2016 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

Here it is 2017 and I am going over the books from fellow indie authors that I read in 2016. It was my first full year in Colorado to which I am still adjusting. Perhaps this is why I read about the same number of indie books that I read in 2015, 31 books total. I do notice that 2 of these books are actually short novellas, each tied to another book on the list, so maybe I should just count them as one book, making my reading list total as 30. One positive is this year proved to be an especially good year in the quality on the list with 8 books I rated at 5 stars. 2 of these 5 star books were the novellas to which I just referred, and the 2 books with which these novellas were associated also received 5 stars. I wonder if I should just count each book with its associated novella as one book, but I think I will just keep the total as is.

Now to reiterate my review standards as I posted over the past two years, I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort.

Of the 8 books which I rated 5 stars, 4 of them were additional works from fellow authors I had read earlier in previous years. Of these 4, two of them are one of the novel and novella combos to which I had referred at the start of this post. This combo, Crystal Conquest and Crystal Horizon, were written by Doug J. Cooper, the only author to receive a 5 star rating from me last year. Crystal Conquest was the second in his Crystal series, which has the artificial intelligence crystal and his handlers fighting off a new attack from the villainous alien race. Crystal Horizon was just an introductory novella that deftly introduced how our hero handlers initially met before the alien battles. The novella is offered free on the author’s website to introduce readers to his characters and sci-fi adventure flair in his writing. As to the other two additional works, one was another women-lit romance from Deanna Lynn Sletten, Walking Sam, about a widower and a divorcee that meet and connect through the widower’s dog. Two years earlier, I had rated one of her other novels as a 5 star work, and it says a lot that the work I read this year matched that level. The other work was Hangtown Creek by John Rose Putnam, a historical adventure fiction tale set during the California Gold Rush era. Last year, I had given his novel about Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s conflicts with native American tribes a 4 star rating. His rough adventure of the Gold Rush Era drew me in more.

The other four 5 star novels were written by new authors to me. Steve LeBel’s The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty was a very imaginative concept that equated universe creation as products of a high-pressure god engineering firm, where one nerdy god is harassed by a bully god while trying to build the ultimate universe. It is no wonder that this book has received a couple of indiebook awards. The next 5 star novel was an exciting spy thriller set in the mid-70s by Paul Hollis entitled The Hollow Man, in which an unnamed NSA hero uncovers a plot against the European economy while on a personal mission against a terrorist assassin. Finally, the last two books I read in 2016 was the other novel and novella combination referred to at the start of this post, Theo and the Forbidden Language and The Queen and the Dagger by Melanie Ansley. The main story is the opening tale of an epic fantasy series about a rabbit with the knowledge of language who is enlisted to be part of a group of apprentices to lead the animal communities against a villainous human empire intent on enslaving them with a pacification potion. The associated novella is an introductory back story of one of the other apprentices, a princess warrior rabbit, in this very well written fantasy saga.

Just like the previous year, I had three 2 star rated books. In the first one, the author was too focused on creating and intricately describing an erotic romantic relationship between the two main characters in the thriller, causing the villain characters to be barely formed and hyped up actions to seem like weak plot devices. The next disappointment was actually a second novel in a romance series, and its plot was mainly unbalanced between the lovers’ well-described physical love moments and the somewhat bland interactive moments with family and friends. The author attempts to create conflict with a minor villain, but this character’s actions just appear to be a forced plot device. However, the final 2 star turned out to be an extreme adult erotica tale based on sadomasochistic games, which challenged my commitment to being open to all genres. Yet, even though I admit I do avoid novels whose themes are basically based on adult erotica pleasure, my main issues with this tale was that none of the characters, including the main narrator, had any true empathetic features to draw the reader in and that the promotional blurbs for the novel really understated the true nature of the level of adult erotica, which is not cool to readers who would be sensitive to this type of genre.

The remainder of the books I read in 2016 were split down the middle between 4 and 3 star ratings. Even though the 4 star books spread over a broad range of genres and themes, half of them did land in the paranormal range from a psychic involved in murder mysteries, a secret religious society hunter seeking and battling monsters, and a secret intelligence unit fighting a dark mythological order to a mystical Celtic location and a saga of a vampire feud. The other 4 star reads dealt with a mafia tale of romance and power competition, a spy thriller uncovering a devious plot, a family and crime drama stemming from the 9/11 events, a complex character drama about friends whose lives are affected over the years by underlying acts of abuse and manipulation, and a coming-of-age drama about a decade of summers with two best friends during the 70s. It was an impressive range of creativity.

