no longer remember that my account was “terminated” and want help me sell their expletive deleted stuff.

Screen Shot 2019-09-24 at 7.54.04 AMHonestly, this is just on example of the problems at big A. Lots of articles have been published about problems there. The most troubling ones (for consumers) are the fake reviews and hijacked reviews.  I’ve mostly stopped shopping there, but hubby is addicted. However, the other day he was actually reading the reviews (and not just looking at the number of positive reviews) and realized that most of those reviews were not for the product he was wanting to buy. Fortunately, he didn’t buy from big A this time.

The bottom line is that Amazon is more and more a computerized “middle man” rather than a merchant, and buyers and sellers have little confidence that the platform is working for either side. Consumers should think about alternatives before using that one step purchase button. Sure, it is convenient, but it’s not good to get scammed.

As far as selling is concerned, lately, I’ve sold far more books via eBay than Amazon. More on that later.

Overdignosed— a brief review and commentary

OverdiagLike many people in the USA, I am concerned about the state of our health care. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to live in a country that has lots of great medical facilities and practitioners. But, I’ve watched people go through some pretty difficult situations, too, so I read Over-diagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Healthcare in hopes that I’d learn more about what sometimes goes wrong with our healthcare system. This book offers some first hand insights from three physician authors, and I learned a great deal from it.

Many of the chapters have a “case study” to frame the discussion. One of the most memorable is the story of an older gentleman with a borderline diagnosis of diabetes. In the interest of keeping those blood sugar numbers in the optimal range, the principal author (Dr. H. Gilbert Welch) prescribed medication. Unfortunately, the gentleman’s blood sugar dropped, causing him to lose control of his car, resulting in an accident that broke his neck. The gentleman survived, but he had to wear a halo brace for many weeks while his neck healed. When it was all over, the doctor and patient agreed that the best practice in his case would be to forgo the diabetes medication. This anecdote is a great way to illustrate how over diagnosis can make people sick!

Each chapter explains how modern testing, coupled with ever changing standards for “normal,” have resulted in more and more people being diagnosed with something. The approach is cautionary, explaining that many times a diagnosis might be correct, but if the condition is unlikely to cause the patient any reduction in quality of life, or end the patient’s life early, then it is far better to not treat the disease. However, once diagnosed, both the patient and most physicians will be reluctant to “watchfully wait.” Indeed, the principal author states in the introduction that he does not have routine checkups, even though he works in healthcare and could easily do so. Instead, he waits for something to go wrong. As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The mammogram is probably the first test that my doctor wants me to have done, but our author states that for most women, they do more harm (due to radiation) than good. Aggressive cancers can develop in the one to two year interval between tests, but slow growing cancers can result in over-reaction by doctors and patients. Also, many women go through the “false positive” situation, which might mean more testing, including a breast biopsy. I’ve known several women who had that done, only to find out that the mammogram was incorrect (or incorrectly interpreted.)

Another interesting story is a conversation between the author and a pharmaceutical rep. The latter was touting the benefits of a drug for women with bone density issues. After a friendly discussion, the drug company rep admitted that the greatest risk for these women is mostly hip fractures, which can lead to all sorts of problems, including premature death. The author states that helping women prevent falls, though physical therapy and other practical measures, would be much more useful. And the testing phase of the drug was eventually discontinued due to subjects developing bone cancer.

The author is firm in his stance that patients are often over-tested and over-diagnosed. He believes that many doctors do this out of an interest in finding answers for their patients, and not merely in making more money. He is also firm that the threat of a law suit can be a driver for hyper testing and the end result of over-diagnosis. I’m all for people having the right to seek redress in the case of gross malpractice, but doctors who have been the defendant in a case, win or lose, will often err on the side of caution and order tests that probably aren’t needed and will refer cases that are only marginal. The costs of this mind set are not negligible, as tests can costs hundreds or even thousands, and that doesn’t include the costs of treating a condition that might not need any treatment. Nor does it address the mental stress of having a chronic “condition.”

Common sense is sorely lacking these days. Certainly many aspects of modern America are getting totally weird, so I guess it is not unusual that medicine is affected. I am grateful to Dr. Welch and his fellow authors for this very cogent discussion of the problem of over diagnosis. I am seriously contemplating what to say at my next doctor visit, when I will face that computerized list of items that modern medicine says I need, but just might result in me joining the long list of those who are “over-diagnosed.”