By Force or Fear – by Thonie Hevron

After seven or eight years on patrol as a deputy in Santa Rosa, Meredith Ryan is promoted to detective. What she doesn’t know is that her new position will almost immediately involve her in a dangerous chase to find and arrest a sociopathic killer, while exposing her to an insidious stalker. These two exciting plot lines keep us on edge and engaged from the opening prologue to the concluding epilogue.

Hevron does an excellent job of keeping us in the mind of the protagonist and surrounding us with the authentic details that became part of her nature during a 35-year career in law enforcement. It’s also a hometown story written by a hometown author that includes our local Santa Rosa venue. Her descriptions put me in the scene as a reader and her dialogue moved the story through chapter after chapter with the pressure of the adventure. As the title claims, I felt the force and experience the fear of the protagonist. I also got a strong sense of the bond between Meredith and her detective mentor/partner, Nick.

I downloaded this novel onto my Kindle and read it quickly, but I can only recall one extra word left in a sentence. The book was professionally edited and I found it a quick read. I’d recommend it as a good detective genre novel.

In retrospect, I thought the climax a bit too quick and not entirely believable. Considering the work overall, it’s a minor issue as well as my personal opinion. But you be the judge. Regardless, don’t miss an opportunity to read a good ‘cops and robbers’ tale.

Sound Bender by Lin Oliver & Theo Baker

I’m always glad to discover a book for boys about boys, although the ‘green’ theme in this novel should make it attractive to girls as well. The setup for the novel finds 13-year-old Leo and his 10-year-old brother, Hollis orphaned when their parents die in a plane crash. Their totally rich uncle Crane takes them to live with him in a kid’s dream palace in a warehouse. When Leo starts hearing sounds that no one else hears, it launches him on an unpredictable adventure with his two best friends.


I like the character mix. The protagonist, Leo, is smart, resourceful, perseverant and he sincerely cares for his younger brother. Leo’s friend, Trevor, is super smart—good to have with you on an adventure. Leo’s mentor, Jeremy, is reliable—a solid father figure and he’s into music.


Leo’s paranormal phenomena are clever and intriguing. That caught my interest at the outset of the story and maintained it to the end. Also, the pace of the adventure and Leo’s sense of urgency keeps the tension on from the start. However, the story lacks a level of excitement and I think that’s because Leo doesn’t have much at stake. He’s never in any real danger.


The descriptions are clear and build good mental images. The authors use interesting and apt figurative language. The edited book is professional and squeaky clean—what else would you expect from Scholastic Press?


Although the plot and actions are kid-like, I thought the narration and internal dialogue sounded too mature for thirteen, more like sixteen or older. Pre-teens might bog down with this diction, although kids do like to read up.

Book Review: Grand Theft Death by Ann Philipp

Patricia does a favor for a drunken friend and drives her home in the friend’s classic car, a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz convertible. When she borrows the car to get home, this Good Samaritan is arrested and thrown in jail. Thus begins a light-hearted mystery, which turns a bit more serious when the friend turns up dead in her apartment complex swimming pool.


To exonerate herself from the car theft charge, Patricia begins snooping around. With the interference, help and savviness of four senior reprobate lady friends of her deceased grandmother, Patricia learns more than she ever wanted to know about her own family and a sleezball acquaintance from her high school years, Jimmy Chang. Suspecting the death of her friend was not an accident, Patricia’s probing turns exciting, especially when her crusty senior mentors begin teaching her some dangerous tricks of the trade.


Philipp does a nice job of moving this story along with multiple support characters and a protagonist who is believable. The novel is well written and an easy read, with a lyrical balance of sentence structures. Her characters are quirky, funny and contribute panache to the story line.

Book Review: Jet by Russell Blake

In the first few pages, you know what this book is all about, a beautiful protagonist, violent death and non-stop action. It reads like an assault weapon video game. The story line takes us all over the world as the heroine is either eluding or chasing the bad guys who all want her dead. Obviously, this is a plot driven novel. The characters are sketched, but only skin deep. That said, it’s well written with clever use of figurative language and almost every line moves the story forward, albeit with cartoon like simplicity.


The protagonist, Jet aka Maya, is a combination of James Bond, Bruce Lee and Marilyn Monroe, or in other words, she’s a femme fatale superhero. Proficient with every modern hand weapon known to mankind, she baffles her foes, leaving a wake of dead bad guys behind. Who are these bad guys? And why did they hunt her down in Trinidad where she had retired from life in a deadly fast lane to eke out a living selling curios? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out. There is an answer, and it’s close to the end of the book.

