Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Reads 2013: Gold Medal

Home Run
By Travis Thrasher
David C. Cook

BACK COVER:

Baseball star Cory Brand knows how to win. But off the field, he’s spiraling out of control. Haunted by old wounds and regrets, his future seems as hopeless as his past.

Until one moment—one mistake—changes everything. To save his career, Cory must go back to the town where it all began. His plan is simple: coach the local baseball team, complete a recovery program, and get out as fast as possible. Instead, he runs headfirst into memories he can’t escape ... and the love he left behind.

Faced with a second chance he never expected, Cory embarks on a journey of faith, transformation and redemption. And along the way, he discovers a powerful truth: no one is beyond the healing of God.


MY REVIEW:

I'm not into sports. I wouldn't know a touchdown from a hole in one. Okay, so maybe that's exaggerating, but reading a book about a baseball star and his messed up life is seriously NOT my first choice in fiction. But here I am, recommending a novel about a baseball supernova who's an alcoholic deadbeat dad. Why? Because Home Run has a powerful message of redemption (and the writing is drool worthy).

The plot centers around main character Cory Brand. I won't call him a hero, because for most of the book he's not. He's a jerk...but a lovable fella who you'll root for because of his past. Yeah, he runs away from his problems in more ways than one, but eventually he's saved by an amazing grace that only God can provide.

Whether you're a sports fanatic or not, the gritty issues dealt with in this book will connect with pretty much everyone. Author Travis Thrasher hits these issues head on, exposing the ugly sides, then bringing them all to the throne of Grace without whapping you upside the head with a Bible.

Two thumbs up.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Top Reads 2013: Silver Medal

Anomaly
By Krista McGee
Thomas Nelson

BACK COVER:

Thalli has fifteen minutes and twenty-three seconds left to live. The toxic gas that will complete her annihilation is invading her bloodstream. But she is not afraid.

Thalli is different than others in The State. She feels things. She asks questions. And in the State, this is not tolerated. The Ten scientists who survived the nuclear war that destroyed the world above believe that emotion was at the core of what went wrong—and they have genetically removed it from the citizens they have since created. Thalli has kept her malformation secret from those who have monitored her for most of her life, but when she receives an ancient piece of music to record as her community’s assigned musician, she can no longer keep her emotions secreted away.

Seen as a threat to the harmony of her Pod, Thalli is taken to the Scientists for immediate annihilation. But before that can happen, Berk—her former Pod mate who is being groomed as a Scientist—steps in and persuades the Scientists to keep Thalli alive as a test subject.

The more time she spends in the Scientist’s Pod, the clearer it becomes that things are not as simple as she was programmed to believe. She hears stories of a Designer—stories that fill her mind with more questions: Who can she trust? What is this emotion called love? And what if she isn’t just an anomaly, but part of a greater design?


MY REVIEW:

We've all read them. You know. The ol' nuclear bomb destroys civilization as we know it except for a handful of survivors. This is one of those...and one worth reading.

Anomaly explores not only what it's like to be different, but to know you're different, way down to the marrow of your bones. We've all experienced this. Just think back to junior high. What's great about this book, though, is that it ends on a note of hope--and a cliffhanger. For yes, indeed, this is only the beginning of Thalli & Berk's adventure.

This story has elements of Logan's Run mixed with the teenage angst of The Outsiders. It's a quick read, yet a challenging one, forcing the reader to question their own self image. It's set in the future and somewhat technical, yet not science nerdy enough to turn off a non-techhie like me.

I loved the relationship between Thalli & Berk. It's a little slow to ripen, but overall believable. I look forward to seeing what develops between the two in the next book, Luminary.

Overall, Anomaly is a definite thumbs up.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Top Reads 2013: Bronze Medal

Nobody wants to come in third. I get it. But (and I've always got a big but) taking into consideration the amount of books I read in 2013, to make it to the top 3 is indeed an honor. This year, the bronze award goes to...drum roll please...

