Thursday, June 27, 2013

Author Interview: Karen Shell

I recently sat down with my friend, Karen Shell, in her home here in Toronto, Ohio to discuss the writing craft. I’ve known Karen and her family for over a quarter of a century. At one point, we lived on opposite sides of the same duplex wall. So when we discovered our mutual desires to break into publishing, we became crit buddies. She proofed and offered some valuable stylistic advice before I released the second edition of my novel, Extreme Unction, and she has also proofed a novella in the series which I am currently shopping to various anthologies. Meanwhile, I am proofing and critiquing the current version of her epic futuristic sci-fi “history,” A Greater Plan Than This.
Set on a geographically unrecognizable version of Earth over a thousand years in the future, A Greater Plan Than This involves an intricate plot about government spying, empire building, space colonization and seeding, and one family’s efforts to set things right. Karen has been toiling on this book for a decade and a half, making alterations, researching contemporary ideas in physics, and diagraming family trees, story arcs and anything else that might make the story more compelling. She has it all organized in two three-ring binders each over two inches thick full of marginal notes, sketches of Greek characters and MC Escher optical illusions.

As we shared some unsweetened blackberry/pom iced tea, I dived into the conversation with a standard interviewer’s query.

Me: So how long have you been writing?
Karen: Since I was probably ten.

What kind of stuff did you write when you were ten?
I tried to write books that would be similar to Nancy Drew. It was going to be a series, and my protagonist was Francis Forrest. The first one was Francis Forrest and the Giant Amoeba. (Laughter) And I started writing autobiography, and I remember one of the chapters was The Coming of the Kids, because at first it was just me. I was the oldest in my family, and then all of these brothers and sisters come along. Then in High School I would write short stories for my girlfriends who also wrote short stories for me; Our Crushes. You know they would be little romantic stories.
Binders and notes for Karen's novel.
So who are your influences?
More recently Anne Rice I like, and of course I read Mark Twain who I love. Then I got into reading more non-fiction, so... I don’t know what to tell ya. I didn’t anticipate this question. (Laughter) I might think of it later. Then you can add.

We’ll append.
The story that you’re working on right now is in the science fiction genre. Is that something you’ve always wanted to write in?
I enjoy science fiction. I guess I could say Ray Bradbury was one of my influences, Isaac Asimov. I took a science fiction literature class while I was at Bowling Green - which is a lot of reading. We read Dune, and that was one of ten books. I just like the genre. I didn’t exactly mean to start writing in it, but I envisioned another world, and so that takes you there, you know? 

To me as I’m reading your material I see a lot of Heinlein as far as the family relationships. Have you read any of the Howard series?
This set me off on a tangent describing the Howard series. I’ll spare you that.

What have you published in the traditional publishing realm?
Actually I’ve had music published, and I’ve had two or three poems published throughout my life, but never anything in prose, so this is new.

That’s a long endeavor for one…
I know. (Laughter) Well, I started in 1998, and after I got through it, you know life went on, but the characters lived. It’s like I haven’t seen these people in a long time. It’s almost as if they were real; and I had to keep coming back to it. It hasn’t let me go. It’s got me … you know.

The characters are very well written and the story is plotted very well so it seems like something that you’ve done before and that you’ve developed this ability to write. The fact that you’re saying that this is your first endeavor at this kind of thing is really impressive, because usually the first couple of stories that you write in a new genre are just practice.  So there’s no practice here. If you’re going to commit this much time to it.
Well this is my third re-write of it. So the first one was kind of like the practice one. And I liked it well enough. Then I went through and fixed it up a little bit. Then after a few years went by I re-read the book and there was the first part of it – I wasn’t crazy about, but as the book went on I thought – oh, I like this story! I still like it! And so I wanted to get back to that.

So are you trying to work out whatever kinks you saw in the beginning?
Right. Yeah. In fact, I did send it out in that version - in the second version to six publishers. Five of them came back normal rejections. One of them was – we really considered this, but thought it would mean a little bit too much work. They only did like six books a year or something like that. They were very small, and they didn’t want to spend that much time with it, but that I should work on the dialog. And I had sent I think maybe just the first chapter, and because the book developed much more than I knew was going to happen when I wrote that first chapter, I had a big re-write there, and it was daunting, but...
Are you going to consider that same publishing house when you are ready to publish again?
I think so. 

Have you tried agents at all?

Here we went off topic on a tangent about agents vs publishers. 

