A peek inside the Beltane story: Shanna and the Water Fairy

Readers have been waiting a whole year for the next installment of Shanna's story. Words fall quick but the pictures to make a story come fully alive take more time. 

Still the wait has been worth it. The third Shanna book has the most beautiful illustrations yet and a story that will keep kids breathless for each succeeding chapter--judging from my experience reading it out loud. 

This time eleven-year-old Shanna discovers a hidden spring on the city waste land behind her new school. When she learns that the spring and the pocket paradise of trees and flowers around it is to be bulldozed to make way for a new shopping mall, Shanna is horrified. Not only is the spring a beautiful place and the water is sorely needed to help irrigate the soccer field and school playground, she's also pretty sure there is something--or someone--magical about the spring.

After Shanna writes a letter of protest to the local newspaper, she and her eight-year-old brother Rye get a glimpse of the grown-up world of city politics. They learn about activism and how committed individuals can make a difference in a community. In the midst of it, they share the celebration of Beltane with their friends from many cultures and help to spread the love and passion for justice that infuses this special day.

While this is the third book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series and readers of the other books will recognize the main characters, the book can easily be read on its own. It is a real-world adventure story for kids who care about their community, their friends and the earth. 

Now with no further ado, here is an excerpt from the beginning of Shanna and the Water Fairy . If you would like to see how this story appears on a Kindle, you can click on the orange button to go directly to an Amazon Kindle preview of the book. No app or other download required.

Chapter One: The Spring

Shanna grasped the rough rock and pulled with all of her strength. She gulped in a great lung-full of the rich spring air and heaved herself over the last boulder just ahead of Rohan, Ella and Rebecca. 

“Queen of the mountain!” she chortled as she spun in a circle and waved her arms in the warm, free air.

Her friends pulled themselves up and collapsed giggling on the rock beside her. 

“You’re too fast!” Ella puffed, as she sucked on a scraped finger.

“I’ll beat you next time,” Rohan laughed as he pretended to tackle Shanna’s foot.

“You kids be careful on those rocks,” their teacher’s voice floated up to them from the trees below. “There could be rattlesnakes.”

“I think we’re making enough noise to scare away the rattlesnakes, Mrs. Baker,” Rebecca called down. “And you said we were supposed to find as many different kinds of rocks as possible.”

“Well, did you find any new rocks while you were scaling the mountain?” Mrs. Baker’s voice sounded like she was chuckling now. 

“I think so,” Rohan called down and he held up a speckled rock. “This might be granite.”
Another group of kids came running out of the trees to show Mrs. Baker their new rocks. They were led by a girl with light brown hair. She was Brandy, the most popular girl in the fifth grade. And she didn’t like Shanna. If she was entirely honest with herself, Shanna had to admit that she didn’t like Brandy either. 

But looking down from way up on the rocks, Brandy looked small and Shanna thought about how her new school wasn’t as bad as she’d first feared. Mrs. Baker, her class teacher, was a lot of fun. She had gray hair, but she still loved to go on field trips, and she found a way to do a lot of lessons outside—even math. 

This warm spring day they were collecting rocks for science. It was also for math though, because Mrs. Baker said they would be practicing percentages and graphs once they gathered all of the different kinds of rocks they could find on the waste land behind the school. 

The waste land was a long, low hill that ran up from the back of the soccer field through brush and rocks and a few scraggly trees to the new River View Condos. It wasn’t really a park and there was litter here and there among the boulders and water-starved trees, but Mrs. Baker said they had to learn as much as they could from it before it got bulldozed. 

Ella and Rebecca started looking for more rocks, walking up the gradual hill behind the Queen of the Mountain boulders. Shanna followed them at first, but then she saw dark green rocks down in a little gully under some particularly nice trees, so she slipped and slid her way down. 

As she got close she heard a splashing sound like water hitting a rock. Was someone pouring out their water bottle? What else would make that sound out here?

Shanna looked in among the trees. They didn’t look very high down in the gully, but they were actually bigger and less scraggly than most of the other trees on the wasted land. 

The whole country here was pretty dry and trees didn’t grow in big forests the way they had where Shanna used to live. There was usually just one or two trees together. But in this little gully there was a whole clump and the grass around them was lush and green. Out on the open hillside the grass was already turning yellow from the dry heat, even in April. Mrs. Baker called it a “drought.” 

Curious, Shanna stepped closer. In the little hollow under the trees the air smelled wetter. And the grass beneath her feet was brilliant green. Shanna saw something sparkle and flutter in among the trees. Maybe a butterfly.

She climbed over some big rocks and slipped in between the trunks of the trees. And there behind the trees were more flowers than she had ever seen outside a flower shop. Red, purple, yellow, blue, orange… They hung down the rocks and covered the ground under the trees.

Shanna looked around for the butterfly and there were at least ten of them, flitting in and out of the sunlight and shade. She was about to call out for her friends to come and see the beautiful scene, but something stopped her. 

One of the butterflies was different. It seemed to glow against the shadows under the trees and Shanna couldn’t see it right. It didn’t even look like a butterfly exactly, but it wouldn’t hold still so she couldn’t get a good look at it.

Instead it zipped back and forth as if showing Shanna the way forward. It dipped first at Shanna and then back further into the trees. Shanna walked carefully now, trying not to step on all the beautiful flowers. The air in the little grove of trees was sweet with the smell of them—almost overwhelming, so it made Shanna dizzy. 

And maybe she was just dizzy when she looked up from her feet again and stared. 

There in front of her was an even more amazing image. Flowers with delicate dew-speckled petals hung down all over a wall of boulders. And the rocks weren’t really dark green like Shanna had thought. Instead they were covered with thick, wet moss.

And out of a crack there came a sparkling trickle of crystal clear water. It leaped and splashed down the rocks below and filled a little pool, before trickling under the roots of a big tree and disappearing back into the ground. It wasn’t a stream exactly, because it just went back into the ground.

But that wasn’t even why Shanna stared. Right in the middle above the sparkling pool was her butterfly. But Shanna was sure for a wonderful, dizzy second that it wasn’t just a butterfly. It had the shape of a person with wings and it shone with a turquoise light. Its wings were violet purple like the flowers and its hair was a deep blue green. Shanna couldn’t see it much better than that.

Then it winked a deep greenish-brown eye at her and dove straight down into the water. In a flash and a sparkle of drops, it was gone. 

“Ella! Rebecca! Rohan! Come quick!” Shanna cried over her shoulder, too startled and amazed to rethink her shout. 

She dropped to her knees on the mossy rock by the pool of water and looked around as carefully as she could. Where had it gone? 

Had she seen what she thought she’d seen? A butterfly? Or… could it really be… a fairy? A real fairy?

The other kids came panting into the grove of trees with thudding footsteps muffled by the grass, and Shanna didn’t see it anymore whatever it was. She thought then that she shouldn’t have yelled, but it was too exciting.

“Wow! This is a really cool place,” Rohan said, looking around at the trees, the climbing and hanging flowers, and the little pool. “Good find, Shanna.” He grinned and ran a hand over one of the tree trunks.

“It’s like it called to me,” Shanna said, still caught in the feeling of wonder.

When fantasy invades your reality: In search of a definition for urban fantasy

FantasyCon is more than half-way over and the challenge of introducing the sub-genres in a blog post has come round to...

Wait a minute. That can't be right...

Me?

I have been set a task by with wizards of FantasyCon--a quest that appears impossible at the outset—to define “urban fantasy” and make it stand out as a genre. But as with the heroines of all good fantasy I must give it my best shot.

Unlike those genres that can trace their lineage to Beowolf, this is a new phenomenon, having taken root in the 1990s. Among the authors who have staked the territory most clearly are Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), Laurell K. Hamilton (Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter), Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere), Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter). And that diversity alone ought to give you some idea of the long odds on my quest.

It is often said that urban fantasy is simply urban, that its entire claim to fame is in the fact that it's set in cities and towns. But many other fantasy stories are set in cities past and present, and that doesn’t make such stories “urban fantasy.” Most urban fantasy is based in an industrialized or post-industrial setting and as a natural consequence it is mostly urban (because so is most of the population in such societies). And yet sometimes the story is about the fact that characters are forced out of the urban world to hide in what is left of the wilderness.

So, I’ll take another tack here. Urban fantasy isn’t only about setting. It’s a contemporary and urban form of mundane fantasy. The excellent genre-definition site bestfantasybooks.com defines “mundane fantasy” by saying it will not satisfy readers who primarily want to escape from mundane reality. Instead, “if perhaps you want to find a bit of fantasy within the mundane, maybe this sub-genre will be for you.”

And that is where urban fantasy shines. Of all fantasy genres, urban fantasy is the most close to home. A good urban fantasy tale should send shivers down your spine and make you think reality might just change the next time you step outside your door. It should cause you to look at the impassive faces on the subway during your morning commute and think, “Yes, I can see where it comes from.” It should hint that something inexplicable could happen at any moment in a banal industrial cityscape. It should transform the alleyways of a small, ordinary town into a setting for the terrible and wondrous.

In short, if high fantasy let’s you escape from your life while you read, urban fantasy captures you and invades your thoughts even when you are not reading.

Most urban fantasy is set on earth in modern or nearly modern times. It often either begins with a character who believes they live in the mundane world or with a character who must hide magic from those who don’t know about it. Its setting is important because it should mirror something very real and familiar in order to draw the reader into a web of “what if” questions that render the fantasy eerily plausible.

While all children know that Harry Potter’s magic isn’t real, they love the idea that a magical world is hiding in the city streets all around them, that a secret world could be just between the railway platforms or out the back of a local bookshop. And urban fantasy isn’t just for children and young adults.

Another way that some have tried to pigeonhole urban fantasy has been to say that it is shallow and lacking in social substance. This comes from a few popular associations but often they are misleading and belong as much to other genres as they do to urban fantasy. And look again even at Harry Potter. It may be a children’s series but the social and moral commentary run deep beyond what is usually preached at children.

Urban fantasy may not be famous for attacking huge societal issues or epic struggles yet, but I believe this is only because the other side of urban fantasy, where it connects with sci-fi fantasy, social sci fi and dystopian genres has been insufficiently explored. The defining factor in urban fantasy is its ability to seep into the reader’s world rather than forcing the reader to suspend disbelief. It poses a danger to those who have difficulty separating fantasy and reality because it mixes the two so well. It is no surprise that many urban fantasy narratives include an urban bookstore as a crucial location, given that bookstores are one place we can guarantee readers frequent. It is therefore easy for the urban fantasy writer to grab the reader’s reality with such a setting and slurp them down the rabbit hole.

Urban fantasy has the potential to be a deep literary and social genre precisely because of how it intersects with reality. There’s a wealth of possibility to explore in this sub-genre. It is a new genre and as such its depths have yet to be explored. The bestfantasybooks.com definition reads, “Urban Fantasy doesn't play by the rules.”

Join me at Virtual FantasyCon

Friday, November 6 is Urban Friday at Virtual FantasyCon, the online convention that brings all the awesomeness of the fantasy freak fests of old to the comfort of your own screen. I'll be there hosting a game where you come up with and solve fantasy-related rhyming riddles to win an Amazon gift certificate. Join me for some light and relaxing fun to round out your Friday.

The first excerpt from Path of the Betrayer - Kai Linden

Here's a little treat for readers of The Kyrennei Series.

Path of the Betrayer (Book Five of The Kyrennei Series) is published Kindle users and will shortly be available in Barnes and Noble, Apple and other stores. Here you can read an expert from the middle of the first chapter to whet your appetite. 

I generally recommend that readers start at the beginning of series (The Soul and the Seed) because its world and characters are best experienced over the course of the story. But some readers here may be new to or long absent from the world of The Kyrennei Series, which looks eerily like our own world with a few subtle--yet nonetheless crucial--differences. 

