Finding New Reads

books-colorfulFinding a new book to read is like going on a treasure hunt. I open the pages, hoping to immerse myself in a new world and get involved with characters I start to care about.

Sometimes it works out that way. Other times, the adventure turns into a slog through an unreadable or just mind-numbingly stupid mess. Or something in between.

But there is a way to find new reads without spending a lot of money. I subscribe to two book referrals services, and there are lots more.

Here’s how they work.

You tell them what genres you like to read and supply your email. Then you’ll get daily updates about books, all available in electronic formats. Many of the books are free; few are more than $3.99. Keep in mind, the deal won’t last for more than a few days, so if you want the book, go ahead and get it.

I’ve learned to check the reviews before getting any of these books. A novel can have a hundred glowing reviews, but still be pretty bad. The negative reviews can reveal major flaws, objectionable language or other information that would cause me to pass.

In case you haven’t tried one of these services, here are some of the bigger ones:

Book Bub has loads of categories, ranging from Advice and How-to to Thrillers, and all kinds of other popular genres. They sell through the largest retailers: amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple iBooks, Google Play and Kobo.

Book Barbarian caters to the science fiction and fantasy reader. Like Book Bub, most of the books are free or heavily discounted. They work with the major ebook distributors, so you can read your books on computer, phone, tablet or Ereader.

What Should I Read Next

Another great site to try is Simply type in the title or the author of a book you’ve enjoyed. A few choices will pop up. Click on the best match, and the site will generate a list of similar books.

Which Book

Found at, Which Book lets you set criteria for what you’re looking for. They have a list of 12 criteria (happy vs sad, no sex vs lots of sex, and so on.). You can click on a criterion and adjust the slider as you please, choosing up to 4 to manipulate. Then the site generates a list of books that fit your choices. No reviews are given, so you’ll have to look them up on your own.

Are you up for trying any of these? Let me know what new favorites these sites help you uncover!

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What Trump and Hillary Have Taught Me About Writing

presidential-election-1336480_640When I take a step back from my reactions to the churning of this never-ending election season, I realize it is providing great fodder for my writing.

Here’s what I mean.

During the past few months, we have some revelation of some low-down dastardly dealings by one of the candidates. Opponents pounce, declaring him/her to be the Worst.Person.Ever.

Reactions from supporters, however, vary. Some will be somewhat intellectually honest and admit that yes, their candidate was wrong to say x or do y.

Others will twist themselves in knots that would make a sailor proud trying to explain away or even defend the offensive speech or behavior.

That intrigues the writer in me. Do these people really believe the words that are coming out of their mouths? Or do they so passionately want their candidate to win (or the other to lose) that they will say anything to try to help the cause?

What does all this have to do with writing?

I see two major lessons.

The first is people often don’t really say what they are thinking or believe. As in the case of those who are becoming human pretzels to defend Donald Trump’s choice of language on multiple occasions. Or those who try to defend Hillary Clinton’s laughter as she recounts getting a 41-year-old man off a charge of raping a twelve-year old girl when she knew he was guilty, and she won her case by destroying evidence and blaming the victim.

So if people don’t really say what they believe, or resort to verbal gyrations to defend an indefensible position, then that provides some guidance for writing great dialogue, dialogue that sounds true to life.

Especially when the reader knows the person is lying, and the other characters don’t.

There are many ways to have a character win an argument, especially if they don’t have facts or right on their side. Name calling, playing holier than thou, ignoring the other person’s argument, willfully misunderstanding and misquoting, all these tactics can work.

The other lesson is in creating villains. Donald Trump fits too many stereotypes. Billionaire, crude, bombastic, he’d be too easy to make a caricature of.

But Hillary. The grandma in a pantsuit, claiming to be the champion of the poor and downtrodden, while behind closed doors telling people she has public and private positions, and allegedly destroys those who get in her way.

She could be the basis for someone really interesting, like a fictional character with completely different public and private personas. Or someone who started out with high ideals, out to save the world, determined to succeed. The zeal for the cause corrupted her, and she became an obsessive monster.

I think there’s a start of a novel here.







