Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Pen and the Sword – Guest Post by Kevin Coolidge

by Kevin Coolidge

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, though I much prefer my Swiss army knife. Still, I could not help but be fascinated by a class called “The Pen and the Sword” taught by an Aikido master.

Truly, now was my chance to learn to kill a man with a ballpoint pen and land that job with the CIA. If he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, then he who lives by the pen…? Writing is not for the weak. I must be strong. I must be prepared. I must be ready.

I was ready to become both master of the pen and the sword. Anxiously I awaited the sensei’s arrival. The room was filled with gymnastic mats-also called tatami-and nervous energy. Here I would forge the weapon of my mind, the strength of my spirit, the tool of my will.

A stout man came waddling into the room with a Grizzly Adams beard and blazing blue eyes, like a half-crazed Viking warrior who forgot where he put his bearskin. This could not be the teacher? Surely such a man was born to wield an ungainly battle-axe, not the eloquently crafted katana. Lost? Searching for a Wagner opera? A drumming circle?

His voice boomed, “You have to write a poem. You have one minute. Go!”

A mad rush of students surged to the back wall where a table sat loaded with clean, white paper and pencils. Quickly, I grabbed a pencil. “Only a minute to craft a poem of truth and beauty, and it has to be great!” I looked to the heavens for inspiration; I pleaded to my muse for guidance. I looked within myself, and found me.

There’s a saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And there I was. There’s some that might say I’m bull-headed or have a blatant disregard for authority figures. Maybe, maybe not. But I was in the moment, and that rebel in me grabbed that pencil and wrote four quick lines that spilled out of me.

I have to write a poem.

It has to be good.

No, I don’t.

No, it doesn’t.

I put my pencil down and smiled smugly like that smart-ass kid in geometry class that always finishes his test before anyone else. Don’t you just hate that? The berserker glared at me and snarled, “Are you done?”

“Yep.” I arrogantly replied.

“You now have thirty seconds!” roared the madman…

Aikido (aikidō) is translated as the “way of harmonious spirit,” and emphasizes joining with an attack and redirecting the attacker’s energy. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  So this class was not to turn me into a lethal weapon, but it did make the art of poetry more accessible to me. The arts of war have strong traditions in many art forms, from poetry to calligraphy to flower arranging.

Martial arts are more than what you do, or do to someone. Martial arts can help build confidence, fitness, discipline and awareness of one’s surroundings. It is something that you feel. Being what you are. Being in the moment and it ain’t always pretty.

What is poetry? Is it more than just words? If it has no structure, is it poetry? If it doesn’t rhyme, is it poetry? If it’s in free form, or freestyle, is that a poem? Poetry, and discussions of it, have a long history, and poets and scholars will never agree on a definition.

For me, poetry is a means of expressing an idea, emotion, feeling or memory in a concise way. It may be graceful, beautifully expressed, or even brutal-an elegant arc of a well-honed blade or a swift body blow to the breadbasket.

No, my aikido teacher was not a tyrant, or a bully, but a kind, gentle man with lessons to teach and a wicked sense of humor. The real power and truth of a poem is the honesty and truth to it. You can dress it up, flesh it out, or make it dance the salsa, but if it isn’t real it really isn’t anything at all. What is poetry? All I can say is, “You’ll know it when you feel it…”

For further reading check out, Sword and Brush by Dave Lowry: The way of the brush reflects the strategic principles of the sword; Lowry is master of both.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: A celebration of the act of writing, by a master storyteller. I am unaware of his prowess in the deadly arts, but I don’t recommend meeting him in a dark alleyway.

Kevin resides in Wellsboro, just a short hike from the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. When he’s not writing, you can find him at From My Shelf Books & Gifts, an independent bookstore he runs with his lovely wife, several helpful employees, and two friendly bookstore cats, Huck & Finn. He’s recently become an honorary member of the Cat Board, and when he’s not scooping the litter box, taking out the garbage, or feeding Gypsy her tuna, he’s writing more stories about the Totally Ninja Raccoons.

 

 

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Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone – Guest Post by J.S. Frankel

by J.S. Frankel

It’s easy to write what you know. As a guy, white and cisgender straight, that’s what I started writing roughly six years ago because it was what I knew best. I wrote about white dudes and dudettes, introduced outlandish (at times) situations, had fight scenes and romances and it was all very good.