The Dancing Master
By Julie Klassen
Bethany House

Back Cover Copy:

Finding himself the man of the family, London dancing master Alec Valcourt moves his mother and sister to remote Devonshire, hoping to start over. But he is stunned to learn the village matriarch has prohibited all dancing, for reasons buried deep in her past.

Alec finds an unlikely ally in the matriarch's daughter. Though he's initially wary of Julia Midwinter's reckless flirtation, he comes to realize her bold exterior disguises a vulnerable soul--and hidden sorrows of her own.

Julia is quickly attracted to the handsome dancing master--a man her mother would never approve of--but she cannot imagine why Mr. Valcourt would leave London, or why he evades questions about his past. With Alec's help, can Julia uncover old secrets and restore life to her somber village...and to her mother's tattered heart?

Filled with mystery and romance, The Dancing Master brings to life the intriguing profession of those who taught essential social graces for ladies and gentlemen hoping to make a "good match" in Regency England.


My Review:

I’ve long been a fan of Julie Klassen, so I may be a little biased when I say THE DANCING MASTER is a must read. Not that her previous titles are wimpy by any stretch of the imagination, but this one is my all-time favorite thus far (and no, I don’t say that for every book she releases).

What’s so great about this one? The intrigue. I didn’t figure out the twisty-turny plot until towards the end. Every time I was sure that I had, the story would take another turn and prove me wrong. I love that! It’s a rare author, indeed, that can keep me guessing like that.

Hero Alec and heroine Julia are complex and definitely main character material, but the fella who really stole my heart was Johnny Desmond. While secondary in reference to Alec and Julia, he’s the one who will live on a long time in a reader’s heart after the book is shut.

There are many themes played out in the story, but the message of grace shines the most clearly—a truth that can never be taught enough. Don’t worry. You won’t get beat over the head with a Bible in this one, but all the same, your heart will take a bruising from the fresh realization of God’s great love portrayed in the story.

Do yourself a favor and cough up the cash for this one. You won’t be sorry!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top Non-Fiction Book of 2013

Traditionally here at Writer Off the Leash, I use the last few days of the year to highlight some of my favorite reads of the past year. That doesn't necessarily mean those books were published in 2013. It simply means that's when I read them.

Non-traditionally, I'm adding a non-fiction pick. Before you freak out because you know that I'd usually rather stab myself in the eyeballs with a crooked-tined fork, allow me a disclaimer...

It is true that I don’t like non-fiction. It makes me think too hard, like re-read the same sentence over at least four times to figure it out kind of hard.

However, The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer mixes profound with easy-to-understand. My copy is now dog-eared, highlighted, and has little sticky notes on just about every page. It’s so good, I bought several copies to give out as Christmas gifts.

All that being said, I think the best way to review Tozer is to just step back and give the man the stage. Here are a few of my favorite direct quotes from the book…

“We are often hindered from giving up our treasures to the Lord out of fear for their safety. This is especially true when those treasures are loved relatives and friends. But we need have no such fears. Our Lord came not to destroy but to save. Everything is safe which we commit to Him, and nothing is really safe which is not so committed.”

“In our desire after God, let us keep always in mind that God also has desire, and His desire is toward the sons of men, and more particularly toward those sons of men who will make the once-for-all decision to exalt Him over all.”

“God will not hold us responsible to understand the mysteries of election, pre-destination and the divine sovereignty. The best and safest way to deal with these truths is to raise our eyes to god and in deepest reverence say, “O Lord, Thou knowest.” Those things belong to the deep and mysterious profound of God’s omniscience. Prying into them may make theologians, but it will never make saints.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What's the Big Deal About Christmas?

Okay, so the wise men part is totally Hollywood, but give the whole thing a chance and see if your eyes don't water at least a little...even if you are a stoic Viking.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

What Do You Know?

It's the big show tomorrow. Christmas Day. Are you ready?
I'm not talking presents, or pickled herring, or planning a seating arrangement that won't beget a Maury Povich style knock-down drag-out yo-mama kind of fight between the relatives.
I'm talking about your heart. Where's it at in relationship to the Creator of the Universe? Because honestly, nothing else matters.