So it was another good year of reading, and I hope that next year I will be able to match or better my reading time from my previous years. At the same time, I hope that more readers will find my novel, Legacy Discovered, and let me know if they liked it and why through Amazon, Goodreads, and other book sharing sites. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

Villains Are Characters Too

When I go back over the indie books I have read over the past few years, I find myself interested in where a few of them were flawed or, in some cases, totally failed. To me, the core of good storytelling rests with a good balance between plot and character. Keeping the reader engrossed in the story requires presenting the characters in ways the reader can connect and understand their actions, while presenting a series of events that affects and directs these characters in a way that the reader can follow and accept the revelations the story presents. If the reader is truly embracing and understanding the story, the reader will begin to expect where the story is leading, but will still find satisfaction whether the actions and reactions follows expectations or takes a turn toward a totally unexpected resolution. The keys to whether the reader is accepting the story are whether the actions and events are explainable within the parameters of the story and whether the motivations of the characters are sensible in their reactions. For this reason, many authors work to empathize with their main characters, seeking to express the inner debate and growth these characters experience as they somewhat heroically face the challenges they are tasked to overcome physically or emotionally. However, when the author focuses too heavily on the main characters without taking into account the antagonists who have created and continue to push the challenges and dangers upon the main protagonists, holes will appear in the story that causes the reader to become confused and lose interest. In other words, the author needs to understand that villains are characters too, ones that are just as important for the proper balance of plot and character to keep the reader engrossed.

Nearly all stories deal with a major challenge or series of related challenges that are faced by a major character or set of characters. The reader is introduced to the major character or characters, gaining a quick understanding of who they are and where they are at a certain moment in a real or imagined time, then the elements of the challenge or challenges they must overcome are revealed. In some stories, the reader may be introduced to the main character or characters at the height or depths of the challenge, instantly enhancing the reader’s empathy with the character or characters. These challenges faced by the characters are the framework of the plot, and it is important that the segments fit together so the reader can experience the challenges with the protagonists. Often, these challenges are generated by other characters, whose actions run contrary to the general benefit of the main characters and the humanity they represent. These are the villains, responsible for the grief, danger, and obstacles faced by our heroes. It is when the author treats these villains like plot segments to generate story direction that the author risks losing the reader. This happens when the author depends upon a simple stereotype description – bully, terrorist, evil wizard – to present the villain, then just uses the villain to push the plot along at critical times. Sometimes this may work in a one-time fateful crossing of lives, like a bank robber who locks a man and a woman previously unknown to each other inside a safe, initiating a very unique environment to create a romantic connection before the two are rescued, or a terrorist bomber whose recent attack collaterally kills a woman, forcing her husband to spend the rest of the story trying to get beyond the loss of his soul mate. In these types of stories, the villainous party is not directly related to the main characters, so the reader does not have to ask why the villain created the situation, since the reader has become so engrossed in the aftermath of the villain’s actions on the main characters. However, if the story presents any connection between the antagonist and the main characters before a major evil action, or interaction occurs between the parties after the initial critical action, then the reader will become just as interested in both the motivation and ability of the villain to create the chaos and challenges to the main heroes. The villain is no longer a plot device, but rather a character of interest to the reader.

Of course, the reader does not need to delve too deeply into the back story and mental state of the antagonists of the story. The reader only needs to know enough to answer the “why’s” and “how’s” of the antagonists actions towards the main characters. The level of interest in the villain and any other secondary character who abets the villain’s actions will be dependent upon the level of interaction the villain and abettors have toward the main characters. If the interaction is somewhat random throughout the story, the reader will expect to discover an obsessive characteristic and a rash capability for action from the antagonist. However, if the antagonist and protagonist have a deeper history, then the reader will be expecting the author to provide a deeper understanding of the motivation behind the antagonist and a better sense of how the antagonist will be able to manipulate the actions toward the protagonist. Again, this includes abettors of the main villain.

