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Book review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

This is a review of the book The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which follows the life of nineteenth-century botanist Alma Whittaker.

As one of the few women of my demographic who has not read (nor seen) Eat Pray Love, I came at this book with no preconceived ideas about it or its author. Instead, I approached it with the enthusiasm of someone who is given a book by a person who knows them, with the hope it would be a good read. And I was not disappointed.

Gilbert’s tale is told with sufficient detail and background that I wasn’t sure for a long time whether its protagonist, Alma Whittaker, was a real historical figure or not. The information about her father is just wild enough to be true, especially considering his background, and the details of her early life and the characters of her mother and father are so well developed that it was really a toss-up for a long time as to whether this was a biography or a novel. (Of course, a simple Google search would have been enough to stem that debate, but to be honest it was one I rather enjoyed having with myself. It made the story that much more interesting.)

Alma Whittaker is herself an interesting character. Given the background Gilbert provides her with, it is unlikely she would have been anything else, but even that conclusion is testament to the quality of the narrative. We are told the story through Alma’s eyes, with her prejudices, beliefs and opinions sprinkled liberally throughout, but they make the story more compelling, not less. The arrival of her sister Prudence is stated with the bluntness of an eleven year old who had hitherto been the only child; her discovery later of the outcome of some of Prudence’s decisions means that not only she, but the reader, must delve back to reconsider the sisters’ behaviour in light of this new information. As we see through Alma’s eyes, we are forced to realise the limitations that perspective contains.

Other characters, too, are fascinating for both what they offer and what they cannot. The Dutch housekeeper Hanneke de Groot is a font of information – but only if you know how to ask for it. Alma’s father, Henry, is notable for his wide knowledge and fine acquisitions, but also for his lack of empathy and tenderness. Ambrose Pike, the artist who comes to stay at the Whittaker house, White Acre, is someone who can offer Alma what she wants, but not what she needs. And Prudence, who is to Alma little more than a footnote, is capable of much greater strength and self sacrifice than not only Alma believes, but also than of Alma herself.

Running parallel to the study in characters and their strengths and weaknesses (though not necessarily delving into character studies, so to speak) is the scientific narrative of biology in the 1800s. Alma chooses to study mosses, partly because she needs something to occupy her scientific mind while acting as the matron of her father’s house, and partly because they are convenient in that she does not need to leave the property to do so. Her deductions, however, are more far-reaching than even she could have conceived. She may need to travel to reach their conclusion, but the years at White Acre with her mosses stand her in excellent stead for the research to come.

The way Gilbert links Alma’s study with the wider scientific world of the 1800s is cleverly done, and so seamless it is, again, hard to differentiate this work from biography. Sure, Alma Whittaker is a fictional character, but that doesn’t make her presence in this world any less fascinating. In fact, I was almost wishing by the end that she had existed, as it would have added an extra dimension to the scientific activity of the era.

The Signature of All Things is, all told, a very cleverly written story about a character and situation so complex it almost seems incredible they have been invented. The narrative is smooth and the story compelling. All told, I can heartily recommend this book as a worthwhile and fascinating addition to any library.

 

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The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Bloomsbury
513 pages
Available as hardcover, paperback and e-book

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Getting all cultural

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

As I write this today, I’m confronted with the news of the sudden and tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Rumours abound about the method and manner of his departure, and his life is being condensed into thirty-second sound-bites for the television news. And I am finding it increasingly sad that he is being reduced to the sum of his filmography.

Now, I wasn’t a huge fan. Truth be told I would probably struggle to name three films he was in. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t mourn – for want of a better word – someone who made a big impact on the industry he chose to pursue. And it’s got me thinking about the culture of celebrity and what it’s all about.

Naturally this culture goes from the sublime (as an example, the earnest, in depth discussions people hold based on the teachings of a Nelson Mandela or a Mother Theresa) to the ridiculous (an MSNBC “journalist” cutting short an interview with a US Congresswoman because of breaking news of Justin Bieber’s arrest). I would much rather hear debate about the short-sighted decision to dump dredged sediment in the Great Barrier Reef than to know what twerking is, for instance … but it would seem I am in the minority. CNN even put twerking on its front page after the Miley Cyrus incident rather than, say, Syria.

So what is it about celebrity that makes us grab hold of every word a person says, even when they have no idea what they’re talking about? Why are young Miley and Justin (and after seeing this, I’m not convinced they’re different people anyway) more important than the people who run our nations, the scientists, the mathematicians, the visionaries – the people who can’t just be replaced? Sure, they entertain us, but that’s pretty much all they do. Why so much reverence and adoration?

Of course, I don’t have an answer. I suspect a lot of it is world view, and also the fact young people use social media the most and therefore it is their interests that fuel those websites. I do wonder, though, what this says about us as a society. Is this really what we want to project to future generations? That a teenaged brat is more important than a Congresswoman? That a dance is more important than a war?

I am not trying to denigrate the professional lives of people like Miley and Justin, who I am sure work very hard and are very good at whatever it is they do. They have contributed enormously to the public sphere. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose passing inspired this reflection, was a great actor and another great contributor. The film world will miss him, I know. There are probably thousands of people, most of whom never met him, who have been brought to tears by the news. But he was an actor, and while he was a very good one, there is little he did that someone else couldn’t have done.