"Be still and know that I am God."
Psalm 46:10

Make it a priority to take some time out today and tomorrow to be still. Know Him. He's everything He says He is.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Gifts for Writers

Freedom
Free up the ol' schedule to give said writer some actual butt in chair time. Be creative. Offer to make a meal or do some yard work or something.

Encouragement
Rejections are like suffering repeated kidney punches. Simple validation via a note (how the writer's words have been important to you) is the gift that keeps giving because this is one present that won't get returned.

Shout Out
Post a review on Amazon or Goodreads for one of the author's books.

Natural Writer's Block Remedies
That'd be java and chocolate...preferably dark.

Create Space
When writer's block hits, sometimes the physical act of writing words on paper with a pen gets the juices flowing. Did you catch that? Journal. Pen. Yeah.

Piece of Quiet
Writers need to get away to a cozy place to write...even if that place is just a closet with a desk shoved into it. Candles are a good idea.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Annual Christmas Family Outing

It's that run around downtown and eat till you need to slip on your fat pants kind of event. You game?


Friday, December 20, 2013

Patience is a Virtue

How virtuous are you? Guess you'll find out as you wait for the Christmas edition of Fun Friday. The Griep clan will be off the leash in downtown Minneapolis tonight and I'll take you along. But that means I'll get home late with the footage and it will be tricksy to post the vlog before midnight.

I shall endeavor, however, to get that bad boy up here asap.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Tidbit: Facts


Writers don't always write what they know. If they did, it'd be a pretty short book. Not that writers are drooling idiots, mind you. It's just that so many details go into the making of a good story, that it's impossible to be that trivially intelligent. Yes, even I am not that smart.

How about you? I'll put into question form the facts I needed to find out to make my recent story believable. See how many you can answer.

What baseball team plays in Kansas City?
The Royals

What head gear would a SWAT officer wear?
This differs depending upon the situation, balancing protection with freedom of movement. For mine--a shooting in a cemetery--they went in with black masks to blend in with the darkness since it was at night. They also have a little microphone thingee to be able to talk with each team member. Interested? Find out more here.

What are those shoes called with the strap going over the top of the foot?
Mary Janes

Who is a Mexican Drug Cartel kingpin?
Wow. These guys are bad news. I probably shouldn't have Google imaged them before looking for actual information. Yeah. That decapitation scene is going to stick with me for a VERY long time. Anyway, there are a few of them, but I went with El Chapo, meaning shortie. Don't let the name fool you. This dude was the one responsible for that bloody carnage I viewed online.

Do azaleas bloom in Ocala, Florida at the end of May?
no...they usually bloom from February to early April

What was the last year Ford manufactured a Pinto?
1980

How do you say fern in French?
Fougère
Can aphids survive the Florida heat?
yes

What is the Canadian version of our DEA?
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (yes, the mounties), also known as the RCMP has an "E" Division that includes a drug enforcement branch.

Well, how did you do? Would you have had to look those tidbits up?


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Careful . . . Flying Bricks

“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.”
– David Brinkley

Amidst the Christmas greetings and coupons galore, guess what I received in my inbox yesterday. A rejection letter. Again. You'd think I'd be used to this crazed publishing merry-go-round and be well past the I-feel-like-throwing-up stage. Yeah. Not so much. 

Yes, I know the market is tighter than the Grinch's green tights right now. I understand that with the rise of self-publishing, the high-water mark of books for sale is way over the readers' heads. Every traditional publisher is playing it safe with big names and/or sweet Amish tales of a simpler life. It's dog eat dog out there in the cold, cruel book biz world. Scaring up a contract is next to impossible.

Which is why I'm seriously starting to think about self-publishing. All the cool kids are doing it. I'm keeping close tabs on two writerly buddies who have already belly-flopped into the deep end of the self-pubbing industry. 