If you're new, you need to know that the Addin is a power cult that can forcibly take your will. The Addin Association is a conglomeration of powerful political and business leaders who run today's society. The narrator is Kai, a twenty-two-year-old Meikan student who has lived all his life in fear of the Addin. He was captured by them when a Wisconsin farm where he was hiding was attacked. He now expects that the Addin will take him and force him to become one of them. There is no hope of psychic resistance. Any human being can be taken and controlled by the Addin no matter how much they resist. 

Kai is in love with Maya, a girl who is a member of the non-human Kyrennei race that the Addin are systematically annihilating because they disrupt Addin power. She was captured as well and Kai has every reason to believe she is already dead or soon will be.

Excerpt 1 - Kai Linden

After the shower, I expected to be taken back to the cell. Instead they put the restraints back on and led me up a flight of stairs and into another hallway that looked less like a prison and more like an office building. After a few turns the guy in front opened a door into a windowless room where three older men sat at a table drinking coffee.

The smell was overwhelming. The food they’d given me hadn’t been much and I was starving.

My heart pounded and I clenched my fists inside the restraints. This would be where they would take me.

I tried to control my breath. I didn’t want them to see how scared I was. The big guy leered at me whenever my muscles resisted him, and I knew he’d take pleasure in any display of my fear.

The men at the table watched me and sipped their coffee. My head was lowered, my hair hanging low so that they couldn’t entirely see my face.

Then one of the men at the table said, “Take that thing off his wrists.”

I remembered him from the attack on the farm. He had a wide smile with perfect teeth that reminded me of someone running for election.

“He might get violent, Mr. Bloom,” the guy behind me said.

“We can handle it. Thank you, Balshaw,” the man named Bloom said.

I thought of trying to grab a weapon. The two guys with me had guns at their belts. But I knew I wasn’t that fast. It probably wasn’t worth the energy. I felt too weak and tired to try—even for the hope that I might die with my soul intact.

The guy behind me unhooked the restraint and I kept looking down, avoiding eye contact with them. Fear was turning to confusion. If they had wanted to take me they could have.

“You’re name’s Kai, isn’t it?” Bloom said. His voice was low, almost friendly. “I know you hate us. Your kind have always been prejudiced that way. But I thought maybe you’d take some coffee at least.”

He poured from a silver pot on the table into a mug and put it in front of a fourth chair, his movements slow and deliberate.

“Come on,” he said. “Sit down and drink some coffee. We’re reasonable people and we’re not going to hurt you.”

I didn’t move from where I stood or lift my head. Did he think I was a complete idiot?

I didn’t know what he could be playing at, but the idea that I would now think he was benevolent was laughable. This man had overseen the destruction of Kaitlin’s farm. They had killed and taken my friends. He had done something with Maya. Of course, I hated him.

There was more silence. They waited. I rubbed my wrists, but then I had no place to put my hands. The track suit had no pockets. Eventually I ended up holding onto my own elbows. I didn’t care anymore if it made me look frightened. They knew I was scared.

I imagined I could feel their power buzz in the room like a live current. They could let me have my hands free, because there was no question of the outcome of any fight.

One of the other men at the table cleared his throat. At last Bloom sighed.

“All right,” he said. “Don’t drink the coffee then. But it’s your loss.”

He took a sip from his own cup and then leaned back, looking at me with his broad smile in place.

“Let’s be blunt here. You know I can get your cooperation if I want it.” He snapped his fingers and his eyes mocked me. “But that isn’t what I want right now. The fact is that there are things I want to know and there are things you want to know. I think we could come to an understanding about that.”

“If you think you can scare me into telling you about the Meikan sign, you might as well go ahead and kill me. You’re wasting your time,” I said.

Bloom and one of the other men at the table snickered under their breath and then downed slurps of coffee to smother their laughter. The third one didn’t change expressions but sat watching me with a scowl of undisguised disdain.

“Oh, sure, I can see why you’d think that,” Bloom said. “But believe me a lot has been tried in that department, for many many years. I don’t think you can tell us about it. The Kyris put some sort of spell on you Meikans so that you can’t speak coherently about it. Certainly if your people could, someone would have. Back in the Middle Ages, you know. All the various methods of torture and all that. But you don’t make any sense when you do try to tell it.”

I pulled in air through my mouth. “Then why don’t you get it over with. Anything else… you can make me do what you want. I know that.“

“So, you want to join, the way that other kid did?” Bloom said. “We’ve got a veritable flood of converts, it looks like.”

I didn’t answer. Was he toying with me? A cat playing with a mouse?

“How about this,” Bloom said, his voice musing, curious. “I know there must be things you want to know about your friends and such. You ask a question and then you answer a question. You can even go first. One question for free but after that you have to give an answer in order to get another answer.”

“If you want information, why don’t you just take me?” I struggled to keep my voice under control. I was gripping my elbows now to keep from shaking.

What a bastard! He was having fun.

“Is that your one free question?” Bloom asked. His eyes were the color of gravel.

I didn’t think they’d answer anyway, but I couldn’t help it. There was a question that burned inside me, every second. If there was any chance that they would answer, I had to try.

“No,” I said, my voice steadier. “Where’s Maya? Maya Gardner, the girl you—”

Bloom smiled and the others at the table smiled too, even the meaner-looking guy a bit. “You mean the Kyri girl you seemed so fond of? She’s here. In this building,” Bloom said without hesitation.

“Is she all right? What did you do to her?” I was desperate. I had lifted my head, my hands releasing their grip on my elbows.

I didn’t care that they probably wouldn’t tell the truth. My heart was in my throat. I knew I couldn’t do anything to help Maya, but the thought that she might be nearby, that she might still be alive…

“One question,” Bloom said. “That was the deal. You want to ask another, you have to answer one of mine. And you could always sit down and have coffee while we do it.”

I clenched my fists again. My back felt like it would burst with tension. It made no sense. But if they would answer…

“What’s the question?” I asked.

“Were there other Kyris at that farm? Most of your friends there ended up dead, I’m sorry to say,” he said, clicking his tongue with obviously fake regret.

“You took Jamaal!” my words came out with hot fury. I couldn’t hold it back. “You have to know that already. You could test their blood even if they were dead anyway. Why ask me?”

“Because I want to ask you,” Bloom said, his voice still smooth, curious. “Why is my business. If you want to ask your question, you answer mine.”

It wasn’t like I was giving away any sensitive information then. I was being interrogated by the Addin and yet they weren’t getting anything out of me that they didn’t already know. I wouldn’t have thought I’d ever answer their questions voluntarily but… under the circumstances. Well, what did it matter?

“No, there weren’t,” I said. “Satisfied?”

Their smiles didn’t waver.

“Now, come and sit down and take a drink of the coffee and I’ll answer the other question,” he said.

I took a slow step toward the table. The smell of the coffee was intense and I felt cold where I stood. What did it matter really? Maybe if I tried to act like I wasn’t afraid…

Read more of this story in Path of the Betrayer. You can get the Kindle book on Amazon and get the book at a discount until Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Happy reading!

If you're new to the series, keep in mind that you can get one book free by signing up for my hearth-side email circle here. Take a look at the pages for the series, primarily The Soul and the Seed. If you've already read one but not the others and have yet to get a free copy, sign up and then send me an email to let me know which book you'd like and what format. 

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Answer to the Wizards of FantasyCon - Author interview

I was recently interviewed by the wizards of FantasyCon, the virtual fantasy convention taking place between Nov. 1 and Nov 8. This is a huge event of authors, artists, bloggers and fantasy readers who want to get together, have fun, be awesome geeks, play games, win prizes and yak about great books. The can join eight different sub-genre events here

The interview posts can easily get buried on Facebook, so here is a transcript of what I had to answer. As it turned out it wasn't really as intimidating as it sounds. If you're on Facebook, please share this interview by clicking here.

A FantasyCon Mini-Interview with Arie Farnam, Author and Blogger.

Q - What are you favorite fantasy stories?

AF - I was teethed on Tolkien. I don’t remember the first reading of The Lord of the Rings. It was just one of those things that was always there. I read everything, including The Silmarillion as a teenager. (I wrote bad epic poetry in imitation when I was thirteen.) I also loved David Eddings’ Belgariad.

As an adult I like The Wheel of Time series, Harry Potter, and The Magicians. I also like stories that bring bits of fantasy into other genres like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and probably anything that crosses fantasy with a contemporary thriller without resorting to vampires.

Q - What inspire you most about fantasy as a genre?

AF - I love “what if” logic games. (And I’m the kind of reader who will throw a book at the wall if the author doesn’t play fair.) I also love the interplay of magic, spirit and reality in more contemporary fantasy. Fantasy is truly inspiring to me when it makes you look at reality differently. I’m also a sucker for Elves and Dragons. I have seen them written poorly, but I will do most anything for a top-notch story involving Elves and/or Dragons. I like literary and historical fiction too, but fantasy adds fun and tension that really inspire me.

Q - Have you written any stories? If so, please share them with us.

A - I am finishing up the sixth book in The Kyrennei Series. It’s closest to urban fantasy or sci fi/fantasy. Take a contemporary thriller and cross it with epic fantasy. Add a telepathic power cult who secretly rule today’s world and their ancient enemies—a non-human race that’s supposed to be extinct. Mix in a group of underground Pagan freedom fighters, ancient myths, secret languages and a distinctly international cast. That’s it in a nutshell.

It starts out with The Soul and the Seed. A student named Aranka Miko is kidnapped, then rescued and pulled into the clandestine struggle because of a fluke in her genes. She has to choose between being a victim in hiding or fighting back in a way that will surely get her killed. At the core it’s a story about finding authentic hope and inner freedom when you’re massively outgunned.

Beyond that series, I’m currently working on some adventure books for kids from Pagan and earth-centered families. And I’ve just started a near-future dystopian novel.

I love to connect with friends, readers, authors and artists on Facebook. Please share this interview with your friends who like to read.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

A publisher's view of fantasy - Guest Interview

I will be a panelist and have a booth at the mammoth virtual fantasy convention FantasyCon coming up (November 1 - 8). This is a new kind of book-lover's event. The kind of nerdy conventions that hard-core fans used to spend thousands to attend can now be had by anyone with an internet connection. There will be fantasy games with real prizes (money, books and swag). There will also be at least 200 real authors to meet and a ton of free and discounted books to explore. It will truly be a fantasy paradise. 

Each day of FantasyCon is devoted to a sub-genre of fantasy. And some who aren't fanatical about fantasy might not even know what some of them are. To gear up for the event then, I am going to host a series of guest posts from FantasyCon authors clarifying the different sub-genres over the next few days. First, however, I am going to post an interview with another kind of FantasyCon participant--a publisher.

Please welcome Carly McCracken of Crimson Cloak Publishing. And thank you for joining us today, Carly.

1. From a publisher’s point of view, how would FantasyCon help you and the authors in your company?

FantasyCon helps by making more people than we would normally have access to, aware of us, our books, our authors, our brand, and our mission.

2. Can you see online events as part of an author’s role in the writing world?

Absolutely!  Authors need to continually put themselves in the public's (and potential customers’) eye.  This is just one more way to achieve that!  Plus it has its advantages.  For instance, an author doesn't have to actually LEAVE his home, his family, his life to participate, and he/she can potentially reach a MUCH bigger audience.

3. What do you look for in a good fantasy and sci-fi manuscript?

It MUST have good story flow.  You know, the kind that keeps you interested through almost every step of the entire book.  It should have a well-rounded story, built with interesting and memorable characters.  It doesn't have to be action-packed to accomplish this either!  A good plot, characters that seem to come to life, and good dialog around a campfire can accomplish this as well as a good action scene.  It SHOULD have some action somewhere, though.  :)

4. This genre is filled with an abundance of sub-genres. In your opinion, what is the future of fantasy and sci-fi? How does this genre stand up against the many other genres in the industry?