As an example, I recently read a work about an erotic romance between a daughter of a well-to-do politico and a hunky owner of a small security protection agency. Some casual incidental meets at a night club and a coffee shop generate initial sparks, but her kidnapping and initial rescue by him and his team amps up the relationship to a new level. The kidnapper is revealed to an abusive and possessive mental case who had developed an obsession with our heroine, but before we can find out more, the hero security guy is informed by the police that the perp has escaped. How did he escape? To the author, this was not considered important. The escape meant that the heroine had to move into a safe house with the hero to be protected, creating the situation where the couple had to bond and submit to their carnal feelings for each other. However, as a reader, I had no real idea just how much danger our couple was in. How committed and skillful was this villain? If authorities were looking for him, why would he stick around? Was the escape skillfully planned or did it occur because of police error? After a period of time of this relationship, an ex-girlfriend villainess of the hero appears at the door and tells our half-dressed heroine that she is the hero’s fiancée, sending the heroine rushing home to her parents’ mansion. Of course, this ex doesn’t have to show off a ring on the finger to prove her lie, as the reader is supposed to accept this spur-of-the-moment attempt to reclaim an old beau. However, this little unrelated deception allows the kidnapper to come back and re-kidnap the heroine from her parents’ home that very night. However, the kidnapper brings the heroine back to the original location he held her before, allowing the hero to re-rescue her and re-capture the villain. But this does not tell the reader how the villain was able to escape in the first place. Oh, and how was the villain able to know when the heroine was back at her parents’ home? He had a cousin on the parents’ household staff who sent him a message when the daughter returned. No other information than the distant familial relationship is provided for why a loyal staff member would put the heroine in instant jeopardy. In the end, no matter how vested a good reader could get with the relationship of the two main characters, which wasn’t badly written when it was just about the interactions between them and their inner romantic insecurities, the reader begins to feel all of the antagonistic drama brought by the villains around them is just a bunch of straw plot devices to create action, slowly turning the main characters into straw figures of their own.

In the end, a well-defined villain or enemy actually enhances the empathy we have for our heroes and main characters. Whether the heroes are able to overcome or find reconciliation with their antagonists becomes a major part of a plot’s theme, which is why authors need to remember that villains are characters too.

2015 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

At the start of 2015, I posted about the independent and self-published books that I had read and reviewed on Amazon and book social media sites in 2014. At the time, 2014 was a very good year in reading with 40 books read and reviewed. However, I was not as productive in my reading in 2015. Unfortunately, my relocation to Colorado took up more of my time. Yet I did wind up finishing 30 books from my fellow indie authors, which I feel is still a decent number in the midst of my moving activities. When I started the year, the books I had read in 2014 gave me a lot of hope for the books I would read in 2015. I wish I could say that my expectations were met.

First, I would like to re-iterate my review standards that I posted last year. I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort. In 2015, I only rated one book with 5 stars.

The one 5 star book for 2015 was Crystal Deception by Doug J. Cooper, a science fiction romp with the future of the human race at stake as a highly developed artificial intelligence crystal and its handlers work to protect earth from a devious alien race. The book is actually the first in a trilogy series and evokes the same science fiction adventure flair that can be found in classic series like Star Trek with a touch of James Bond action thrown in. The adventures in this book do come to resolution with the reader being informed in the final chapter that our protagonists will be expecting further adventures in the future, encouraging the reader to obtain the next book in the series.

For 2015, even with fewer books read, I still came up with more 2 star disappointments than in 2014, three out of the thirty read. In one, the author attempted to power through a forty year uplifting tale that barely gave the reader any real chance to connect with the characters, who seemed to face more challenges with their own insecure mental strawmen than actual interactive conflicts. The rushed time frame of the tale actually led to some openly anachronistic moments. The second disappointment was a fantasy suspense tale that sought to explore the roles of gender conflict in determining sexual superiority and retribution. However, the reader is never given enough feeling or understanding of the main characters to develop empathy to care about the conflicts and challenges these characters face. In both of these books, despite the vastly different thematic storylines, the inability of the reader to bond positively or negatively with the characters causes the reader to lose interest and not care about the direction of the story. However, the third 2 star effort was more a breakdown in plot, as the story’s very interesting main character faces a very not-so-mysterious mystery and survives a dangerous situation by overcoming a survival challenge after the lackadaisical carelessness of the antagonists. These plot weaknesses opens the reader to see the author behind the curtain, making the story an unrealistic puppet show. All three tales, by their flaws, reveal the importance of properly balancing plot and character for the reader.

As for the other books I read in 2015, they pretty closely split evenly between the 3 star and 4 star rating range. The 4 star tales spread widely over multiple genres from intense introspective and paranormal sci-fi, a hyper action spy thriller, a viral horror thriller, an intense romance family drama that evolves into a suspense thriller mystery, a fantasy adventure, a steampunk adventure, a redemptive family drama novella to a group of American historical fictions that range from Spanish explorer conflict to a good old fashion western tale, with one of the historical fictions taking on a tinge of the paranormal. It was quite a range of tales to take in, and the imagination of my fellow authors were quite impressive.