So I'm thinking I need to branch out and actually read some more self-pubbed books to learn what to avoid and what works well. Anyone have any suggestions? I do. If you haven't yet read Heather Day Gilbert's GOD'S DAUGHTER, do yourself a favor and pick it up as an early Christmas gift for yourself.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fresh Out of Title Ideas?

Every author has a working title for their manuscript. When that manuscript is sold to a publisher, oftentimes the publisher will choose the title for the book...which may or may not be what the author originally called it. For instance, my latest release, A HEART DECEIVED, had the working title of FALLACY. 

So honestly, there's no need to obsess over choosing the "right" title for your Pulitzer Prize material. In fact, why not have a little fun with it? Here are 3 title generating sites that are a safer alternative to a playground on a snowy, cold day...unless you really like sticking your tongue to a frozen pole.

At this site, you're prompted to enter 10 different words, like nouns, adjectives, yada, yada. Then simply click on Title Me and voila. It generates 10 different titles using combinations of the words you chose. 

This generator is even simpler. You just click on Give Me Some Titles and bam. 6 titles instantly stare you in the face. Don't like any of them? Click away, little slugmuggins, as many times as you'd like.

You've got a few genre choices here. You can go totally random or pick from romance or science fiction.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Prayer Fodder

This year I read 2 dystopian books. Sheesh. That's a crappy first line, about as exciting as an essay on What I Did Last Summer. Don't panic. I promise this won't devolve into a junior high book report... I may, however, throw in a few llamas and/or rock badgers just to spice things up a bit.

Anyhoo, ANOMALY is the Christian version of DIVERGENT, and both are about heroines who don't fit the norm (hence the titles). So what? So that's me. The title of my auto-biography will be ATYPICAL.

I should have known this all along. I was the freak who made little plastic Star Trek models and hung them from my bedroom ceiling while listening to Alice Cooper, which are serious ingredients when mixing up a serial killer. Thankfully, I didn't go the axe-murdering route. I chose fiction, though some would argue there's not much difference.

Anyhoo, as I partook of a Jane Austen Society luncheon this weekend, sitting next to my buddy and famed author Julie Klassen (if you haven't read her books yet, go do it! no really...this post will still be here when you get back), listening to a speaker highlight aspects of the military in Pride and Prejudice, a thought suddenly hit me. The reason my books aren't flying off the shelves like llamas--besides perhaps my overuse of bad metaphors--is because my stories always involve picking up the rocks of humanity and looking at the wiggly underside of dark issues. Most readers don't like that.

I do.

But my great revelation is that just because I like to read about overcoming horrific circumstances doesn't mean everyone else has to. Putting out gritty books isn't going to sway the great populace. So, I'm at a writerly crossroads. Either I keep doing what I do with younger characters and target the young adult market, or I switch gears and lighten things up in my stories. Which way should I go? Tough call. And definitely fodder for prayer, because the real question is what does God want me to write?

Take a look at the kinds of books you're reading. What draws you to them? What are the stories that take root and grow in your mind even after you've read them?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tidbit: Pen Names


Samuel Clemens is Mark Twain.
Nora Roberts is J.D. Robb.
Agatha Christie is Mary Westmacott.
Michelle Griep is...drum roll, please...Michelle Griep.

But not for long.

I'm in the midst of choosing a pen name, and you get to help. I know, I hear you. Aren't pen names supposed to be top secret? Well, yes, but (and I've always got a big but) you, my faithful blog readers, already know that I'm crossing genre lines and am working on a contemporary mystery with a buddy. And--happy, happy--you've been super receptive and encouraging on my crazy novel writing journey, so I've decided to puff a little more air into my secret pen name bubble and include you in on the intrigue.

Before I let you help me choose a name, you may have a few questions, like why in the world would anyone use a fake persona?

To Hide
C.S. Lewis chose to first publish A Grief Observed under the name N.W. Clerk (the N.W. stands for 'nat whilk' which is Anglo Saxon shorthand for 'I know not whom'). He didn't want his loyal fans to struggle and/or be confused with his blatant anger toward God over the death of his wife. Interesting side note: some of his friends actually recommended the book to him to help him get over his loss. This title was not published under his real name during his lifetime.