So what are your plans for the world that you’ve created for the future?
Well, I have got at least four sequels. I have besides A Greater Plan Than This, then will come Daggers of Glory, Immortal Invisible, Savior, and Mary McGifford which will be a flashback to the beginning when it all started intertwined with what’s going on in the present. 

So the last story is sort of a prequel. It’s your Hobbit.
In a way. But it will combine with what’s going on in the present time so there will be a flashback in an omniscient kind of point of view while these other character points of view are happening and intertwined with that. 

I see, so by the time you’re all done and you’re ninety years old …
(Laughter) Yeah I know, it’s going to be a long time. I’ve got to get a quicker way to get these things done. 

Well, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of these chapters, I can tell you that.        It’s really been … I know it seems like I’m taking forever to read it for you, but that’s because I’m editing while I’m reading. If I wasn’t editing while I was reading I’d have had them all read in a night because they’re that good.
Well thanks. 

And I would have been waiting for the next chapter to come, but because I’m editing them as I’m reading then that …
It’s work. 

It’s work, right. So that's why I keep putting it off.
I know, that’s how I was with your book too. It was the same thing. I want to get to the end of it, but do I want to work? (Laughter) 

Thank you very much for your time. This has been fascinating, and good luck with the work.
Thank you.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dobryj Vyechyer!

I have no idea why this is happening, but kak vy pozhivayetye?
And to my readers in Switzerland, Pick-up das Tempo.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review: The Natural Victim by Peter Reynard

Peter Reynard
“Like a skinny lumberjack.” That’s how the unnamed narrator of The Natural Victim describes Deiter Fox, the energetic, tall, blonde, bearded grad student and fan of detective fiction who happily accepts when Eric Wanbois invites him to prove his innocence in the murder of his lab mate, Jason Stampos.  
Stampos was not well liked. In fact, the more Deiter and his unnamed “Watson” look into his history, the larger the list of potential suspects seems to grow. Set in 1999 on the Ohio State University Campus in Columbus, Ohio, The Natural Victim by Peter Reynard is a closed door mystery with a twist. Records indicate that the accused used his pass card to visit the hall where the murder occurred on three separate occasions that fateful night. Witnesses alibi the client, but police are unconvinced. The accused had means, motive and apparent opportunity; and besides, there is what amounts to a holographic direct accusation in the form of Eric Wanbois’ name flashing on the victim’s computer monitor.
By the final chapter, Reynard has crafted a classic mystery denouement with all of the suspects assembled and all of the evidence and facts laid out in a buffet of reason and order. Among the pluses: the chapters are short and the technology is described in an accessible way. For the minuses: the characters could be more fully drawn in a longer version of the story, and the unique world which is Ohio State might have been better colored-in; but for the reader looking simply for the plot-is-king Dragnet version, The Natural Victim has a satisfying arc that builds suspense by revealing clues and shining a light on the process of the obsessive not-quite-a-genius.
The Natural Victim is available on Amazon for the Kindle. The author's website, Write by Writing, which includes a mention of this very blog, can be found here.


The last time I talked to Cynthia I had paid very little attention to her, since she was just another name on a long list. I looked at her more closely now. She was a short, slightly stocky girl with a ready smile. Her dark hair was in a loose ponytail, and I noticed now that she liked to tug on it and play with it as she talked. She seemed surprised to see me again but was agreeable enough to spare us a few minutes. We pulled up a couple of chairs and sat down. As I had been the one to talk to her the last time around, I took the lead again.

"Why didn't you tell me you used to date Jason?" I asked.

She stopped leaning back in her chair and sat up straight. "Because… because it was a long time ago and it’s none of your business."

"Look, we just want to make sure we know everything. And anything, even the littlest thing, could potentially help Eric," I said.

She didn't reply, but the wariness in her face relaxed. Then Dieter took a chance.

"Cynthia, someone saw you leave Jason's lab that night."

Her face crumpled and her body slumped back in her chair. "I swear he was alive when I left him," she said. “I can prove I was home by 12:30 that night, long before he was dead," she added desperately.

Dieter took another shot in the dark. "Was he blackmailing you?" he asked.

"Yes," she said dejectedly. "How did you know?"

"I didn't. But he seems to have done that to a lot of people."

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Helix Review: Is It Worth It?