So it still was a good year of reading, and I hope that next year I will be able to match or better my reading time with my previous numbers in 2014. I also hope that more readers will find my novel, Legacy Discovered, and let me know if they liked it and why through Amazon, Goodreads, and other book sharing sites. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

Micheal Rivers – Best-Selling Author and Paranormal Investigator

In my last posting about the books I reviewed in 2014, I stated that the first book I gave a 5 star review was Verliege by Micheal Rivers. It was a very thrilling and insightful ghost story that I figured had to be inspired by Micheal’s career of paranormal investigations, a subject that has fascinated me since I read Frank Edward’s Stranger Than Science as a young boy. I am thrilled that Micheal has reached out and agreed to provide me and my blog with a personal look at those years of investigating haunted sites and the books he has written based on his research and investigations. He was also kind enough to allow me to post an introduction of Legacy Discovered and some thoughts on the art of storytelling on his website. So without further ado, I present Micheal Rivers, best-selling author and paranormal investigator.

Micheal RiversKerry Reis, a talented writer and friend, was kind enough to have me present this post on his site. He is the author of Legacy Discovered, a refreshing read with an escape from the norm. His years of work with Disney ABC have given him an insight that is unique. Thank you, Kerry, for letting me have the podium today.

I have been investigating paranormal activity for over thirty years. The subject seems to draw attention anywhere you go. Kerry asked me about the paranormal and the evidence collected over the years. Armed with cameras, recorders for capturing EVPs, (electronic voice phenomena) and the electronics capable of finding evidence beyond our senses, you find yourself in places you would have never dreamed of. The amount of excitement, evidence, and also the disappointments are numerous.

There are many investigations where the residents honestly believe they are living under conditions where they believe their house is haunted. The more that is experienced, the more one will come to believe they have a ghost in their home. I can sympathize with these feelings. I have experienced the same thing until I became educated on what is necessary to look for to validate a haunting. A perfect example was the family who had a television that would turn on seemingly under its own accord. The stereo was under the same conditions. The variation with the stereo was not only would it turn itself on, but also the volume would go completely out of control. The culprit was an unsuspecting neighbor’s remote control with a malfunction. It did not affect his equipment, but it wreaked havoc with the haunted family. This is not the end of the story. The neighbor eventually moved away some time later. During the holidays, a full body apparition was photographed in the kitchen of the home. To their surprise, it was the haunted family’s great aunt who had died ten years earlier. The smell of the apparition’s perfume stayed in the area of the kitchen for most of the evening. This is only one example of how you can be fooled into believing and then the tables are turned where you actually do have spirit activity. This case was in England in the early eighties as reported by a little-known journalist of the time. Non-believers in the paranormal reported the photograph as a hoax and the news just drifted away into obscurity.

During my tenure as an investigator, I have found everything from loose pipes in the basement to faulty electrical wiring to be the culprit. It is amazing the effects electromagnetic fields have on the human body. Physical and mental reaction to this not only is evident but very real to the person living the effects.

An actual haunting brings out some very intriguing evidence and more questions concerning the cause or purpose of the haunting. I usually come out with more questions than when I entered the premises. I have been asked several times if any of my evidence was questionable. I do everything possible to debunk any evidence before I decide whether it is an actual haunting or just an unidentifiable anomaly.

What have I experienced that completely blew me away? I have seen four full body apparitions. One of them was so perfect; the only way to tell it was an apparition was the clothing. The clothing was homemade from another time period. That and the fact it is a fourth person in a three-man group. There were three investigators, yet the photograph shows this apparition in plain view and not picked up by the second camera sitting right in front of it, but instead the photographer standing behind it with the second camera still in full view picks up the apparition. We can go on for years with the pros and cons of investigations, and hopefully, one day, there will be some kind of evidence that will have no trouble convincing others, yes, we are not alone here. A fine example of one of our best EVPs can be heard here on YouTube. The man in the room grew up in the house and returned for the investigation.

I write paranormal thrillers as well as folklore and ghost tales that are considered to be fact. In Ghost of the North Carolina Shores, you will walk through the history of North Carolina via the spirits long dead. Appalachian Mountain Folklore is a book in which I was able to tell whether I could find any evidence of truth to the stories. In some cases in both volumes, I have incorporated actual investigations in which I conducted or was involved in. The stories in both books involved quite a bit of research and interviews with witnesses of the events.

Be the host to your ghost.

Thank you, Micheal, for giving us a look behind your years investigating the paranormal as well as the books that those investigations have inspired. Below are the links to connect with Micheal and check into all of his books:
Micheal’s website
Micheal’s Amazon Author Page
Micheal’s Facebook Author Page

2014 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

When I first self-published Legacy Discovered, I knew I needed to reach out to fellow independent authors to help promote my effort. I quickly realized that the most important promotional tool indie authors need are the reviews of readers on Amazon and book social media sites like Goodreads. For that reason, I knew that we authors as readers needed to step up and read each other’s works and honestly provide reviews that will either help us promote our works to the general reading public or improve our writing for readers down the road. I began to consider the books of authors with whom I had connected and chose promising works that seemed to need reviews. At first, even though I rated each book I read honestly, I held back on some critical observations and provided a short, somewhat encouraging review for the books I read after a friend berated me for even considering bringing up errors that would upset my fellow authors. However, after reading a couple of works that I felt really needed work, I realized how unfair I was to my fellow authors and brought the critical comments back in. My instincts proved to be right as I have received better responses from my fellow authors for my fuller reviews beginning around the holidays a year ago. So what were the highlights and lows of the indie books I read last year?