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The Upside of Second Place

silver-medalThree times I’ve competed in the short story contest my writer’s group holds each year.

Three times I’ve come in second.


Coming in second is that place of being where you wonder if you’d just made a little bit more effort you could have won. Could I have tweaked a little more, found a better word or a fresher metaphor? What could I have altered that would have vaulted my story into first place?

The downside of second, apart from that not-quite-good-enough feeling is the temptation to listen to the voice of the inner critic.

You know, the one who says, “You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough. There’s no point in trying.”

There’s lots of quotes from successful people who say second place is a place for losers. Not exactly a motivating thought.

But if I remind myself to tune out the inner critic and listen to the voice of reason (when it does bother to speak), I get a different message.

First, second place is better than third. And it’s a whole lot better than fourth, or last.

Most people never make it to second place. So it’s a position to be celebrated. As Lauren Alaina said,

“I didn’t lose. I got second. That’s still winning.”

Second is the place that just a little more effort can put you into first. Second is where you dig a bit deeper and make yourself better than you thought you could be.

Second can be a very motivating place to be. The only losers in second place are the ones who allow it to discourage them from pursuing their dreams, or who are content with second.

The true winners who come in second are the ones that rejoice that they did as well as they did, and then channel that joy into making greater efforts to get to first.

And that’s where I am today.

The goal of the contest is to help us all become better writers, so everything learned by participating is valuable. I’ve learned a lot over the years about dialogue and scene, and how to tighten up the action or create conflict or suspense.

And besides, sometimes an early victory can lead to a later defeat.

Just think about the movie Star Wars. The original movie won awards only in the technical and soundtrack categories. But it went on to become the first in a wildly popular franchise that has made millions.

So it goes to show. Awards don’t mean everything. But they sure can be nice.

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Urgent Doesn’t Always Mean Important

housewife-23868_640I love reading books written in the early twentieth century, because they give a glimpse of the attitude of the people of the day toward the amazing, almost daily changes in technology. New inventions that had been just a dream, or the stuff of Jules Verne became realities.

But these advances were not without a down side.

In several books, characters commented on the introduction of the new-fangled telephone, and what having that device installed meant for them.

The phrase “living at the mercy of the telephone” summed it all up.

A shrill bell began to dictate that they drop whatever they were doing and respond to whoever wanted to talk with them.

So modern life began, an era when anyone can get in touch with us at almost any moment. For some reason, a telephone caller became more important than the person sitting in front of us. Or the work we were so diligently trying to complete.

Now there are a myriad of ways for people to find us, to interrupt us, to distract us.

Which isn’t good for getting things done. No wonder there’s a new productivity guru every day, with a new system or magic tips to help us.

When I boil down all their advice, it comes to a few simple things.

Get rid of distractions, they all say. Facebook, twitter, the football game, even the cell phone. Turn them off, mute them, remove them from your reach. All those annoying pings that tell you someone has sent you a message? Either turn them off or put your phone somewhere you can’t hear it.

Banishing distractions is just the first step.

The next one is to figure out what’s important.

We know the distractions are not. That’s why we call them distractions.

But we respond to them because they are urgent. Those tones, beeps, and chirps all signal us to think if someone is calling, it might be important.

What we fail to remember is that what is urgent is not always important.

The truth is whatever the caller wants, it’s rarely so critical that it’s worth stopping what you are already doing. You can make your weekend plans later. Or chat with your sister later. Or even answer your financial advisor at another time.

Whatever it is, it can probably wait the hour or so it will take you to finish what you are doing, or at least come to a good stopping place.

And this is the trick. We’ve all become so accustomed to instant answers, we subconsciously feel we need to provide them.

We don’t. We need to learn to screen out the tasks that are screaming “I’m urgent! Pay attention to me!” and listen to the tasks that more quietly request our attention, the ones that truly are important.

I write this for me, as I try to schedule in time to revise my novel. Hope it help some of you finish what’s important in your life, and to put off the merely urgent.



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Benefits of Beta Readers


Or, Fortune Favors the Bold

readingNearly two years ago, I was stuck. I knew I couldn’t go any further with my novel without some help.

So I started looking for beta readers.

