A dog-wagging tale … or tail.

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Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in a universe in which eBooks and indie writers never existed, talented storytellers weaved bold tales with risky, controversial plot-lines. Readers grew close to characters, wept if they died, but soldiered on through the book when it was well-done and came away richer for the experience of living through a tale that took them on an emotional roller-coaster and made them wonder if they’d survive the journey.

Flash forward to the present day: that universe does not exist anymore. And I’m about to pull back the curtain and tell you why.

Pay No Attention to the Old(-School) Writer Behind the Curtain!

Recently … very recently, in fact … I visited an online writer’s hangout I frequent and one of the topics getting batted around centered on this: a first-time author was bemoaning receiving a three-star review, and had some writerly-types all riled up about getting Amazon to connect real names to book reviews and maybe even shut down reviewers like this who were “obviously just trolls out to damage my sales and career.”

Seriously. You did not misread that. All that, over the three-star review.

Not even a one-star review. Three-star. Oy!

To make matters worse, the author in question didn’t even seem upset or, frankly, to even have read the review itself. They were just upset that the three-star review hurt their average, pulling their book below a four-star average.

Yup. Still serious.

Now, this all might seem rather petty and small-minded on the part of the author, but let me assure you, this one author is not the exception to the rule, and there is an entire generation of indie authors who long not for thoughtful reviews, but desire nothing less than an endless stream of four-star and five-star reviews and anything less upsets them.

Perhaps not quite so much as to call the reviewer a troll, but still, they’re not happy.

Are a whole generation of novelists and short story writers losing their minds?

Now, here’s the real shocker for the uninitiated: Nope.

The must-be-loved attitude among modern indies is completely new territory over the past three or four years, a mental space many of us have been dragged to by another force: book promotion sites.

I’ll Gladly Pay You Wednesday for a 5-Star Review Today

In the world of modern eBook book-selling, Amazon reviews hold a lot of sway over a lot of customers. Understandably, many readers don’t desire to read sub-par books. So Amazon reviews, they feel, are an aid to that end.

But another factor is at play: the rise of eBook promotion sites and services.

You know the sort of sites I mean: Kindle News Daily, BookBub, other less-prominent sites of that ilk.

And also, popular book bloggers with large followings play a role, too: they understandably don’t want their time wasted on sub-par books, so to avoid a deluge of review requests, popular book bloggers, as well as promo sites like KND and BookBub developed some “minimum standards” to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Review and promo sites want a basis upon which to reject books of obviously low quality, so that they can assure their customer-base that they only promote/advertise “quality books.” That’s understandable. You need a set of standards that apply to all books, so that no one can accuse these sites of personal motivations for rejecting dreckish “masterpieces.”

So the question becomes, how does one assure that?

All Around the Kindle Fire, the Writer Chased the Review…

Well, one way to go is to read every book before accepting it to be advertised or reviewed. Yet that’s time-consuming and requires a huge staff. Most places won’t do that, because they’re not the NY Times Review of Books. Who can afford that?

Another way to go is to only advertise books that have passed editorial muster somewhere. That’s faulty, however, because that cuts out all indies… and more than a handful of indies are producing good work that sells well.

And if they have money because they sell well, they want to spend some of those funds by reinvesting back into their book’s success, to keep the sales rolling in. So, if you’re a book blogger or book promo site, how do you justify saying no to books that are good and do sell well, simply because they don’t come from a Big 5/6 house, or a small press? So that won’t work, either.

So the next idea is you outsource the quality control on indie books. That means requiring a minimum number of reviews (usually, on Amazon only) and a minimum star rating, to qualify for your book to be worth a book-blogger’s time, or a book-promotion site’s ad space.

Most sites currently require somewhere between five to twenty-five Amazon reviews. Some sites even require “at least one or two” of those reviews to be from “power reviewers.” In other words, other well-known book bloggers. The other requirement, and this tends to be universal, is that your indie book must receive an average score of 4.0 out of five stars.

Yes, really. I bet some of your never knew that before you read this article, unless you’re an author yourself.

I Like Big Buts, and I Cannot Lie…

Here’s a brief list of well-known, popular authors who’ve produced great books that sell well, but do not currently meet that 4.0-star minimum rating, and would thus be rejected by the standards KND, BookBub, popular book bloggers, and other such sites require of indie books:

Cell by Stephen King (Current average score: 3.5 stars, despite selling well and being a rather different take on the “zombie novel” genre.)

The Body by Stephen King (Current average score: 3.9 stars, despite being the basis for the movie Stand By Me.)

London Bridges (2.8), Cross Country (2.7), Roses are Red (3.6), and Violets are Blue (3.3) by James Patterson. (Patterson’s Alex Cross series is mostly pretty popular, but not these four installments.) Sorry, Jim, you sell millions, but you can’t bring this dreck to BookBub!

Anything by John Irving written since 2000. While his classics, like World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire are safe, none of Irving’s more recent work, from Widow for a Year forward, have received the vaunted 4.0-star minimum threshold.

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris (3.0). Readers can’t forgive Harris for ending the Sookie Stackhouse series, it seems… or agree with the way she ended it, even though the series turned her into a New York Times Bestseller’s List standby. In fact, from Dead and Gone forward, the series has rated below 4.0 for its duration, and the post DEA follow-up, After Dead (1.7) has been the subject of readers’ wrath.

Robert B. Parker was a standby hard-boiled detective novelist in the 1980s and 1990s. He passed away a few years ago. But at least half of his Spenser books, as well as pretty much all of his Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall novels, fail to pass the 4.0-minimum muster.

I could go on and on. And I half-suspect some publishers have taken note of the recent emphasis on 4.0 Amazon score minimums, too, because some of the books I know were below 4.0 even last year at this time are now just at or slightly above 4.0 ratings now. Indies are not the only ones gaming the system.

Pack Up Your Troubles In an Old Kit Bag, and Smile Smile Smile…

Now, most sane authors, prior to the eBook/Indie era, didn’t pay attention to their reviews if they valued their peace of mind.

Or they paid obsessive attention to them and got emotionally all a-quiver over them, riding the emotional highs and lows of good and negative reviews.

Either way, the emphasis was on what was said, not on a somewhat arbitrary rating system review score.

But we’re not in that era now. There is a whole generation of readers who, like these book promotion sites, expect high ratings before they’ll even consider buying someone’s book. Book promotion sites like BookBub love to scream, “Has 500 5-star reviews on Amazon.com!” in as many of their listings as possible. Which is silly, but it is what it is.

The reason it’s silly, though, is because the emphasis is not being placed on the idea that one’s novel has been read by real people. Instead, the emphasis is now on people not just reading, not just liking, but absolutely and uncritically LOVING your book.

So any review that’s not a 4-star or 5-star review is seen as a dis, rather than an honest opinion from someone who actually read your book and formed an opinion of it. Having your book read by someone who cared enough to form an opinion on it used to be regarded as being as precious as heavenly manna.

