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Monday, April 14, 2014

Why You Should Read (and Write) Fiction

Every English teacher has known it since the beginning of time. Reading fiction increases our capacity to relate to others by seeing the world with different eyes. Research backs this up.

In her article "Reading Literature Makes Us Nicer and Smarter" (http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/), Annie Murphy Paul cites research suggesting, among other things, that fiction develops empathy.

When a reader empathizes, she feels what a character is feeling, exists where the character exists, and temporarily sees through that character's point of view. This can carry over to a reader's own life, making it easier for her to relate to and understand family members, coworkers, and even adversaries.

More than once, reading has managed to do this for me. Through the pages of a good novel, I've experienced important moments where old prejudices were eroded, long-held beliefs were adjusted, and opinions that differed from my own were carefully considered. By vicariously experiencing the world through fictional character's lives, I experience an increased capacity to empathize with others.

This should be sobering information for any person who reads or writes. Words--especially those used to tell compelling stories--have the potential to change the world for better (or worse).  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Writing: Putting Your Soul on the Line

Sharing what you've written is like exposing a piece of your soul to the world. You've peeled back the armor, opened yourself to attack, and the sad reality is, no matter how good you are (or hope you are), you'll never please everyone.

There's nothing more gratifying than discovering a reader enjoyed - or even loved - something you wrote. But nothing punches holes in your self-esteem like finding, after months or years of exhausting work, that you failed a particular reader. Never mind that a hundred other readers liked it. One person viewed a piece of your soul and found it lacking.

A few month's ago, I dreamed I donated a copy of one of my books to a local library. The librarian accepted it, said she'd put it on a shelf, and, as I was leaving, dropped it into the nearest trash can. I turned to retrieve it, but before I reached the waste basket, she decided she might be able to give it away to some of the library's teen patrons. She offered it with a stack of other reject books. The young readers eagerly searched through the stack and took every book but mine.

I'd hate to hear what Sigmund Freud would say about this dream. I don't want to know, so please don't tell me. It speaks, however, to every author's hopes and fears. Will someone like my book? Anyone?

So why do we it? Why put our ideas, feelings, and mental images on the line? There might be a masochist gene hidden inside every author. There's definitely something that makes writing as important to us as eating, drinking, and breathing. (Definitely more important than sleeping. I give up lots of sleep to write.)

Maybe we do it for the readers we do manage to please. Thank you readers. Thank you for loving books and giving authors' souls a chance.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Goodreads Giveaway

I'm doing my first Goodreads Giveaway ever! If you're a Goodreads member and want to enter, click here for your chance to win a free copy of THE ISIS STONE. Goodreads will pick the contest winner on November 10, 2013.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sneak Peek: The Dominion Scepter

Here's a sneak peek of The Isis Stone's upcoming sequel, The Dominion Scepter:



Prologue


Warwick, Rhode Island — March 11, 2011
Images of me as an infant, a toddler—all the progressions of my life up to my teen years—fill the faux-leather album in front of me. I examine a glossy photo showing me in a lacy white bassinet, another as a cherub-fisted two year-old seated under a Christmas tree. Mom carefully captured and saved the most important moments of my still young life until a drunk driver took her life away.
I pause at a photograph of us sitting together on our front porch swing, one of the last we took together. We’re laughing. We have the same dimples at the corners of our mouths, the same dark hair, and the same blue eyes. Through a protective plastic sheet, I carefully trace her face. Then I turn my finger over and stare at my already fading scar.
Mom was real. So is this scar. But the memories I associate with the injury can’t be as real as the ones in the photo album. And yet, every time I close my eyes, I see terrifying images of Egypt’s underworld.
I’m not talking about shady drug deals going down on back streets. I’m meaning the ancient Egyptian version of the realm of the dead. I still see animal-headed neteru crowding around me in the Hall of Judgment. I see the tearful farewell with Ant and Shenra right before I drew the tyet’s sharp edge across my finger.
I shake my head. The memories are so vivid, and yet they must be lies. Hallucinations brought on by the bump I received on my head when an empty tomb’s entrance collapsed beneath me.
Dad took me to a doctor the moment we got back from Egypt. I protested, but he insisted.
“You don’t take chances with head injuries, Brookie. We need to make sure you don’t have a concussion.”
No concussion. Nothing that will cause any permanent damage.
But I didn’t tell Dad or the doctor about my disturbing visions.
“Taking a stroll down memory lane, Sunshine?”
I slap the album’s cover shut and slide it across the coffee table away from me.
“I needed a break from that stupid essay I’m working on. I wish June would get here already so I could graduate.”
“Ah, graduation! And you know what that means, don’t you?”
“What? A nice relaxing break from academics?”
“Absolutely not! We need to get you started on Brown’s summer session anthropology courses.”
“What if I decide I’m going someplace other than Brown and going into some program besides archaeology?”