First, I must put in a small disclaimer that I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort. In the 40 indie books I read last year, I only rated 4 books with 5 stars.

My first 5 star book of 2014 was Verliege by Micheal Rivers. Micheal has been a paranormal investigator for over 30 years, so I expected a good ghost story and I was not disappointed. His novel of a team of investigators taking residence inside a castle haunted by ghosts in conflict reminded me of the Richard Matheson classic Hell House. It was spooky, thrilling and well-done. Immediately after I finished Micheal’s book, I took up Summer of the Loon by Deanna Lynn Sletten. This was the exact opposite of Verliege, as it was a redemptive story of a newly-orphaned 16-year-old girl having to move from Southern California to upstate Minnesota to reconnect with a grandfather she has never known because he had turned his back on his own daughter who had become pregnant out of wedlock. This was a sweet women’s lit story that depended so much on character to drive the story over a course of a summer. Deanna has become very prolific in the past three years with 9 self-published books.

The other two 5 star books I read were part of a ten book stretch for the Book Review Co-op. By choosing ten books on the site’s list and reviewing them, Legacy Discovered is now added to the site’s list to get ten reviews from other indie authors who participate in the site’s program. Among the ten books I reviewed, I found Eddie & the Gun Girl by Mark Kram Jr. and Aliens in the Gift Shop by D.E. Morris. Eddie & the Gun Girl is actually a non-fiction short relating the incident of the shooting of Philadelphia Phillies’ first baseman Eddie Waitkus by a stalking fan in 1949, adeptly looking at the history of shooter and victim leading to the event and the long-term consequences, especially since Eddie was injured but not killed in the shooting. Aliens in the Gift Shop, on the other hand, was a comic sci-fi novel about a couple of space alien scientists who swoop little gift shop owner Marcy into the adventure of her life. It was very much in the tone of a good Doctor Whovian tale.

For most of the year, the books were mainly 3 or 4 stars in their reviews with the majority of them being 4 stars. With so many self-published offerings in today’s digital world, I find this to be impressive. However, within the last two months, I finally came upon a couple of books that failed and landed in the 2 star zone. In one, the author did her homework in creating her main characters, but failed to consider that the mainly unseen villains were as much a character that needed consistency and not a simple but erratic plot device to push the main characters’ buttons when needed. In the other, the author structured a relationship of deceit and tension between a group of characters, then brought in another character that promised to blow everything up in an exciting climax, only to lamely take the air out of the anticipated blow-up and allow the story to limp into the ending. In both cases, the stories started decently, but broke down when they veered into a path that was not truly there.

So, it was a good year of reading and I hope to find even more worthy tales to enjoy in the new year. I also hope that others find my tale and let me know if they enjoyed it and why. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

The Careers of Fictional Characters

Since I wrote in my last post about the importance of character in television series, I have been thinking about how critics have viewed characters on television in general. As I thought about it, a particular criticism which has periodically cropped up in broad opinion pieces by TV critics throughout the history of television kept floating up in my mind – why do many main characters seem to have the same types of careers, even though these jobs represent a small portion of the general population? I am sure many will recognize the questioning commentary that most TV series and their main characters seem to be lawyers, doctors, police officers, or private eyes, when the majority of the general population has jobs as construction workers, factory workers, sales clerks, or farm workers. The general critical discussion tends to tilt more to bemoaning the unrealistic impression that lawyers, doctors, police officers and private eyes are more important to society, thereby not giving enough credit to the value of these other clerical or labor intensive jobs to society and civilization. However, in considering this position, especially as it pertains to creating characters when writing, what I realized is despite the admirable concept of seeking a more equal view of all individuals, the art of storytelling and mythology throughout the history of mankind has focused on heroic characters that broadly lead or challenge society in general. From the beginning, the early myths, legends and fairy tales were stories of gods, kings, wizards and warriors.