It’s sad when someone leaves this world before their time. Anyone. But celebrity for celebrity’s sake is meaningless in the long term. Let’s celebrate these people for the good they have done, not the puerile newspaper headlines they generate while they’re here.

Farewell Mr Hoffman, and may you rest in peace.

 

 

Disclaimer: Yes, I am in my own way seeking fame – as an author. Having said that, though, I can’t think of anything worse than being ridiculously famous. It’s a paradox and one I’m trying to get my head around as I ready novel #1 for distribution to agents/ publishers.

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The Friday blog-hop! (part 2)

Blog Machine

Blog Machine (Photo credit: digitalrob70)

 

Today I’m doing my second Friday blog-hop, in an attempt to give some love back to my favourite bloggers. The first time I did this was last November, so I figured it was well and truly time to give it another shot. Remember, this list is NOT exhaustive, and is in no particular order. I just think that you should ALL go and read these blogs RIGHT NOW. ;)

Okay, here goes:

  • Knitting with Pencils, by Tracey Baptiste. Tracey just has a way with words that makes them flow off the page and make me want to read more. I’ll be honest, I haven’t read her novel yet, but I really really want to because if reading her blog makes me feel like I’m walking on air, imagine what a whole book would do? :)
  • The Write Fox, by Sarah L Fox. Sarah is someone I can really relate to, and it feels like her experiences often mirror my own. She doesn’t have nearly as many followers as she deserves and I would love it if some of you lovely readers would go check her blog out. It’s definitely worth it.
  • Write21, by Justin O’Leary. Again, here is someone who deserves a heck of a lot more followers than he currently has. His blog is an incredible resource for writers and should be bookmarked by everyone who needs a bit of guidance occasionally. And let’s face it, isn’t that all of us? :)
  • Can You all Hear me in the Back?, by Darlene Craviotto. Darlene is primarily a screenwriter rather than a novelist, but since when should that be a problem? We’re all using our creativity to put words on paper and then try to get them out there. Anyway, this is a really intelligent and thought-provoking blog that should be on everyone’s to-read list.
  • Devoted Eclectic, by Elizabeth Lhuede. Elizabeth is the driving force behind the Australian Women’s Writers challenge (which reminds me, I’d better sign up for this year’s – and update this blog to reflect that) so her blog is often used to review books as part of that challenge. That said, her reviews are always worth checking out, and her other posts are thought-provoking and stick in your mind for a long time afterwards.

So, that’s my list for this round of blog-hopping. I hope that I have inspired you to go and check out some (or all) of these blogs if you haven’t already – and if you don’t see your name yet, it’s not because I’ve forgotten you. Just keep an eye out for the next blog-hop and you might see yourself then! :)

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Guest post: Dance to your own rhythm, by Linda Lee Greene

Today I welcome Linda Lee Greene, author of two novels, Guardians and Other Angels, and Jesus Gandhi Oma Mae Adams (co-authored with Debra Shiveley Welch), both rated 5 stars on Amazon. Linda has written a wonderful blog about burnout and how she deals with it – something I’m sure we can all relate to. So without further ado, here she is!

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Guardians and Other Angels, by Linda Lee Greene

Guardians and Other Angels, by Linda Lee Greene

Recently I experienced a serious case of burnout, the worst one I’ve encountered in many years.  It was linked to my obsessive online attendance since the release of my latest novel, Guardians and Other Angels in May 2012, a presence calculated almost wholly toward the marketing of my book.  I took to heart the advice of my publicist.  “A lack of a social media presence on your part each and every day translates to low book sales,” she said, and I believed her.

As a professional woman, I understand the importance of taking periodic breaks from work-life, and I approached this new venture with the idea that I would apply the same standards to it.  But the thing about marketing on social media is that one thing leads to another, and then another, and still another and another and another, until you’ve created a mountain of responsibilities, culminating in an avalanche that smothers you.  A further complication is that you get hooked on the people you get to know this way, fascinating people all over the world with whom you would never have a chance to interact otherwise, so pretty soon, not only are you marketing ceaselessly, but you’re also chatting like there’s no tomorrow!  A still further complication is that the devices for all of this (laptops, cellphones, tablets, etc.) are all portable and go on vacation with you.  The upshot is that never is a real hiatus possible!

After seven, intense months of this, I crashed.  And I mean big time.  Although my mind incessantly urged me to log on, I couldn’t do it because my soul had taken a powder, and it would not come back.  You see, one of the things I’ve learned about my soul during my long tenure in this life, is that when I feel such fragmentation, what I’m really going through is a spiritual crisis.  Inevitably, my soul is trying to tell me that it isn’t just fatigue that I’m experiencing.  My cure isn’t only to put my feet up and read a good novel or watch some favorite DVDs, or to take my grandchildren to see the Christmas lights at the zoo, or to spend a weekend at a spa, or to go on a diet, or even to get a facelift.  The bigger problem is that I’m on the wrong path, and no matter how many leisurely activities or cosmetic treatments in which I partake, my soul digs in and refuses to participate until, and unless, I also correct my course.