After all, I had to go with what I knew and pen a story about it. That’s what the experts say, and who are we to question them?

But is it the best way to improve? It depends. It’s my contention that a writer can improve within the genre they’ve chosen, working on narrative, dialogue, action, and so on, without having to switch to another genre.

At the same time, though, some writers can become complacent, coasting along on the formula that got them noticed in the first place. So, it depends.

In my case, not only did I want to improve my narrative technique, I also wanted to grow as a writer. For me, that meant stepping out of my comfort zone. It meant writing about the unfamiliar.

In the past, I’ve written lesfic as well as explored transgender issues. I did this because those two areas are unfamiliar to me, because there are people who are in the LGBT category, and because they have their own stories to tell, that is, the characters that I wanted to write.

If you are going to step outside your comfort zone, how you approach it is up to you, but this is what I’ve learned.

1. If you don’t know–ask. With the transgender crowd, I asked a few people to tell me their experiences. They were more than willing, and I incorporated their ideas.

2. Do your research. I cannot stress this enough. If you’re going to write about something unfamiliar to you, research it first and then research some more. Then ask if you are truly stumped. A wise person admits their ignorance; a fool does not, and thereby exposes everything.

3. Expect to be called on it. In fact, even if you’re writing about something you know, chances are at least one person will call you on it. When writing about a different orientation, the chances of messing up are doubly so, so expect criticism.

That’s what happened to me. Some of it was justified; much of it was not. It had nothing to do with the style or the narrative. Some people simply couldn’t accept a straight guy writing about lesbians. That’s how it goes.

4. Make the characters real. An excellent novel I read, Crimson Fire, had a black lesbian as the main character. The way the writer, Mirren Hogan, approached it, was nothing short of incredible, and yet it was so naturally and simply done, I had to keep reading.

Her main character said that she preferred women and that was that. No muss, no fuss, no much ado about anything; it was stated clearly and it is to Ms. Hogan’s credit that she not only created a very fine novel, it also showed her main character in a very positive light. The orientation of the character turned out to be unimportant. It was the character, what she did and how she conquered, that was the most compelling part of the story.

To me, that’s how you should portray someone who is different from the default, not dramatizing, but simply showing.

Even if you do everything right, see point #3. Sooner or later, someone will take offense at what you write. It doesn’t matter how good it is or how sympathetic the characters are or how well it’s written…at least one person will always find fault with what you do.

That’s the risk every writer must take. It is then up to the writer to either accept that criticism–if justified–or discard it. In any case, keep writing. That’s been my mantra from day one. To quote Captain Picard: “Make it so.”

J.S. Frankel was born in Toronto, Canada and grew up there, receiving his tertiary education from the University of Toronto and graduating with a double major in English Literature and Political Science.

After working at Gray Coach Lines for a grand total of three years, he came to Japan at the age of twenty-six and has been there ever since, teaching English to any and all students who enter his hallowed school of learning.

In 1997, he married Akiko Koike. He, his wife and his two children, Kai and Ray, currently reside in Osaka. His hobbies include weight training, watching movies when his writing schedule allows, and listening to various kinds of music.

His novels, all for the YA set, include Twisted, Lindsay Versus the Marauders and it’s sequels, Lindsay, Jo, and the Tree of Forever, and Lindsay, Jo and the Well of Nevermore, all courtesy of Regal Crest Enterprises. He has also written the Catnip series (five novels), Mr. Taxi, The Titans of Ardana and its sequel, The Titans of Ardana 2: Battlefield, along with Picture (Im)perfect and more novels, courtesy of DevineDestinies.com.

Future projects for Devine Destinies include the final novel in the Titans trilogy, the final novel in the Just Another Quiet… trilogy, The Undernet, the re-release of Star Maps, and more. He is also the author of The Menagerie and The Nightmare Crew trilogy, all courtesy of Finch Books.

You can find J.S. Frankel on Amazon and Twitter.

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Book Review: Mayhem at the Orient Express by Kylie Logan

I won this book in a silent auction basket at my local library.  I mean, I had to bid on it since it was nothing but books about cats, right?  I also happen to like cozy mysteries, so this was an easy entry on my To Read list.