“My heart!” Dad gasps, staggering drunkenly into a wall. “Sharp…pains. Can’t…breathe.” He holds both hands over his chest.
He's taking this better than I thought he would.
“Funny, Dad. But I’m being serious. I don’t know if I want to be an archaeologist. That’s your thing. Not mine.”
“Whatever you decide on, Brookie, you need to make your decision soon. You’ll be turning eighteen this summer, and I’ll be able to legally kick you out of the house.”
“Thanks, Dad. I love you, too.”
“Don’t mention it. Anything for my Sunshine.”
Dad grins at me, ruffles my hair (which he knows I hate!), and gets the TV remote from the coffee table.
“You don’t mind if I watch a little news, do you? I want to see if anything new is happening with the situation in Egypt.”
“Go ahead. I’ll watch it with you.”
Since the protests at Tahrir Square and our own frightening experience there, Dad has become a cable news junkie. Part of it is because of his interest in these history changing events, but I think an even bigger part of it is his desire for things to calm down enough so he can finish his work at the dig site. He also misses working with his Egyptian friends. Especially Hossam.
We came home early because of me. I know he says it was because of the political situation, but I think my injuries and the fact he nearly lost me in that tomb were the real deciding factors.
Dad zips through channels until he finds a station without commercials, and he stops here and gawks at the screen. A reporter’s tense voice seizes my attention.
“…Initial reports indicate that a megathrust earthquake near Japan’s coast triggered the tremendous destruction we’re now viewing…”
 I see cars swirling out of parking lots, blazing buildings surfing on a vicious, roiling wave. A fishing boat smashes itself against a tilting concrete barrier and splinters itself into floating toothpicks.
Dad lets out a long, low whistle.
“We’re already receiving reports about bodies scattered along Sendai’s coastline and possible concerns at a nuclear power plant northeast of Tokyo. The destruction is horrific, the ultimate death toll still unknown.”
 A new image appears on the screen, and my stomach clenches. I turn to see if Dad sees what I’m seeing, but he’s reading the scrolling words along the bottom of the screen.
Another view of the tsunami, but this time a monolithic serpent’s long translucent body twists sidewinder-like through the frothing gray water.
The wave hits an oil refinery and scorching flames erupt. The serpent rises up in the flames, becoming a part of them, arching and hissing and spitting.
I look at Dad again. He’s watching the images now but obviously doesn’t see the giant snake.
Apep!
 A familiar voice whispers the serpent’s name in my head.
I was supposed to return. I was supposed to return and stop him. But I didn’t, and now the incarnation of chaos has been unleashed.
“Brooke!”
Dad catches me as I fall forward off the couch.
“Brooke! Are you okay?”
I’m not okay. I forgot my friends and my mission. I’ve failed their world and my own.