I call my soul “Koko,” which is short for “Kokopelli,” an ancient kachina, or spirit-being of Native Americans that predates the Meso-American ancestral pueblo people of the southwestern USA.  He is a storyteller par excellence, as well as a hunchbacked dancer and a flutist, this aspect of him implying that in order to function at our peak, we must find our authentic rhythm, and once found, to follow it faithfully.  In addition to these, and other, aspects, he is known for the tricks he plays.   My soul emulates Kokopelli in so many ways, not the least of which are the ploys with which it manipulates me—ergo, its most recent one of turning, and keeping, me discontent until I found my natural rhythm again.

Henry David Thoreau has nothing on me when it comes to a love of solitude.  I am, after all, an artist and a writer, two vocations that require long stretches of aloneness.  Therefore, my natural rhythm is slower and quieter than the average bird.  It is also essentially private.  These are three qualities that seem antithetical to traditional practices in social media.  The obvious unknown regarding my relationship with social media is how to continue to participate effectively in it in a way that will allow me to express myself genuinely and thoroughly while also pleasing my unhurried, calm, and reserved soul.

One of the things I’ve decided to believe about social media is that there is a way of using it that is well-suited to every type of personality.  The trick for each of us is to develop one that is a good fit.  I am also an interior designer, and if I can design a beautiful, comfortable, and functional home-setting for my clients, surely I can craft an online presence for myself that is better for me.  At this juncture, the only thing I know for certain is that my strongest ally on my new path is the authentic Linda Lee Greene, and that our task is to dance together to our own rhythm despite possible risks and rewards.  Koko will like that!

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Linda Lee Greene

Linda Lee Greene

Linda Lee Greene was born in the farmhouse bedroom of her maternal grandparents located on the rim of the famous star-wound in Peebles, Adams County, Ohio, USA known the world over as the Great Serpent Mount Crater.  Mother of a son and a daughter, and grandmother of two grandsons, she resides in Columbus, Ohio.  An award-winning artist, an exhibition of some of her artwork can be viewed at www.gallery-llgreene.com.

In the year of 2000, Linda wrote the original draft of the murder mystery/historical novel, Jesus Gandhi Oma Mae Adams, a manuscript that evolved into a co-authorship with Debra Shiveley Welch, and upon its release an Amazon best-seller.  Greene has written two additional books in the Oma Mae Adams series, a murder mystery titled, “My ‘Aumakua” [In Hawaiian, “A Spirit Guide”], and a story of an expat-American who finds new meaning in life, as well as love, while on a spiritual odyssey in Australia, titled Garden of the Spirits of the Pots.  Both books are in queue with her publisher and are slated for future release.

Linda’s current novel, Guardians and Other Angels has inspired two other books on which she is currently working, one of them a non-fiction sequel to the novel titled, “I Received Your Letter …,” as well as a book for young readers titled, Bussy Gaffin and His Champion Roosters.

Linda’s five-star rated novel, Guardians and Other Angels is at amzn.to/PUOXl9.  You can find her Amazon Author Page at http://amazon.com/author/lindaleegreene.  She would also welcome you as a friend on twitter at @LLGreeneAuthor.  You can find her on Facebook, Goodreads, LinkedIn and other online sites.

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The next big thing?

next big thing

I’ve been tagged! The lovely Jeanette Hornby (www.jeanettehornby.com.au) has nominated me to be part of the Next Big Thing blog hop. Thanks Jeanette! And I thoroughly recommend that you all go and check out her blog at http://jeanettehornbybooks.blogspot.com.au - but be warned, it contains adult content so if you’re not comfortable with that then maybe just look at the main website.

The rules are these: Answer ten questions about your WIP and then tag five other bloggers to do the same. *wipes brow* Right. Here goes!

  1. What is the working title of your book?
    You know, this is a harder question than it should be. I was working with Echoes of Venice for a long time, but it sounds a lot more syrupy than the book actually is. Something to do with Venice, I’ll say that much. That city has an important role in the story.
  2. Where did the idea come from for your book?
    A competition I saw advertised in a newspaper, which for some reason just put a scene in my head. I tweaked the circumstances a little and voila! A story came out.
  3. What genre does it fall under?
    Contemporary romance / chick lit. To be honest, I will probably give it a final placement within one of those when I’ve done the final editing and not before.
  4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
    In my mind I’ve been using Brad Pitt and Kate Winslet. My thing, though, is not to describe my characters too much so that the reader can draw their own pictures in their heads of them. After all, everyone has a different idea of what makes someone attractive.
  5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
    Now you’ve got me. Again, this was something I was going to work on more during the editing process. How about, two people who have vowed never to see each other again are thrown together by circumstance and must deal with what that means to their lives.
  6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
    I won’t lie, I’d like an agent. However, I’m open to whatever life throws at me. In other words, I’ll play that one by ear.
  7. How long did it take to write the first draft of your book?
    Too long! Over two years. In my defence, I did scrap most of what I’d written half way through and restructure the whole thing. But yeah, just over two years. Sigh.
  8. What other books would you compare your story to within this genre?
    Another good question. Maybe something like Jill Mansell‘s Sheer Mischief, if I have to name one. (Serves me right for doing this on a Monday morning when my brain is still in weekend mode.)
  9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
    Like I said, I saw an ad in the newspaper and it just got my mind whirring. I was, I think, just ready for a new challenge and this fit the bill perfectly.
  10. What else about the book might piqué the reader’s interest?
    Snappy one-liners and endless suspense! Okay, maybe not the endless suspense, but at least a bit of it, and enough confusion and frustration to last anyone a lifetime. This is a book that I wanted to read, but I couldn’t find it out there, so I wrote it instead. I just hope that other people want to read it as well. :)