The first thing I have to say about Mayhem is that it’s not quite as cozy as other books in the genre that I’ve read.  While I’ve really only gotten into this type of book over the last few years and I can’t say I’ve delved extensively into the genre, I was surprised to find that there were quite a few cuss words.  There’s also the mention of condoms and more than an insinuation that two characters are having sex.  I’m not offended by any of this, but it stood out to me as unusual.

Mayhem is written in first person in a very casual, sarcastic style that I really enjoyed.  Bea Cartwright is sassy and a little crabby, and she doesn’t hesitate to talk about it.  The book is fast-paced and well put together with a good mystery.  The clues and the red herrings are intermixed, keeping the real mystery for the very end.  Along the way, we discover that Bea has a secret of her own, which just adds to the plot.

At the beginning of the book, the main characters have been in court far too many times complaining about each other.  The local judge sentences them to join the library’s book club.  While this seems pretty far-fetched and made for a bit of a bumpy start to the book, it was a good way to draw the characters together.  Things picked up quickly, and then I couldn’t put it down.

As you may have guessed, Murder on the Orient Express is featured in this mystery.  While I think the book would still be enjoyable if you haven’t read Christie’s classic, I think it’s better for having done so.  I just read MOE a few months ago, so a lot of the elements were still fresh in my mind.

Overall, I highly recommend this book.  My one disappointment is that the cat on the cover was only a very minor part of the book, mentioned maybe two or three times.  If you’re expecting a cat mystery, this isn’t it.  But it was a quick, fun read, and I’ll definitely read more by the same author.

 

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Writing Update!

I’ve been working on the outline for the third book in the Dragon Keeping Chronicles, to follow up The Wanderer’s Guide to Dragon Keeping and Once a Wanderer.  

I’ve been wanting to write this book for two years.  The basic idea for it came when I was writing Once a Wanderer, but I just never seemed to have the time.  I’m a full-time freelance writer, and my clients have always come first.  I kept thinking I would take a few weeks off during the summer or write my books in the evenings, but it just wasn’t happening.

Finally, it is.  What seems to be working the best is to set aside the first hour of every work day for my own writing.  This means that I continually make progress on my work (even if it’s not quite as much as I would like) and that I always look forward to starting my work day.

But something else is happening, too.  It seems that the more time I take for my personal writing, the more I want to write!  I’ve outlined a completely unrelated story and jotted down basic story ideas for at least three more.  And while I’ve been working on my third dragon book, I realized that it’s quite possible there may be a fourth installment.  At the very least, I have some preliminary notes.

While I can’t say too much without giving things away, I’m just pleased to say that there are more stories in the works!  Make sure you find me on Facebook to stay updated!

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Book Review: The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Have you ever read a book that just reached right out and punched you in the heart?  The kind of book that made you stare at it for a while after you finished it, wondering just how your life was going to be different from then on?  Because it had to be different, simply because of that book.

For me, The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford was one of those books.  I picked it up on a random trip to Barnes & Noble, when I peeked at the bargain rack and immediately snatched it up.  This book practically jumped into my hands and demanded, “Read me!”

The tone of the book very well portrays the loneliness and the magic of living near the sea, combined with the solemn desperation of infertility.  What struck me most was the exploration of sirenomelia, also known as mermaid syndrome.  Having had a daughter born with a cancerous tumor, any plot element around a baby with a birth defect or a miscarriage gets me right away.  I’ll be honest, it didn’t help that my last name is part of the name of the syndrome.  Let’s just say there’s some significant water damage to the pages of this book.

The book switches back and forth between Alexander Ferguson, a vicar and evolutionary scientist in 1860, and Ruth and Michael, who have purchased a house by the sea in the hopes of making it a home for their future family.  They find the bones of a baby with mermaid syndrome under the floorboards, causing Ruth to not only pursue the truth behind the deceased child but behind her own relationship with her mother.

I’ve had The Sea House sitting on the corner of my desk for a while, planning to write a review.  But I was so involved in the reading that I didn’t even make any notes, and I couldn’t think of anything quite sufficient to say about it.  It’s just that good.  It’s unique, it’s haunting, and it thrashed my heart into a hundred pieces.  This volume has earned a permanent place on my shelf.