Chapter One

 No one’s saying anything about massive sea serpents in any of the newspapers or on any TV stations. Apparently I’m the only crackpot in the universe who saw Apep surfing a destructive tsunami.
Maybe I was hallucinating.
I want to believe that. Oh, do I want to believe that! It’s far less terrifying than the alternative. But somewhere deep inside I know I was actually there. Isis’s tyet—a magical jasper amulet—transported me to the Egyptian underworld and then returned me. I still feel the Duat’s gritty sand stuck under my fingernails even though there’s nothing there when I obsessively examine them.
“Hey! Watch where you’re going, klutz!”
I take a moment to regain my balance before turning to stare into a pair of accusing green eyes.
Miranda Patterson. Cheerleader. Student officer. My arch nemesis since junior high school. I bite back the awkward apology I was about to mumble and match her piercing gaze with a fiery glare of my own.
“Maybe you should get your eyes checked before you injure someone.”
I’m chambering a few shells in my own verbal shotgun when he steps between us. I open my mouth, words momentarily failing me. I freeze and gape at him.
“What’s going on, hot stuff?”
Hot stuff?
I think he’s talking to me until Miranda wraps her long arms around his neck and plants a wet kiss on his lips.
“It’s nothing, Logan. Walk me to my class.”
Her arms slither off his neck, and she tugs on his arm, but he stands motionless and gazes at me.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Same brown eyes. Same broad shoulders. He’s wearing a faded Titan’s football jersey, and when I look down, I see a familiar pair of high-tops on his size 13 feet. He looks just like he did in that last crazy dream I had about Osiris.
“Maybe you’ve seen me in the cafeteria or in the hall.”
 “You don’t know her from anywhere,” Miranda says, teeth clenched. “Come on. She’s a waste of your time.”
“No. Really. I swear we know each other from somewhere. Have we had a class together? Do you perform on the dance team?”
Miranda snorts, and I resist the powerful urge to rip out a handful of her long blonde hair.
“Maybe I have one of those faces that looks familiar to everybody.”
“Yeah… Maybe that’s it.”
He looks uncertain and faintly disappointed. Miranda sees it and bristles.
“It was nice to meet you…um…”
“Brooke,” I say.
“Yeah. Nice to meet you, Brooke. I’m Logan. Logan Tanner.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Logan.”
Miranda, fuming now, pulls him away from me and forcefully tows him down the hall. He glances back at me twice before Miranda puts enough distance between us for the milling locker crowd to block me from sight.
“You had to give her your name? Why not your phone number and address with it?”
Even after I can no longer see them, her angry voice travels back to me.
I smile. He remembered me. Well, sort of. Wadjet told me I would need something called the ‘Dominion Scepter’ to awaken his Osiris memories.
Wadjet. Is she real? I’m still trying to figure out whether my memories of the Duat are from an actual experience or freakishly vivid dream.
Dorothy ended up in Oz again. I shiver. The Duat isn’t half as nice.
Wadjet said I would find him when I least expected it. Well, dream or not, that much has happened. But I would have appreciated a little advance warning about the evil-girlfriend situation.
What now? I know where to find him and who to find him with. Wadjet said Dad could point me in the direction of the Dominion Scepter. We’ll see how real all of this is when I bring that subject up at home tonight.
I’m going to be late for class if I stand here like a petrified tree worrying about it. I have Math with Mr. Parcell next, and he doesn’t tolerate tardiness.
There’s a line at the door when I get to his room. Homework! We have an assignment due today! I search quickly for my finished equations and tear them carefully out of my notebook. Mr. Parcell won’t accept my paper if it has what he calls “dangling chads” along its edge. He also doesn’t accept work after the second bell rings—whether you’re in line or not—and makes you turn it in after class for reduced credit. I’m still struggling with the make-up work left over from my trip to Egypt. I can’t afford a loss of points.
I never come late to class, but I’m cutting it close today. Seeing ‘Osiris’ right here at school has disconcerted me.
He recognized me. That has to mean something. Or maybe it means nothing at all.
I shake my head. I’m so confused. I hand my paper to Mr. Parcell exactly three quarters of a second before the bell rings.
Behind me I hear angry grumbles and annoyed moans as Mr. Parcell refuses to take any more papers. I hurry to my seat and slump into it. I wonder how difficult it will be to find Logan again now that I know we go to the same school.
And that’s not even the hard part. The worst of it is going to be telling him who he really is:
“Hey, Logan. You don’t remember this, but you’re really the ancient Egyptian god Osiris. And I’m not really Brooke Caldwell. I’m Isis, and I’ve just returned from a trip to the Egyptian underworld. And, by the way, you and I are supposed to be a couple and you need to go back with me. So what are you doing together with that vicious, evil little—”
I cut these thoughts short and shake my head. I’ll sound like a lunatic if I bring it up that way.
But this is assuming I decide to bring it up at all. Which I haven’t. Even if I wanted to return to the underworld, I don’t know how.
“Pop quiz!” Mr. Parcell announces, startling me out of my thoughts.
More grumbling. This time from the entire class. I put my elbows on the desktop and hold my throbbing head as the teacher walks around the room dropping quizzes on desks.
Maybe I do want to go back to the Duat. All I have to worry about there are scheming nedsu, flesh-eating scarabs, and one giant, rampaging chaos-serpent.
I look again at the scar on my index finger. In the Duat my blood was magic. Maybe if I start writing on my paper in blood, the equations and story problems will solve themselves.
It’s a tempting thought, but I have this thing against sharp objects and self-mutilation. When I drew blood in the Duat, it was always an act of desperation—an attempt to save my own life or the lives of others. I think I’ll save any magic that might linger inside me for similar emergencies.