It’s not easy finding someone to read a draft of a novel, let alone find someone who will offer helpful criticism.

I submitted the first chapter to a few review sites and got some initial feedback. One person said my world building lacked something. He suggested I read the works of LE Modesitt as an example of awesome world building.

After reading one of Modesitt’s novels, I still didn’t know what to do. The other commenters offered conflicting advice.

Then I found one person who read the entire book. She had some helpful comments, but I wanted a bigger sample.

So I tried GoodReads.

This was an interesting and enlightening experience. I found a thread in the forum where people swapped beta reads.

Through the swap, I read some original and interesting novels, most of which were well-written and engaging. I offered my suggestions for improvement as diplomatically as I could.

Some of those who reviewed my book were not so kind. Snarky, condescending and downright insulting is what I would call the comments from one.

Another didn’t finish the book, stating while she thought the writing was good, there were too many unanswered questions, so she got too frustrated to continue.

That was interesting. It somewhat paralleled the “world building is lacking” comment from another reviewer.

At that point, I got distracted by some family issues and other projects, and kind of lost my nerve about reading the comments from the last two reviewers.

So a year later, I finally got back to the beta reading comments.

To my surprise, both of them offered thoughtful and detailed comments.

One suggested starting the story a little sooner, to give me a chance to show the world in a larger setting so readers would be more grounded in the world I’d created. Reading this comment was like having a light shine on a dark spot in my mind. I finally understood the “world building is lacking” comment, and the other reviewer’s frustration.

Now I know exactly how to fix this problem.

The other reviewer was very good at picking up times when characters acted out of character.

Both reviewers were good at picking up inconsistencies: “I thought he was already in the house” or “didn’t he just accuse her of the opposite?” They also spotted repetitions and noted scenes that seemed to make the action drag.

And I know what to do about all of this.

The lesson is that fortune favors the bold. I took the risk and put my work out there. Sure, I didn’t get rave reviews (not that I was expecting them at this point.) What I did get was enough encouragement to continue, and some specific ways to improve the telling of the story.

What a great feeling to be back on track!

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Reading for Summer Rainy days

raindrops-1127223_640Summers, I love to be outside. But when rainy weather keeps me indoors, there’s nothing like a great book.

Lately I’ve found several that drew me into their worlds and kept me there, entranced by the story and eager to know what happened to the characters.

The Pearl that Broke its Shell

The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi is one of those books that will stay in my mind for a long time. The stories of two Afghan women are woven together, showing the similarities of struggle and hardship they faced, even though they lived nearly 100 years apart.

Rahima is one of five daughter living under Taliban rule. Their drug-addicted father does nothing to support his family, and their only option is to use the ancient custom of bacha posh, or dressing a daughter like a son until she reaches marriageable age. Rahima is chosen for this role, and as a boy, can freely attend school, visit the market, or even just leave the house.

It comes to an end when a vicious warlord sees her and wants her as a wife. Just thirteen, her father gives her in marriage. Her life has gone from difficult drudgery to near slavery. Her aunt buoys her spirits with tales of her great-great grandmother, who also lived as bacha posh to build a life for herself.

The Pearl that Broke its Shell is difficult reading at time, as the conditions and hopelessness of the women’s lives is both heartbreaking and enraging. What emerges is a testimony to hope, that escapes can be found in the most unlikely ways. And that bad events may be what is needed to gain the courage to make a change.

The Keeper

I had been resisting Amish fiction for years. But the enduring popularity of the genre made me wonder. So I decided to give it a try.

The Keeper by Suzanne Woods Fisher is a romance starring Julia, whose fiancé has just postponed their wedding for the second time. It becomes clear to her that Paul’s cold feet are likely to be permanent. Then she finds out Rome, the Bee Man, was responsible for Paul’s change of heart.

How Julia navigates her family’s growing financial problems and deals with her conflicted feelings for both Paul and Rome is a sweet story. It wrapped up a little too neatly, but that’s a minor flaw. If you like clean romance, this is a great choice for you.