Classic storytelling is built around conflict or challenge – not the everyday challenge of handling the daily grind of life, but the broad challenge of facing a major conflict or struggle. The sagas and myths explained why nature acted the way it did, gave praise to the triumphs of a tribe or civilization, and sought solutions to battle the monsters around us. It was the gods who created the world and the rules under which nature worked for and against man. It took kings to lead armies against enemies, to mediate among opposing forces, and to protect societies from disorder. It took strong warriors to protect lesser men from evil and destructive forces and to boldly explore new lands beyond the horizon. It took powerful wizards to create and project major spells to ward off evil monsters and deadly diseases. For ancient and medieval civilizations, these leaders guided and defended the common members of society during important challenges of war, growth, exploration, and death. With the advances in scientific knowledge and the rise of more democratic and republican governments within a more interconnected global culture, these characters may have faded from the modern story, but their roles have not. Within modern society, lawyers, doctors, police officers and private eyes take on these roles at the local level.

When a disagreement escalates between two parties, police officers would be necessary to help maintain order and try to resolve the issue peacefully, while lawyers become mediators seeking to define the rules around which the parties must operate peacefully. A lawyer can also represent a strong defender for the common client against corrupt forces, while a private detective can be the solitary hero uncovering the truth against an evil army of lies. Doctors cast modern spells of medical knowledge against disease, injury and death and explore the continuing mysteries and horizons of life. It is very easy to see that these jobs represent the mediators, explorers and defenders of society at times of conflict or challenge, so in a way, it is understandable that the somewhat heroic (or anti-heroic) major characters of television and movies would more likely take on these professions over the more common careers that maintain the steady drumbeat of life.

A New Television Season – The Importance of Character

The Fall Television Season is upon us, so I once again attended the Television Academy panel of top television critics previewing the new season. This year, the panel of Robert Bianco of USA Today, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, Brian Lowry of Variety, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Roush of TV Guide with moderator Cynthia Littleton, Editor of Variety, was held at the Paramount Theatre on the Paramount Studio Lot in Hollywood and the conversation was lively. It started off with the opening question of what was good and what was bad among the new shows which led Matt Roush to comment, “I never thought I would ever say it, but the network with the best new shows is the CW with Jane the Virgin and Flash.” However, because the CW has such a light schedule with the fewest number of premiering shows, the comment was really directed at showing just how weak this year’s batch of new shows across the broadcast and cable networks were. The discussion did ramble on a bit about the growth of fresh original shows from new cable (WGN) and digital (Netflix, Amazon) outlets during the summer which has created a more continuous year-round season, but the topic soon focused on an important feature of a good television series that the critics felt networks had lost sight of – characters and their relationship to the audience.

Although character is important in all storytelling, the presentation of character is more important within the format of a continuing series on television. In a movie, the audience is quickly introduced to characters that become involved in a conflict. In the course of a few hours, these characters must address this conflict to a resolution for the audience, so the audience is given character traits in shorthand so they can quickly associate good guy/bad guy personas to the characters and move into the plot flow. Once the audience leaves the theater or turns off the television, there is no consideration about coming back and hanging out with the characters they saw in the movie. However, a television series does need its audience to bond with the main characters, so they will want to come back and visit with them again. The shorthand introductions to the main characters in a series premiere are more like first impressions that hopefully will draw the audience to want to learn more about these characters as they face a series or continuing story of life challenges. An engaged audience realizes that there are nuanced undertones to the characters and feels compelled to return regularly to see what is going on with their friends, to rejoice with their triumphs and sympathize with their setbacks, whether it is with laughter or drama. It is for this very reason that television series has been known more for being a writer’s medium than a director’s medium. It is also why television series work better with ensemble casts as it is easier to enjoy time with a group of friends.

So, why do these critics feel the networks have lost sight of this in the new season? Judging by the issues they noticed and expounded upon in the new season pilots, I sense the increased competition of more original programming over more networks throughout the year has caused network executives and show runners to use more shorthand storytelling, plot twists and visual creativity to gain the audiences’ initial attention, but this is at the expense of developing the characters to the point where the audience will want to come back and share time with their new friends. In a way, network executives have forgotten that television was the original social media site.

Reader Ratings and Reviews on Book Sites

I was checking through the Goodreads Authors Group the other day and came upon a discussion thread started by a fellow Goodreads author who ranted about the readers who rated his book without adding a written review to the rating. To him, the review justified the rating and provided valuable feedback to authors, so he felt that Goodreads should require its members to add a written review whenever they rated a book, in much the same way that Amazon requires its customers to do when they willingly rate a product. As a fellow self-published author, I could sympathize with his frustration as ratings and reviews are an important guide in convincing readers to buy and read a book, especially with so many works being published in the digital age. However, I recognize that social sites like Goodreads were created for its members to connect with friends, to make new friends and to exchange discoveries and disappointments within a group that share common pleasures. On a site like Goodreads, authors are a small part of the whole. The focus is on the society of readers and the vast library of books available from the history of mankind. Although Goodreads gives current authors ways to promote their books (some for a price), its main mission is to cater to the social community of readers, which means it cannot nor should it attempt to force its broad reader membership to follow tight rules like adding reviews to all books on each member’s shelves in order to cater to the small community of Goodreads authors. It would actually drive readers away from signing up and using a site like Goodreads, which would undercut the very value that current authors get from the Goodreads readers.