 

Bloggers I’m tagging to be the Next Big Thing themselves:

Margaret Lynette Sharp
Adam Collings
Rebecca Berto (Novel Girl)
Wordsurfer
Tracey Baptiste

Please go and check out all their blogs because they are definitely worth reading. And who knows – they really could be the Next Big Thing. They certainly deserve to be. :)

 

 

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Author interview: Lianne Simon

Today’s interview is with author Lianne Simon. She and her husband live in Suwanee in the US state of Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. Her debut novel is Confessions of a Teenage Hermaphrodite.
 

Lianne Simon

 
Tell me about the book. What inspired you to write it? What has the response been like?
 
My husband and I were in Phoenix two years ago. The last morning there, I woke with anorexia and a desperate need to tell a story. After dropping thirty pounds, my weight stabilized. With my husband’s encouragement, I abandoned my six-figure-salary career to write about some intersex kid’s gender issues.
I had already spent more than ten years answering inquiries on behalf of a support group for the parents of children born between the sexes. Along the way I’d met several intersex adults and listened to their tales of the issues they faced growing up. But to make Jamie’s story authentic, I had to share from the heart of an intersex child as though it were my own.
 
Jamie was born with a pixie face and a sexually ambiguous body. Although doctors put male on Jamie’s birth certificate, it quickly became apparent that she considered herself female. Her parents allowed her to live as a girl until authorities discovered that the nine-year-old boy Jameson was being illegally home schooled. Rather than send Jamie to public school as a boy, the family moved to a district that would allow them to continue to home school under close supervision. But Jamie had to live as a boy until her parents could locate a physician willing to help correct her birth certificate.
 
 
The child in the photo is nine. He’s the same size as his six-year-old sister. He’s one of the people on whom the character Jamie is based.
 
At sixteen, the four-foot-eleven soprano leaves a sheltered home school environment for a boys’ dorm at college. His act has convinced his father that he’s happy as a boy. However, when a medical student tells Jamie he should have been raised female, Jamie discovers the life she could have as a girl. Will Jamie risk losing her family and her education for a boyfriend who may desert her or a toddler she may never be allowed to adopt?
 
I was told by agents that they had no idea how to market such a story, so I concentrated on smaller publishers. I eventually signed with MuseItUp Publishing because of their great reputation. They assigned me an amazing editor who is excited about my book.
 
Your website mentions your faith several times. How important is being a Christian to your writing, and are you worried about alienating people who don’t share your beliefs?
 
An author who encouraged me along the way asked me if I was ready for people to think I was writing about myself. Although Confessions is fiction, I found that the telling of Jamie’s story required sharing my heart at a depth that made me groan. Telling can quickly become preaching that turns people off. Faith in Christ is an integral part of me; it’s going to come out. Showing Jamie’s–showing my desperate need of my Savior may still offend a few, but I don’t think it will cause people to stop reading.
 
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How long had you been writing before you began to take it seriously?
 
Seriously? I’m not sure how much ‘want’ has to do with it. Pouring your heart out on to paper is cathartic, but after the hundredth edit of the fifth draft, I wondered if I’d ever convey what I intended. My editor had to slap my hand, yank the manuscript away, and say, “You can stop now.”
 
Why did you decide to self publish? How has your experience been?
 
I’m taking a hybrid approach that seems to be working for me. MuseItUp Publishing does both e-book and print, but allows their authors to opt out of print. That really is gracious of them. Lea Schizas seems more interested in helping authors than in building an empire.
 
If you’re going to self-publish, be sure you find a good editor. The rest you can do yourself if you put your mind to it. If I can start a micro-publisher, format my document, and come up with a reasonable cover, I know you can.
 

Confessions of a Teenage Hermaphrodite, by Lianne Simon

 
What advice would you give to any aspiring authors out there?
 
I’m sure you’ve heard them all–write first, edit later–enter late, leave early–show, don’t tell–get right to the action/inciting incident.
 
But first of all, share so deeply that it hurts, so deeply that the story flows out like pure water from an artesian well. The story itself matters more than everything else.
 
Thanks for sharing with us. Hope your book does well.
 
Thanks!
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Lianne Simon describes herself as a housewife trying to learn to write, and trying to help the kids she loves. They say you write about what you know. Lianne is a Christian who has some knowledge of intersex conditions and how they affect people, which led her to write her debut novel.
 