To Discover
Stephen King was on a mission to discover if his writing was good or not. Did readers pick up his titles just because his name was on the cover, or did they really like his prose? He published 4 books under the name of Richard Bachman. They sold well, but the numbers weren't as high as a "Stephen King" novel. He ditched the persona after a bookstore clerk discovered the style similarities and outed him.

To Appeal
Some markets are fussy. J.K. Rowling's real first name is Joanna, but she was advised that to write for the children's market, initials were best received by buyers. No, I don't know why, and I didn't dig into the market research. Apparently she didn't either, because she went with the initials. Research or not, she rocketed to the top of the young adult mountain.

To Crossover
Agatha Christie equals mystery, not romance. Her faithful readers wouldn't be able to wrap their minds around such a drastic change. But love was in her veins, so she wrote 6 romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott.

Personally, I'm in the Agatha Christie campground, but flipped. I'm known for historical romance, but am running off the leash for awhile in the contemporary cozy mystery category. Hence, I need a name for this venture.

I brainstormed with my hubby over the weekend, and we came up with a few. Go ahead and play around with the choices, then write your favorite one in the comments section. I'll let you know which one wins in a future post.

First name possibilities: Ellie or Ella

Last names: Marks or Griffin or Vonn

There you have it. No pushing or shoving. Wear a helmet. And have fun!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to Annoy the Bejeebers Out of a Writer

What's that? You like to poke grizzly bears with long pointy sticks just to hear how loud the roar is? Well then you're really going to love this fun activity...

Top 3 Ways to Make a Writer Put on His Angry Eyes

#1. Read the first 3 pages of the author's book. Skim the rest. Figure out there's no mention of unicorns or vampires or anything even remotely Amish, nor is there one freakin' zombie in the mix. Flip to the back cover and discover that the story is really historical fiction set in Regency England. Hop on over to Amazon and Goodreads and give it a one star for no horned horses, blood suckers, bonnets, or walking dead.

#2. Send an email to the author of your choice and tell them that you'd like to be a writer, too. Mention that you actually don't live too far away from said author and could you meet for coffee? Better yet, could you just stop by for a face-to-face discussion about how to get your manuscript picked up by Harper Collins or Macmillan? Do not indicate that you care about the author or his work in any way. Oh yeah...and don't forget to ask if they could please recommend you to their agent.

#3. Ask what the author's latest book is about. Let your mouth hang open and your eyes glaze over as you listen. As soon as the writer finishes, no matter what their story is about, compare it to Fifty Shades of Grey and/or ask them how much money they make.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Punctuation Personalities

Which personality are you?

Period .
Never starts an argument but always finishes it.

Comma ,
Pauses often while speaking.

Em-dash --
Interrupts others with own thoughts.

Exclamation Mark !
Makes himself heard no matter what.

Question Mark ?
Asks uncomfortable questions.

Semi-colon ;
Loves bringing similar people together.

Elipses...
Often trails off on a tangent.

Colon :
Likes to introduce groups of people.

Quotation Marks " "
Tells you what everyone else says.

Parentheses (  )
Pulls you away from the conversation at hand.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Bookseer

You know that feeling you get when you've just read a fantastic book? It's a bittersweet dang-that-was-good combined with an I-want-to-read-another-just-like-it kind of feeling. But never fear...have I found a site for you!

Bookseer is just the place to visit. All you do is type in the title and author of the book you loved, and bam! It brings up a magical list of other books that are either just like it or is by the same author.

There you go. Problem solved. Next issue? World peace? Let me surf the net and I'll get back to you.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Messes

Is your house picture perfect? How about your life?


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Tidbit: Politics

If you ever notice that I'm lacking new posts, it probably means I've been picked up by the NSA. Not that I've done anything wrong, but my Google searches prove I'm either really an author or some kind of freakish anti-American war monger.