Beautiful Evil by Robbi Bryant

The book title is perfect. Reading it was a crazy ride, tense and exciting and not at all what I expected. But who knows what to expect from a narrator who is a little psychotic, well maybe, a lot psychotic. Meet Constance, a shy troubled person, and Rose, who is at least flamboyant if not nasty wild, and Thisiphone, your local neighborhood nymph. Look her up. She’s a piece of work. From beginning to end, this trio keeps you on your toes, mentally that is. And the characters that Constance meet fit right into the story. To say much more would be a spoiler.


The first three or four chapters didn’t pique my interest the first time I read them, so I put the book down for a month. But something about the story bothered me. I wanted to know what Constance was doing, so I read past the initial chapters and was hooked. I couldn’t put the book down—took it with me everywhere until I finished it. Yes, it was a page-turner.


It’s an adult story; drugs, sex, music and occasional violence, all mixed with the supernatural, just the things that keep the pressure on the protagonist as well as the reader. The writing is good, descriptions are creative, figurative language is used effectively and the book is cleanly edited. More than a good read, I recommend this book to open-minded adults.

Why is Irish in my book?

My whole life has been embedded in Irish culture. The central character in Otherworld Tales: Irish the Demon Slayer, Peter (Irish) Kehoe, is named after my maternal great-grandfather, Peter Kehoe, who was born in Ireland and immigrated to this country in the midst of the great potato famine, circa 1850. Growing up in San Francisco, we lived in an Irish neighborhood. My Kehoe relatives, Irish nuns, priests and brothers surrounded me. Our high school motto was and still is “The Fightin’ Irish.” The fascinating Irish poet and IRA rebel, Ella Young, who conversed with animals, trees and even rocks, inspired the talking trees in my story. And finally, in the midst of writing the book, I toured Ireland to see the landscape where the famous Celtic warrior, Cuchulain, fought his battles and I visited Tara, where I placed the castle of Aine, queen of the fairies, in my novel.


Researching things Irish for the novel was an interesting adventure. As soon as Peter Kehoe became the character “Irish,” I started looking for information and accumulating books on Irish lore. I quickly discovered that a culture of oral history depicts the same event a zillion different ways. I spent about two years concurrent with my writing, digging through books that were mostly about fairies and leprechauns, cartoonish characters that did not belong in my fantasy-adventure story. I wanted the most authentic mythical characters I could find and I hit pay dirt when I discovered a treatise titled “Cuchulain of Muirthemne” by Lady Augusta Gregory, a peer and colleague of Yeats. Even her renditions were somewhat convoluted, but I outlined the stories and charted the characters in detail and used this to create my own versions of the Celtic episodes, which I included in my novel. I was able to verify my work later when Marie Heaney (wife of Seanus Heaney of Beowulf translation fame) published her book of Irish legends.

Book review: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand

Mrs. Cavendish is one creepy lady and Victoria, our heroine protagonist has her hands full when kids begin disappearing, towns’ folks stop being very human and her own parents succumb to the spell. Ms. Legrand’s writing craft is a delight to read and she keeps it creepified on every page. I particularly enjoyed Victoria’s voice and her over-the-top arrogance. Who else would have a melt down faced with her lowest grade ever, a “B.” The second place winner on my enjoyment scale was music dispelling evil. Music is incredibly powerful for healing and Victoria learns to use it to defend herself against devilish threats. Music has always thrilled me and it was ultimately satisfying to see it used against the forces of evil. It was no surprise then to discover the author used to be a musician.


I read the Cavendish book with a sense of relief, since I had been worried about my own work being too edgy for the pre-teen middle grade marketplace. Mrs. Cavendish’s dark side is a bit more gothic than my evil characters and depicted in a very scary way. I give this author credit for high marks on the spooky index. I particularly liked the bugs that seemed to be everywhere including printed on the pages. I was a little surprised they did not gross out Victoria, but after all, she’s our hero.


This is the second pre-teen book that I’ve seen with illustrations. The first was the Blogtastic novel series by Rose Cooper. In both cases, the illustrations add to the impact of the books; comedy for Cooper and spookiness for Legrand.


