Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Fade into the Woodwork" - Sneak Peek!

Abducted in broad daylight, locked away in a basement cage, starved for food and light - how would you escape your prison?

Valentina Murdoch finds herself asking that same question after she is attacked and kidnapped one ordinary morning. Brought to a secluded hideaway in the middle of the woods to await her fate at the hands of "the boss," she has but days to survive.

Utilizing her love of action movies to create a plan, Valentina plots her escape while battling a crippling fear of the dark - for the dark is where her childhood nightmare lurks, waiting for her one moment of weakness. But as the clock winds down and her husband's search for her threatens his own life, Valentina realizes that her true fight lies within herself.

Will she have the strength to survive, or will the dark - and all the figures that haunt it - finally win?

I am proud to introduce a sampling from my new novella, Fade into the Woodwork. Take a look at the sample below! Just remember, this is the rough, unedited version. The final product should be out this fall!

                                                             Sample Chapter

Valentina opened her eyes when she felt the change beneath her, the car turning off the main road on to what she guessed was a gravel path. Panic threatened to fray her nerves, but she pushed it back, swallowing hard. The trunk was still pitch black, closing in on her as the car slowed. She hated the dark and usually would have had a full-blown panic attack by this point, and supposed it was pure adrenaline that enabled her to stay focused.

Her hands formed fists as the car traveled down the bumpy road, jostling her about. Unable to calm her nerves, Valentina tried to keep her breathing even, counting the seconds and minutes in her head while planning what she would do when the trunk lid opened.

Finally they came to a stop and she heard the man – her kidnapper – get out, slamming the door shut behind him. His boots crunched over gravel, coming closer, closer, until the key was in the lock and sunlight flooded into the trunk.

Harsh morning rays blinded Valentina as she surged from the trunk, grappling for her assailant. Another scream burst from her, cut off when strong arms wrapped around her gut and ended her flight before she even took off.

“You’re right, she is a feisty bitch,” a new man laughed, his voice deeper and rougher than the first. His arms were stronger, not allowing her any room to escape. He cursed to himself when Valentina dug her nails into his arm, then flung her to the ground.

The air whooshed out of her lungs as her back connected with dry earth. Valentina lay stunned, her entire body throbbing. Her newest captor leaned over and grabbed hold of her shirt, tearing it at the collar as he jerked her upwards.

“Get off me, you worthless piece of–”

Valentina was silenced by the knife that pressed against her cheekbone, just below her eye. She could only stare up at the man, her eyes dark, lips slightly parted in surprise. He grinned down at her, a grin filled with malice and a thirst for blood.

“Now you listen here, sweetheart,” he warned, his rough voice slicing through her brave façade and bringing fear to the surface. The cold blade pressed into her skin, not hard enough to bite, but enough to make her forget anything she may have wanted to say. “I got orders not to mess up that pretty face of yours, but you fight me again and I’ll start slicing everywhere else.”

Valentina fought a shiver as he moved the knife down against her breast, the tip of the blade lightly piercing through cloth and into flesh.

“We got ourselves an understanding?” He lifted a brow when Valentina only nodded, her jaw clamped shut as she refused to make a sound. “Good girl. Now,” he hoisted her up to a sitting position, her back against the car tire, “what’s your name?”

Disbelief filled her and a huff escaped before she could stop it. The man frowned. “I say something funny?” He slapped a hand to the car next to her head and leaned in closer. “Well?”

Valentina met his glare, showing a confidence she wasn’t sure she actually felt. “You kidnap me and don’t even bother to learn my name first? Why the hell would I tell you now?”

The man grinned again, revealing two rows of yellow teeth. “Don’t think of it as a kidnapping, sweets. Think of it as a…relocation, with new friends. And trust me, you want us to be your friends, ‘cuz if we’re your enemies, then you got yourself a big problem.”

He pushed himself off the car and straightened. “You can call me Dane. My partner over there is Alan. Now, what do we call you?” When she didn’t answer, the man named Dane smirked. “Or I can give you a name, but I can promise it won’t be nearly as pretty as your own.”

Doubt, courage, and terror waged war within her. She took a moment to observe the two men, casting a quick glance between both.

The one in front of her, Dane, was obviously the muscle. He was tall and well built, forearms and neck inked in colorful tattoos, wide hands dirty and used to hard labor. His hair touched his shoulders in greasy waves, eyes sunk behind a large forehead and surrounded by dark circles. His nose had clearly been broken one too many times, his cracked lips never having seen chapstick. He wore jeans two sizes too big, scarred black boots, and a faded T-shirt with the name of a band she’d never heard of.