Confessions of  a Teenage Hermaphrodite is due to be released on September 18 and is available for preorder on Amazon. In the meantime, you can read the first chapter on Lianne’s website at http://www.liannesimon.com/confessions/

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Guest post: You’re probably a fan, you just didn’t know it, by Eric Swett

 

I cannot remember a time where I did not enjoy reading fantasy. I have gone through periods of time where my focus had shifted to science fiction, and I will occasionally read a historical fiction, but I always come back to fantasy. For a long time I was unaware that fantasy could be subdivided into sub-genres. It was all fantasy to me. A few years ago a friend of mine gave me his book to read and I loved it. One Right Tricky Bastard was the story of a wizard in the modern world who had to deal with all of the troubles of modern life with the added complication of magic and monsters being real. I was  hooked. I asked if he knew any other books like that and he turned me on to Jim Butcher‘s Dresden Files series. I tore through those books as well and started hunting for others. I had been pulled into the Urban Fantasy sub-genre.

So what is an Urban Fantasy? The major defining requirement for an Urban Fantasy revolves around the setting. A traditional Fantasy novel tends to include fantastic creatures and/or magic in some sort of a medieval setting. The Urban Fantasy will include the creatures or magic, but the world is modern (or at least post medieval) and usually revolves around a town or city. Whether the fantastic elements are out in the open or hidden from most people does not matter, as long as it exists. This in itself is a rather broad definition of the sub-genre, and it bleeds into a number of other sub-genres (especially horror), but is the most direct definition of Urban Fantasy.

It is almost impossible to avoid Urban Fantasy lately (not that I would recommend avoiding it), so let’s take a look at a few different books, movies and television shows that would fall into the Urban Fantasy category.

Movies:

Wow, the possibilities here are endless, but as an example I could use Fright Night, Drive Angry, or Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as examples. Each of them is a story told in the modern world and involves an element of the supernatural (which is really just another way of saying magic and monsters), but an even more direct example is the 2011 film, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night. The main character is a private investigator who works amongst the monsters that lurk amongst every day people. Vampires, werewolves, zombies and magic blend together with a modern world that is all too willing to not notice their existence. The movie itself was mediocre at best, but it is a perfect example of the genre.

Urban Fantasy

Television:

Two prime examples of Urban Fantasy on television are the long running Supernatural and Grimm. Both involve monsters, ghosts, and magic in the modern world. Both shows cater to the idea that the world is filled with supernatural entities that people are just not aware of and the heroes do the best they can to keep it that way. Secret Circle and Vampire Diaries are a couple of examples that fall into the genre, but they are also categorized as paranormal romance or even teen drama, but they are set in a modern world and involve magic or monsters (yes, the vampires are sexy, but still monsters). Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and American Horror Story are all examples of Urban Fantasy shows on television.

Books:

I could list plenty of books here, but instead I’m going to name two series that fall into the Urban Fantasy genre, even though they are regularly considered part of different genres.

Harry Potter is one of the biggest Urban Fantasy series of all time, though no one ever thinks to call it that. There is magic and monsters in every book and the inclusion of those elements in the modern world definitely qualify the series for the genre. The Twilight Saga, traditionally classified as Romance or Fantasy (as well as Young -Adult), also qualifies as Urban Fantasy with its heavy dose of vampires and werewolves.

As you can see, Urban Fantasy is everywhere, so what other Urban Fantasies have you found hiding in plain sight?

 

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Apocalypse Rising, by Eric Swett

Thanks Eric! Food for thought indeed, as I too had never really thought to split fantasy stories into sub-categories. He is absolutely right, though, and it’s amazing to think how many well-loved books, films and television series fit into this sub-genre. If you’d like to see how Eric puts his love of Urban Fantasy into practice, check out his book Apocalypse Rising, available as ebook or paperback on Amazon.

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Eric Swett started writing a story at 100 words a day in the spring of 2011 as an exercise while he worked on his novel. One year later and that exercise turned into his first novel, Apocalypse Rising. He has started another 100 word project (which can be found on his blog here) and the sequel to his first book.

He is the husband of Tracy and the father of Zachary and Connor. He works in the IT industry and is a recent transplant to North Carolina. He loves all things science fiction and fantasy and openly claims the title of geek.

 

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Author interview: Alison Wong

Today I welcome Alison Wong, author of the novel Take a Chance. Alison  has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about her writing experience and give some advice to all the other writers out there.

Tell me about the book. What inspired you to write it?

 Take A Chance is my first novel, a contemporary romance – chick lit, where Hannah explores re-kindled love for an estranged sister and an ex-fiancé while balancing Chinese family values. Hannah is a 2nd generation British ethnic Chinese and she flutters about with her conscience in deciding if she should give love a chance. When writing about Hannah and Julian, it drew me to my own experiences growing up as an ethnic Chinese in England. I was often told to study hard and go to university and forget about the boys. I believe my parents knew daughters had to work harder because we had our gender discriminating us, and we had our ethnicity too. Cultural assimilation into an adopted country does not mean that parents forget their culture or values. Instead they instill them into their children and for some parents, their aspirations too. For Hannah to find love again, she has to face both her British and Chinese values, especially her family values. In Take A Chance, fate and a little sisterly and heavenly nudging is helping her.