Contact Us

Contact Us by Al Macy is a new twist on the aliens-have-arrived theme. Everyone on Earth sneezes, at the exact same time. Before sense can be made of that event, an alien spacecraft appears and broadcasts a message of death and destruction. Bizarrely, the message is from an alien who has taken on the form of Walter Cronkite.

The alien seems to be both threatening and offering to be Earth’s only hope against another alien ship which is hovering around Jupiter. Jake Corby, ex-FBI troubleshooter, is called out of retirement to help the President’s team defeat the alien threats. The struggle to understand the motives of the alien before he causes more destruction kept my attention till the very last word.


Rift by Andreas Christensen is an interesting twist on a dystopian theme. A few hundred years after the disaster, it appears society has been rebuilt. The main characters are mostly several young people who have reached the age when they are assigned their roles in life. Most of the options aren’t very appealing, but some better than others. The smartest are chosen to be Students, the strongest, Janissaries, soldiers who defend the land’s northern borders. Others are chosen to be Wardens, who guard the western border and the Rift, the border of the wastelands. Others are sent to the Corpus, where they toil as slaves. Those not chosen live out their lives, but at fifty they are put to death. No resources can be wasted on those who can’t produce.

Sue and her friends are selected to be Janissaries and Wardens. They quickly learn that much of what they’ve learned was a lie. The more secrets she uncovers, the greater danger she finds herself in.

The world building got me hooked, and the characters kept me interested. This was so enjoyable I got the second book. Then I found out that the RIFT series follows another one. I’m intrigued enough to want to read that one as well.

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The Secrets of the Mud Room


Not a true story.

As long as I could remember, my great-aunt Sharon never used her back door, the one that led from her kitchen to the back yard.

Summers, she’d fill that back yard with a massive vegetable garden, growing everything from tomatoes to okra, onions to watermelons. I don’t think there’s a vegetable she didn’t try, at least once.

Some did better than others. The watermelon never got bigger than cantaloupes (and yes, she knew they were fruit. She just called the whole thing a vegetable garden.) The strawberries, on the other hand, took over and just about choked out the green beans. The corn, the one year she attempted it, didn’t grow higher than a dog’s eye, let alone an elephant’s.

Tomatoes and zucchini, those she could grow. We were eating salsa and zucchini bread long before they became popular. And if only iPhones were around then, we would have documented her zucchini lasagna, probably the first people in the world to eat it.

Raised beds of flowers circled the vegetables. Marigolds and begonias, impatiens and violets all raised a riot of color during much of the summer. The hostas and day lilies did their share as well, the cool green and white leaves of the hostas contrasting with the bright yellow of the lilies.

Aunt Sharon loved that garden. From dawn to dusk she’d toil away, weeding and deadheading, tilling and fertilizing, anxiously calculating how much water to give her tender plants. She’d only come inside for lunch, then head back again.

The odd thing was she’d never use the back door.

Even though her house had a large mud room at the back, she never set foot in it. She’d leave the house by the front door and walk all the way around, through the dim coolness of the side yard with its six maples and a birch, then get her tools from the garage that stood twenty feet away from the house. To go back inside, she’d repeat the journey. At the front door she’d shuck her gardening shoes and replace them with a pair of slippers she left just inside.

Even when she came home with groceries, she didn’t use the back door. And the time Uncle Otis fell on the ice and broke his leg, what did she do? She drove him up to the curb in the front and eased him up the long walkway with its eight steep steps and in through the front door. The back way was much shorter and had only two steps. Why Uncle Otis didn’t argue I never understood.

Sometimes I’d hear him, asking her if they could get it fixed. “It would be more convenient,” he’d say.

She’d always refuse, saying it worked fine and they didn’t need to spend the money. “Besides, it’s good exercise, taking a few extra steps.”

Once time she caught me with my hand on the door handle of that back door. “No!” She screeched so loud I jumped almost high enough to hit my head on the ceiling. “Never,” she told me, wagging a finger in my face, “never use the back door.”

I was too scared ask. But over the years I wondered what was in the mud room. Treasure? Dead bodies?

Not long after, I was spending the night with Aunt Sharon, snuggling down in the feather bed in her spare room. The silence of the night was only broken by the chirping of the cicadas and the gentle hum of the air conditioner.