These days, it must be a 4-star or 5-star positive opinion and few authors care about what the review even says, unless it might be perceived as critical and therefore “damaging to sales.”

That’s wrong-headed thinking for authors in many, many ways. But it’s how a growing number of writers think, these days. Readers are no longer an audience you want to connect with, but are increasingly regarded, disrespectfully, as a “barrier to my success!”

Because if you lose that 4.0 minimum review rating on Amazon, all sorts of promotional doors begin closing to the struggling indie author.

Bedtime for Bonzo

Well, if authors are now in the business of earning only 4-star and 5-star reviews, what type of literature are they producing?

Certainly not literature that takes any creative risks, by and large.

This is why frightened inexperienced authors go on message boards to ask more-experienced authors if it’s “okay” to kill off a character, or have a less-than-joyous ending, or any number of other things writers are terrified to do, these days. Especially in indie-land.

Even in genres where character deaths and grim endings make sense, like horror.

And this is bad news for everyone involved.

I would almost (but not quite) go so far as to suggest that paranormal romance/urban fantasy exists primarily because of this desire not to tick off readers in any way that would potentially lead to lower review scores.

Oh, wait, you LIKE my vampire? Okay, he’ll sparkle in the sun and be your ideal chaste boyfriend… and he’d never dream of biting you without permission, let alone feeding on and killing you, because characters should never die. Ever. Which makes vampires so ideal… they live forever, so long as they keep feeding. Which… they can’t do in order to remain an ideal boyfriend, and… oh wait… something’s breaking down here… I guess plots shouldn’t make sense…

So, the tail is wagging the dog a lot these days.

Authors are afraid to take even minor risks with plot. The complete emphasis is not on telling a great story, so much as telling a story that ticks off no one, because if you tick readers off, they might give you a 3-star review or lower, and then you can’t promote your book, and…

…See what I mean? It’s all upside down.

But… but Joss Whedon said… JOSS FRICKIN’ WHEDON SAID…

In a DVD audio commentary on the Season 6 package for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now-famed director Joss Whedon shared his theory of how to handle character deaths. And this is a man with blood on his hands already by then, having killed off Buffy’s mom the previous season.

But when sitting down with such now-famous talents as Marti Noxon, Tim Minear, David Fury, and David Greenwalt, among others, to break down the big story points of season six, Whedon said, “Someone big has to die this season. Someone who means something to Willow, to explain her descent into the dark side.”

Several names were bandied about, but Whedon’s crew (as Joss tells it) was adamant about one thing: the one person other than Buffy herself who was untouchable was Tara, Willow’s then-girlfriend. “There’s no other relationship like it on television,” their logic went, “and viewers would hate us for it.” I guess Xander was the leading candidate, but everyone’s firm opposition to it being Tara is something that perked Whedon’s ears up.

“From the moment I was told, ‘It can’t be Tara,’ she was dead meat,” Whedon recalled. “That’s when I knew it absolutely had to be her. No loss would be more personal, or better motivation for Willow to give herself over to the darkness.”

It was a bold and risky choice, the type which Whedon has developed a reputation for making. In fact, don’t be surprised if Whedon someday decides it’s time to kill off Iron Man in Marvel’s The Avengers. He has a history.

And to be honest, as painful as the loss of Tara was for fans, I absolutely agree with Whedon’s choice. Losing anyone else, like Xander or Giles or Dawn, would not have motivated Willow’s transformation into Dark Willow more understandably than the death of Tara. “You killed my best friend’s sister!” just doesn’t ring with the same sense of tragic loss and thirst for bloody vengeance the same way, “You killed the only person I’ve ever loved!” does.

And without something huge, like the death of Tara, to motivate her, Willow’s transformation into Season 6′s Big Bad would have felt completely contrived, rather than an organic outgrowth of a terrible loss.

If I Show You, Then I Know You Won’t Tell What I Said, Because Two Can Keep a Secret If One of Us is Dead…

Like the death of Tara in Buffy Season 6, great books also take risks, including but not limited to the death of beloved characters. Because great books are less concerned with reader wrath (despite the well-known reluctance of J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books) and low review scores, than with telling a great story.

Some of the best reads I’ve ever enjoyed had characters die, or do something controversial, or featured downer endings.

For example, in the book version of Cujo, Tad dies. Donna confronts the rabid dog too late to save his life. Her survival had a cost. It was an ending so controversial at the time, that they changed it in the movie version.

Yet in the more-recent Doctor Sleep, also by King, only the bad guys die. And rather easily, at that. Not a single good guy snuffs it as a price for victory over the baddies.

If King were to re-do The Dead Zone today, it’d become a ten-part series. Johnny would never sacrifice himself to save his ex-girlfriend’s kid. He’d successfully assassinate the evil Greg Stinson, but somehow live on to have “many other adventures.” Thus ripping the emotional core and tragic heroism out of the novel, which is what made The Dead Zone one of my favorite books among King’s early works: sometimes life just doesn’t play fair.

Great theme. Epic theme. But it’s guaranteed to tick readers off.

But at least no one would give King a 3-star review or lower. And that’s the name of the game today. Not great-storytelling, just a lack of ticked-off readers.

You Can’t Be Bought Without Awareness, You Can’t Raise Awareness Without Being Bought

The whole dynamic here becomes a tad incestuous. Similar to the whole “we only hire people with experience, but you can’t get experience till someone hires you” conundrum teenagers face when looking for their first job, it’s hard to get a foothold as an author.

See, if people are unaware you exist, they can’t even begin to consider buying your book. But promotional sites won’t give you access to greater audience awareness via their promotional punch (and some book bloggers popular enough to have a following won’t review you, either) until you’ve sold enough to meet these minimum standards they’ve set up.

Is it any wonder, then, that some inexperienced writers are tempted to game a system rigged against them?

Then Count the Votes Until They Add Up Right…

The trouble with all this emphasis on reviews of four stars and five stars is, it’s an easily-gamed system, if you have the money. And it doesn’t take as much money as you might think.

Ever since John Locke confessed to buying reviews for some of his early books, it’s been a poorly-kept secret that there are services out there that will produce Amazon reviews for you, guaranteed to give you whatever review score you desire.

It’s fraudulent, sure; but people mostly only complain about those who get caught at it. I’ve known for a long time that five bucks could net me five five-star reviews on Amazon, over on Fiverr.com. I’ve never bitten. Why? Because I’d rather accumulate reviews the honest way.

Old-school writer that I am, I care about real people reading my books and giving their genuine opinions on them. Heck, a three-star review from a widely-followed book-blogger gave one of my books, Most Likely, the biggest one-day sales-boost it ever received. A review doesn’t need to be uncritical praise to help you. It just needs to be a review by a book blogger who has a following. If they can write a balanced review, so much the better. Who cares how many stars that means? I got quotes off that review that I still use today.

But then, I struggle to meet basic expenses each month while John Locke sells millions. So which of us is the dummy? Also, Locke’s books are actually entertaining reads that have gone on to earn quite a few legitimate five-star reviews, so… does it matter, ultimately?