I found only one serious flaw in the storyline. Pressed on all sides by evil pressures, Victoria finally buckles. Yet after sinking to the depths of despair, she mysteriously recovers. I expected, but didn’t find the dramatic motivation for this emotional switch. What triggered the change? Also, the ending scenes closed a bit fast for me and I lost the ability to visualization the characters who had been absorbed into the garden.


Overall, this was an exciting and enjoyable read and I would recommend it for eleven and twelve year old pre-teens and more mature younger readers.

Editing Your Own Novel

Editing your own novel

Now the fun begins. You’ve completed the initial pass on a chapter or maybe the whole manuscript and it’s time to edit. I think of editing as a more creative process than a first draft. Creativity is spawned by restrictions and what could be more restrictive than an established plotline with developed characters in already carefully crafted scenes? Every change you want to make must be formed within these boundaries. Yes, it is a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge. Or maybe you go completely crazy and change the boundaries, add or delete a character. That’s just a big edit. By the way, don’t be surprised when the edit takes four times longer than writing the original manuscript.


Perspective Tricks

In order to edit your own work, you need to become a different person with a different perspective. Not easy. But there are ways to trick yourself. First try reading printed hard copy of the piece. For whatever strange reason, you gain a different perspective reading words on a page than you do reading a computer screen. It’s weird, but misspells, repeated words and other bad grammatical stuff sticks out. Then try reading your work out loud. This exposes clumsy sentence structure, repetitious scenes and dialogue that is not owned by a character. The next trick is assembly. Connecting the paragraphs and chapters together highlights transitions and exposes logistical problems, e.g. things the characters know and when they know them, things the characters have with them and when they get them and memories the characters have and when they remember them. You’re almost finished. The final trick is time. You are a different editor a week or a month or a year later. Put your work away for a time, then bring it out in the future and read it with new eyes. You’ll be surprised by what you find.



What are Layers?

Each edit pass you do with a different perspective can be focused on a different element in your writing. I like to call these layers. The initial layer is plot consistency and dramatic motivation. Read through your manuscript to ensure that everything makes sense, the scenes progress sensibly and every action by a character has a legitimate motivation.  Authentic dramatic motivation makes for powerful storytelling. The best reference I’ve found for this is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, first published in 1942. The next layer should include a verification of the story arc. In simple terms, does it follow the classic sequence of problem/issue, rising tension, climax and anti-climax? I found the best-written explanation of this construct in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vobler. Another layer might be voice. Do each of the characters maintain their voice throughout the work? Is the voice authentic for their gender and age? Does each of the characters have an arc?


Paper Tools

Diagramming your work sounds like another trick, but it is really an important methodology. Maybe some people can do this in their head, but I need stuff on paper as a visual aid. Basically, it helps me to have my entire story laid out so that I can see the whole thing in a glance. This works for portions of a novel, but is most useful when you have the whole first draft manuscript complete. A story board is a form of this where each scene gets a 3 x 5 card and all the cards are pinned to a big wall somewhere so you can see the whole novel and move scenes around. I don’t have a big enough wall, so I use a computer. First I write a detailed outline of the novel. In my scheme, every chapter is described in a paragraph of a few very terse sentences. Events, characters and actions are listed. I print out all the paragraphs, one for each chapter and paste them together into a single long sheet that is about ten feet tall. Then I use colored pencils to connect the flows, all the appearances of the characters (arcs), all the occurrences of magic (logistics), and so on, until I have a successful picture of the story movement, and I’m satisfied that nothing will interfere with the dream state of the reader. A hidden benefit of this methodology is the ability to make changes. With this view of your novel from 1,000 feet, you can move scenes around with god-like power and not lose connectivity and continuity. Whew! Finished. No. Now it’s time to take your baby to its first critique group. Good luck.


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Implementing Creativity

In the popular, but simplistic right-brain, left brain dominance theory, the right brain is best at expressive and creative tasks while the left brain is best in areas of language and logic. Could this be a problem for writers? You bet. Fortunately, we are able to access both sides concurrently and writers need that in order to use language creatively.


Creativity in writing is highly personal and annoyingly elusive. It seems to effectively sidestep a frontal approach. In other words, the more intensely you focus on being creative, the less you are. Creativity arrives from the side, much like peripheral vision; turn your head and the shadow is gone.