A new marketing tool has recently entered the world of indie publishing. Helix Review is similar to the Genome Project used by Pandora in generating music playlists based on archetype and genre. I decided to go ahead and splurge on the review for my novel Extreme Unction, and in my personal opinion, that’s $50 I’ll never see again. The sad thing is, it could have actually been a useful tool, but it’s not.
What Helix Review does is it scans your manuscript for such factors as keywords, style metrics, comparable titles and story DNA (the amount of focus your book puts on certain themes and issues compared to other books in the genre and books in general.) The author then supposedly has a template for how his/her story fits into the genre and the publishing world in general so that he/she can better target his/her marketing. Sounds great. The thing is I was basically told next to nothing in my review that actually helps me target my story to anyone.

Word Cloud showing my unique word usage per the Helix Project
 Review of Extreme Unction
Let’s start with the comparable titles. According to Helix, the book in my genre which my story is most like is The Sodoku Puzzle Murders by Parnell Hall. Other books mine supposedly compares to include With This Puzzle, I Thee Kill by Parnell Hall, oh, and the book mine is most like considering all genres is The Sodoku Puzzle Murders by Parnell Hall. Now to be fair, they did mention a few other authors, but the only one I’d even heard of was Sandra Brown.
Not that I expected to be compared to Clive Cussler, Dashiell Hammett or Rex Stout, but how am I supposed to market a hardboiled mystery involving a car-loving atheist in the Holmsian mold to fans of cozies about a word-puzzle loving old lady in the Miss Marple vein?
Let’s move on to the writing style metric which measures for motion, density, dialog, description and pacing. The person submitting to the review is asked to supply the name of a novel from the genome database to use for direct comparison, and the average ranges for all stories in the genre are also graphed. Under motion (as an example) the average range on a scale of 1 to 100 in the genre of mystery and detective seems to fall between 50 and 70. I scored a 56 and the book I gave for direct comparison, The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout scored around a 54. However, the normal range for pacing in the genre seems to be between 25 and 50, but I scored only an 18, which would be worrisome except that TDR scored even lower, and I remember that as one of the most briskly paced books in the series. I’m not saying the information isn’t helpful or enlightening. I’m just saying that from a marketing standpoint, it isn’t very useful.
So let’s take a look at the story DNA. Here they give some examples of the DNA of other stories and then graph the subject’s story for comparison. My story which involves a journalist investigating a crime scored fairly high on the category, newspaper reporting/journalism, which is to be expected. However, the crime involves a Catholic priest accused of euthanizing a parishioner while administering the sacrament of last rites. I spend a great deal of time in the story describing the ritual, as well as other Catholic rituals such as confession and penance. One might expect that I scored fairly high on the category Church services/religious worship. However the bar shows only around 10% compared to all other mystery/detective novels. Meanwhile the example they give for comparison, The Da Vinci Code, scored around an 80%. In order for that to be correct, it seems to me the majority of books published in the genre would have to score at close to zero percent which seems unlikely.
Yet, the thing about this that bothers me the most is that it still could have been so much more helpful. Submitting to the project does not get your book included into the database to affect future outcomes. In other words, independent publishers like myself have no impact on the data generated. It’s still a standard/traditional publisher’s field we’re being compared against.
Moreover, nobody is using the results to affect recommendations. Consider that when you use iheart or Pandora, you will occasionally be offered an unknown artist who performs in that same musical milieu. When one buys a book on Amazon, one is shown titles that others who bought that book also purchased. Why not create recommendations on sites like Amazon based on similar or comparable books in the Helix database? And why not include independently published books as well; especially since we are paying to have our books thus compared?
Anyway, that’s my experience and my opinion. Take it for whatever it is worth to you. However, if you asked my advice, it would be to hold off on having a Helix review of your work until they change some of their metrics and include our works in the database. After all, it’s not a judgment on the quality of our story telling, so why not include us?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Review: The Triumph Detective by Hazen Wardle

Resche Plimpton is an odd man with an odd style and an odd life’s goal. Convinced that Elvis Presley still lives, Resche runs a private investigator’s business under the first name of the king of rock ‘n’ roll hoping that one day a client will ask him to solve the urban legend of what really happened to the man who brought us Graceland. As he awaits that fateful day, Resche and his assistant/receptionist/gopher (whose name he doesn’t know at first) spend their days mostly waiting and occasionally toying with the occasional potential client should they call.
When a rich recent-widow calls offering thousands of dollars to investigate the recurring abduction by space aliens of her faithful German Shepherd, Resche accepts the challenge; and along with him we meet the members of a Realien-like space-cult, a cabal of video gamers, a probably-fake psychic who goes by a name which is a pun for the French term for fried potatoes, and several members of the local police constabulary.