The answer will largely depend on your personal ethics.

And That’s the Bottom Line, ‘Cuz Stone Cold Says So!

I think readers should be entitled to whatever opinions they have of a book. And I mean the entire range of opinions, from one-star to five-star, from Hated It to Loved It, from Thumbs Down to Thumbs Up. And anywhere in between. Writers need to remember that reviews are just opinions, and it’s not the reader’s fault that their opinions are now being used as a gatekeeper at book promotion sites or by popular, in-demand book bloggers. Those sites and bloggers are just doing their job, and readers reacting to your work should be treasured no matter what their opinion of your work is.

Readers never asked to have their opinions made into a sales tool. Stop blaming them.

And writers should stop catering to the whims of the most reactionary readers, write what’s best for the story, and cease worrying whether someone might get upset about it. Remember, this is just words on paper, folks. If you created a story that crafted a compelling enough tale that when one of your characters die, it inspires a reaction … even if it’s hate-mail and a one-star review … why, you’ve done your job. Rejoice and be glad, for tomorrow we all may perish.

The current eco-system of advertising being linked to reader opinions has everything all out of whack. But it’s not the reader’s fault or their doing. And promotion sites and book bloggers need some way to screen out stuff so they don’t get overloaded. If it weren’t a minimum number of Amazon review scores and minimum star ratings, it’d be something else.

It’s a system. Accept it, because you can’t make it go away just because you don’t like it. Be bold in your storytelling and stop the catering. That’s the key to producing stories that will be remembered for the right reasons, not just because no one got upset while reading it. Do what’s right for the best storytelling possible, always.

With no apologies.

Most Likely available in time for holiday season!

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It’s here, people! In time for the winter holidays!

The audiobook version of Most Likely, read by talented voiceover artist Jennifer Harvey, can be found here on Amazon and on Audible.com as well.

I’m told it’s also on iTunes.com, but I don’t know how to link to that, so you’ll have to fire up iTunes and search for me by name and book title there. Get yours now: Jennifer’s performance is outstanding!

Coming Soon: Most Likely in Audiobook format!

Most-Likely-AudioBook-2500x2500It’s been a long time coming, but I have finally been brought to the point where I can make this announcement: the audiobook version of Most Likely will debut soon, with professional narration by the talented Jen Harvey!

Jennifer Harvey, who can be found here, has rented her voice out to books as varied as The Enemy We Know, Spinning Blues Into Gold, Rescue Me, Saving Tristan, and Saying Goodbye.

Now she’s giving voice to the very first novel I ever published, Most Likely, and her work is a home run, in my biased opinion. I’m hoping the title will debut before the Christmas holidays, but it’s all in the hands of ACX right now. It should be listed on Amazon.com, Apple iTunes, and Audible.com soon, though.

Harvey joins a tiny but talented club of voice artists who’ve brought my works to life; the first was Chrissy Swinko, a little over a year ago, with the audiobook version of Shada.

Look for the debut of this long-awaited title, coming soon!

New short story released!

The Devohrah Initiative

The cover of The Devohrah Initiative was designed by Craig Hansen. It used an image © Wimpos—Licensed through Shutterstock.com

Hey all.

I’m proud to announce the release of my latest short story, The Devohrah Initiative. It’s a tale that combines elements of high-tech horror with humor, and while the setting and topic are different, the tale is in the same vein as my popular freebie short story, Under Contract.

I wrote this book on a dare. The dare wasn’t personally directed at me, but was a general dare by Joe Konrath (which you can find here) to all independently-published writers to start having more fun with their careers.

The general concept was this: to write a story, edit and proof it by yourself, create your own cover, format the book, and upload it to Amazon.com, all in the space of a single work day. It’s a challenge that’s come to be known as the “eight-hour book challenge.”

Now, due to my odd schedule, I had to split the eight hour time limit over two evenings.

The first evening, I wrote my 3,500-word story, including using Google Earth and other resources to get details somewhat accurate. I also searched out an image I wanted to license for the cover on Shutterstock that night. I hit my four-hour window Saturday night, then waited until Sunday night to finish up.

On Sunday, I almost bit off more than I could chew.

Using the licensed image from Shutterstock, I built the cover in four sizes and my interior title page in just under an hour. Then I went over to Scrivener, compiled the story into an .rtf file, and then copy-pasted it into InDesign, where I could work on the formatting.

I brought in the necessary back matter and front matter elements, got it all squared away, began to export to Kindle … and my PC froze up. Fortunately, I had just saved my work in InDesign, but still, the clock was ticking…

After a hard reboot, I finished the job and uploaded the book to Amazon with only minutes remaining. I wrote the blurb on the fly.

It was a very near thing, and I almost gave up when my PC froze, but it was indeed fun. If you try out the story, which is an Amazon exclusive at this point, I hope you’ll agree. (And it’ll be free on Amazon between August 30 through September 3.)

The Devohrah Initiative is an idea that occurred to me as recent debates about government-controlled drones have been discussed. De-voh-rah, by the way, is a Hebrew word that means “bee.” It can also translate into the feminine name Deborah, since both words are derived from the same Hebrew root, dalet-bet-resh, although that’s largely peripheral to the story I’ve written.

Anyway, using the transliteration for the Hebrew word for “bee” fit into the story and allowed me to give the tale a title a bit less on-the-nose than “Plan Bee” or something like that.

So, there you have it. I’m not sure how often I’ll repeat this sort of eight-hour challenge, but it was nice to inject a sense of fun back into writing. I’ve spent almost a year and a half working on a long horror novel, so coming up with something I could get out on the market in under eight hours was definitely enjoyable.

Hope you find pleasure in the results.

SHADA is now an audiobook!

Shada-150-HeightGreat news, everyone.

SHADA, the novella that kicks off the EMBER COLE series of books, is now officially available as an audio book. The running time is only two hours, thirty-nine minutes, so it’s also an easy listen.

Narrating SHADA is the sparkling voice of talented newcomer Chrissy Swinko, who is simply outstanding. You can read more about her here, like her on Facebook here, or follow her on Twitter here.

Get to know her now, because once word gets out about her, she’s going to pop big in the audio book world. She’s a talent.

If you’re interested in getting a copy yourself, you can find Shada for sale on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. Get it wherever you normally get audio books!

Oh, one more note: I’m hoping to announce the audiobook version of MOST LIKELY before the year is out.

And both EyeCU and EMBER won’t be making their appearances until 2013. Sorry about that, but for books to be well-written, sometimes it takes time.

From legit complaint to exaggeration to fiction

I enjoy working as an independent author.

I mean that.

By choosing this path, I don’t have to wait for overworked, underpaid, over-the-transom acquisitions assistants to recognize the value of my writing and convince his superior to at least look at it. Or wait for that process to repeat up the editorial chain of command until someone finally says, “Maybe we should tell the writer this thing doesn’t completely stink. It’s postmarked 2005, so he’s probably wondering.”