Wow, that's a tough question.  My personal favorite is Sci-Fi/Fantasy.  I think this genre has the biggest possibilities, but even a good children's book is enjoyable if written well.  The future is hard to predict at any time, but I don't think many parts of Fantasy Genre will suffer.  They have been around a long time, and I think they will continue to interest people.  I think there are a lot more people interested in Fantasy than any others.  The only one that probably compares would be self-help books.  Those get a lot of sales too.  For good reason.  

5. What draws you to fantasy and sci-fi, both as a reader and a publisher?

I love a good story.  I love aliens, and space, and time, and magic.  I love interesting characters.  I love ghosts, and anything paranormal.  It's all so fascinating, and different from the mundane stuff we deal with every day.  I think that is what draws me (and most others) in.  The escape from reality.  We can imagine we are the character, or there with the character, and we can experience things we wouldn't be able to otherwise.

6. Can you offer some advice to fantasy or sci-fi writers in the community about manuscript to publishing?

Not much more than I have already said.  You need to keep your story moving.  If it flat-lines, you need to look at why, and either remove what is causing it, or try re-writing it.  Also, be open to re-writes.  A lot of authors get married to their work.  While this is a WONDERFUL quality that will help you sell books (enthusiasm for one's own work will draw people), you don't want to be SO married that you aren't willing to listen to your editor.  Editors DO know what they are doing, otherwise they probably wouldn't have their job.  So please be open-minded, and be willing to work with your editor on re-writing parts of your story that might need this.  You do NOT want the reader to lose interest in your book.  Usually once lost, they will put the book down, and never pick it up again.  Another thing you don't want to do is over-complicate your story.  If you do this, you will make your book hard/frustrating to read, and that will lose you potential sales, or a good review.  One bad review can do 10x more damage to your sales/reputation than the good that 10 good reviews do.

A thriller I think Kyrennei Series readers will love - Cold River Rising

College students from an Oregon Indian reservation are kidnapped by a Shining Path splinter group in Peru. The Peruvian army is worse than unhelpful and the Indian tribe, as a sovereign nation within the United States, declares war on Peru. Other tribes join the non-traditional war along with a white police chief.

Here's a story of courage, today's wounds, history's tears, a deep friendship and the kind of heroism that the modern world thinks is gone or never was. There's a young woman with both strength and a lot of doubts. There's a lonely police chief who has to choose between laws and justice. There are real warriors and women who challenge propriety and dance rage and joy against anything that stifles. 

I love it when I find a really fabulous book by an independent author. I know there are piles of books that aren't that great, full of mistakes and floppy plot. But I've hit a nugget once again in my rather random perusal of books. All through Cold River Rising, I kept saying out loud "Home run!" because there were scenes, emotions and issues that resonated and the author handled tough stuff well. 

I have never said this before, so it isn't just that this is a book I personally like.  I love all kinds of books (historical fiction, epic fantasy, futuristic dystopia and memoirs) and many of the things I love to read are very different from what I write. But this time I can safely say that I think readers who love The Kyrennei Series would get a kick out of this book. That isn't just because I like it. It's because of these things:

  • Cold River Rising deals with emotion in a real and visceral way, much like The Kyrennei Series
  • It deals with violence in much the same way, brutally and without any hint of weapons porn or glorification.
  • It pulls at issues of social justice without ever dipping toward preaching or dogmatism at any point.
  • It is primarily about a whopping good story while also including brain fodder that keeps you thinking and caring when you aren't reading.
  • There is an element of people making justice when the authorities refuse to or are actually the perpetrators of injustice. We write in the hallowed tradition of Robin Hood.
  • Oh, and it's partly set in Oregon--the Cold River Indian Reservation to be exact--and it gives an Oregonian the same rush of reality, knowing the landscape that The Soul and the Seed does.

This book has a truckload of great reviews (4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon). It also has a few negative reviews and I almost didn't read it because I always read negative reviews first. That usually pays off but this time it was a bit misleading. Some of the reviews say there are a lot of errors in this book. Maybe there were back in 2011 when it was first published and maybe it has been edited since, but I didn't notice any mistakes as I read briskly through it. I could have missed a few minor things, but the point is that there aren't distracting mistakes for anyone who is more interested in story than ego. 

There were a few negative reviews about graphic violence. And in some ways that's fair enough. There is graphic violence, but it is real and honest, not glorified and meant to titillate. It is there because it's the truth about the world and it's true to the story.  That makes the violence worth reading. However, there are people who for reasons of youth or past-trauma might find it too much. 

Then there is the fact that the book is about Indians. Mostly Native American reviewers seem to love this, even though the book was written by a white guy. He did reasonably well, according to the reviews, and I expect it took a mountain of research. But a few of the negative reviews mentioned an Indian leader giving an endangered eagle feather to the friendly white police chief, which is apparently wildly unrealistic culturally and highly illegal. The book I read didn't include anything like that. I suspect that this is a symptom of modern publishing in which a mistake can be caught and rectified after publication. So, it may be that the author did put in such a scene initially and then changed it based on legitimate complaints. I personally don't see anything dishonorable in this approach. It is very difficult to write about a culture other than your own (even difficult to please everyone when writing about your own culture). It requires massive research and making a change based on good feedback seems like a wise choice.

All in all, I have to say, author Enes Smith, that's a home run. It was a very fun read, not too heavy for me but then I can't stand things that are too light. I have to feel the thrum of passion, the echoes of social justice issues and some intense emotion for a book to hold my interest at all these days. Too much life going on otherwise. 

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

When you become your greatest fear: A Kyrennei Series character interview

Readers of The Kyrennei Series love to ask questions about the premise, especially about how the Addin really works on the inside. There will be more on that coming in Book 5 of the series this fall, but for now here is a character interview that will answer some of the questions you have wondered about and add a little more spice to the summer.

If you haven't yet started on the series, this interview doesn't contain any major spoilers, although you'll have to roll with a few unfamiliar terms. Reading this first may also have unexpected consequences in your experience of the story when you do read it.  That could be a good thing, although I'm not sure what the results would be. 

With no further ado and by popular demand, the character who has been drafted by readers to be interviewed on these pages is...

Atreyu O’Keefe

Q: We'll leave aside how and why you're here talking to me for the moment because that is confidential. We'll start with the basics. Where are you from? Where were you born? And all that.

Illustrative photo - Creative Commons image by Palmira Van

Illustrative photo - Creative Commons image by Palmira Van

I’m from La Grande, Oregon. I was born there. My mom was too. My dad was from Portland. They built our house out on Hunter Road.

Q: You were friends with Aranka Miko as a kid, weren’t you? What was that like?

We were friends for a few years, since we were seven or eight until we were twelve. It was great at the time. There weren’t any other girls my age who lived close enough to visit. We were active, outside most of the time. We played dress-up like a lot of girls, but we’d dress up in wild outfits and then we’d go ride our bikes down the gravel roads and get the gauze of our princess dresses tangled in our chains. 

Q: Was there anything out of the ordinary about her then? Would you have believed that she would play such a crucial role in the world?

No, no, of course not.

I mean she wasn't average or anything. She was kind of wild adventurous for a kid. She talked me into hiking to the top of Mount Emily to camp out by ourselves. My parents freaked out. She was never going to fit in with the mainstream, but neither would I, except for... well, all that. But still I never would have thought anyone from our little backwoods corner was going to do something like that.  

Q: Did your parents approve of your friendship with Aranka?

My parents were always a bit nervous. But when my mom mentioned that I wasn’t best friends with any Meikan kids, I remember my dad said, “Lin, let her be. She’ll have to accept hard reality soon enough. Let her be a child for a while.” 

My dad liked Aranka’s dad too. That was probably part of it. So, they didn’t have anything against us playing, but they believed she was uninvolved and that I would have to grow out of that friendship someday.

Q: What was it like growing up Meikan in La Grande? 

It was okay mostly. I have to say. Even though some things were hard. We had our community. People stuck up for each other. A bunch of guys helped my dad build our house. If someone was sick, you always had people to help out. It was like having a big family. 

We were under pressure from the Addin but only as much as we could bear. It was more that you knew what your limits were. Uninvolveds talk about how “any kid can be president” and all that. We knew that wasn’t true. We knew we couldn’t even be mayor. 

But we also knew that we could live a reasonably good life if we just kept our heads down. At least that’s what I thought as a kid.

Q: But then you were taken.

Yeah.

Q: Why? If you obeyed the treaty, why were you taken? 

Accidents happen. I was always told it was because they didn’t know I was Meikan. That might have been true.

Q: And afterward they couldn’t undo it?

No! No, there is no way they can undo that. And they wouldn't even if they could.

Q: Can you tell us what happened exactly? How you were taken?

A family moved in nearby who had two girls a bit older than me. I guess they were fourteen and fifteen. My mom always made one little effort to welcome new neighbors, even though she was nervous about uninvolveds. She brought them cookies and some spring greens from our garden.

Aranka wasn’t home that day. I think they went on a canoe trip. So, I went with Mom to see who the newcomers were. The girls weren’t very nice at first. Their names were Britney and Chelsea. I tried to act like I was their age to try to get them to accept me a little, but I don’t think they believed me. I didn’t think about the fact that someone like that might be Addin. I was twelve. It just didn’t occur to me. 

When I ran into them later, I kept trying to say hi to them, even though they didn’t say hi back. Once the younger one, Britney, commented on my clothes, laughing and saying she had the same skirt a few years ago, so I must have gotten it at the second-hand store. We weren’t dirt poor or anything and I’m pretty sure that we bought that skirt new, but we did sometimes buy clothes second-hand. My mom thought buying second-hand was socially and environmentally responsible. Or something like that.

Anyway, I figured those girls weren’t going to have anything to do with me. Then one day a week or two before summer break they came up to me in the public library while I was checking out books and waiting for my dad to give me a ride home. All of the sudden, they were acting really nice. There were two other girls with them. One of them was Rose Sinclare who was an eighth grader and already a social queen. She smiled at me and said I was cute. I couldn’t help feeling good when someone so popular said something nice to me. 

They said they wanted to show me something and we went back to the teen section. That’s a room at the back of the library that’s all glassed in and has lots of posters up. There are some couches for kids to hang out on. Those girls had smart phones and this was before it was standard for everyone to have smart phones. They started showing me pictures... 

Q: That's it? That's all that happened? They just accepted you and you went willingly because you didn't know they were Addin? 

No... It wasn't just that. When it happened I felt kind of dizzy. Like if you spun around in circles dancing really fast. I held onto the couch really hard and I must have looked a little weird. Then the girls were all laughing and patting me on the back. 

“See. No big deal,” Rose told them and then asked me, “How do you feel, Atreyu?” 

I didn’t know why I should feel anything, but I did feel a little different. I really wanted to be Rose’s friend and I wanted her to like me and like what I did and what I wore. I think that was the first thing. The rest of it sank in more gradually over the next few weeks. At first, they didn’t tell me anything about special Addin stuff. 

Q: But that still doesn't sound like a big deal. Was there ever a moment when you were shocked to realize you'd been taken?

I started to wonder and the idea didn't bother me. Then I wondered why I'd been afraid of the Addin.

It wasn't a single moment. It took a little while to really understand it. That's probably because I was so young. I wasn't shocked. I thought it was funny. I was a bit nervous about how my parents would react. Very briefly, but I knew they couldn't do anything to me. That made me kind of giddy, knowing that my parents were weak and brainwashed and I didn't have to do what they said every again. 

Q: How did your parents react?

My dad showed up at the library to pick me up and Rose and the others said goodbye just like they were my friends. Rose said something like, “Have fun and don’t get into too much trouble at home.” 

My dad got on my case when I got in the truck, saying I was being sullen and turning into a teenager. Then he started giving me a lecture about how you always have to use the sign, even if you’re pissed off or whatever.

I’d just picked up the sign a few weeks earlier and I still wasn't entirely sure what had happened. But I couldn’t remember it. I couldn’t even remember what it was. I still don’t. I know it was something I could do for those few weeks, but it was just gone.