What has the response been like?

Take A Chance was officially released June 2012, so the response from potential buyers-readers is awaiting. I had an initial soft release in May 2012 and the manuscript was updated for the June release. The beauty of having a subsidy self-publisher for my book is that it doesn’t affect the ISBN. I can have my book revised without purchasing a new ISBN, though at a cost. To celebrate the June release I listed my book for a 5 copy free Giveaway on Goodreads.com and the response was good. There are readers interested in Take A Chance – the trick is getting them to buy . My self-publisher set my paperback and hardback retail prices and at least I can negotiate the eBook price. The pricing is an issue I’m working on. If you indie-publish or e-publish with Amazon’s KDP and Smashwords you have full control of the price. It’s so tempting to go into indie-publishing in the future. Aside from the Goodreads Giveaway,  I believe it’s important to get reviews as readers place value on them. I’ve so far had three positive reviews of Take a Chance on Goodreads.com. On the other hand, friends and family have been great. If you’re an aspiring writer and debut author, you really need all the support you can get.

There is a strong cross-cultural theme to the novel.  How hard is it to balance competing cultural values and what impact has this had on your writing?

I like this question. It is the very reason I wrote Take A Chance because its theme is about balancing different cultures: East meets West within a love story. Chinese people are reserved. It is probably because of post-Confucianism in traditional Chinese culture. ‘Elders are to be respected’; ‘authority figures are to be respected’. Both these edicts result in non-violent, obedient and passive respect. Whereas, in the West, individuals are encouraged to be assertive, independent and pro-active yet there is a strong sense of justice. If you have opposite cultures in your upbringing, how do you balance them? Moreover, what if your parents are from the East and you are from East-West? However, I’m proud to be both. It’s not easy though. I’ve been there, growing up as a British ethnic Chinese who can’t read or write Chinese or speak fluent Chinese, and I try to answer some of these questions in my book.

For me, Take A Chance is a romantic and witty, novel way to deal with cultural values from the viewpoint of a modern, British ethnic Chinese woman, Hannah. She tries to balance Chinese and British cultures and her family values while re-kindling her love for sister Rosalyn and her ex-fiancé, Julian. Julian is a worldly man, and it is his openness and acceptance of other cultures that attracts him to Hannah and her to him because he understands her upbringing and family values. He is basically the ideal man – well-educated and reasonably well-off despite being non-Chinese; yet, like Hannah, he is British too. He and Hannah have more in common than Hannah realises. Moreover, Hannah isn’t submissive: she is independent, head strong and a bit of a rebellion, although ironically she is loyal to her parents and is humble and modest too. This is her cultural identity of balancing East and West. In the end, she has to compromise with her family values in order to be true to her identity. She is neither Chinese nor British: she is British but ethnic Chinese. My message to readers is that love always wins. I wish there was more peace and love in the world.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How long had you been writing before you began to take it seriously?

I guess I knew I always wanted to write since I started my first journal at the age of seven. I still keep a hand-written journal now and I have a blog.  I’m learning to prioritise my time for writing the sequel to Take A Chance. However, I have a higher priority, which is to enjoy life to the fullest.

I sometimes wonder if writing is in my family because my son wrote a journal when he was five. Of course, he wrote only when he was reprimanded. Children can be so honest. My son’s favourite post-reprimand journal entry was: ‘I hate Mummy.’

As a parent and teacher, I didn’t mind the words. He spelt them correctly at least and he needed to vent his anger – better it was on paper than on me.

I have to say though, that teaching wasn’t my vocation despite a successful career. I went into teaching because I needed a job and teaching is in my blood. I come from a line of teachers. I never had the confidence to write though, not even when my Form 4 secondary school English teacher encouraged me to write a memoir one day. I can never forget him because he was the best teacher I ever had, and he had a claim to fame: he taught the English actor, John Hurt. Moreover, my youngest sister upstaged me: she was the natural born writer of the family, next to me of course.

I began to seriously consider writing when I left English teaching and had time on my hand to pursue my passion for writing. What spurred me on though was my youngest sister who died of cancer a few years before I left teaching. I wanted to write a fun love story for her because she never had the chance to fall in love; so, Take A Chance is in memory of her.

Why did you decide to self publish? How has your experience been?

Six years ago I actually considered submitting my manuscript to a US/UK literary agent or publisher dealing with multicultural romances. There was, at the time, a lot of buzz about self-publishing and Lulu.com was free. Other subsidy self-publishers had emerged too as an alternative to traditional publishing. I considered Trafford.com, then a well-established self-publisher but realised how expensive the packages were, and Lulu.com was US based, which made me wary of the royalties and tax issues and marketing on my own as I live in Hong Kong. It was all overwhelming. As it turned out, life’s ups and downs interrupted my plans and my manuscript gathered dust. When a recent near-death experience jarred my life, I was reminded of the dreams my sister never achieved. Life is short; so, I decided to make my dream of being published come true.

I am still learning from the experience. Trafford Singapore has done an excellent service transferring my manuscript to a printed book and an eBook. They have fulfilled their Orchard package terms which includes an ISBN, global distribution on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. However, I have been on a learning curve regarding my self-publisher, self-publishing, marketing and social media.