The sound of pencils scratching on paper brings back a memory of Seshen sharpening her claws on a stone pillar in the House of Isis. It sounds so similar that I lift my eyes and search the room for the white sphinx.
I massage my temples again. This is no good. I’m too wound up to take this stupid math quiz. What I really need to do is go home, take a few ibuprofen, and nap for awhile. I need to get this crazy notion that I actually visited ancient Egypt’s underworld out of my head.
If Dad’s not teaching one of his university classes, I’m sure he’ll come and pick me up. He’s still worried about the head trauma at the dig site even though the family doctor said I’m okay.
I raise my hand, and Mr. Parcell, looking impatient, leaves his desk and paces over to me.
“Mr. Parcell… I’m not feeling well. May I go to the front office and call my dad?”
“You’re not feeling well, or you don’t want to take this quiz?”
What kind of stupid question is that? Of course I don’t want to take the quiz.
But you can’t say something that disrespectful to a teacher. Not if you want to make your father happy by getting accepted to an Ivy League school.
“I can try to finish it first if you want me to, but I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
He considers my request more carefully now. After a moment, he takes my paper and nods his head.
“You can come in before or after school to finish the quiz. It will be marked on your grade as a zero until you’ve made the necessary effort to complete it.”
“All right. Thank you.”
I gather my notebook and textbook into my arms and head for the door, but on the way out, I glance at the long mirror by the door and stop dead in my tracks.
Something large and feline with eyes like night stares back at my reflection. My breath catches in my throat. I spin toward my empty desk. But whatever was there—if there even was something there—has vanished into thin air.
Satnebat!
I know my sphinx’s face. She was reclining in the aisle. But that’s not possible. I watched Am-heh kill her, watched him carry her to the bottom of the Lake of Fire in his pitchfork teeth.
I wipe my sweaty forehead with the back of my hand.
“Brooke? Are you all right?”
“What? Oh… Yes… I’m fine.”
Mr. Parcell watches me, concerned, as I stumble out the door.
Chaos serpents. The ghosts of dead sphinxes. They’ve followed me from the Duat. Wadjet warned me I wouldn’t be safe. But, yet again, a little more information would have been highly useful. Like when and where the first attempt on my life would take place. Yeah. I could have used that vital piece of information, Miss Wadjet.
“You!”
It sounds like a hiss even though there are no hissing consonants in the word.
Miranda pulls me into the empty custodial closet, fingers clenched around my throat, and pins me against the wall.
There’s something wrong with her eyes. Her pupils have narrowed into reptilian slits, and my body goes limp as I stare into those slits, unable to look away.
In her free hand, Miranda holds a gray utility knife, and she extends its thin, razor-sharp blade with a metallic snick.
“You…,” she breathes again. “You should have never come back here. You should have realized I would be waiting.”
I would love to comment on this—maybe ask a few questions—but I can’t draw any air into my lungs. My esophagus is pinched closed.
“Miranda?”
We both turn our eyes to the open door. Logan Tanner stares in at us, eyes widening when he sees the knife in Miranda’s fist.
“Randa! What are you doing?”
“Stay out of this!” she hisses and strikes him a glancing blow with the back of her fisted knife hand.
He flies backward, hits the floor, and slides until his skull makes contact with the opposite wall.
I’d worry about head injuries, but he’s on the football team. I’m sure this isn’t the first time he’s suffered head trauma. In fact, I’d place money on it. It’s the only explanation for the fact that he’s Miranda’s boyfriend.
And, all resentment aside, I have a pressing problem of my own. Miranda’s inhumanly strong fingers are crushing my windpipe like an empty aluminum can. My vision is starting to turn black around the edges, and a few more moments of this is going to send me on a one-way trip into the afterlife.
My attacker is merciless. There’s no compassion on her face. It’s like looking into a cobra’s eyes.
A cobra…
I stiffen. I know those facial expressions. I know those hate-filled reptilian eyes. Struggling with renewed urgency, I claw at Miranda’s thin fingers.
She laughs. She doesn’t even feel the gouges left by my fingernails.
“Wadjet isn’t here to save you this time, O Great Queen of the Duat, Isis.”
She brings the utility knife closer to my face, and I grab at her wrist, knowing my effort to stop her will be futile in the end.
Issssfet is loosed,”she hisses. “Apep has risen. My new master beckons me to him. But before I go, you and I have unfinished business to settle.”
She parts her lips in a murderous smile, and a forked black tongue darts in and out between her fang-like teeth.
“What the…”
Logan is on his feet again, staring at his girlfriend with wide-eyed revulsion.
“Miranda… What is… What are…”
She turns her slit-eyes on him, and, for a moment, her expression softens.
“Stay out of this, my love,” she whispers.
I move quickly. I release her wrist and jab my index finger against the utility knife’s painfully sharp blade. Blood spurts. Before she can stop me, I swipe the bloody finger across her pale forehead.
Miranda turns on me and snarls. She moves her fangs toward my throat, but the bloody streak on her forehead has reshaped itself into a glowing ankh—the ancient Egyptians’ symbol of life.
“Ankh…,” I rasp through half-numbed lips. “Udja… Senb…”
The glowing symbol sinks into my enemy’s flesh. She releases me and staggers back, and a blinding white halo engulfs her body.
I cover my ears as a high-pitched scream rips through her lips. It’s a scream of pain and rage and hatred. The light fades, and the nebulous image of a cobra swirls around Miranda’s limp, suspended body. The misty serpent blows like tattered rags into the shadows, and Miranda falls lifelessly to the floor.
I slump against a shelf, holding my throat, gasping for breath. Someone brushes past me—Logan—and kneels next to Miranda.
“She’s still breathing,” he says. “I think she’s all right.”
Better than I’ll be. I probably have bruises around my neck.
“What was that?” Logan asks, looking at me. “What… What happened to her?”