By contrast, the man called Alan, with his lanky frame and pasty skin, looked like a certified businessman. His jeans were neat, his shirt clean beneath the black hoodie, his boots nearly brand new. Brown hair was slicked back with gel, face clean of any stubble, eyes a bright brown. But in those eyes she saw the truth – the psychotic gleam of a man who enjoyed kidnapping, killing, hurting.

Both men stood firm in front of her, Alan with his arms crossed and Dane pointing the knife at her face. In the background she saw only woods, great expanses of towering trees blocking any view of the outside world. A small path led through the woodland to her freedom; in the other direction stood a house.

At another time, in another situation, she may have been fascinated by that house. The old, weather-worn structure was well placed in the woods, faded white paint covered by decades-old vines. At least four stories reached up to the sky, a pointed turret on one side and a brick chimney scaling the other. A deck wrapped around the entire home, with wide-set stairs leading up to the front door, which looked much newer than the rest of the house. There were several windows on each floor, all but two on the first floor covered with thick shutters.

At one point the house was probably a warm and loving home to a large family, Valentina supposed. Now, it was meant only for hell and horror.

“Your name,” Dane demanded again when she kept observing the structure that was to be her cage.

Valentina swallowed hard. “Tina,” she answered, glad her voice didn’t sound as petrified as she felt. “What do you want with me?”

“Don’t you worry about that just yet, sweetheart. How about we get you settled in?”

Dane yanked her up by her arm, her shoulder throbbing in protest. Alan covered her eyes after pushing her through the door, an action she found ridiculous but didn’t protest – not with the knife pressed into her lower back. For a fleeting moment her thoughts strayed to MoMo – where he was, if he got out, if he was safe. Then she forced herself to instead focus on where they were leading her.

Six steps straight through the door, sharp left. Twenty steps down what she guessed was a narrow hallway based on how many times she bumped into Dane.

A right turn, not as sharp – perhaps into a bedroom?

Eight steps across that room, then a door opening to the sound of clanging locks and chains.

Shoved through the door, down a long flight of rickety stairs. Eighteen steps.

Her feet touched hard stone, nose picked up the stench of mold. Hands gripped her shoulders, directed her to the left.

Another door opened, heavy and thick. The room was cold, and even in her blindness she knew it was small.

The blindfold was removed then and Valentina found herself standing in the center of a square room with nothing but a bed, toilet, and sink for décor. Confusion crossed her features as she looked around.

“Welcome home, Tina,” Alan said quietly, then closed the door.

Valentina rushed to the door just as two locks were turned, grabbing for the handle only to discover that it was already locked. Cursing inwardly, she pounded on the solid wood until her palms were raw, alternating between banging with her fists and yanking on the handle.

Eventually exhausting herself with the futile escape attempts, Valentina slumped against the door, closing her eyes to shut out the truth of her new reality: a dimly lit closet of a room that reeked of mildew and chilled her to the bone. There was little space to do much of anything, though she could at least stretch out and stay limber if she wanted to. The walls around her were constructed of a hideous wood paneling, water stained and molded with age.

“Think,” she told herself, shoving her head back against the wood as though that would knock any sort of sense or revelation into her.

Two men with weapons, one clearly a psycho and the other some kind of middleman. Middleman for what?

About a two-hour car ride…north? Out in the sticks for sure.

House in the woods, down from the first floor…the basement?

Small room with no windows, one bed, one toilet, some weird mirror thing in the corner, heavy fucking door.

I’m never getting out of here alive.

“Shut up,” she demanded, opening her eyes. “You’re getting out of here, and you’re going to kick those mother fuckers’ asses while doing it.”

Never one to lie down and accept defeat, Valentina began a sweep of the room, investigating what she hoped would only be a temporary living situation. There wasn’t much to see, but she inspected everything carefully anyway, just in case.

Along the far right wall was a bed, if it could be called that. There was no frame, just a tattered and dirty mattress covered with a ratty brown blanket. No pillow or sheets, but she did see a suspicious stain that she worried was blood from another victim – perhaps one who hadn’t made it out alive.

Connected to the wall adjacent to the bed was the toilet, and the sink only a foot away. Both showed signs of age and abuse, with yellow-orange stains coating the base, chipped porcelain, and a slow drip from the sink faucet that would certainly drive her insane if she thought about it too long.