I did get sullen then and I wouldn’t answer my dad. It took a few days before I told my parents straight out that I didn’t remember it. First I told them maybe I wasn’t really old enough. They talked to some of the Meikan elders. At first they hoped maybe it was a fluke, like I’d regressed or something.

They took me to see Annie Reese. I only knew where we were going when we pulled into her driveway and my dad got out of the pickup and ran in to talk to her. When they came back out Annie was really upset. And by that time Rose and the others had made the situation clear to me, so in the end I told them.

I got out of the truck and said, "Yeah, you idiots. I finally woke up and realized how stupid you are. Now you have to leave me alone. It's the law." 

My mom started sobbing and some guy across the street was staring at us. I felt embarrassed to be around them at all, so I walked away and went to one of my new friends' houses in town. I had to go home eventually, but it was different then. They couldn't boss me around.

Q: Do you really think the Addin didn’t know you were Meikan?

Britney and Chelsea acted all shocked that I had been Meikan. I’m not sure. I think maybe some of them knew. It’s hard to say. Why else would they have been interested in such a young kid? It’s possible Rose knew and the others didn’t. The way she acted was different. She could have been told by adults to practice on me.

Q: So then the Meikans shunned you?

Annie Reese let everyone know about it and immediately no Meikans would even look at me. At first, I didn’t really care that I was shunned. I had new friends. And it was good that the uncool people who I knew around town didn’t try to bug me or say hello to me. If they had, it would have been really awkward with my knew friends.

I saw that most of the Meikans shunned my family too. At home my family acted stiff around me. I could see that my dad was really angry when he looked at me, but he didn't raise a hand against me. My mom cried a lot. I thought she was just silly and hysterical. I had no idea how much it hurt her that I was taken. Then my dad and my brother moved away. My mom was pretty much alone because a lot of Meikans were too afraid to have anything to do with her, even though she still had the sign. They were afraid of me. I could see it in their faces and their hatred too.

Q It’s odd. It doesn’t sound that terrible to be taken. It almost sounds like your family and other Meikans overreacted.

It wasn’t a terrible thing for me. I've said that plenty of times. And I did think they overreacted. That’s how it was for me. I’m sure they saw it differently. They saw me change. I went from being a kid who was interested in the community, a kid who had dreams and goals for my own life and a kid who was really into saving forests and protesting clear-cutting to a kid who was  passionate about the popular crowd and having all name-brand clothes and perfect make-up.

There's a cost. You lose yourself, but you don't grasp that, so it doesn't actually hurt while it's happening to you.

 I didn’t care about our community anymore. I really thought they were delusional and I thought the Addin was much more practical and reasonable. The Addin knew how to run things. They had a hierarchy that made sense, based on how talented you were as well as good looks. 

When you’re in the Addin you want the Addin to be in control. It’s the most obvious thing in the world. You know that people are better off with the Addin in charge, even the people who don’t know about it. And all you want for yourself is to be accepted in the Addin. 

I could sit down and have dinner with my parents and not have any real problem unless they brought it up. I knew they had weird ideas that would screw things up, if they ever got their way.  But once I was brought into the Addin I had older mentors who explained to me why I had to let my parents be the way they were. They weren’t important and as long as they didn’t stir up any trouble it was best just to leave them alone.

Q: But you didn’t just let Meikans be. You gave the Addin names of Meikans in La Grande.

A few months after I was taken I was asked to come and talk to some people, including the mayor. That was a pretty big deal for me. One of the Addin teachers let me out of class to go, so my parents didn’t have any idea about it. 

The mayor's people told me again how I had to accept that my family and other people I knew wouldn’t understand. They seemed disappointed that I had been shunned by Meikans so soon. That is another reason I suspect that my being taken wasn’t entirely an accident. But it could have been. It doesn’t really matter. The Addin never really took the treaty seriously. What they took seriously was the need to keep Meikans docile and quiet.

Anyway they started asking me who was Meikan. They already knew about some people, but not about most of them. I didn’t know everyone’s last name at that age, but I could name off which kids were Meikan from all over town and they could then figure out who the families were. At the time I didn’t think about why. They wanted to know and I was so happy to be important enough to help them that I was all glowing and elated inside. Maybe I was just an immature kid or maybe its a specific Addin thing. I don’t know, but it never occurred to me at the time that I was betraying anyone or what the consequences might be. 

Q: But Aranka wasn’t Meikan. Why did you stop being friends with her as well?

She wasn’t cool. She was nowhere near the popular crowd. After I was taken, all I cared about was being accepted by the popular Addin kids and doing what they wanted. Mostly I just couldn’t be bothered with Aranka. She was insignificant. 

When she kept following me around and talking to me, Britney told me that I had to get rid of her for good. She let me know that having a nobody like that act like your friend was really bad juju. It would hurt my chances in the social scene. So, I told her to get lost. I told Aranka I was just pretending to be her friend. 

Q Why was Aranka not cool?

I don’t know… No specific reason really. She dressed very practically and she didn’t seem to care about what was in style. But it wasn’t even mostly about appearance. The social crowd can always find something about you to pick on, but they mainly do it because of who you are inside anyway. 

She wasn’t as quiet as a low-status person should be. She’d go ahead and talk, even when you were supposed to listen to the cooler people and work your way up to being worthy enough to talk. When the top girls decided someone needed to be punished, she didn’t seem to notice. She’d still laugh at that person’s jokes and talk to them. 

I guess most of all, she just didn’t play the game. She knew it was there, but maybe she didn’t know it was mandatory to play it. Or maybe she couldn’t play it the same way. Kyrennei are still Kyrennei even before they’re changed. Maybe there is something about them that is never going to fit in.

Q: Do you feel hope for the world, given how powerful the Addin is?

I do now. I can't really say more about it, because like you said it's confidential. But there is hope. For me, it's about compassion. That and I still believe people have good souls.

The dystopia of today's popularity cult: The Kyrennei premise part 1

There's the high school cafeteria with its ironclad rules about who sits where--tables for the gamers, the emos, the jocks or the geeks among the boys and for the girls the clusters around this or that social magnet. Just about everyone has been there. If you're lucky you might fit in with one group or another or at least squeeze through relatively unnoticed. A few actually thrive in this acrid environment. And some are torn to bits.

Creative Commons  image by Autoskabar of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Autoskabar of Flickr

On one particular gray Tuesday, there's a girl sitting on the steps leading to an upper level. She's alone - as always. She has a pad of paper and colored pencils and she's practicing drawing lines of perspective, capturing the crazy, obtuse angles of the modern cafeteria.

Does she bother the groups at the tables?

She sits there every day in the same spot. She is weird. At first she tried to talk to people, but she looks a bit different and she won't play along. She won't dress the way you are supposed to. She won't wear makeup or not in the right ways. She never pays attention to what was in style. She doesn't make small talk. She talks about why things are the way they are in the Arctic and what happened in a book more than about the other girls.

Yes, she bothers people. 

A couple of the guys catch a nerdy kid with glasses at the top of the stairs. He should have been paying attention. Never should have walked by them. He knew he should take the other stairs to avoid them, but he was in a hurry. He bothers them too. He doesn't give them their due.

So, they grab him and hurl him down the stairs. He crashes into the girl's back, scattering her colored pencils, shattering them into pieces, pulverizing the delicate cores within. They'll be useless now.

She saved for those pencils. There's no way she can afford a new set. But that isn't even the important part. They were her lifeline, the way she survived the hell of this place, the disdain and the shame. Now her lifeline is broken.

She believes the boy jumped on her from the stairs to taunt her, and in a split second brain chemistry flips and years of isolation coalesce into rage. 

She grabs the boy's hair at the tender nape of his neck in her left fist and pounds him with her right fist. Again and again. She sees white, not red. She hears only her own ragged breath. She doesn't scream but her face holds such intensity that they leave her alone for a while after that.

She knows that she has failed again. She played right into their hands. The crying, beaten boy wasn't the attacker. They should have been allies.

We left such things behind in high school. Didn't we? 

I hoped so. Once. But then I discovered Mommy cliques. When you're a mother with small children, you need other mothers. You need companionship with those who understand and the occasional conversation of multi-syllabic words. And you need playdates so your toddlers don't drive you crazy. But if you thought high school had cliques... watch out! 

Mommy cliques are a tad more sophisticated, but the rules are still pretty much the same. The ammunition is still fashion, makeup and small talk, but you have to add in home decor, flashy birthday parties, magazine-quality Pinterest photos of crafts and cooking, kids fashions, kids behavior, parenting styles, how early you potty-trained and how well you can talk about it all without seeming to brag too blatantly. 

The stakes are the same - inclusion or exclusion, street cred or isolation.

Does this mean that men get it easier? Maybe. But both men and women have to run the race for "success" in academia and then in career. Men have to dress the part too. If you don't, it's your loss. You can't blame anyone but yourself. Sure, the fashions are arbitrary, but only geeks can differ and they can only differ in certain ways. 

Creative Commons  image by Martinak15 of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Martinak15 of Flickr

A random perusal of my Facebook feed shows that it isn't just mommies who didn't leave the social rat race behind in high school. Everything is measured in "likes" these days. I've been studying a lot about effective online business, but I still can't figure out how "likes" help exactly - except that they give that street cred. It's essentially the same thing as having the popular kids give you a considering look and an oh-so-minuscule nod to show that you are allowed to sit in their vicinity.

Except "likes" have the illusion of democracy. They make it appear that the more you have the more people must really support you.

I inadvertently ran a small experiment on "likes" recently. I was trying to choose between two possibilities for the new logo of my dystopian fantasy series and I posted it to various groups asking for gut reactions. In every group there would be one enthusiast who would pipe up quickly and give their answer, either  "right" or "left." The first time this happened I was thrilled. The first person chose "right" and that was the option I secretly favored. There followed a stream of agreement, "right," "right," "yes, right's the best," a dozen or more responses. I was vindicated! 

But then I looked at another group. There the first person to answer had said "left" and the whole string of replies had agreed that the left-hand choice was the better one. Out of six different groups, the responses were about even, but they always followed the leader, like little ducks... or lemmings. 

What I learned from this is that "likes" are far from democratic. What is popular is popular because of how people follow the leaders, not because of popular appeal or true support. I call it "the cult of popularity," but I might as well call it a "cult of power."

Political organization, social structures and economic entities all use it and the underlying psychology isn't that different from high school cliques.

I just read an article about a blind citizen detained by US border patrol between Montreal and New York because the way his pupils were dilated looked suspicious. He and his friends laughed and the border patrol was incensed. "You think US Customs and Immigration is a joke?" they bellowed. Then he was subjected to hours of intimidation and interrogation. The guy's eyes "bothered" those with power. His failure to "play the game" of mild intimidation bothered them even more. 

Does nothing ever change? Are humans just wired to ostracize - to pick sides, pick out and pick on? When will those who are bullied stand up together instead of fighting one another? Will bystanders ever wake up and say enough is enough? 

For as long as there have been poets and bards and storytellers by the fire, some of us have tackled these questions with stories. That's why I wrote The Kyrennei Series. It started there in the lunchroom in high school. I watched the florescent lights and escaped from purgatory by making up characters, names, places and fantasies.  

The story is dark because it comes from that darkness. But it's also essentially the anatomy of hope. First, how can you survive? How do you struggle and hang on to those who stand by you? Then how do you choose your own path no matter how hard you're pushed down? How do you use the power you have - great or small - to make something meaningful? 

I'm going to write a few posts about the premise of the Kyrennei series. This is the first. The Soul and the Seed is a story that faces the human desires to to build cults of popularity and reject difference head on. 

I love your comments on these posts! Do you thrive in the social rat race? What do you think would happen if the cult of popularity literally ruled the world? 

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Must all modern female heroines be unbelievably strong, fearless and invincible?

Maya Gardener is a college student with practical dreams. She's a dutiful daughter, attending church even when she goes away to Michigan Tech. But she doesn't feel like she belongs--not at church, not with the sororities on campus, not with her parents nor anywhere else. She assumes that's because she is both adopted and biracial in a country where the rift between black and white is widening.