But creativity can be coaxed out of hiding. I write fantasy novels for pre-teens because I enjoy the process of creating worlds, characters, obstacles and resolutions. Not only does creativity exist on the level of plotline, it’s in chapters, paragraphs, sentences and even word usage. What fun! But what if a character confuses you?  What can you do if the plot line for the story stops and you don’t know where it’s going? Is this writer’s block?


I claim it is not. It is an important part of the process. I know what’s missing will reveal itself if I let it. Ray Bradbury said these problems go to ground in the unconscious where they process and ultimately give up their resolutions (my paraphrasing). He’s right. I step away from direct action. Yes, it’s hard to do, but I do it. I walk our road, cut wood for the winter, or sit on the deck swing with coffee and a muffin. I do something physical away from the story. Sometimes I take an alternate tack, extract an outline from the finished chapters, track character arcs, or create a synopsis. Of course the outline and synopsis will be wrong, but they will both give me a view of my work from a different perspective, from the side with my peripheral vision.


I said this was hard to do and it is. It’s hard to let chaos reign; it’s hard to deliberately live with confusion; it’s very hard for us type A, self-actualized, inner-directed writers to set our work aside and let our unconscious do its thing. But your work will be better for it.



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Critiquing Fiction

I like to receive the critique piece as a MS Word doc several days in advance of the critique meeting. It should be no greater than approximately 15 pages, double spaced. Then I read it at least twice. I first read for storyline. Who, what, where and why. I need to assimilate all of this before I have any opinions or do any commenting. However, before I read this first time, I enable the tracking function in MS Word so I can easily document the minutia I hit along the way: tense or number errors, misspellings, incorrect word choices, even some copy editing. I see these minor errors on the first read and often miss them the second time around. I do this first read and correct minor problems without interrupting the dream state, the mental scenes created by the author as I read the manuscript. If there are places that stop me or take me out of the story, I identify them and note them.


Depending on the pressure of time, I take a break and think about the characters and the flow of the piece.  Sometimes I’ll come to a conclusion in general and note it, but most of the time I let the piece gestate—but not for long. About fifteen minutes works for me. I have an internal checklist: Did the logistics make sense? Were the characters consistent? Were they developed? Was the voice of the character(s) authentic? Was Point of View (POV) consistent? Was the back story, narrative and dialogue equally distributed? What about the pacing of the story elements? Did the piece conform to an arc of problem/conflict, rising tension to resolution, climax, then anti-climax. If any of these questions get a ‘no,’ then I list my concerns in a separate place to discuss later, in person, if possible.


When I sit down to read the second time, I already know the story so I’m not distracted by the dream state associated with fiction, I can focus fully on the details: scenes, description, dialogue, sentence structure, voice. And since I now know the end of the piece, I can determine whether the earlier parts support it.


As I work through the piece a second time, I comment two ways. First, I highlight a word, a sentence or a paragraph and insert a comment that does not interfere with the original manuscript text. I can use this technique to suggest changes, ask questions or indicate whether or not something should be removed. Second, I actually edit the manuscript. With tracking enabled, additions are colored (I choose green) and subtractions are strike-through and colored (I choose red). The transparency of these changes is important so the author knows exactly what has been suggested. The author always has the option of accepting or rejecting my change. This may seem intrusive, but it is the simplest way to communicate an area that may need work with a constructive suggestion for change.


All of the above occurs before actually meeting to do the critique. At the meeting, it isn’t necessary to go over the minutia unless it’s important to explain some detail. It’s a lot more important to discuss the more general issues you have already noted in a separate place (I use a list on a separate Word.doc). Since the discussion will not usually cover the minutia, you can email the marked up manuscript back to the author in advance.


One advantage of an in-person critique meeting is communication. You can cover a lot of territory face-to-face that would take reams of writing time. Second, everyone can benefit from a shared critique. It’s an educational process. Third, consensus on a problem in your manuscript by others means it very probably needs work. Fourth, diametrically opposed opinions can point out an interesting piece of writing, but it basically means the author has the option.


Since a critique is essentially adversarial, it’s really important to choose to work with members who are compatible, thoughtful and still open to criticism. There is seldom a lot of time for praise and that’s okay, because the point of the process is to make the manuscript clean and effective. To achieve that, the author must know were the problems are.


Finally, what’s amazing to me is that, even after I work through someone’s piece carefully, I still miss major issues. That’s why it’s so important to have a group of four or five people doing the critique. What you miss, they find and vice versa.


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