Instead, I can come directly to the reading public and present something for their consumption. They might like it; they might not. But it’s out there.

When I first came into the world of eBooks, the most common bit of advice being tossed around was, “Give your story two years to be published the traditional way. If it’s not picked up by that point, then go ahead and ePublish it.”

Less than two years later, the advice given has almost reversed itself. “Put it out there as an eBook. It might draw the attention of an agent or publisher if it does okay.”

Regardless, the publishing world has seen a seismic shift in the past couple years, and not all the rules are the same. Good authors who struggled to get anything in print are now able to draw an audience and make at least a meager income. Better writers can even achieve a semblance of earning a living from their writing.

And is there a lot of junk out there, too? Yes, but that’s what innovations like Look Inside and downloadable previews are for. The bad stuff sticks out like a sore thumb.

I strive to be a writer of quality fiction.

It’s a popular misconception that all independent writers are publishing substandard stuff. In fact, some of the best writers in history were self-published. For example, who do you think told Benjamin Franklin that Poor Richard’s Almanac was “ready for an audience,” hmm? Gentle Ben himself, that’s who.

And what about one of the best-loved stories of all time, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Yup, Sir Charles did that one on his own, too.

It’s not so uncommon as people think, going the indie route. Even in recent times, folks like John Grisham got their start by hawking their own wares, only to get their books in front of the eyes of the right people and catch on with a traditional publisher.

To step outside of pure book analogies, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the long-running Comedy Central animated hit, South Park, got their start by self-producing and self-distributing an animated short entitled The Spirit of Christmas, which eventually evolved and morphed into the cartoon we know today.

The point is, going the independent route has a bad reputation lately, but it is by no means a guarantee of subpar material, nor is it an indicator of a lazy creator willing to put out bad content for a pure ego rush. There may be dross out there, but there are nuggets of gold as well.

Whenever I prepare a book I’ve written for release, I do all I can to ensure my readers are buying a professional-level product. I have professionals handle my book covers and edit my books. I’m just as thorough on revisions and using the tools of the trade to make sure I have a properly-written and developed story, as I would be if I were submitting it to a traditional publisher. More, even. Prior to release, I run my fiction past the eyes of test readers and revise based on their feedback.

What it comes down to is this: Are some independent authors putting out subpar stuff and being lazy? Sure. But that’s true of traditionally-published stuff as well, and the line of demarcation often comes down to personal drive, the desire to create something of quality.

A writer either wants to make a quick buck, or they want to create a lasting and worthwhile piece of entertainment that will attract to them a more sustainable level of success. I count myself among the latter. Whether I should be will ultimately be up to readers to decide.

A few laughs and a shiver

My latest effort at achieving these goals as been unleashed. Under Contract: A Tale of Horror and Satire will offer up some biting satire, a few giggles, and hopefully a shiver or two.

The most common question authors are asked, aside from “Who are you, again?” is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

In this case, my inspiration came from my fellow indie authors as a whole. When this whole subculture developed, some who chose the independent route had never been published before, while others had been. Understandably, some of them had tales to tell about their experiences being published by traditional book publishers.

At first, there were the legit complaints, such as writers whose books were scuttled off shelves without a big push when they failed to sell well immediately; or whose second or third books were not accepted after first breaking through as a published author. Gripes about poor copy-editing, improper covers, and editorial changes became commonplace.

But somewhere along the line, former trad-pubbed authors became a little, shall we say, bitter? Their tales grew alongside their dissatisfaction with their prior experiences being traditionally published.

Some of their complaints grew to the point of exaggerations, such as conspiratorially suggesting that their publisher worked to impede, rather than encourage, their books’ sales figures. Even to outright kill their books off and ruin their career.

Claims that, as they grew in paranoia, became harder and harder to believe.

The point has now been reached where a formerly trad-pubbed author can make their previous experience sound like a country song; as their story progresses, they lose more and more, from their authorial rights to their house to their car to their wife to their dog, until they have nothing left but the blues.

And even though the exaggerations become increasingly transparent, some folks take such claims seriously and offer condolences.

Such is the fodder of good fiction

Being a creative type, and with a mind that sometimes explores the dark side of imagination, the proverbial light bulb went off inside my head. All these stories amounted to an admission of fear; fear of being published by a traditional publisher, fear of one’s work being mishandled, fear of losing one’s career due to machinations beyond their personal control.

We read in the popular news media all the time about the evils of Big Tobacco or Big Fast Food or Big Banking. Basically, if it’s big, it’s bad. Evil. Corrupt.

And so, the idea of Big Publishing as a source of malevolence began to grow in my mind.

What if the evils of Big Publishing were far bigger than even the most paranoid author had ever imagined?

What if all of publishing was a lie, a front, a PR machine that ate talented young writers up and spit them out?

What if most of the writers we know today as “brands” were actually just front-men, while underpaid and maltreated nobodies were actually tasked with the real work of producing the next big blockbusters?

What if?

That very question is the genesis of most good story ideas. Those two words are “where we get our stories.” Ask any author, and if they’ve thought about it at all, “What if?” is the actual source of all creative storytelling.

So, out of the complaints and exaggerations of real writers, my latest tale was born. I have a few others like it percolating in the back of my brain, too, wherein I could further explore this theme.

For now, however, start with Under Contract: A Tale of Horror and Satire. It’s not a long read. You can probably finish it in a half hour or so; a nice little escape that will whet your appetite for something more.

Besides, what’s $0.99 between friends?

Why I’ve Been So Quiet Lately

I know what you’re thinking.

You’ve been dropping by my Web page off and on since December and wondering the same thing each time you visit. Why has it been so long since Craig’s updated his blog, and why on earth is that Hanukkah post still at the top of his page?

I’ll admit, I’ve been letting things slide a bit here on the old website. But for a reason. Or two, actually.

I am gearing up to deliver to you, my readers and friends, a great 2012. The recent facelift on the website here is only a preparatory step. Believe me, a lot more is on the way.

I still know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking, “Yeah, I’ve heard that sort of thing before, but man, you haven’t just gone silent for a while, it’s like you dropped off the face of the planet.”

True.

But believe it or not, it’s because I’ve been busy. I’ve been writing. And 2012 is going to see the fruits of all that effort. Efforts that are still ongoing, but will start to show up, well… I won’t promise when just yet. But trust me, things are brewing.

Like what?

EMBER

First of all, let’s talk about the long-awaited, long-promised, long-in-development sequel to SHADA, known as EMBER. That’s coming. I’m making progress and if you thought SHADA was fun, believe me, the next adventure awaiting Ember Cole is even more fun. But it’s a longer tale, and these things take time. So thank you, dear readers, for bearing with me while I craft Ember’s next adventure to get it just right for you.

Sure, I could be like a lot of other indie authors, rushing things out the door, not striving to get them “just right” before release. But that’s not me. If you know me, you know that about me. And if you’ve read my work, you should know that much about me.