“Hetepes-Sekhus,” I answer.
“Hepatitis what?”
Logan’s eyes widen. He drops Miranda’s hand and scoots away.
“Isn’t that…like…something infectious?”
“Why? Have you two been doing things you ought to be worried about?”
My question comes out sharper than I intended
“N-no,” Logan stammers. “Of course not. We haven’t even kissed. Much.  I’ve only known her since…”
He stops. He looks confused.
“I…I don’t remember how long. It’s all kind of foggy now.”
“She doesn’t have hepatitis,” I say, closing my eyes. “Or any other infectious disease. She was possessed by Hetepes-Sekhus’s akh.”
 “Hetep-It-Who’s what?”

“It’s a long story. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Logan stares at me until I shift my eyes away.
“I just watched you cast some kind of snake-shaped mist creature out of my girlfriend’s body. I might believe more than you think.”
I almost consider spilling everything, including the bizarre details about me being the Egyptian goddess Isis—minus most of her memories—in a mortal body. But the sound of swift, authoritative footsteps interrupts our conversation.
Someone heard Miranda’s screams. Now there’s going to be another kind of explaining to do.
“That stuff about the bright light and the snake…,” Logan whispers. “I shouldn’t say anything about that, should I?”
“Not unless you want to end up in the hospital’s psychiatric ward.”
“Right. That stays between you and me.”
He gives me a nervous grin. My heart responds with an annoying flutter.
And then a principal, a guidance counselor, and two concerned teachers arrive at the closet door. I can already sense this is going to be a very long day.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Confessions of a Self-Publishing Addict

Okay. I'll admit it. My name is Alasdair Grant, and I'm a recovering self-publishing addict. You know the type. I'm the kind who checks his Kindle Direct Publishing account 15,000 times a day to see how many people have been downloading his free ebook.