What advice would you give to any aspiring authors out there?

Success doesn’t come overnight. Catherine Ryan Howard (indie-published author) has an insightful blog Catherine Caffeinated on self-publishing.

There are a lot of self-publishing experts and marketing experts out there and you will be inundated with advice and offers – some free, some not. Self-publishing and marketing books are big business, I’ve come to realise. I chose self-publishing with a subsidy publisher, and post publishing, I wish I researched more information. It’s best to stick with self-publishing rather than buy any marketing packages; far better to spend money on editing and proofreading before you self-publish. And of course, there is the option of Smashwords and Amazon KDP for writers now.

If you are on a string budget, I would advise writers to keep your options open, research them and think about your expectations. For example, I don’t expect to be a bestseller and I’m happy simply show-casing my book.

Should you go the traditional route and query an agent? Some publishers don’t even want to hear from you without an agent. They will not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Even if you queried, you would probably face rejections, nevermind rejections of solicited manuscripts. Fear is the biggest obstacle. So, what can you do? Head for free publishing on Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or Smashwords.com?  In my opinion (please do not take this as expert advice since I am no expert) if you are a non-fiction writer and a marketing expert or computer-social media guru, you will be able to cope with marketing and promoting your book once it’s self-published. If you are a novelist, take a hard look at yourself and study your writing and personal style. Is self-publishing the route for you or is the traditional route better if you can overcome fear of rejection, and cope with self-marketing? I don’t want to put aspiring writers off, however. I believe that there is a story in everyone. Traditional publishers and savvy readers are always on the lookout for new talent and new writers, even if a writer is self/indie-published.Times are changing. So, from a writer to another writer: Write. Don’t give up! Courage. Dreams do come true if you make them happen. As Henry David Thoreau said to me when I was writing my book:

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

——————

Alison Wong is a Hong Kong born with both Chinese and British roots – the best of both worlds. She was born in Hong Kong but grew up in England. Alison re-rooted in Hong Kong after graduating from Lancaster University, England. Later she gained a post-graduate degree from Hong Kong. After several years of teaching the English language, she left teaching. She now divides her time between being a domestic goddess to her husband and son, and writing. A simple, healthy, happy life is her motto and priority. You can read more about her and her book at http://alisonwauthor.wordpress.com/, and Take a Chance is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.

 

Footnote: Since doing this interview, Alison has parted company with Trafford Singapore. Her advice to writers, however, remains the same. She has now closed her blog and is concentrating on writing her next book, and I wish her all the best.

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Guest post: Hiding, Naked, behind Ernest Hemingway, by Peyton Farquhar

“I spent a great deal of my early years trying to be Barbara Walters. I worked so hard at it and got nowhere. Then one day, I decided that I was just going to be me, and if people fell in love with that, then I knew I could repeat my performance because I was being honest and true.” – Oprah Winfrey

Before It Went Wrong

I started writing in high school. My parents insisted I take at least one college-level class, so I picked a writing course. I was hooked from the start. And even though writing was the only thing I took seriously in high school, I never really gave it much thought. I just…wrote.

In college, it was pretty much the same. I never thought about putting my work out there. It was just something I had to do. It was another release valve of creativity and it was so liberating. I just…wrote.

And then one day, it all changed. It was the day I considered showing my work to the general public and, God forbid, even selling it. From that point on, writing seemed to be less liberating. What had happened to me is something I’ve seen happen to a number of writers and (from reading the quote above) even happens to famously talented individuals – I began trying to be someone I wasn’t.

Being Ernest Hemingway

I have a mildly unhealthy infatuation with Ernest Hemingway – unhealthy in a way that once warped my own writing style into a nebulous, insincere mess.

The second I began to consider selling my work, I began to have doubts about my writing. So, surrounded by this cloud of doubt, I started studying all of the works of art that had connected with me. Of all the writers I’ve ever read, Hemingway rarely fails to speak directly to my soul. So, I convinced myself that if I could decode his style and find out what it was that I loved so much, I could use it in my own work. If I could do this, certainly that would mean that I could connect with my readers as well.

For a great deal of time, I attempted to write like Hemingway. And after that great deal of time had passed, I had a great deal of worthless work. It was okay, but it definitely wasn’t Hemingway and it wasn’t worth selling. And then one day, I too came to an important realization:

I’M NO ERNEST HEMINGWAY!

I realized that if somebody wanted to read a Hemingway-style book, they would just go read Hemingway. Why would anybody want to read a sawn-off, half-baked version of Hemingway? I also realized that Ernest Hemingway was likely the author he was because it was “his time”. The world was ready for him. The world needed his stories at that very moment. So, one might argue that Ernest Hemingway may not have become “Ernest Hemingway” if he were born today.

The Scary Stuff

In some of my recent conversations with new authors, I’ve heard statements like “I’m going to start writing YA books. They’re really hot right now.” and “I’m not into vampires, but I’d love to get a piece of that audience.”