I’d love to tell you more about EMBER, but I don’t want to spoil one second of the fun. For now, let’s just say that some of the hints that were dropped at the end of SHADA will pay off in a big way in EMBER. Others? Well, others might have to wait for another book, but there’s so much going on in Book Two that you won’t really notice.

But one thing I will promise you is this: you will find out what happens to Willow. Ember might not, at least not right away. But you will, dear reader. You will.

So if you haven’t done so already, go to your favorite eBook retailer and grab a copy of SHADA now, just to get yourself warmed up and ready.

EyeCU

This is the other project I’m working on. Simultaneously with EMBER, I might add. But it’s for a slightly different audience.

You see, SHADA and EMBER are books that are aimed at a young adult audience, primarily. But Hope, Wisconsin has a lot of stories swirling around inside it, and some are, shall we say, a bit more intense than others?

That’s what EyeCU is all about. It’s a more intense story for a slightly older audience. That’s not to say it’s nasty, full of cussing and sex and such. But it is more intense. Perhaps more disturbing.

So what’s it about?

Well, I don’t want to give away too much, but for now let me tell you a familiar tale.

Long ago, and not so long ago, Hollywood loved to make movies and TV episodes and such revolving around a now-cliche plot. The tale of the innocent young man or woman who becomes the recipient of a revolutionary new form of eye surgery that just might restore their sight. They get the surgery, learn to deal with the world as a sighted person, but then the other shoe drops: either they start seeing ghosts, or they have visions of crimes or something else disturbing.

They ultimately find out that the eyes they received came from someone sitting on death row. Then they either end up solving one of that prisoner’s unsolved crimes, or they turn evil themselves and pick up where he left off.

It’s a familiar tale.

EyeCU’s not like that at all. In fact, it could almost be said EyeCU is the opposite of that sort of tale.

Kind of.

Interested?

Good. Because that’s the other big project I’m working on. And if all goes well, both of these tales will see release in 2012.

That’s the plan, anyway.

And now, dear reader, you know what I’m working on and why I’ve been so quiet lately. Are you excited yet?

Hanukkah Musings

As this is my writing blog, I don’t often delve into religious matters in this space. There’s a good reason for that; religious content can be divisive. For as many people as it draws to you, it can repel many others. That’s why I keep a separate blog for my religious and theological writing, at MessianicMusings.com.

However, when I was invited to take part in the Festival of Books, it was not difficult to decide to take part. I won’t go into the spiritual reasons here, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll share part of why I am taking part in a book giveaway that focuses around the festival of Hanukkah, also known as the festival of lights, rather than a more typical Christmas-themed giveaway.

You see, when most people think about Hanukkah, the thing they know about it is the miracle of the lamp oil. A one-day supply burned for eight days, when the supply of lamp oil was replenished. On the scale of the miraculous, even the most devout and Orthodox of rabbis will admit, the miracle of the oil doesn’t exactly rank up there with, say, the parting of the Red Sea.

But there’s a deeper story to the festival, one I’m about to share with you.

The Maccabean period in Israel’s history covered the years 167-160 BCE. At that time, Israel was under the rule of the Greeks; specifically, the Grecian ruler Antiochus Epiphanies. Under the Greek system of occupation, it was expected that any occupied territory conform completely to Grecian culture. That posed a problem for Israel, which had a strong tradition of honoring the “God of Avraham, Yitzak, and Yaakov.”

There were two primary impulses in Israel at the time. One was embodied by those who desired peace and were willing to water down and integrate their worship of God to fit into the norms of Greek society and culture. This movement was called the Hellenizers.

Then there were those in Israel who insisted that the worship of HaShem should not be compromised, watered down, or integrated with the worship of other, false gods. This movement became a militant group lead by the Maccabees, who vowed to fight for Jewish sovereignty. It became a revolutionary war movement over the issue of religious freedom.

To make a long story short and to the point, the Maccabees fought and won that battle, driving the Greeks out of Israel, restoring the worship of God to the Second Temple, and gaining – at least temporarily – Israeli sovereignty.

It didn’t last long. Roman occupation of Israel soon replaced Greek occupation, but the Romans learned a lesson from the mistake of the Greeks. Rather than enforce religious compliance to Roman culture with an iron fist, Rome allowed local religions to be practiced freely under Roman rule, so long as Roman civil authority and taxation were observed, and the establishment of separate Roman worship sites were tolerated.

It was a subtle difference, but it was enough to relegate rebellion movements to a far smaller minority.

That’s the brief history lesson. But what is the transferable concept to be derived from it?

Perhaps this: when faced with a choice of either “complying with the majority,” or retaining their own identity, that generation in Israel refused to be dissolved into the majority culture.

And, in a small way, that spirit is honored by the modern movement toward independent writers seeking success outside of the New York publishing system. Have you ever noticed how much of mainstream fiction is set in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington DC?

Sure, there are exceptions; Stephen King writes about Maine a lot, for example. But there are always exceptions, and you’ll noticed that James Patterson’s Alex Cross doesn’t patrol the “mean streets of Portland, Maine.” The mainstream publishing culture is most often interested in thrillers when those stories happen on main, coastal towns. Everything else is “flyover territory” to them; unimportant; a setting relegated to writers who engage in “local color” and nothing else.

Or how about this? Have you ever noticed that the majority of fiction coming out of the big New York houses is easy to categorize, clearly conforming genre fiction? Heaven forbid that one try to stir together a fictional brew that combines, say, suspense, the supernatural, comedy, and high school angst? (Sure, that described Buffy the Vampire Slayer to a tee, but before Josh Whedon created it definitively on television, who was writing anything like that? No one.)

While the rare independent voice has broken through the traditional publishing world on occasion, the truth is that those cases are exceedingly rare. Recent visits I’ve made to the Web site of a popular literary agent, who posts regularly about the sorts of novels he’s currently looking for, only underline this conformance to the majority culture of New York houses: the only suspense he was interested in were police/serial killer procedurals “set in New York City.”

In other words, he’s looking for the next James Patterson.

Prior to the development of the independent author scene that has flourished in the age of digital publishing, conforming to that majority culture was the only way to break into print and find some success. Only after building some success could an author take a risk and start trying to publish something different.

That’s no longer the case. Now, thanks to devices like the Kindle and Nook, and the markets they open up to independent authors, we no longer have to wait to write the novels we really want to write. We don’t have to serve time writing generic New York police procedurals; we can skip directly to writing about the strange goings-on in a remote northwest Wisconsin town – or whatever our personal obsessions and fascinations might be.

Like those ancient Maccabean rebels, today’s independent authors have an incredible opportunity to be true to themselves. For us today, that means writing the type of novels we really want to write, in the setting and voice that we want to write them. Rather than having those elements dictated to us.

Below this post is a list of writers who embody that spirit of revolution and independence. I encourage you to Follow, Tweet, Browse them all, and try out each of their offerings. That would, truly, make this a Festival of Books that honors the true spirit of Hanukkah.