And yet that's the least of her troubles. Shadowy authorities are trying to track her down, authorizing "lethal force" to capture her. A guy she thought she liked turned into a maniac, shot up the university and kidnapped her. Maya has good reason to be frightened. Most of us would be.  

"But she isn't like Katniss of the Hunger Games!" a friend who is also a prolific author protested.

"That's true,"  I answered. "She isn't Katniss... or Tris of Divergent for that matter. Her name doesn't even end in 'iss' as seems required of best-selling modern heroines.  But more importantly, she is more like a real woman." 

"But who wants to read about regular old people who aren't superhuman?" my colleague argued. "I want to escape into a fantasy world when I read, not experience a life that is even more miserable as my own." 

"It's easier to fully enter the world of the story, if the characters are like real people." I tried to explain but I wasn't entirely invested in the argument. "Katniss and Tris will always win. You know that from the outset. They don't give me a sense of hope, because I always knew they were in a class apart, superheroes, who I can never measure up to." 

My correspondent wasn't convinced and neither was I. We simply disagree. And readers are bound to disagree as much as writers on this issue. 

Aranka Miko, the heroine of the initial trilogy of The Kyrennei Series, has been compared to Katniss and Tris on occasion. She is feisty. She gets hit with bad stuff and she bounces back. The minute she has a spare breath, she is ready to help rescue others in a similar predicament, regardless of the danger to herself. She stands up to torture and refuses to surrender valuable information to the bitter end.

And there is a kind of hope in that. We need strong heroes and heroines.

As readers, we recognize the strength and courage it takes for the character to survive and even fight back in the face of enormous evil. But how difficult is the path of such a heroine really when she begins with tenacity and ferocity as her strengths? And what can she really do for the world, when you get right down to it? She brought a flicker of hope, but unless the author (ahem) engineers a series of extremely unrealistic events (as some authors have... no naming names here), Aranka won't be able to bring down the powers of tyranny alone. 

To do that, it will take something more than tenacity and ferocity. It will take the kind of strength our own world is in such dire need of.

That kind of strength comes from a real battle within. Deep and authentic hope comes from the understanding that even those of us who do not start out as superheroes, who are small, terrified, wounded and broken can choose our own path in the face of the most horrendous odds. The battle is within us as much as on the outside. 

And that is why Maya Gardner is the heroine of Code of the Outcast (Book 4) of The Kyrennei Series. She is like most of us. She isn't particularly strong or fast or good with a bow. She avoids fighting and conflicts. She freezes up in a crisis. But within her she carries a hidden potential, a spark of something waiting to bloom. If only she can reach out and choose her own path when most of her choices have been taken away. 

Then we would have hope in the darkness of our own world as well. When the choices are hard and uncertain, choosing your own path is an act of great courage.

I love your comments on these posts! What is your favorite type of hero or heroine? Share this article using the icon below and find out what your friends think.

Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of the Kyrennei Series) is out!

Code of the Outcast, the long-awaited next installment in the series, is now live on Amazon. This book departs a bit from the first three, focusing on new characters, but it is more of the desperate adventure in the world ruled by the Addin. The series is best if read in order. If you're new to it and looking for a gripping read, try The Soul and the Seed.

Please don't be shy and drop a review of Code of the Outcast on Amazon. Reviews matter. They don't need to be long or convoluted, but they're a big part of what keeps your favorite authors writing. 

Here's the story

When a masked gunman barges into a university acoustic-dynamics class and abducts Maya Gardener, she knows she has to fight for her life. But her supposed rescuers may want her dead, and the kidnapper insists that the world as Maya knows it is a lie.

It’s present-day America and society is as dysfunctional as always. Democracy and even the “freedom to shop” is a sham. A powerful elite wields clandestine control over human will to maintain hegemony in every aspect of modern life. 

It’s been that way for a thousand years, but today there are finally a handful of people who might possess the power to resist and to shield others… if they only knew how. Maya isn’t a fighter by nature, but the random chance of genetics chose her and now she’ll have to learn to help herself and others. 

She was always an outsider—trapped in the borderlands between races, cultures and families. Now she’s hunted through the biting cold of a Wisconsin winter, and the only thing that holds her body and soul together is her love for Kai Linden, the fierce-eyed musician and comp-sci major who claims there is one place she truly belongs.  Read more.

What's in a word? "Outcast"

"You must think the whole world is against you. Why else would you write about an outcast?" 

That was one interesting reaction to the upcoming publication of the fourth book in The Kyrennei Series, entitled Code of the Outcast.  (I'm beginning to like criticism. It provides good blog fodder.)

Obviously the word "outcast" stirs up some intense emotions. I'm well aware of it. For some, that word has more gut-punch power than the worst curse words. It isn't a word we say or hear very often, but it's between the lines a lot. 

I wrote about the issue of a community shunning a person, making him an outcast, because I believe that it's the duty of writers and artists to open up the dark corners of society and the mind.

Whatever is too painful to touch directly, we must touch and try to heal with stories. For centuries that has been our role. Where the healing of doctors cannot go, where the words of public figures dare not go, artists and writers should go. 

And no, the world isn't "against me." The world is very troubled and mostly doesn't know I exist. And that is quite difficult enough for anyone to cope with. 

Code of the Outcast is the fourth book in a series. Even though this book starts with new characters, you will probably still enjoy it more if you start from The Soul and the Seed (Book 1). For those who know the series, this book is a bit of an answer to a lot of reader questions, wondering about what happens to those who don't have the protection of the legendary fighters of J. Company.

The answer isn't always pretty. And yet there is something of great value here. 

Code of the Outcast begins with a person facing the realization that he and only he can make a difference, save a life... change the world. Yet in order to do it he must commit violence and take the consequences. 

We float through so much of our life in numbness because most of the time there is very little we can do to change the terrible things that happen in the world. We hear about them at a distance and we can only write letters to politicians and protest. We can't really change it. 

But there are moments when you can.

Such a moment will usually not come when you expect it or come at a convenient time. But there are moments when one person can make a great difference. Code of the Outcast is essentially the story of one of those moments and the two people it uprooted and turned into outcasts.

You don't get to change the world without sacrifice and in this case the sacrifice is just that - to be shunned and lose home and family forever. Could you make such a choice, if it would save the life of a person you cared about? 

Is this a worthy topic for a novel? Comment using the icon on the lower left. And please share this post with your friends using the icon on the lower right. :)

Time to order Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series

Code of the Outcast is now available for preorder as a Kindle ebook. Until July 1 it will be on sale for 99 cents. Then the price will gradually go up until it's $3.99 like the other books on publication day (JUly 7). It's both cheaper and a boost to the series if you preorder now and have the book delivered to your Kindle on July 7. 

If you haven't read The Soul and the Seed (Book 1 of The Kyrennei Series), it's recommended that you start there.

The paperback book and other ebook formats will be up soon. 

If you need a read-for-review or pre-release copy either in the Kindle format or another ebook format,  send me an email. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, here's your chance to get a free book. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at The Soul and the Seed (or check the Books by the Fire tab to find the next book in the series if you've already read that one.) 
  3.  Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Violence in fiction and the concept of deep hope

Violence in real life is brutal, traumatizing and usually over before you have a chance to think or react. 

I've been mercifully fortunate to undergo only a few incidents of real violence or narrowly averted violence in my life.  I was once grabbed by a man in a dark, deserted street, but I managed to trick him into believing that I had friends in the doorway of a nearby building, so that he let go of me for a second. And I had fast feet.

As a journalist during the conflicts in the Balkans, I often saw the aftermath of violence, but only rarely was I in the middle of it. One terrifying night in the summer of 2001, I ran for my life through dark deserted streets to escape from a mob firing automatic weapons. When I was finally able to get indoors, a man who was out of his head with terror leaped on me and tried to sexually assault me. I fought him off and then had to lay on the floor of a room while bullets whizzed by the open windows and pinged off of the gutters just a few feet away.

Those experiences have given me an idea of what real violence is like, and the discrepancy between that reality and the way violence is usually portrayed in books and movies is often disturbing. Before I had those experiences I found gratuitous violence in fiction to be merely boring. Violence that is divorced from emotion and real human reactions of shock and trauma felt meaningless. After my experiences in conflict areas, it feels both meaningless and disrespectful, dismissive of the experiences of those who have undergone far worse than I have.

Arie's rules of fictional violence

I am reasonably tough and I wasn't traumatized by my experiences. I'm not all that disturbed by reading violence. But I usually avoid books that seem to be primarily about violence.

And yet my books have fictional violence in them. My contemporary fantasy The Kyrennei Series has even been called a thriller by reviewers, due to the violent content. 

Let me lay it out clearly then. I don't write violence the way 80 to 90 percent of action and thriller books are written. Here are my rules of violence in fiction:

  • The violence in a good thriller isn’t where the greatest suspense is. The suspense is in our emotions about the characters.
  • And yet the violence must be integral to the plot. It should not be an aside just stuck in there to titillate. 
  • Violent scenes should be brutal, even traumatic, and avoided when possible by both the characters and writers alike.
  • Violent scenes should not be entirely pleasant even for the reader. Making it purely entertaining is a betrayal. 

That said, there are times when you can’t avoid violence in fiction. And it is better to have it out there than in real life. The story must be told. And The Kyrennei Series is a hard and desperate story. It’s fiction—even fantasy—on the literal plane. And yet there is a deeper level of reality where this story is true. And that truth has to be told. Even when it’s hard.

The road to deep hope leads through darkness

A reader recently told me that my books are like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a great book, and at first I was simply pleased to be favorably compared to an awesome author. But then I realized that The Road is categorized as literary fiction, not popular dystopia. I've been categorizing my books with things like The Hunger Games, not with literary dystopia. 

So, how in the world is The Soul and the Seed like The Road?  

They are in wildly different settings after all. The Road is in a grim, future in a destroyed world where people resort to cannibalism to survive. The Soul and the Seed is set solidly in the present. The dystopia is inherent in today’s socially harsh and physically unsustainable society… with one fatal twist that isn’t even apparent on the surface. 

The similarity is more in the way that violence, despair and emotion are dealt with. Much of the violence in popular urban fantasy and dystopia is “justified” and almost enjoyable to read.

And the violence in my books isn’t fun. It’s all too real. 

Why read it then?

To the readers of books like The Road or The Soul and the Seed, it’s partly the authentic spirit of the people that keeps you glued to the page. It's also the burning questions we carry inside whether we read this sort of thing or not. 

How do we live with despair? How do you go on through anything, no matter how terrible and gut-wrenching? Is hope just wishful thinking?

Authentic answers to these questions have always come hard. But they can be answered in bits and pieces--in the gentleness of a person forced to fight, in the need that binds the strong and the weak together, in the fact that you still seek life and comfort amid horrific circumstances, in the play of children in wartime, in the courage those who know they cannot win..

If you don’t have the darkness--real darkness--true and desperate, how can you have an story about hope?

I wanted to write about these things, but I also wanted to do it in a gripping story without the tiniest whiff of moralistic preaching. I am as much a seeker as the reader. The story is there to sweep you away to another reality while simultaneously making you question your own world, to terrify you and help you feel deeply.

And it may just help you find hope. Or not. Depending. But it will grip you and make you fall in love with the characters, regardless.

An example from The Soul and the Seed

Let me put it technically. The Soul and the Seed has three or four incidents of violence in it, depending on if you count hearing violence at a distance or not. That’s not a peaceful book. But it isn’t that much violence when compared to a book like The Hunger Games, which is (after the first third) essentially a sequence of violent incidents.

And yet readers who have read both The Hunger Games and The Soul and the Seed will often say the latter is scarier and more intense. People who can read about teenagers slaughtering each other in The Hunger Games, sometimes find The Kyrennei Series to be “too much.”

And that's how it goes. a writer can't please everyone. If I want the reader to feel hope deeply, I have to make the reader feel pain deeply as well.