Case in point: this week I've been researching Mexican drug cartels. Whoa. Think of the worst Hollywood-type shoot-em-up blood-n-guts scene you can possibly imagine, then times that by ten. These boys are some kind of bad--the most evil, vicious kind.

Which makes me wonder about the ongoing "war on drugs." Don't get me wrong. I think drug use is--putting it mildly--a sin. It destroys bodies, families, souls, and society. But (and I've always got a big but) think what if for a moment...

What if drugs were legal? Bam. End of cartels. They'd be out of business. Just like Prohibition ended the booze gang-bangers.

Of course, that would open up a whole new can of worms. There are no easy answers, which is why I write fiction. I can play around with scenarios and no one gets hurt.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What's Up with the Dystopian Craze?

I started reading Divergent last week, mostly because I wanted to see what all the hype was about and because I wanted to finish the dang thing before the movie comes out...which I neglected to do in the case of The Hunger Games. Anyhoo, the first half kind of drags, but mid-way it really picks up and now I'm finally hooked, enough to to toodle over to Amazon and buy the next 2 in the series.

The story is rather bleak, which is a given being that it's a dystopian. Still, there's no denying this book is flying off the shelves and readers are clamoring for more. My question is why? What is the underlying appeal of reading end of the world type stories? After noodling that for awhile, I came up with some handy dandy reasons...

3 Reasons Why Dystopians Are In Demand

#1. Because as crappy as our world is, it can always get worse.
Immersing ourselves in a fictional environment that's even more horrific than our own makes a reader feel better about their own messed up life. Yeah. I know. Sick and twisted, but true...kind of like watching a train wreck.

#2. Because maybe--just maybe--society at large will wake up and stop the political/power-grabbing madness.
By reading about worst case scenarios, hopefully people will rise up and/or band together to prevent an all-out war from splitting society apart.

#3. Because the heroes in dystopians are HEROES.
Everyone loves to see an underdog win, especially an underdog who's up against impossible odds. There's nothing wimpy about the characters in dystopians. Those that are die. Dystopian heroes suffer more than regular heroes and generally still come out on top, making them admirably drool-worthy.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Writing: It's Not Just For Breakfast Any More

Let's roam outside the neighborhood of novel writing. Just because you don't write books does NOT mean you're not a writer. There are a bajillion other ways you can use your sweet writing skills to enhance other's lives that doesn't involve months and months of plotting and story arcing.

Need an example or two? Here's a little something I whipped up last night for my daughter's upcoming bridal shower:

Very short. Simple. Yet without the words (translation: writing) on this invitation, no one would know where to go or what to do.

Here's another idea: Christmas cards. Yep, it's that season again. Why not put together some words that are meaningful? Doesn't have to be long, in fact, it's better if it isn't.

Commenting on a post on Facebook counts as writing. So does tucking a note in your kid's lunchbox, your significant other's briefcase, or penning a letter to the editor.

The point is that there's nothing magical about being a writer, like they're some kind of unicornish animal. Everyone has a writer inside that's screaming to be let out. Let that muse run free in all kinds of crazy writerly ways, then share your writing successes here. I'll give you a palm-stinging high-five.

What? You're still here? Go write!

Monday, December 2, 2013

What Makes a Reader's Heart Smile?

Think about some of your favorite books. What's the one thing that's the same in all of them, no matter the genre? Go ahead. I'll give you a minute.

The answer is relationships. It's the human condition. The best kinds of reads are about strained relationships that end up happily ever after. And before you think you can stump me with something like Black Beauty, unh-unh. While the main character in Black Beauty is a horse, the story is about Beauty's relationships to people.

Why is that? Is it the ol' misery loves company kind of thing? Is it some sick and twisted need to peek through a window into someone else's life and compare notes on how crappy relationships can be?

I don't think so. Well, for most people, anyway. I think when readers see how characters go through trials and tribulations with those they love--even if they're fictional--it gives us hope for our own broken relationships.

Unless you live in a bubble, drama is part of life, and life is messy. When stories take those elements and shape them into something good, a reader's heart smiles.
 
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