A loud crash like a dozen pots and pans hitting the floor cracked the silence. I sat bolt up in bed, listening. Was that swearing I heard coming from below? Some of those words my ten-year-old ears had never heard. Surely that wasn’t my Uncle Otis?

No, it wasn’t. I heard the door to the other bedroom open. “I told you so,” said Aunt Sharon.

There was a low mutter that had to be Uncle Otis’s response.

Since neither of them seemed to disturbed by the ruckus below, I slid out of bed and went into the hall. “What’s going on?” I asked.

Aunt Sharon was already halfway down the stairs. “Come and see, boy. It’s time you learned a thing or two.”

Uncle Otis rolled his eyes and pointed down the stairs. “You might as well.”

The swearing got louder as we descended. Aunt Sharon led the way into the kitchen. My eyes widened as she marched over to the mud room and swung open the door. Finally, I would learn the secrets of the mud room.

The first thing I noticed was the open back door. Then a volley of cursing brought my attention to the mud room. Or rather, the gaping hole where the mud room floor should have been. Instead, there was a gaping hole. Leaning over to look, I could see two men, one lying on the floor clutching his ankle.

“It’s my burglar alarm,” Aunt Sharon said with a smirk. “My free burglar alarm. Otis here was after me to get one you had to pay for. Waste of money, I told him.”

She looked down through the whole at the two men, who were now demanding to be freed. “We had a flood here, years ago and the mud room floor fell in. So I got an idea. I just covered the hole with a mat. And I put hung all kinds of metal pots from the bottom of the mat so it would make a big crash if someone fell through.” She grinned at me. “I never locked the back door after that. If someone came to break in, they’d come in that way. And get caught.”

Uncle Otis hung his head, shaking it back and forth. “Ok, ok. It worked. Now can we fix the floor so we can use the back door again?”

“See?” she said, directing her words to me. “It worked, but he wants to give up on it. All to use the back door. For what? To save a little time? Time is what we’ve got, not money.”

When the police came, it took them awhile to understand just how Aunt Sharon caught two members of a gang that had been responsible for a rash of break ins in the area. Then it took longer for them to free the would-be burglars from their temporary jail to take them to another one.

As for Uncle Otis, I think he gave up on ever using the back door again.



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How to Get Unstuck Part 2

winning-1529402_640Last week, we took a look at two ways to get unstuck. Today we’ll look at three more

Third, aim high.

I think about Olympic athletes. None of the ones I heard interviewed said his life goal was to become high school champion. Or state champion.

Most of them said they knew they wanted to be Olympians from a very early age. That’s the goal they set their minds to. High school or state championships were just stepping stones to the real goal

Sometimes it’s our goals that are getting us stuck. We don’t set our sights high enough, so we only do what it takes to achieve them.

And our writing (or whatever it is we’re trying to do) never gets any better.

Sure, goals that are too ambitious can make us afraid to even try. But setting goals that challenge us just a little bit more can be the motivation we need to get moving. And to try just a little bit harder.

Another Olympics example. I was watching the women’s gymnastics individual finals. When it came to the vault, everyone knew that Simone Biles was going to win. The gold medal was hers to lose.

What did the other women do? They could have played it safe, and battled for the silver. Many of them rejected this path. They knew that their only hope of winning a gold was to do a much harder vault than they tried in the earlier competitions.

Several of them tried harder vaults, and failed. But had they succeeded, and Simone Biles not done her vaults perfectly, someone else could have gone away with the gold medal.

And that’s one way we can get ourselves motivated. To play for gold, not second best.

Fourth, celebrate your achievements.

Along the way to achieving those higher goals, you’ll hit many milestones. Celebrate each and every one.

And celebrate others. You finally come up with the perfect name for a character? Celebrate.

You manage to resolve a plot hole, or just edit a chapter or two.

Or you finally find a way to conquer your procrastination. (If that’s you, can you share your secret with me?)

Whatever the achievement, savor the moment. Remember that feeling. You’ll need that memory when things aren’t going quite so well.

But whatever you do, never give up!