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Stephanie Abbott writing as Emma Jameson, author of Ice Blue (a cozy mystery): Blog and Twitter.
Danielle Blanchard, author of Death Wish (paranormal romance): Blog and Twitter.
Justin Dennis, author of Through The Portal (YA fantasy): Blog and Twitter.
Lisa Grace, author of Angel in the Shadows and Angel in the Storm (YA fantasy): Blog and Twitter.
Jonathan Gould, author of Doodling and Flidderbugs (both humorous fantasies): Blog and Twitter.
Craig Hansen, author of SHADA (YA thriller): Blog and Twitter.
Larry Kahn, author of The Jinx (thriller) and King of Paine (suspense): Blog and Twitter.
Emily Ann Ward, author of Finding Fiona (YA Sci-Fi) and Passages (YA short stories): Blog and Twitter.

How Stephen King saved my life

It’s not uncommon for people to admire Stephen King as a writer these days. His rebel years when he was the maverick genre writer of the publishing field, lacking the respect of the more august literary voices of the 1970s and 1980s, bucking trends to write horror fiction to a mass audience, are now well behind him. Now, he is an august literary voice himself, his novels having influenced one, and perhaps now two, generations of young writers.

So it’s nothing new or unique for me to cite Stephen King as a primary influence on my own writing, as I did frequently throughout my recently-completed blog tour for SHADA. Yet I have a different, more unique link to the master of modern horror than most writers. I can honestly say this:

Stephen King saved my life.

I mean that, literally.

No, Stephen King did not perform a life-saving operation on me in some secret second profession as a rival to Dr. Gregory House. Nor did he leap in front of me when we were walking down a lonely Maine road together as a dog-distracted driver bore down on us with his van.

Truth is, Stephen King and I have never met face to face. I’m not sure we ever will.

But despite the fact that we’ve never so much as shook hands or even passed each other in the airport, despite the fact that I’ve never even been to a book signing or writer’s conference where he was in attendance, one hard, cold fact remains true.

Stephen King saved my life.

How, you ask? Well, even though it’s true, that is a story in itself.

Allow me to set the scene.

The year was 1983. I was 16, in the middle of my high school career. And for probably the first time, I had some friends close to my own age.

That was an entirely new experience for me, and it had only developed over the past year or so. I was and had almost always been a bookish, shy kid. I preferred the company of books to the company of my classmates. Heck, I preferred hanging out with adults, for that matter.

Why? Well, I’d always been a bright kid. And not to verge on immodesty, but the gulf between me and my peers was significant enough to make me seem… I don’t know. Stuck up? Stand-offish? You’d have had to ask them, back then, at the time. Whatever the case, I didn’t “join in any reindeer games,” and generally kept to myself.

This landed me in trouble, more often than not. I’d be targeted for bullying. My mouth … I tended to be a smart-alack, as so many brainy, bookish kids are … often played a role in drawing such negative attention to me. And that happened enough that I ended up in a group counseling setting with some other kids close to my age. Kids who, like me, just didn’t fit in with “the general crowd” for one reason or another.

Slowly, I made a handful of friends. I started hanging out with them. The core group of us included three guys and one girl. The girl was dating one of the guys. (Not me.)

Anyway, we formed a bond and hung out whenever we could. We’d go to public parks and hang out until dark. We’d sing together. Whenever I was learning a part for a school play, they’d help me run lines. If I was memorizing a speech for speech competition, I’d recite it for them.

In fact, flash forward to my senior year in 1984-85, and the story I’d recite for them was “Strawberry Spring,” by Stephen King, a story out of his NIGHT SHIFT collection that was just short enough to… with a little selective editing to brief it up even more… fit within the time limit for the Dramatic Interpretation of Prose. I performed that piece well; in fact, I came one horror-hating judge away from going to state that year. But that’s a story for another time.

The point is, I learned to spook my friends out by reciting “Stawberry Spring” to them over and over again. They loved it, and loved getting spooked by it. And if we got too spooked out, we’d go back to singing Billy Joel and Wham! and Duran Duran songs to lighten the mood. I never would have come close to going to state with that piece without my friends being such a willing audience. I simply wouldn’t have practiced it enough without them.

But that’s not how Stephen King saved my life.

That’s yet to come. But what I need you to appreciate first is how important these friends were to me. These were not just my favorite pals from a certain time period. They were pretty much the only friends I’d made, ever, to that point in my life. At least among those who were my age, or close to it.

When a person has no close friends their own age at all, it’s actually easier to cope with. You don’t know what you’re missing. Because you never really had that. But once you’ve really had a tight group of friends, friends who accept you as you are… it creates a sort of magnetic field. You want to keep those friends. You don’t want to give them up. Even if it means making some personal sacrifices in your own life.

What kind of sacrifices?

Well, by the time I was in my junior year, I knew I was heading to college. I wanted to; I needed to. Grade school had been no challenge at all for me, and I knew I needed what college could offer… a chance to study in a way that would cause me to grow, to expand what I know, to push me harder than I could push myself. Because in high school, that’s the only time I learned anything: when I pushed myself.

But here’s the thing: it was also becoming clear to me that my three friends, the ones I was hanging out with as often as possible and who meant so much to me, were not heading to college with me.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with where they were headed. It’s just that my path was drawing me toward college, and their paths were drawing them toward different goals than I had.

It’s natural. It’s part of growing up. It’s almost inevitable.

And it terrified me.

You see, having lived sixteen years as a loner, my best friends being books instead of people, had it’s up-side: for example, I had published my first short story at the age of 14. I had written a few novels and a lot of short fiction since, though it would be a while before lightning struck again. And while I was generally a creative kid, involved in acting and singing and speech club and writing… I knew writing was where I would land. Had to land. It was my biggest strength. And for that I needed college. Needed it because I required more than what my tiny public school was able to offer me in terms of writing mentorship, even though they did what they could.

So, as much as I knew about my intellectual needs… I also understood, perhaps for the first time, that I had social needs as well. I needed that group of friends. I wasn’t convinced that if I left them behind, I could ever replace them. After all, look how long it took me to find these three, right?

I began to wonder if college was the right path for me. If my friends were going a different direction, then maybe I needed to change mine.

Of course, that would have been a disastrous path for me. I lacked both the skill set and the interest level in the sort of opportunities that awaited me on the non-college path, to be successful by going that direction. I’d have ended up on a career path that wasn’t right for me, never excelling at it, all to keep the only three really close friends I’d ever known.

I’m about to tell you how Stephen King saved my life.

In 1982, Stephen King published his collection of four novellas, DIFFERENT SEASONS. I held off buying it right away. I kind of liked his short fiction, such as NIGHT SHIFT, but mostly I loved King’s long novels. CUJO, CHRISTINE, and PET SEMATARY were all books I’d grabbed right away.

But for some reason, I held off on DIFFERENT SEASONS for a year… maybe two. If I recall correctly, I bought it sometime during my junior year, and let it sit before reading it later that summer, before my senior year.