Did I mention I'll be giving out freebies next weekend? Download a copy. And tell all your friends to do it. If you do, I promise you the warm feeling of helping a recovering KDP addict move into one of Amazon's Top 100 lists for a day or two.

I started self-publishing one fateful summer while seeking ways to escape the depression of endless rejections from heartless publishers. It began with one self-published book a year. Then it escalated to two. Soon I started uploading titles under three different aliases to escape the shame and ignominy of what I was doing.

For anyone at risk for this addiction, here are a few things I learned while traveling down this troubled path. Hopefully, you can avoid hitting rock bottom like I did.

1. The Cover Means EVERYTHING! 

I recently changed the cover of an older book to make it look more like everything else in its category. You would think different would stand out. You would think it would grab attention, gain some interest, and boost sales. Guess again! Readers like covers that visually tell them they're getting something similar to what they already like to read. Like it or not, we all judge books by their covers.

My agent, Marlene, tactfully clued me into this when I asked for her opinion on a title I wanted to try out on Amazon. I changed that cover. I went back to another novel and changed its cover, too. Using the second cover change as my guinea pig, I scheduled a promotion. I went from a measly 13 downloads with the original to over 1,000 with the new.

This isn't helpful when you're trying to overcome an addiction. You become temporarily intoxicated with a false sense of success. Then you start selling copies and... Well, you're intelligent enough to see where this is going.

Some self-published authors are shameless when it comes to cover matching. Last night I spotted a cover that looked suspiciously identical to one for a different author in the same genre. When I found the original book, my suspicions were confirmed. Same girl on the front, similar color scheme, image resized and flipped.

2. Some Days Are Better Than Others

Amazon's top days for sales (not really a surprise) are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Ideally, a promo ending just before the weekend should bring you some sales. Realistically, unless your book is already high enough on Amazon's bestseller list, not a lot of readers will find it Monday through Thursday. To get my books into more readers' hands, I've found better success running a first-time promotion over the weekend. (Or on a holiday like Labor Day!) Then, with any luck, a few reviews will roll in and readers will start adding your novel on Goodreads.

3. Advertise!

Here's another confession. I'm a cheapskate and don't like to risk money on something I'm giving away for FREE. I recently made a wonderful discovery. It's called The Free Kindle Book Submission Tool, and it's available at authormarketingclub.com.

After pulling out fistfuls of hair searching for inexpensive places to advertise, imagine my joy at finding all those meticulously searched out sites congregated on a single web page. Author Marketing Club allows you, with one click, to jump to each site's author submission page. It's quick, it's easy, and it will allow you to step away from your addiction much sooner.

4. Use Social Media

I know little about using social media. I'm still not sure how to use Twitter other than for giving stalkers vital information about my whereabouts. (11 minutes ago: Going to Starbucks for coffee. 5 minutes ago: Leaving town for the weekend. House keys are under the doormat.) Fortunately, my children are web-extroverts. They have about nine million 'friends' they've never met. A year after they put a promo pitch on their Facebook pages, I'm still getting sales for that book from the seventeen to thirty-something crowd.

5. Bigger Is Not Always Better

I like my portions super-sized just as much as the next middle-aged man, but thinking too big in self-publishing can be dangerous. What I'm referring to is targeting an ebook for the biggest, most popular Amazon category. This is an excellent tactic for losing your ebook in a vast, faceless crowd.

Here's what I'm talking about: If your novel can be categorized as either paranormal or fairy tales, myths, and legends, you'll have a much shorter ladder to the top with myths and legends than you will with paranormal. Narrow your audience down. Be as specific as possible.

I've made my confessions, and I'm putting this behind me now. I will not check my KDP account today. I won't do it! I'm stronger than this addiction!

And, then again, maybe I'm not...