The only problem is with telling readers that. I want to give fair warning about the violence in the series. And yet violence isn’t at the core of the story. There are other readers who find modern fiction too violent who will actually like The Soul and the Seed better than The Hunger Games. Which is more "intense" or "violent" Is to some degree subjective and bases on what kind of violence the reader is prepared to handle.

Sometimes a thing is described best by saying what it is not. I liked the idea of The Hunger Games up until the middle of the first book. But then the violence became mechanical. The emotion slid into melodrama, even though it didn't need to. By the third book the violence read like the description of a video game. It wasn’t painful to read. It was a game.

Not everything must be painful, but if you want real hope, it is likely that getting to it will hurt.

And that is what The Kyrennei Series does. It goes for real hope. Hope that doesn’t pull any punches. And it is wrenching to get there.

Books for 99 cents

Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series) will be published on July 7. As of today, it is available for preorder. For just a few days you can get it for 99 cents. Next week the price goes up to $2.99 and then to $3.99 when it's published on July 7.

Book 3 of the series, The Taken and the Free, is on sale this week at 99 cents too, for the last time. Time to get your summer reading. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, I have a special offer going. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.

How can a reader find the ideal book when all the descriptions sound the same?

Am I the only reader who finds that book descriptions have started to sound way too similar? 

On the back of every novel you see it. Action! Drama! Intensity! Guy in pursuit! Girl in despair! Snappy prose! One- or two-word descriptions by celebrities. "Fantastic!" "A masterpiece!" 

How do you tell which book you will really like? 

I don't know about you, but I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like. I get frustrated when I pick up book after book and read a third of the way in and find that it really isn't my thing. Half the time it's not even poorly written. It just doesn't have the atmosphere I like or I don't care about the stoic characters.  

That's because readers are diverse. Some readers like physical action. Others prefer wrenching emotions. Some can’t stand the internal tension but are fine with violence. Some insist on sex scenes. Others can do without the details. Some books are harshly literary and others are more cozy. And those are issues that mostly cross genres and are true regardless of specific themes. 

So, why is it that it is so hard to tell what the heart and soul of a book will be like from the description?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. The description can only be 100 to 150 words or about a dozen sentences. There are only so many combinations of grammatical sentences possible. 
  2. There are rules. The writer must present who the main character is and what their problem or goal is immediately. It's not just the industry standard. That part makes good sense for readers too.
  3. The blurb has to give an indication of genre and the major themes and that takes up most of the space.
  4. And then few blurbs ever say what the book is not. No one is going to advertise a book by saying it isn't intelligent, even if it's definitely NOT literary fiction. And no mystery writer will say their book isn't suspenseful, even if the truth is that it's pretty cozy and the suspense is at a minimum.
  5. If there is violence in the book, this will often be made clear but no one will ever tell you that it is gratuitous, video-game-style violence. Every violent thriller or dystopian novel will insist that it is gritty and realistic--employing characters with heart, even when its main character is a stock tough guy who leaps, shoots and dashes through the pages. 

So, there are some legitimate reasons for the look-alike cover blurbs. But what is a reader to do? I love good fantasy and I like contemporary thrillers, but I don't like gratuitous violence and those genres are often filled with it. I enjoy historical fiction but I prefer a story with a casual tone and characters from everyday life rather than momentous language and well-known figures of history. I can read virtually any genre as long as it is neither too dry and literary nor too brainless. I barely know how to describe the humor I like. How can I find books that will actually suit my taste?  

And worse yet, how do I as an author give readers a feel for the heart and soul of my books in the space of a blurb?

My first book (The Soul and the Seed) starts with a teenage girl imprisoned in a laboratory by doctors with nefarious motives. Given that, it's hard to convey that this is not a story about teenage angst. There is violence in the story. I wouldn't leave that out of the description, because some people really don't want to read any violence of any kind and this is pretty heavy-duty intense stuff. Yet the story isn't primarily about violence. Most important of all, it's hard to convey the close, confiding tone of the story--like a friend telling you about their harrowing experiences--let alone the sense of magical realism, the deep connections to characters or how a book that is so dark can be primarily about hope. 

I follow all the blurb-writing rules and I'm not a terrible writer (at least I'm told I can string sentences together with some semblance of art) and what comes out?

Action! Drama! Intensity! Girl in despair! Guy to the rescue! 

Ah, I see the problem that all those other authors have while trying to describe their books when I'm the reader. My book is NOT like all most of those books. They are all vastly different. But in a blurb on the back cover it is very hard to get that across.

I love to hear from you. Feel free to comment using the bubble on the lower left. What are your frustrations as a reader? Do you agree that book blurbs are all the same?  Do you have any tips for how to decode which ones will suit you? Do you ever pick up a book, thinking it is going to be your thing and it isn't? Or do you ever randomly discover a fantastic book behind a description that didn't do it justice? 

Free books!

The publication of my fourth book is coming up. To celebrate, I'm going to give every new subscriber to my hearth-side email circle a free ebook. If you've looked at The Soul and the Seed and been curious or if you've read part of the series and haven't gotten around to reading the rest, now is your chance to do so for free. 

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here. That's where you get links to my latest blog posts as well as the occasional virtual cup of tea. There's no spam, thanks to the excellent security of Mailchimp. 
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Kindle, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.

Book Review: I found one of the hidden jewels! Circle of Ceridwen

I am a reasonably easy reader to please... and a very hard reader to enthrall. I like  a lot of books, but I passionately love only a few. My favorite authors can be counted on one hand. And if Octavia Randolph keeps it up I may need another finger.

The world of digital books is like a great mountain of ash. You step into it and you're instantly up to your waist in dust. You know there are jewels of incredible power hidden in the grime and fluff, but finding them is a mammoth task. After more than a year of searching, I have finally found one of the jewels in The Circle of Ceridwen, the first book in Randolf's historical series.

Oddly enough, I never would have bought this book in a million years based on the cover and the description. I like a good historical novel and I'm not adverse to violent stories but I have never found a book with big swords on the front to be very emotionally powerful and a description that immediately touts the presence of "vikings with tatoos" is unlikely to have the emotional caliber I'm looking for. But I downloaded the book because of one of those free deals and I was very pleasantly surprised. I'd be willing to pay plenty for books like this.

Here's the real deal on this book:

  • Its style is accessible and conversational, yet historically evocative. All the semi-literate reviewers confused about the grammar are simply wrong. There are few if any errors in this book. There is a refreshing absence of flamboyance and pompous writing. The prose is easy, flowing and without distraction, a rare treat and the very first necessity for me to love a book.
  • The book has the emotional impact that so few have these days. That's hard to prove without reading it. It's a mix of good characters and realism. 
  • The story is told in first person. Always a plus in my opinion. You experience ninth century England through the eyes of a young woman named Ceridwin.
  • The characters are likable, believable and relatable, including the supposed "bad guys." I am one of those readers who demands a likable main characters. I simply won't suffer through a book, no matter how good the story is, if the heroine or hero bores me or ticks me off. Here is a young heroine who is so different from the modern vision of a "strong female heroine." She is strong and courageous without being divorced from real women. She is emotionally real and does not try to be "everywoman" so that all readers can see themselves in her. She is a distinct character but one you can love with her flaws. The other characters are also well developed and fascinating.
  • The plot is riveting from the first few pages. It takes some very unexpected turns and yet it is never confusing. The tension is held throughout with a fierce desire to see Ceridwen survive and thrive.
  • There is warfare, suspense, incredible tension and yet there is no classic villain. It is the real world. The invaders and those who threaten the heroine are people, in fact at least moderately understandable people. You may not agree with all of their decisions or motivations but they are understandable and even honorable in many instances. It is the sheer believability of the characters and world that make the story so emotionally gripping. 
  • The details of the historical world are breathtaking. I've read enough historical fiction and nonfiction to know extensive research when I see it. While it's hard to say exactly what life was like in the ninth century, this feels both true and consistent. The level of detail is wonderful with none of the vagueness that results from historical uncertainty and no facts clearly manipulated to suit the needs of fiction. It fulfills that thirst for something beautifully historical and effortless to read at the same time. 
  • The pace is just right. This is a subjective matter as far as I can tell. Some people may call this pace "slow." I call many books that have little emotion and character-develop to them "chaotic and rushed."  It isn't constant action. It is instead ever-present story, plot and emotional tension. At no point does the story slow down in order to show off the author's excellent grasp of the history. There are no wasted words or long descriptive scenes for the sake of showing off.
  • The book's only flaws may be its cover and description, which hint at a rollicking ride of battle, "weapons porn" and macho atmosphere. The reader only gets to see one "fight" in real time in this first book of the series and that one doesn't even result in anyone dying and is a minor incident in the overall plot. There is plenty of battle going on around but the main character is a girl, who isn't unrealistically placed in the middle of battles. Some readers I know who are into constant battle might be taken in by the cover and description and may be very disappointed. While other readers, who are interested in more character-based stories with flavor and conversational tone, may miss out on this one due to the cover and description. 
  • It is fashionable today to comment on the ending in a review. This is the first book in a series and while the ending appears to wrap up the major plot lines, it is clear that peace is unlikely to last long. There is plenty of room for more story and yet the ending doesn't feel contrived or episodic. I appreciate this. The fact that much of the plot is sort of wrapped up makes it easier to resist spending my kids' lunch money on the next book right away but I am eager to get my hands on the next book. 

The literature revolution: How book reviews give power to the people

Hey people who love to read! I have awesome news for you. You have some real power. The world of publishing is changing and you personally have some significant ability to steer what will be available to read and what kinds of authors get to write books.

I'm serious. And I did not used to know this. I used to think that leaving a review on an item or a book on Amazon was like voting. It mattered a little tiny bit. It was a drop in the ocean type of thing. I did it occasionally because it was like a civic duty or a way to say a special "thank you" if the book was really outstanding.

I've learned. Given recent changes in the publishing industry, reviewing books - particularly on Amazon - has become serious business. And particularly if you DON'T like something, you can deliver a fairly large blow and deny an author the ability to make a living writing with a click and about 20 words. Be careful of this because you can also accidentally do this without meaning to and seriously hurt an author you like, thus denying yourself that author's books in the future. It is real power.

(If you give a negative review because of shipping service, the harm goes to the author not the shipper.)

How to read Amazon star rankings

Here is a quick rundown of the five-star book review system:

5-stars - 5-stars means the reviewer really likes the book. It really entertained them and they will probably recommend it to their friends and read more books by that author. This is pretty much the same on most sites. Some sites consider 5-star reviews more exclusive than others, but on Amazon, 5-stars are just for books you really liked. You don't have to ration them and only use them for your favorite top-ten books of all time. But they do mean you really liked the book. An author usually needs several books with at least a hundred or two hundred five star reviews before they are considered an established author and before they can make a living writing.

4-stars - 4-stars means the book was pretty good, the reviewer enjoyed it. There was maybe one or two minor issues with the book but they didn't really get in the way of a good read. Most readers, when looking at books on Amazon will consider a book if it has between a four and five-star average. If see that a book has close to a five-star average and you give it four stars, you will actually make the book look worse to future readers than it does to you at that moment. So, give four stars if you think it should not be as highly recommended as it appears but it was still reasonably good. If the book has an average below four stars, your 4-star review will make the book look better than it currently does. So, again, give it four-stars if you liked it and think it should be recommended more, even though it wasn't perfect. Four stars is basically the baseline for saying that the book was worth buying and that is how most readers interpret a 4-star average. If a book has less than a 4-star average, there will be very few sales of that book and unless the author has a lot more books or is independently wealthy, that author probably won't be writing much more. I do consider this when posting a review that will pull the book above or below the 4-star average line because that is the power of reader reviews. You have the ability to make an impact on what gets written and published.