For most readers and consumers in general, seeing or hearing what a friend or trusted source feels is a better buy becomes very helpful in making decisions on where and how to spend one’s money. We depend upon others’ tales of happy adventures or woeful experiences to map out our next experiences. However, most of us are not all that eager to broadly record our own experiences with the products and entertainment we purchase. It is as if most of us are too insecure to believe that others truly would respect our opinions about the quality of the entertainment we experience. We would rather follow than lead. But stating your preferences or impressions is not leading the way. It is merely contributing to the group discussion. Any one opinion will not be the one thought to make or break the success of a book, movie or television program. Rather it is the general consensus that will determine the ultimate value of a piece. Opinions that go against the grain tend to fade in the background and are not usually held against the reviewer by the general public. However, until a general public develops around a work of creativity, a current writer must depend upon the first group of readers willing to contribute to the initial discussion in order to determine if the work will be accepted by the larger public.

As can be seen, there is no perfect answer to convince readers to rate and review, nor is there a perfect way to truly evaluate the ratings and reviews that are presented. After reading the discussion thread, I did a quick search in Goodreads for a more renowned literary work and came up with the following member information on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 1,108,499 members took the time to rate the classic work for an average of 3.72 stars, but only 9,514 members decided to add a review to explain their rating. Looking through the reviews, I found the following one star-rated review: “I’m not sure what annoys me more – the play that elevated a story about two teenagers meeting at a ball and instantly ‘falling in love’ then deciding to get married after knowing each other for one night into the most well-known love story of all time, or the middle schools that feed this to kids of the same age group as the main characters to support their angst-filled heads with the idea that yes, they really are in love with that guy/girl they met five minutes ago, and no one can stop them.” If I have to hazard a guess, I would say this review came from a parent of a teen girl, and it only goes to show that there will always be someone that will have an issue with any literary work one chooses. As a self-published author, it shows me that I should be open to the comments I receive in the reviews I get, but not to be too overly discouraged with the occasional bad rating. Even the best get panned.

Twitter: A Lesson in Social Media

Shortly after I self-published my novel, I realized that social media was going to have to be a big part of promoting it to the world, and I was determined to handle it on my own for financial reasons. My social media experience was limited to my personal Facebook account which I still keep restricted to people I personally know and my LinkedIn account which I created strictly to search for new employment; however, I felt computer-savvy enough to dive right in. I now have a Facebook page and a Google page for Legacy Discovered, as well as a more open personal Google account, a Pinterest account, a Tumblr blog, a Goodreads author account, an Instagram account, and – of course – the all-important Twitter account. Of all the means of social media on the web, Twitter is the most beguiling form of social interaction I have run across. In a message of less than 140 characters, it is a quick shout-out to the world among an ocean of shout-outs in the almost impossible attempt to get many to somehow see one among the millions, yet it appeals to that inner child that desperately seeks the attention of the world around it. It has also become a quick and simple way for businesses small and large to spread quick ads and promotions into the social sphere. I saw Twitter as a social game where I needed to walk in slowly, learning the rules and developing an understanding of the strategy for interacting among the many Twitter users. What follows is just a small portion of what I have learned.

One of the first things that my steady approach taught me is that it is okay not to truly follow the implied social etiquette for Twitter, because these rules are easily gamed. For instance, the implied social protocol is that if a Twitter user follows your account, then you should follow back; otherwise, the follower will quickly unfollow you for the snub. However, it didn’t take me long to see how this social rule is gamed. In one early extreme example, I got a new follower, a young woman just starting college in another state, who was following over 2000 users and had over 2000 followers of her own, even though she had yet to post one tweet. Without a tweet to judge her, I saw no reason why I should blindly return the follow, and after a few days, she unfollowed me, since I wasn’t following the rules.

For many, the true game is to get followers, as many as possible, to gain credibility in the Twitter-verse, which many believe will lead to more dedicated followers. As I gained a few more followers, I soon uncovered a more underhanded way to gain followers – click farms. About six months after creating my account, I got a sudden bump in followers, but was surprised to see that despite the different profile photo, header bio info and global location of each account, all the accounts miraculously were posting the same series of tweets. The tweets led to a site that promised to provide 10,000 followers for $10, plus other cheap deals for groups of 100,000 followers. A quick Google search of “false followers” led me to blog postings about these click farms and how they have been used to boost follower stats for many political and celebrity Twitter accounts. To me, quality means more than quantity and I refuse to follow or buy any false followers. As these click farms become more known, it will be harder to use Twitter follower stats to prove credibility.