I learned I didn’t care for all the stories in the book, in fairly short order. “Apt Pupil” held no appeal. “The Breathing Method” was boring, to me, back then.

But I read right away, and loved “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Cool prison tale.

And then there was “The Body.”

I had no idea what I was in for. But that story was written for me. Whether Stephen King realizes it or not, “The Body” was written directly to a seventeen-year-old Craig Hansen, about to enter his senior year, both looking forward to college, and secretly dreading it because it might mean leaving his friends behind.

Maybe Stephen King lived through a similar time in his youth. Maybe one of his sons, Joe or Owen, faced a similar dilemma at some point. I’m not sure what his direct inspiration was. But “The Body” was written to an audience of one: me.

Because as I started reading “The Body,” I began to understand on a subconscious level, that Gordie LaChance was me. Gordie had three friends, just like I had three friends. And he feared entering college-track courses in high school that would separate him from his middle-school friends, just as I feared entering college would separate me from mine.

Gordie, you see, had a gift. He could write. He could story-tell. He had talent. Just like me.

And like me, “The Body” revealed, he was considering setting aside that talent to remain with the friends who meant so much to him. Just as I was.

So when Gordie shares his fears and his plan to blow off college-track courses to his best friend of the group, Chris Chambers, he expects approval; he figures Chris wants him to stick around, too.

But anyone who’s read “The Body” or seen STAND BY ME knows what happens next.

Chris threatens him to wise the hell up. “It’s like God’s given you this gift,” Chris basically tells him, “and if you throw it away, you’re an idiot.”

(Stephen King wrote that scene better than I’m retelling it. Go read it. Or rent STAND BY ME.)

The point is, with that scene, the older, wiser Stephen King was speaking directly to the teenage me. King was Chris Chambers to my Gordie LaChance, and he was telling me I was about to be a complete idiot. That my plan to hang onto the friends I had at age 17 at all costs … tossing aside my writing talent as a result … would be a completely bone-headed thing to do. A mistake. And one I’d come to regret only after it was too late.

King, through “The Body,” reached through the span of fiction, time, and space, shook me by the shoulders, and shouted, “Don’t be an idiot!” at me… just when I needed to hear exactly that.

Was King the only person who would have told me that? Probably not. I’m sure my mom would have said the same thing. Perhaps even my friends might have said it. But King is the one who said it… at the right time, and in the right way, so that it sank in and made a difference in the trajectory of my life, before I made that mistake. His was the one voice I wouldn’t have blown off, at that point in my life.

Now, had Stephen King written me a personal letter telling me the same thing blatantly, it probably would not have had the same impact. At all. I was bull-headed back them. Still tend to be.

But through the art of story, the gift of fiction, the creativity and craft of tale-telling, King reached me. He convinced me that however scary leaving my friends behind might be, it’s what needed to happen. That however frightening a prospect college was, it would benefit me in the end and I needed to embrace it.

So, I did. I listened as Stephen King/Chris Chambers read the riot act to Craig Hansen/Gordie LaChance. And I did go on to college. And eventually, I did lose touch with those three friends, for a time.

And ultimately, one of them even came back into my life recently as a long-lost pal who I still share a bond of friendship with. We’re both older, carry more weight and have wives now. But at least one of those friendships came back to me, over time.

But if I’d not gone to college? Not pursued writing? Not had the courage to grow up and move out? Who knows where I’d be today? But it probably would be nowhere good.

And that’s how Stephen King saved my life.

And that’s why it was so important to me to write something like “The Body.” That’s why it served as my inspiration for SHADA. And while SHADA might never save some young girl’s life the way “The Body” saved mine … well … I’m sure Stephen King never imagined “The Body” would save anyone’s life, either.

A Paranormal Confession

Those of you who are not authors may or may not know this, but one of the most common questions writers get asked is, “Where did you get the idea for this story?” Considering I’ve just launched my newest book, SHADA, the first book in the EMBER COLE series, I expect to hear this question a lot.

Well, let me share with you a secret. At least one of the core episodes in SHADA is based on a personal experience. A paranormal one.

That might shock some people who know me. After all, I’m the author of a Christian fiction book, MOST LIKELY. And furthermore, those who’ve bothered to do any digging know I’m a Messianic Rabbi In Training (MRIT). (Though it’s more like In Waiting these days.) People who read this might say to me, “Hold on! Aren’t you kind of a religious guy? Are you really saying the paranormal is real? You, a guy who believes in God?”

Well, let me tell you my own personal tale. My brush with the paranormal, as it were.

You see, I haven’t always been an MRIT. A few decades ago, I was a kid, like anyone else. Bright for my age, perhaps, but not always wise. We’ve all been there, right?

Now, I loved to read from the my earliest years. And once a topic caught my attention, I’d devour stacks of books until they became repetitive and had nothing new to teach me. That’s how I became almost an expert on old films, TV shows, and radio dramas and comedies that had gone off the air long before I was even born. I studied dinosaurs, the planets, archeology.

And, of course, like most young boys, eventually my fancy turned to monsters and ghosts and the like. Whether it was Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, vampires, werewolves, UFOs or haunted houses, once my attention gravitated there, I had to read everything I possibly could on the topic.

For a period of time, séances fascinated me. Why? Just the very idea of being able to talk to people who lived before you did was tempting. What entranced me about séances was the same tantalizing question that Jeni Taylor poses to her friends at the opening of SHADA:

“If you could talk to a dead person, anyone at all, who would it be?”

Eventually, I became so excited by the possibility that I shared the idea with my sister. We sat down and made up a list of everyone we might possibly want to talk to. My sister was three years younger than me, so she couldn’t think of many people. That’s okay. I’d soon filled up two sides of a sheet of paper with different folks.

I had dead musicians, dead politicians, military leaders and other historical figures. I know Abe Lincoln was on my list. So was Elvis Presley. The problem for an imaginative kid like me wasn’t coming up with names, it was narrowing the list down.

I didn’t prepare as well as Jeni, Ember, Willow and Shada. When it became clear we were going to attempt a séance of our own, we simply waited for a time when our parents were going to be out of the house for a while. My sister wanted to invite two of her friends over, because she knew Elvis was on my list and her friends would want to talk to him, too, if we actually made contact.

This was the late 1970s, mind you. Elvis had died only a couple years prior to my little séance brainstorm. He was still quite popular, and some kids still remembered him and missed him.

I was maybe twelve at the time. It’s hard to remember for sure. That would have put my sister at around age nine. Her friends were ten and seven. I think I agreed to let them come just so we could have a group of four for the séance.

Now, as much as I’d read about séances, I’d never been to one, nor did I have a clue how to properly conduct one. I knew it would be good to have a candle or two lit. I knew the room had to be dark. And I knew, or thought I did, that we needed at least four people. How did one conjure forth a deceased spirit? As far as I knew, you just called them forth.

I figured the worst that could happen was … nothing. I was wrong.