3-stars -  Some sites, like Goodreads, still consider 3-star reviews to be a positive review and describe it as "I liked it." But on Amazon a 3-star review is a mildly negative review. It means, "This book wasn't terrible. I don't really want my money back but I wouldn't recommend it. It was just okay." Let's face it. The world is too full of great things to do, read, watch, learn and write to spend our time reading books that are "just okay." So, most readers don't consider buying books with a 3-star average. I don't buy 3-star books unless it is non-fiction about something I really want to know and there aren't any other choices. (And on the few occasions I have bought 3-star books for that sort of reason, I was usually sorry I did.) Amazon also does not recommend books with a 3-star average and if you give a book a 3-star average you are saying you don't recommend it. Use this rating for books that didn't offend you in any way but that weren't really that great. The kind of book that you could read if you really had nothing else to read on a long flight but not the type of book you would actually choose to read. 

2-stars - Two stars means the reviewer didn't like it. There is no passion in this kind of review. It is a way of saying that the book had major flaws, rampant typos, a bad or non-existent plot, nothing interesting. There is no book review site i know of where a two-star review has any positive connotations, so if you liked the book a little bit, you might consider giving it more than two stars. However, by all means, if you really were bored and wished you hadn't spent your time, let alone your money on it, give it two stars. A two-star review is low enough to seriously exert a downward pull on a book's rating and hurt an author's earnings and ability to write books in the future.

1-star - 1-star reviews can be pretty unpredictable on Amazon. Amazon means them to be for books a reviewer strongly disliked. But when I read reviews, I always start with the one-star reviews because they can tell you if there is something seriously offensive in the book or if the negative reviews come from some political group that simply dislikes the author. (I have very occasionally bought a book based on who DIDN'T like it because it was a group I disagree with and anything they disagreed with that vehemently was at least intriguing.) All too often people post one-star reviews because a book arrived late or was damaged in the mail. Others post one-star reviews because they want another book in the same genre to look better. Still others post one-star reviews because they found the book truly objectionable in some way or couldn't get past the first few chapters due to sheer boredom and horrendous prose. I personally reserve 1-star reviews for books that I really think Amazon should withdraw, books with racist, homophobic or otherwise bigoted content, books that promote stereotypes or that I think do harm. I would also give a one-star review to a book that was so badly written as to be unreadable, but I have never personally ordered or read such a book from Amazon because I carefully read reviews and descriptions before I order books, so I haven't actually used a one-star review for that.

Now, here's the reason I am saying all this. 1-star reviews can seriously hurt an author. If a book only has a few reviews, even one 1-star review will bring down the book's rating by a significant degree. This is a good thing in reality. I have rated a certain children's book that had racist content in it (not of the Mark Twain educational variety but seriously racist) with one star and it significantly changed the position of the book on Amazon. That's power. You can flag things that are problematic with this kind of review and it will really matter. On the other hand, be mindful that writers are people. They often support families. Giving a 1-star review can seriously impact the financial life of a family. Unless the writer is personally shipping you the book, you should think twice about giving a one-star review for a damaged book. Any writer worth their salt will help you get recompense from the shipping company if you write to the author personally (see their Amazon author page). It is very rarely the writer's fault if there is a problem with delivery and if the writer is independent and has options they will change their delivery system if a few people contact them with problems. But if an independent writer gets a few one-star reviews on Amazon, that person will probably no longer be a writer. This system is unforgiving and bad reviews last forever. The fact that you write in your review that the problem is with the delivery and not with the book itself does not really matter because the Amazon system runs mostly on the numbers.

Today is a world where consumers have real power. Use it consciously because it is YOUR power. 

This description of ratings was necessary because there are a lot of people who aren't as used to the online world as others. And different sites have different feelings about different ratings. On Goodreads a three-star review is mildly positive or neutral. On Amazon it is at least mildly negative and will hurt the author in the pocketbook. This isn't just my view. Read Anne R. Allen's blog entry on this if you want to know more about ratings. 

Why you should write reviews for any author you hope will write more

The first part of this post gives you the real dirt on the power of negative reviews. But what about the power of positive reviews? 

Unfortunately for authors, while it only takes a few negative reviews to seriously hurt an author, it takes a lot more positive reviews to give a writer a good chance on Amazon. It takes at least 50 good reviews (mostly 5-stars and a few 4-stars) before the Amazon system will start recommending a book to other readers who have enjoyed similar books. Because that recommendation system is one of the primary ways that unknown authors become known, sell books and thus can afford to continue to write, it is also serious beeswax.

New writers start with no reviews and being the first reviewer is a bit intimidating. I've done it. I know. So a lot of books go a long time with no reviews, even when some people are buying them and enjoying them. Even though statistics say that only about 1 percent of readers leave reviews, moderately successful books usually have at least a couple hundred reviews. The media and the better book promoters won't look at a book until it has a few hundred good reviews, no matter how good the book is. I've heard readers say, "Oh, I just loved that book. It's a new author. I hope he writes more but everything has already been said in the reviews." Reviewing isn't about saying something new. It is like voting and it really does influence what kinds of books will be available in the future. 

New authors simply have to pay their dues and slog in the trenches, trying to hand sell their first few thousand books and asking very sweetly for reviews from readers who want to see more of their work. Unless an author is picked up by one of the big publishing companies that essentially buy reviews or commission them from their media subsidiaries (and that is increasingly rare with new authors), it is a long hard struggle to get those requisite few-hundred positive reviews and a handful of bad reviews can derail the whole process and put the book at the bottom of the Amazon pile of a million-odd books. 

That is why reviews are important. I used to feel like reviews were sort of a civic duty, like voting. That still stands, except much more so. It would be like voting in a system where I felt like my vote really counted. I now know that if I read a book and like it, I can have a real impact on the chances the author has to write more. I recently ran across a little book by an unknown author. I read it and liked the story okay. But more than that the style was fresh and there was real heart and emotion in it. There were a couple technical issues. The author was independent and not wealthy at all and obviously didn't have a lot of support or the ability to hire expensive editors. (EVERY author needs editors. Please don't believe that a "good writer" ought to write without typos. All writers commit typos and they are much easier for readers to see than for the writer. It is virtually impossible to polish 80,000 words or more to technical perfection even with several editors working on it.) Anyway, I saw that the book had only a few reviews and an 3-something average. I really wanted to see more work by this author because I liked the voice, even with the technical issues. I gave the book a five-star review and it made a big difference. That's power! The author went from having very little chance of getting more readers to being in a category with a fighting chance, due to my review. 

Since then, I have seen that there are a lot of new independent writers climbing the long hill toward being established authors. And if I read them, I get to choose which ones I help to the top. And it doesn't take much. Those long rambling reviews that rehash the plot may be fun to write (and they may seriously help the author's self-esteem if they are nice). But what really matters in terms of an author's career are numbers, how many reviews with how many stars. You don't have to write more than 20 words to make a real difference.

I personally like to see good, thought-provoking books. I like books with great adventure that don't use gratuitous violence for cheap thrills, that reflect real emotions and show characters as real people. I want to see more books about minority cultures that we don't know enough about. I want to see more books that go beyond formulaic fiction. And we are going to see all those things much more in the future than we do now because "I am not the only one"  as John Lennon said. We the people may not have all the power in today's world, but I am seriously excited about the fact that we do have the power when it comes to book publishing at the moment. It is possible that some monolithic corporations will be able to get things back under their control eventually, but for now this is a place where alternatives actually get to take off.

So, think about what kinds of books you like and join this quiet, beautiful, literary revolution. Write reviews and you just wait and see. You will get more of what you like and less of the stuff you have always been annoyed by in the media and mass-market books. 

Why all the controversy then?

Now I'm getting to a part of this issue that most readers don't see. Underneath all the talk about the power of reviews there is a raging controversy going on among authors - about whether authors should request reviews and who should and shouldn't write books. Weighing in on a controversial topic that has the potential to destroy one's chances of being able to write for a living is a dangerous game. But I like to live dangerously... and this issue is really bugging me. 

It is currently fashionable among more established authors to make a lot of noise about how new authors shouldn't review other new authors. I have run across several prominent blogs accusing authors who review fellow authors of running "review cartels." The idea is that a theoretical group of authors gets together and agrees to give each other all five-star reviews, regardless of how bad their books are. Hey, it could happen. I certainly haven't met any authors who seem like they'd participate in such a thing but you can always find crooked people. And yet, this is only likely to generate a handful of reviews. And remember, a book needs a few hundred good reviews and very few bad reviews to really allow an author to make a living at writing. 

The reason there is a controversy is that reviews are supposed to be for readers. This is how readers get to find out if they should spend their hard-earned money and often even-harder-earned time on a particular book. It is also, as I described above, part of a very real democratic process that can help people shape our culture in wonderful ways. If someone hijacks this in an attempt to get an unfair advantage and trick readers into buying something that isn't well-written, that undermines a system that has a lot of potential for good. 

But here's the rub. It is extremely difficult for a new and unknown author to get those crucial first 50 reviews that launch an author career. The authors who are most vocal about deriding other authors for reviewing each other are often fairly well established, don't particularly want all the new-author competition and say they got their first reviews from friends and family. How nice for them. I'm glad they have supportive friends and family willing to give them a chance to make a career of writing. I will be grateful to the first readers who posted reviews of my books forever. No matter how many reviews I get in the years to come, those first ones will always carry the most weight because, frankly, none of the other readers ever would have come without those first reviews. 

But let's be honest, I'm not a socialite. I don't have 50 friends who both have Amazon accounts or have the time to read my books soon. Half of my friends don't speak English because I live in the Czech Republic but I write in English. And many of my friends are swamped and have been meaning to read my books but seriously work 12-hour days and simply never get to read for pleasure. We're working-class mostly.  So, if I could only rely on my friends to get those initial reviews (so that other readers could have a chance to see that my books exist) then I wouldn't stand a chance.

Perhaps some new and unknown authors do have that many friends. Maybe they write well and all their friends review their books honestly and glowingly. Perhaps they don't write so well and all their friends review their books glowingly anyway. But this goes back to the purpose of the review system. I want to read books that are well-written, interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining. I do not want to ONLY read books by people who are socially popular, even if those books are good. I also want to read GOOD books by people who are introverts and only have three good close friends (and one of them is a grandmother who barely has electricity let alone an Amazon account). How does an author like that get 50 reviews?

Well, one way authors do it today is by signing up for what is called Read-for-Review programs. You can find these programs on sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. They are basically places where authors offer to let random people read their book for free in exchange for an honest review. There is a sort of honor code. If you get a free copy, you are supposed to try to review the book within about two weeks. Authors are really really really not allowed to pressure reviewers to give good reviews just because they received a free copy. (And authors are banned from such sites if people report that they pressure reviewers.) Many people on these sites refuse to give one- and two-star reviews and simply refrain from reviewing if they really don't like the book because they don't want to actively hurt an author who is simply struggling to make something coherent and still developing as a writer. But that isn't necessary. It's just the policy of some reviewers. 

Read-for-Review programs are a good way to get free books but you have to choose carefully because anyone can put their book in the program and some of them really are from writers who still need a lot of practice. The reviewers on these sites are generally not there for the freebies. They are there because they care about books and writers and the future of literature. These are mostly people who are there generously offering their time to review books by unknown authors so that the rest of the world can have a better chance of getting to read only the good stuff. About half of the reviewers on these places (in my experience, not a statistical survey) are also authors.

Now, the controversy arises when there are claims that there is pressure from authors for reviewers on these Read-for-Review sites to give only good reviews. And specifically for authors to give other authors only good reviews (or else someone might give them a bad review, whether they deserve it or not). This then makes those reviews less valuable in helping other readers figure out which books are worth investing time and money in. And that is why some authors have taken to vehemently demanding that authors stop reviewing other authors. 