In the corner across from the bed and toilet, placed between the thick wall and crumbling water-logged ceiling, was a round angled mirror. It reflected the entire room, only a few handspans out of reach for even her short frame. Valentina wasn’t stupid. She knew that behind that so-called mirror was a camera watching her every move. These people wouldn’t leave her to her own devices.

She stared at the mirror camera for a moment, wondering if she was being watched at this very moment, then let her eyes continue their exploration. The floor was cold and dirty concrete, the walls an ugly brown paneling, the ceiling discolored. Everything about her surroundings screamed of decay and filth. Only the door seemed updated, clearly reinforced on both sides to prevent escape.

“Okay,” she whispered, taking a slow walk around the room. It didn’t take long to reach each corner. Goosebumps formed along her arms and she rubbed her hands over them, not sure if the chill was from the room, the reality of what her morning had turned into, or both.

Get a weapon, moron.

With renewed vigor, Valentina rushed to the sink, pulling with all her might. To her surprise, the old fixture didn’t budge. She grimaced and dropped to her knees, grabbing hold of the piping and tugging hard. The pipe groaned, encouraging her to continue. She’d just managed to feel a slight wiggle when a voice called out from the other side of the door.

“Don’t get any bright ideas, Miss Tina. Be good and step away from the sink. Now,” the voice commanded when she didn’t move.

Valentina sighed and stood, backing up until she hit the far wall. Her eyes narrowed when the door opened and Alan stepped through. She could see Dane in the shadows, waiting for her to attempt an escape. He nearly blended in with the darkness, but still her glare pierced into him.

“Keep shootin’ them daggers, sweetheart. See how far it gets ya.”

“I’m not your sweetheart,” Valentina shot back, pressing herself against the paneling. In the back of her mind she knew mouthing off would only make things worse, but her temper and fear were taking control of her words. “Where the fuck am I?”

“All in due time, Miss Tina.”

“Oh, I see,” she said with a smirk to Alan, who stood a few feet in front of her with a bottle of water and what looked like a change of clothing. “You must be the good cop. Sewer rat over there is the bad cop.”

Alan’s eyes darkened. “Make no mistake, we are not your friends.”

“I thought Sling Blade said to play nice, since I didn’t want you as enemies.”

“Perhaps you should think of us as acquaintances, then,” Alan replied, not amused by her sarcasm. “You would do well to remember that we are in charge here, not you.”

Valentina scoffed and pointed to her face. “Pretty sure you made that clear when you busted my head against the pole.”

“He really shouldn’t a done that,” Dane put in from the doorway, cleaning out his nails with the tip of the knife. “The boss don’t like a busted-up face.”

“She fought me!”

“So you hit her in the gut. She ain’t big. Bruise up her body, the boss don’t care about the body. You better hope that fat lip and black eye heal before he gets here.”

Her stomach dropped at the new information. “What boss? Who’s coming?”

“The boss is coming,” Dane answered casually. “And he don’t like a busted face, so you better hope you get pretty again. If you ain’t pretty, he won’t want you. And if he don’t want you, then what’s the point of keeping you around?”

Valentina swallowed hard, but kept her words even. “Yeah? Well if I ain’t pretty, I’ll be sure to tell him why.”

Alan snarled and threw the water bottle at her feet, along with the clothes. “Get comfortable. You aren’t going anywhere.”

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why I Read Bad Reviews

The dreaded 1-, 2-, and 3-star reviews. Every author gets them at some point in their career - it's the nature of the business, whether we like it or not.

I've been part of the indie circuit for 10 years now (well that made me feel old), and in that time I've heard a lot about book reviews. The conversations always intrigue me. Many authors say they don't read their bad reviews, just the good ones. Others say bad reviews don't matter. And still more say that people who leave negative reviews are just rude and obnoxious.

This is not to say that all authors feel this way, as there are plenty who feel the same way I do, which is that all reviews pose a great learning experience to better our craft. I fully admit to enjoying a good 5-star review for my books, as those comments are what keep us, as authors, encouraged to write more books. But I also want to hear the bad stuff.

Why do I read bad reviews? Well, the answer is three-fold.

On the one hand, 1- to 3-star reviews are to the point. They are not blanketed with love and words like "awesomesauce," and you don't have to sort through paragraphs of fandom to get to the meat of the review. After all, why do people read reviews? To find out why the book is fantastic, as well as to determine what's what's wrong with it. The only way to get this information is with direct, thought-out reviews that focus on the book's content. If there are tons of grammatical errors or many readers have problems with characters or plot development, then that's generally a good sign that I won't like it either.