One of the most important concepts about Twitter to understand is that every post is public to the entire Twitter-verse, not restricted to your followers. The difference is that followers receive your tweets in a feed, while other Twitter users must search for your tweets. It was Twitter that introduced a quick means to make a tweet more searchable, by use of the “hashtag” (#) which old typists know as the number sign and recorded telephone menus refer to as the pound sign. In essence, placing a hashtag before a key word or phrase with no spaces “tags” the word or phrase making it more searchable. However, when a hashtagged word or phrase is searched for, how many followers a tweet was sent to is one of the determinations of where the tweet will land in the search results list, so tweets that are retweeted become more discoverable in searches. This leads to another social protocol that retweeting others makes you a good follower. This protocol convinced many users to take advantage of a web app called RoundTeam that automatically retweeted specific hashtags requested by the user. However, I realized that once I uncovered a RoundTeam user and figured out the hashtag phrase they were retweeting, I just needed to incorporate that hashtag in a few of my tweets to get an easy retweet. I was able to game the gamer.

After a year of promoting through irregular tweeting, I began to realize that successful promoting required tweeting throughout the heart of the week at times that were not available to me. In a fellow indie author’s blog, I discovered a web app that solved my dilemma – Twuffer. Through Twuffer, I was able to write my week’s tweets over the weekend and schedule them to be sent throughout the week. Twuffer is not perfect. A scheduled tweet would tend to fail if it was over 130 characters and it forced me to learn and use in my Twuffer tweets the tiny URLs that Twitter created for my standard weblinks. Still, it became a very helpful tool to improve my Twitter presence. Recently, I came across another potentially useful web app at JustUnfollow, which analyzes my followers and following lists, allowing me to seek potential users to increase my following list and in return my followers list. However, I will be exploring another website that has been mentioned in skill requirements for social media jobs – HootSuite. This is an app site that allows users to handle multiple Twitter accounts, schedule future tweets, and creates its own tiny URL base. According to its homepage, it is free for users with less than five accounts. There is still a lot for me to learn in working with Twitter and social media.

A New Year

The holidays and bowl games are behind us, and 2014 is fully upon us. So, as I do a quick audit of the past year, I wonder how was my 2013? Well, in the debit column, after a couple hundred resumes uploaded and positions applied for, a few phone interviews and attendance at several networking events, I am still unemployed with my unemployment benefits about to expire. My medical insurance and covering of my deductible for one medical procedure that confirmed I was perfectly healthy took up one third of my basic expenditures last year. A discarded newspaper that swept up into my radiator grill as I was going through the Sepulveda Pass on the 405 Freeway was all it took to cook my car’s engine and leave me without personal transportation for two weeks while a rebuilt engine was installed. My base savings account has definitely taken a hit. However, in the credit column, my retirement accounts are solid and have grown, my home is secure with good equity and a healthy emergency investment account is still at my disposal. My somewhat regular bike and walk schedule through the year trimmed thirteen pounds from my weight. I kept busy donating my time to a worthy education non-profit organization, 826LA, by volunteering as an afterschool tutor for 1-5 grade school students twice a week during the school year and a month long summer camp. The rest of my time was focused on promoting my novel by the expansion of my social media presence and by re-releasing it through AuthorHouse to increase the distribution outlets through which it would be available

One part of my promotional campaign was to connect with fellow independent authors, many of whom were reaching out to me. I began to buy and read from the selection of self-published works being presented to me over Twitter and several author websites. After reading, I would write an honest review and post it on Amazon, Goodreads and Shelfari, then announce the review on Twitter so the author would be aware. I realized that in the current online environment of book retailing a growing number of broadly and honestly received reader reviews were important to elevate a book to the recommendation level on Amazon and other online booksellers, and hoped that some of my fellow indie authors would find time to read and honestly review my book to add to my count. I was able to read 22 indie books in 2013, ranging from several murder mysteries, some character relationship dramas, a few sci-fi and fantasy opuses and some historical romances. There were flaws and issues with some of the works, but in general, I was impressed with the creativity and passion within many of the books I read. It makes one realize that the art of storytelling and emotional revelation is not limited to a few master writers in history, but appears to be an integral part of our collective DNA.

So where does this leave me for 2014? Basically, I have the strong hope that I have built a good promotional foundation for my book as more readers discover it. The job market appears to be improving, but maybe I will have time to focus on my next book. I feel the assistance I have provided to the students in the 826LA program will give them the foundation to be major contributors within their generation. And I hope I am prepared for the new challenges that are always around the corner no matter what year we are in.