It’s tough for me to criticize those authors. I’ve been there. I know exactly what it’s like to want people to accept your work. And when you see people around you being successful in a particular genre, it’s tempting to try to decode that genre or their particular style and assume you’ll get the same results. But you won’t. And I’ve got news for you, the acceptance you’re looking for is not the acceptance you really want. Do you really want to gain acceptance as a novelist who fakes interest in vampires? Or as a YA novelist who longs to write for an adult audience?

Writers are successful when they write from their honest heart. That doesn’t mean that writing from your heart is an automatic leap to success. But it’s the only true first step in that direction. And once you take that first step, you’re opening yourself up to chance. Suddenly, you’re standing on a hill, holding a metal rod and waiting for lightning to strike. Maybe it will strike, maybe it won’t…but you’ve definitely done everything you can to make it happen.

The fact is: most people are too scared to put the real them out there and say “take me for who I am.” Writing is so deeply personal. And when it’s done well, it’s basically the same as stripping your clothes off and running through the streets naked. There’s nothing to hide behind and there’s nothing fake about it. It’s the real, true you and it’s very, very scary.

When I was in high school and college, I didn’t care about what others thought about my writing. I just…wrote. But that was cowardly – basically the same as walking around naked in my apartment. But when I decided to step outside, I tried to hide behind something that wasn’t honest. I tried hiding, naked, behind Ernest Hemingway.

Freedom

Be brave. Step out from behind your Ernest Hemingway and write something true and honest. Write the way you want to write. Write about what you want to write about. If you do that and people fall in love with you, you can repeat that performance over and over. And you never know, the world might be ready for you. The world might need your stories at this very moment.

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Peyton Farquhar is the Nashville, Tennessee author of the fiction series A War Below. The first installment Run (currently available from iTunes, Amazon and Barnes & Noble) was released in February 2012. Hunt (the second book in the four book series) is set to be released in early June 2012. The series follows Moses Jones, a slave whose attempted escape to freedom triggers events that force him into an underground world of espionage, revenge and murder. The gritty action series is inspired by true stories from the Underground Railroad and its secret involvement behind the scenes of the American Civil War. You can follow Peyton on twitter @peytonfarquhar, and you can find out more about the series here.

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Guest post: Why Writers should Blog, by Holly Kench

Why Writers Should Blog

Image of me blogging was created by today’s guest poster, Holly Kench

When I first decided to start writing seriously, I desperately sought advice wherever I could get it. Everyone I spoke to made a lot of good suggestions: write every day, write what you’re passionate about, find your niche, create a writing routine, enjoy your writing, etc. Yet, there was one recommendation that I hadn’t expected and that kept popping up:

Write a blog.

A what? I would ask, scratching my technologically malnourished brain. At the time, the only blog I frequented was that of Ricky Gervais, and I remained unconvinced that ‘blog’ could actually be a real word.

However, it wasn’t long before I was following many MANY blogs and writing my own. I haven’t looked back since.

But just why is blogging such a positive endeavour for writers?

Let’s start with the basic reasons that blogging is beneficial for writers. The most essential of these would have to be in creating a home for yourself on the net. People need to be able to look you up online; just as you need a place to direct readers. In this increasingly virtual world (yes, it’s a cliché because it’s true), home is where the link is. For writers, this is your blog. It’s your online centre, and from your blog you can direct readers to your other social media (ie. Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads), to other relevant sites, and, most importantly, to where they can read/purchase your work.

Your blog is so much more than a Yellow Pages entry, though. It’s also a place where you can advertise your writing skills and generate an audience. You can promote yourself as an author, as well as specifically promoting your available work. Even more exciting, you can write to an interactive audience. This is a luxury that the traditional world of books doesn’t have. By writing a blog you become part of a developing community in which readers can respond and contribute to texts directly. On a blog, writers and readers communicate, discuss and consider writing as part of an ongoing conversation. I find the possibilities of this terribly exciting.

In terms of your writing itself, blogging is also a wonderful exercise. Blogging gives you the opportunity to write without restraint. You can write for the joy of it, at those times when you know your brain will burst if you don’t get those words down, or when you really need to write out problems and explore questions about your primary writing. And you have a waiting audience ready to read and contribute to your thoughts. Of course, the topic of your blog affects this to a certain extent – though I don’t really let that bother me too much. While my blog mostly consists of humorous short stories, I’ve discovered that my readers are more than willing to read and comment on my concerns about fiction and pop culture, and, for that matter, anything else I feel like blogging about at the time.

There’s a freedom in blogging that you don’t always experience from other types of writing. You don’t have to prove anything to a publisher or agent when you’re blogging. All you have to do is write for you and your wonderful followers, who are just waiting to give you their two cents worth (and that’s worth so much more).

——————–

Thanks Holly! If you’d like to know more about this week’s guest blogger, she identifies herself as a Tasmanian (Australian) writer and feminist, with a classics degree and a fear of spiders.  She enjoys writing fantasy and humour for adults, as well as young adult and children’s fiction, and is currently writing her first novel, a young adult paranormal fantasy. Oh yeah, and she also likes writing stories about herself and drawing pictures of herself as a stuffed olive. To see more of her work, you can check out her website.

Holly as a stuffed olive :)

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