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Author Interview: Ashley Goss

An author who isn’t afraid to be prolific in any genre that pleases her, Ashley Goss and I had a moment to chat about her book background and where she’s headed with her writing.

What inspired you to write about vampires?

Honestly, I love reading about vampires and werewolves so I knew I would end up writing a series one day however I didn’t think it would be this soon. My series all came from nightmares I had for a series of nights. I would jot notes down as soon as I would wake in case I would forget anything. It’s crazy how that happens. Always have need a pen and paper by my bed.

Will there be more vampire books in the future? 

Yes, there will be more books in the future along with werewolves, witches and others. I have built an entire world around this vampire series which will fall into the other books. Once the vampires series is done, certain characters will play HUGE roles in the werewolf and witch novels. I can’t say too much cause I don’t want to give anything away too early.

Tell us about your other books.

My other books are strictly romance books. I have written a mystery novel that should be released at some point towards the end of 2018. Stay tuned for more information on that release.

I see that you like to do book reviews.  What do you look for in a book?

I look for a good synopsis. If your synopsis can hold me then I use the Look Inside feature and read the first chapter of the book.  Of course if I’m still interested then I purchase the book and continue reading.

Were books a large part of your childhood?

Yes, as a child I was obsessed with reading anything I could get my hands on. Some of my favorite authors are still: John Green, Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steel and Gayle Forman. Of course, I couldn’t have gotten through grade school without Judy Blume or Goosebumps.

In your opinion, what does it take to be a writer?

No matter what kind of writer, you have to have an active imagination, a way to tell your story, and of course keeping it interesting. The hardest thing about being a writer is finishing your story, seeing it through from beginning to end.

What’s your life like outside of writing?

I am a mother of a beautiful 9-year-old girl and just recently got engaged on Christmas Eve of 2017. I work a full-time office job as well as writing on the side. I am still an avid reader. Right now, I just got done binge watching the Harry Potter collection.

Tea or coffee?

I don’t even like tea. I am 100% a coffee FIEND. I write often at coffee shops. When I write, I always have a cup of coffee by my side. =)

Do you have other books in the works?

I have about 20 unfinished manuscripts at the moment, all of which are half-written. I have three books coming out in 2019. I have not released exactly what books on what dates yet but I will announce this in March 2018.

Be sure to check out Ashley’s website, follow her on Twitter at @authorashleyg, and like her on Facebook.  Her books can be found on Amazon.

 

 

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Book Review: Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

Okay, I know you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I completely did.  I mean, just look at this thing.  Every time I went to Barnes & Noble, this book was practically dancing and singing on the shelf, begging me to take it home.

I resisted at first, but that’s pretty much just because I’m a ridiculous tightwad unless I’m buying something for my kids.  Also, I was a little worried that it might be too “heavy.”  It’s about a mission to Saturn, and while I’m not afraid of heavy reading, I’m not always in the mood for it.

It turns out I didn’t have to be.  When I finally decided that I had to buy the book even if it was just so I could look at the pretty cover on my shelf, I discovered a story that was riveting and thrilling while also being very real.  It was surprisingly down-to-Earth for a story about space, and I loved it.

Saturn Run is the story of an urgent flight to Saturn (and a race against the Chinese to get there first) when the possibility of a visit by an alien spaceship is discovered.  You couldn’t possibly tell a story so big from just one viewpoint, so the authors didn’t.  This a character-driven plot, focusing on how the mission affected the different people involved in it.  There are a lot of characters, but they’re all very deep, distinguishable, and memorable.  While the novel outlines the political aspects of space travel, it emphasizes the direct impact on the characters involved.  The viewpoint changes numerous times, even within chapters, but it’s so seamless that it only adds to the story.

Although Saturn Run falls doubtlessly in the category of science fiction, it also just might be creating a new genre of “science really-could-happen-in-the-timeframe-specified.”  The author’s note in the back (which you can’t read until you’ve read the story) shows just how much prep work the authors did for this novel, including plotting orbits and calculating the engine specifics of the starships involved.  While the science is not what we have today, there was nothing as Star Trek-y as a transporter or a tractor beam (although those could have been quite useful to some of the characters).  Sandford and Ctein took current science and advanced it by fifty years without throwing in a lot of magic and fantasy.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in science fiction.  I even finished the last third of it with a terrible head cold because I just couldn’t put it down!

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