With his penchant for plaid suits and classic British cars, The Triumph Detective is more in the mold of Dirk Gently and Daryl Zero than Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. Nobody is killed, no sexual tension smolders hotly just below the surface, and the reader is kept entertained more by the silly humor than by the not-so-tense plotting and never-quite hardboiled style, but you will be entertained nonetheless.
There are a few minor issues with the story believability-wise: there’s an unresolved episode involving a mysterious caller which nobody seems too worried about, a priest seems a little too willing to turn over control of a wedding to the quirky PI, an entire room overhaul (complete with repaired and repainted door, new furniture and hung art) is accomplished in an impossibly brief period of time, and too many people seem too willing to overpay for the services of a detective doing grunt work. However, given the whimsical world we’re introduced to in the first chapter, none of this seems unacceptably unorthodox in context.

The Triumph Detective is the first in the series of Resche Plimpton novels by Hazen Wardle. It’s available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s online store, as well as in ebook format and for the Kindle. Hazen invites you to like Resche’s page on facebook; and to visit his publishing website;

He gunned the throttle coming out of a sweeping bend in the road, the six cylinder inline engine growling as the car chewed up the pavement and the miles. Resche had taken the longest shortcut he could find to arrive at Laura Cunningham's place, and skirting Timil Deeps city limits in a rough counter-clockwise path was just the medicine the doctor ordered.
Sixties rock-n-roll blared from the speakers, though he could hardly hear the music over the natural noise of the car and the wind rushing in through the open windows.
He saw her long driveway up ahead and pressed the accelerator to the floor a little further. He turned into her drive doing sixty-five, spraying rocks behind him as he fishtailed down the gravel.
Off to the left a small herd of horses raced along the fence-line as if in challenge. Resche glanced once in the direction of the horses before mashing the accelerator again, letting loose his own 95 horses for a short distance.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Novel: Extreme Unction

Extreme Unction is the first published volume in the Lupa Schwartz  mystery series. Each story is a stand-alone example of a different sub-category in the genre: hardboiled, cozy, thriller, procedural — and each story is pastiche in the Nero Wolfe tradition of self-inclusion into the Sherlock Holmes canon. Lupa Schwartz, Balkan-born former Jew turned atheist, has built a name as a private detective since coming to Pittsburgh following the fall of the Soviet Bloc. Cattleya Hoskin, reporter for Gamut Magazine, is the daughter of the man who once worked as legman for Schwartz’s private detective grandfather. Cattleya has come to Pittsburgh to write a fluff profile on Schwartz when the police coerce Lupa into investigating a high-profile murder involving a Catholic priest and the sensitive issue of euthanasia. For the first time, Schwartz agrees to allow a reporter to chronicle his process, and together they explore this case of Extreme Unction.
All of the elements which are to become the unique hallmarks of the Lupa Schwartz series are birthed in this story: Schwartz’s compulsion to flatten the tires of parking rule scofflaws, Cattleya’s frustration with Schwartz’s refusal to carry a credit card or cell phone, their unspoken agreement to never discuss their shared history, and Schwartz’s fondness for comedy movies. We also meet the supporting cast who populate each of the stories: Mia, the feisty mechanic who lives in Schwartz’s large Victorian during the week to work on his car collection, but who visits her grandmother on weekends; Beverly, the cook and housekeeper who may or may not be in love with Schwartz; and Trevor Johns, the Pittsburgh police homicide detective by day, and Jazz/Blues clarinet player by night.  We also meet most of the revolving cast of bit-players who appear in stories as needed: Jana, Cat’s friend at Gamut Magazine HQ; the Five Seekers, members of a discussion group Schwartz belongs to; and Victor Jenkins, a newspaper reporter.
The Catholic Church officially opposes euthanasia, although there have always been those within the Church who disagree with this position. Father Coneely is one such outspoken advocate who makes the mistake of telling the family of one of his parishioners that, hypothetically, if he coats his finger in candle wax, he can safely apply poison-laden oil to their suffering father during last rites, and nobody need be the wiser. When an autopsy finds traces of the banned insecticide Chlordane in the anointing oil on the corpse of the Hanson family patriarch, suspicion falls on Coneely, but was a lapsing insurance policy the real motive for one of Hanson’s five children to taint the oil?
Extreme Unction is available in trade paperback, and ebook or mobi versions are available. Four more completed novels in the series are going through the editing process, and a sixth novel is in the works. Order your copy today by visiting and don't forget to like the Facebook page.