Anyway, one day my parents announced they were going into town to get some groceries. That guaranteed us at least an hour to ourselves. Paulette asked if she could call her friends and have them come over. Mom and Dad agreed, and left before they arrived. We were just beyond the age when we needed a baby sitter for short trips like this; or, at least, I was.

Once my sister’s friends arrived, we gathered the candle and matches and went up to my sister’s room, where we’d decided to hold the grand event. I had my list of names with me. It took some time to calm my sister’s friends down. They were all excited. We argued a bit about who to call forth first, but finally settled on Elvis.

Never once did it enter our minds that those who are dead, even if they could hear us, might have better things to do than come and chat with a bunch of pre-teen kids. Sure, they might have been too busy in life to have time for us, but now? They had eternity, right? It also never entered our minds that there might be, at any given time, dozens of other groups of kids, and maybe even some adults, attempting to call forth the same exact folks at the same exact time.

I think we assumed the omnipresence of God somehow extended to anyone who was dead. Or something. Maybe we were just too young to know any better.

Anyway, after a lot of hassles, we got settled, got the candle lit, and began our little séance. I hadn’t kept track of time very well, but I knew we need to “get the show on the road,” as my parents might say.

So, there in the candle-lit dark of my sister’s bedroom, the four of us joined hands. I began, for some reason, by reciting the Lord’s prayer. Not sure why. Then I cleared my throat and said the following:

“We call to the spirit of Elvis Presley. Elvis, if you are here, please give us a sign. Let us know you’re with us.”

What happened next scared all of us. But to understand it, you have to appreciate a few facts first.

First of all, my parents were not much into rock and roll. They loved country, polkas, ragtime, big band music, gospel, and jazz … but mostly, country. They had never before owned anything by Elvis Presley.

Second, you must understand that we lived in a small enough house that we ought to have heard my parents pull up and come in the house, returning early from their grocery run. But none of us did.

Third, you need to realize that what happened next took place perfectly on cue. As in, within a couple seconds from the moment I finished saying, “Let us know you’re with us.”

Here’s what we heard: The sound of Elvis Presley singing “Blue Hawaii.” And it was coming from downstairs!

We all screamed. My sister’s two friends turned five shade paler than pure white, jumped up, and ran down the stairs, past my confused parents and out the door and all three blocks home. Their mother and father didn’t let them come over for another visit for a month.

My sister screamed, too. I screamed a bit less, but I did scream at first. In the confusion, though, the candle got knocked over onto an old blanket we’d spread out and I had to put out the flame before it really caught on fire. As I was doing that, my sister high-tailed it out of the room and down the stairs.

The next thing I heard was my mother’s stern voice: “Craig Allen Hansen! Get down here right now!”

Being only twelve, and with all the commotion that had been caused, I had no choice but to confess to the whole thing to my parents. Fibbing about what we were up to didn’t even occur to me. I told them all about our séance plans and how, right when I asked Elvis to let us know he was with us, the music had started.

My mom told me their side of the story as my dad silently sipped coffee, his eyes sparkling with mirth.

When they went in to get groceries, there had been a stack of records on sale, most of them only a couple bucks, which was really cheap for album-length music, even back then. So, out of the blue, Mom decided to grab some Elvis records, even though she hadn’t listened to him much when he was alive, except for his gospel stuff.

When they pulled in the drive and carried the groceries in, Mom wanted to hear “how the record sounded,” and the first thing she did, even before hollering, “We’re home,” was put the Elvis record on.

Right as I was asking for a sign of his presence.

It was freaky, weird timing. Pure coincidence.

And it scared both my sister and me enough to know that séances are nothing to mess around with.

There are echos of that personal paranormal experience in SHADA. Whether the girls in my novel learn the same lesson I did, well … that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

But now you know, as Paul Harvey often said, the rest of the story.

New price for MOST LIKELY

After three and a half months at $2.99, I’ve decided to lower the eBook price of my debut novel, MOST LIKELY. The price change, which is now at $0.99, is not a reflection of the quality of the novel, but an admission of where I am in my career as a writer; very few people know me yet. I need to make more friends who are readers and willing to give me and my work a try.

It reminds me of a story. When I was a kid, I was into comic books, big time. I knew a couple of other kids in my town who were, too. We sometimes traded comics; other times, we bought issues we wanted off each other.

Once, one of those friends had decided he wanted to buy a “rare, even back then” copy of “Spider-Man vs. Superman,” which back then was a whopping $2.50! That represented at least one week’s worth of comic books back in the mid-1970s. It was, at that time, a major investment.

So he was selling off some of his comics and showed me his collection and asked me if there were any I was interested in. Of course, there was. At the time, I was big into TOMB OF DRACULA, written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Gene Colon. He had an issue I’d missed when it first came out a year or so earlier, and I’d never been able to find another copy.

“Look,” he told me, “the cover price is thirty-five cents, but this one’s hard to find, and I only need another fifty cents to get Spider-Man vs. Superman. So I’ll let you have it for fifty cents.”

That seemed reasonable to me, so I paid the slightly-inflated price. A few weeks later, I ran into the other friend in town who collected comic books. He was eager to show off to me his latest acquisition: a Tomb of Dracula issue about a year earlier than the one I’d bought. I had my own copy, so I wasn’t jealous. But I was curious where he’d found it. So I asked.

He’d picked it up from our mutual friend. (The three of us were about the only comic book geeks in our small town of 350, by the way.) So I asked how much he’d paid.

“A quarter,” he told me. An issue a year older than mine, for half the price? That didn’t seem right, so the next time I saw our mutual friend, I asked him why he’d charged me twice as much for a newer issue of the same comic.

“I had something you needed, and something I wanted,” he told me. “I needed fifty cents for Spider-Man vs. Superman, and you had fifty cents.”

He’d charged our other friend less, later on, because he’d already acquired Spider-Man vs. Superman.

Even though I understood his reasons, I couldn’t help feeling he’d overcharged me. Even if only by a quarter.

So, back to the present situation.

I still believe that $2.99 is a fair price for an eBook; but it’s a fair price for an eBook by an author with a following, a group of friends who love his work. That circle of people is, right now, very small for me. And recent history has shown that $0.99 is an appropriate price for a new author looking to make new friends; friends who read.

So, today, I initiated a price drop on MOST LIKELY. The new, lower price represents a two-thirds savings over the original list price, and should remove any barriers to trying the book out. With eight reviews on Amazon and four on BN.com, MOST LIKELY has been consistently well-reviewed, garnering mostly four-star and a few five-star reviews. Now, the new price makes it easier than ever to try out.

The new price is already live on Amazon, BN.com and Smashwords. So go ahead and try it out! I’m moving to this price in celebration of my 45th birthday in September and if people perk up and remain interested, I’ll probably keep it right there for the foreseeable future.

And remember, later in September, I’ll be releasing SHADA, the first installment in the EMBER COLE series of young adult paranormal suspense books. That’ll be only $0.99, as well.

Enjoy these low cost of entry introductions to my writing. Let me know what you think. I hope you’ll find both worthwhile, and that these books will form the beginning of a longstanding friendship.