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How To Get Unstuck Part I

DSC03289Once upon a time there was an ambitious young executive—we’ll call him Lance. He was doing all he could to climb the corporate ladder: he’d work late and volunteer for special projects. The one thing he was missing was face time with the CEO. Lance well understood that the political game was just as important as what he actually contributed to the company.

One evening he had his opportunity. He was working late one night and saw the CEO standing in front of the shredder with a piece of paper in his hand.

“Listen,” said the CEO, “this is a very sensitive and important document here, and my secretary has already gone for the night. Do you know how to make this thing work?”

Lance was thrilled at his opportunity to be perceived as helpful, knowledgeable, and competent. He put the paper into the shredder and hit the start button.

“Wonderful!” said the CEO as his document disappeared into the shredder. “I only need one copy.”

I’ve seen this story floating around the internet in various forms for years. But it resonates with me, and I’m sure many others, because we’ve all been there.

We try so very hard to achieve something, and disaster strikes. Or maybe we just get stuck. No matter what we do, we can’t make the progress we want to.

I’ve been in that same place with my writing. So instead of letting myself stay in the rut, I thought about ways to get out of it.

The first is to understand the task. What I am trying to accomplish? Our friend Lance assumed he know what his task was. And while I can’t fault him for assuming that the CEO knew the difference between a shredder and a copy machine, Lance could have avoided the catastrophe by simply articulating his understanding of the task.

“I’ll be happy to shred that for you,” would have made all the difference.

As I edit, I get bogged down because I’m trying to do too many things at once. I’d make far better progress by focusing on just one aspect, like character arcs, and making sure they work before moving on.

Second, going back to basics helps. Many pro athletes who end up in a slump will spend some time just on basic drills, the same ones they spent time on when they were just starting out. This is often all they need to get their performance back where it should be.

I know I’ve found that by just reviewing a good article on whatever I’m working on, whether it’s dialogue or setting can help me focus my thinking. I then can make my edits easier and end up with a better result.

That’s just two ways to get unstuck. Next week we’ll look at three more.

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The Story in the Picture

DSC01449If one picture tells a thousand words, then what does my collection of photos tell?

Thousands of stories, if I can only unleash them.

What stories could this Indian tree tell? We were told that the Indians used these trees to mark their trails. They’d bend the sapling the way they wanted, and the tree would grow with permanent angles.

This particular tree points the way to get from the bluff to the water. What if a government whistle-blower knew of the tree, and used it to hide stolen documents that could bring down a corrupt president? After the whistle blower is found dead (along with four other people who had come forward), it’s up to the last surviving member of the group to find the documents. All that’s left are vague clues and a blurred photograph. Will he find the hiding place in time to save his own life and bring a criminal official to justice?

And then sticking with the tree theme…

DSC01500A hiker in the mountains stumbles on these trees growing out of the side of a mountain. A sudden storm causes him to seek shelter under the roots of the tree. There he stumbles into…what?

Could it be a portal back in time, where he emerges just in time to get caught up in an earthquake that changes the course of a nearby river? Or could it be a cave that holds treasure? Or an air vent that leads to a secret underground lab, where scientists are splicing human and animal genes to create enhanced capabilities. In one experiment, they merge human genes with a cheetah’s, to try to create muscles that will allow men to run as fast as the animal.

The hiker overhears enough of what’s going on that he begins to investigate. Then the corporation behind these experiments finds out someone is asking questions, and the hiker finds himself in mortal peril.

162 cemetaryA cemetery holds a story for every death. This cemetery in Zambia tells a thousand variations on one melancholy theme: deaths from AIDS. So many die each day that it’s hard to keep up with the need for fresh graves. And many leave young children behind. How a pair of orphaned siblings build a new life for themselves and many other in the face of overwhelming odds leave a challenge and inspiration for the rest of us who haven’t suffered as much.

And then there’s the cat.

DSC02420What if a stray cat slipped into a hospital, and hid in the radiology department. Over time, the radiation builds up, and the cat somehow learns to read. A maintenance man finds the cat and takes it home. Then strange things start happening.

Stay tuned. Maybe someday I’ll turn one of these into a novel.



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