I understand the concern. It isn't non-existent but it is far smaller than it is made out to be. I have so far gained a few reviews on my books from Read-for-Review sites. As far as I know the only reviews on Amazon that I have that are not five-star reviews come from fellow authors from Read-for-Review sites. All my reviews from general readers are 5-star reviews. (Readers apparently like my books and, of course, I'm glad and very grateful.) My experience is not that authors are more generous with their good reviews. My experience is the opposite. I have so far been lucky enough to avoid those certain poisonous individuals who actually go around giving bad reviews to books that seem to be in competition with theirs. But I have received some critical reviews from other authors. Whereas my few general readers have been wildly enthusiastic about The Soul and the Seed and The Fear and the Solace, the first and second books in my series, my fellow authors have picky professional things to say. And that is only natural. They really know something about writing.

Sometimes a fellow author reviewed my book even though it wasn't their favorite genre and even though they say it was a great read, they give it fewer stars because I wrote in the wrong genre for them. Or some of them say they like series that end each book with a nice wrapped up conclusion rather than a continuing story. This is an issue of taste. Some readers like "episodic" series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, that make it appear that the protagonist has achieved their goals at the end of each book, only to throw more problems at them in the very beginning of the next book. Other readers prefer "classic" series like The Lord of the Rings or The Outlander Series that keep a cohesive story going over multiple books. I happen to be the latter type of reader. (Harry Potter was really good but I just really loved Rowling's writing. I didn't love the episodic nature of the series. The Hunger Games seriously tanked for me after the first book, largely for this reason.)  

And so I'm also a classic series type of writer. General readers mostly review based on "feeling." If they loved the book and didn't want to put it down to go work, bed or something else, then they give it 5-stars, period. No quibbling. But writers... Well, it's our profession. We know all mechanics, the other things the author could have done but didn't and so forth. As a result, authors are usually tough reviewers.

I have tried to wean myself off of being so ultra critical, since I found out just how many 5-star reviews it takes before an author can make enough money to get time to write more books. Part of my personal review policy is that I try to review books based on how I think they would appeal to readers of their genre. If I'm reading out of my primary genres that means that I will sometimes be more generous with the stars than my own personal inclination suggests because I don't want to deprive readers of, say, hard science fiction of a read they'll love, even if I may not love it. If the book is well-written and as technically good as any other well-known hard science fiction I've read (and I have read a few), then I'll even give it five stars, based on its technical qualities rather than my enjoyment of the book. That's just my policy.

But many authors have a harsher policy than mine. They are very critical of other authors and demand impossibly high standards when compared with what the star rankings actually mean to average readers. I often read three-star reviews by authors on other books that are essentially positive reviews. They liked the book. It had no technical problems. It is good enough to be traditionally published but they weren't amazed by it. It didn't personally change their life, so it only gets three stars. That is their choice, but I feel that makes authors a particularly critical bunch of reviewers on average. 

Lets face it. A book on Amazon needs hundreds of 5-star reviews to allow the author to make a living writing. I read comments by authors all the time saying they reserve 5-star reviews for books that "change their life" or books they "will read many times over again." If all or most Amazon reviewers had that policy, what would happen? How many books truly changed your life? How many do you read over and over again? And do you think those are the only authors who should be able to make a living writing? 

I personally want to see greater variety than just Julia Scheeres, Ann Pettitt, Dianna Gabaldon, Barbara Kingsolver and the estates of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan (to name the handful of authors I tend to read over and over again). I love the authors I love but even they get old after awhile. I do want to see more good work by good authors and I even think that authors that don't write in my genre should be able to make a living, if their work is of professional quality and appeals to readers of their genre. So, I am going to give lots of authors who I like 5-star reviews because I know that that is the ONLY way that they will ever be able to write more books. And I have the power to influence that.

I have to conclude that the idea that authors are rampantly reviewing other authors with undeserved 5-star reviews in order to get 5-star reviews in return is somewhat of an urban legend. It probably happens with small groups of close friends but it doesn't seem to happen nearly as often as those who like to fret about it make out. And even when it does happen, it isn't likely to matter enough to make or break the review system. One 1-star review effectively negates five 5-star reviews from a financial perspective because it brings the average down to 4-stars which is the bare minimum for most buyers. So, if an author somehow gets ten other authors to review their book with five stars (good luck trying to find ten who will really do it) and the book is really awful, how many angry readers is it really going to take to make those ten fake reviews irrelevant? Not very many.

And given my experience, I would discourage any new author from trying such a strategy for strategic as well as moral reasons. In my experience seeking out other authors to give you reviews is a good way to get MORE critical reviews of your books than you will get from general readers, not less critical. If you desperately need to get a reasonable number of reviews, which you do in the beginning, then I do recommend going to Goodreads and LibraryThing and other Read-for-Review sites and entering the fray there with a lot of other authors. But don't expect a bunch of 5-star reviews because that isn't what happens in those places.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Featured: The Wanderer's Guide to Dragon Keeping

This week's featured author on the Goodreads PFDR board is Ashley O'Melia of Illinois. Her biography isn't very revealing, although she does claim to have written her first story at five years old. But the big thing about this author is her book The Wanderer's Guide to Dragon Keeping. I've had this book on my "want to read" list for awhile now and I'm really hoping that being featured author for the week will inspire her to hold a sale because otherwise her Amazon Kindle price is a bit steep by indie standards ($5.99, especially for a slim little book of 170 pages). Still, I want to read this book because that is just an awesome title. (Why can't I seem to come up with titles that good? Titles are my Achilles's heel in writing.) And secondly this is one book where the description is as good as the title: 

"Welcome to The Wanderer’s Guide to Dragon Keeping. You no doubt have stumbled upon this book due to a great need, whether realized or otherwise. You are a very select individual, placed in a very exclusive position of responsibility. Dragon keeping is not for the faint of heart. Aubrey Goodknight is alone. Orphaned at a young age, she long ago stopped believing in the fantasies and mythical creatures she had so loved as a child. When she’s diagnosed with breast cancer, she’s certain things couldn’t be more desolate. That is, until she stumbles across The Wanderer’s Guide to Dragon Keeping, which changes her life completely. Raising a baby dragon in a modern, non-magical world isn’t a challenge she’s sure she’s up to. Now, Aubrey must learn that seeing isn’t always believing, but believing can be the most powerful kind of magic."

See what I mean. If you don't want to read this book, you're either not a fantasy fan or you're made of wood. If you're brave enough, go get it HERE.  

O'Melia has also published some books of poetry and other stories. You can see the full list on Goodreads.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Teen fantasy and angst-ridden romance

This week's featured author on the Goodreads PFDR board is younger and well connected with a lot of the teenage world. She's Australian author Kia Carrington-Russell. She started writing when she was fifteen and says that her "warped and strange dreams" gave her a fantastic new world. 

Her Three Immortal Blades series is about a teenage girl who has the ability to erect a sort of force field or shield around herself. There are some bad guys around that "shielders" like her have to fight and they mix about as well as bleach and red clothes, i.e. there's a lot of red lost. 

One reviewer sums it up this way: "If you like Young Adult Fantasy, with a touch of angst ridden semi-romance that never quite gets fulfilled - then this series is worth your attention"

I should mention that this is yet another teenage fantasy romance in which the heroine must choose between two boyfriends. 

You can find Possession of My Soul (Book 1 of the Three Immortal Blades series) HERE.

And then Possession of My Heart (Book 2 of the Three Immortal Blades series) HERE.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

New Release: The Fear and the Solace (The Kyrennei Series Book Two)

The second book in The Kyrennei Series is being released today in honor of my mother's birthday and the lunar eclipse. Happy birthday, Mama!

What if you had to fight a war you knew you could never win?

Aranka Miko, the girl who carried the hope of resistance against Addin mind control, is lost and assumed to be dead. Despair has always dogged at the heels of those in the desperate fight against the Addin, but now that they've tasted hope, the return of darkness is all the more bitter. 

Twenty-two-year-old Cho is the temporary commander of the J. Company compound in Montana when disaster strikes. The scouting team in Portland, Oregon has been ambushed on the 205 bridge. If they're captured, their souls will be usurped by Addin control. Then Cho will be on her own in this secret world war that can never be won. At least two of her closest friends are dead, the man she loves is at the epicenter of the danger and the one who carries the first hope in a thousand years is lost, almost certainly killed in a rain of bullets. 

Hope is a fragile thing and fear is constant companion. It's the twenty-first century, right now, in America and everything looks just fine on the surface. But a clandestine force controls the highest seats of power and will stop at nothing to stamp out resistance. The ancient Meikan people, like Cho, have lived in terror of the Addin for generations, and those who dare to stand up to its power are shunned as outlaws by their own people. Then a mere girl fulfilled an almost forgotten prophecy and hope briefly flowered in unlikely places. But does a giant even notice the crushing of a single flower? One girl is easy enough to kill.

Icelandic horror and romance - Talk about chills and steam!

When I think of Iceland, I get this image of the rocky Isle of David Eddings' fantasies but with lots of hot springs! What better place for spooky fantasy stories? What better place for romance? 

This week's featured author on the Goodreads PFDR board is Icelandic author Hildur Enola of Nostri Publication and she's got the goods on this one.  

Enola has two books of short stories out in cooperation with her co-author Sirrý Sig.

One Thing Led to Another is a collection of spooky and suspenseful tales that dig into the subconscious.

Icelandic Love features a variety of romance for a quick and delicious read. 

She has a couple of books out in Icelandic and I'm not going to try to pronounce or spell them but if you are more linguistically talented, check out her Goodreads page.

Spotlight on One Thing Led to Another

Hildur Enóla and Sirrý Sig present four very different short stories:

This is a small world. We all have effect on each other, one thing leads to another in an unforeseen way.

The Blood Weeping Table
A fantasy about a pampered wife who finds more than she bargained for with her new desk.

When Hafsteinn Died
A mystery about a woman coming home from a business trip to find her cat dead, and her girlfriend missing.

Just the Facts
A drama about a down-to-earth family man who begins to suspect his young stepdaughter of a cold-blooded murder.

My Rose
A realistic horror fiction about a man who falls madly in love with a girl.

“We Dare You”

Hildur Enóla won first place in the magazine, Vikan, for her short story, ‘Icelandic Honey’. Her co-author Sirrý Sig won third place in the Nýtt Líf magazine for her short story, ‘The Shadow.’ She has also published the children’s book, ‘Through the Cracks’,and several short stories

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

And the featured author of the week is... oops!

And the featured author this week on the Goodreads PFDR board is... 

OOPS!

Wait a minute here...

That wasn't supposed to happen yet. I'm not ready yet! Mys second book isn't out yet. I'm not ready! Oh well, no arguing with the gods of Goodreads. 

Yup, you guessed it. The featured author this week is yours truly. 

As a mark of my gratitude to all the wonderful readers at Goodreads I'm putting The Soul and the Seed on sale for 99 cents for just this week on Amazon. So, if there was ever a time to tell all your friends on Facebook and Twitter about it, now is the time. 

This week also happens to be Mabon week, which is the time of thanksgiving in our family. Now, how timely is that? 

I am grateful to all the Goodreads members who are spreading the word about this intense, amazing book that I was so honored to birth into the world. Thank you also to my family and friends who have tirelessly helped with technical details, advance reading and spreading the word.

Beyond that I am astounded into gratitude every day by the fact that I was given this idea, these words, this chance and the time to write it down. It was a gift of the universe and spirit, if anything ever was. The idea brewed for many years but the characters came like real people, telling me their stories. So, I am thankful to whatever it is that gave me this gift - goddess, spirit or my own luck of the draw in life experience. I have many gifts that can't be taken for granted, a husband who works a steady job, so that I don't have to work extra long hours like so many women today. I have a snug home and good fortune in health.

A recent calamity at a friend's home - one of those completely unpredictable things that could happen any day to any of us and leave harm that will last a lifetime - has reminded me to give thanks every day that disaster doesn't strike.  I have just finished writing a final chapter for Book 3 of the Kyrennei Series and that is a sentiment that comes out in the story as well - that simplest of gratitude, the miracle of another day of peace and wholeness.

I don't take this moment for granted.

And thank you for reading because then I am never alone.