Second, they teach me what readers look for in books. From this I've learned that readers are extremely savvy. They know when an author is trying too hard, when they clearly haven't researched a topic, when a book wasn't professionally edited, etc. Reading their negative reviews, in turn, helps me to be a better editor, as I can proof with both an editor's and a reader's eye. Knowing the trends as far as pitfalls keeps me aware of today's biggest problems in the indie world.

And third, I learn more about readers in general. For every bad review that's constructive, there's another that's just plain rude. You can tell who is leaving constructive criticism and who is being nasty just for the sake of being a total dick. Reviewers, you know who you are. The reviews from people who didn't finish the book, who didn't bother looking up the genre they were reading, who left a bad review simply because they don't like a subject matter - these people are the bane of authors' collective existence. But, it helps to be aware of these people because on the flipside, it helps me better differentiate who is being a jerk and who I can actually learn from.

After all, why wouldn't an author want to learn from criticism? Ignoring bad reviews makes absolutely no sense to me. An author should always, always, want to improve his or her craft. That is possible only by being open-minded to the fact that our craft isn't perfect and there is always room for improvement.

(Side note - I've read many blogs and articles that say authors should never respond to bad reviews because, ultimately, it reflects poorly on the author. In most cases, this is true. However, I've also seen cases where the author responded maturely and professionally, and was able to have a constructive conversation with the reviewer. This is a conversation for another time, but it's good to note that both sides can learn from reviews and being open to discussion.)

Don't get me wrong, I love the 4- and 5-star reviews. They give me an ego boost and the confidence to write another book. Authors can't survive without positive reviews and praise. But I also want to know what's holding me back.

From my own feedback, I've learned that I tend to drag out the beginning of my novels, which can get boring. So, I've been working on that. I've also been told my lead characters are a bit...shall we say, bitchy. That's usually what I go for, but can see how that may turn readers off, so I try to make them a bit more appealing now.

So, to prove I'm not a book-hating fiend, I want to take a few minutes to show how those negative reviews can actually be useful. Below are brief snippets of reviews from Amazon (I do not know the authors personally or have any relationship with them). I've also only listed constructive feedback, not the absurd hate reviews.

1) Grammar

"Also, the spelling and grammatical errors... stop the writing further in its tracks when certain writing misses either beginning quotes or end-quotes..."

This is a review to take seriously. I've heard many authors say they are okay with these types of errors because they don't take away from the story. The truth is, yes, they do. Mistakes happen even in books published by traditional houses, so some are to be expected and excused. But when there are so many that the reader is too distracted to enjoy the story, it's time to re-edit and re-publish, even if you risk losing a high ranking on Amazon.

2) Voice

"I understand that the language is supposed to be representative of a typical teenager, but it just doesn't work...Does anyone talk like this?"

"...Nicely written, but the voice was way older than that of the main character."

One problem I see a lot of is voice. I run into this as well with my own writing, trying to create an accurate voice for a character who is younger, older, the opposite sex, etc. It is extremely important to ensure your characters actually speak the way you, the author, are trying to represent them. Otherwise, your readers won't believe the characters, and therefore lose interest in the story.

3) Repetition

"The Author constantly repeats the main characters feelings for one another. Once or twice is plenty..."

Repetition is a key thing to focus on when writing. I've seen many a reader comment on this, whether it's a phrase used over and over again, repetitive dialogue, or the author reiterating the same thought. You don't want your readers to end up thinking, "Okay, we get it already."

4) Detail

"There is too much buildup to the plot. Get to the point."

This is for one of mine. In past books, I've taken a lot of time to introduce the story and setting, leading up to the "point" with ten pages of introductory text. After reviewing my books from a reader's perspective, I realize they are right - that is boring. So I've learned from this and introduce the story in a different way, piece by piece rather than all at once. Hopefully doing so makes the books more interesting from the very beginning.

If anything, reading reviews has helped me develop a thicker skin. I've heard writers say that authors have fragile egos. This may be true, which is all the more reason to look at reviews as a learning experience rather than take them personally. We can learn from everything people tell us, even if what we're learning is to ignore a certain piece of advice and write the way we want (for example, you wouldn't stop writing fantasy books simply because one reader claims magic is stupid, which I've seen happen before in a 1-star review).

It stings to get bad reviews, but there are ways to take that sting away. Confidence and open-mindedness are key, as well as a keen eye for constructive criticism. With these things, we're all on our way to perfecting our craft.