New Trilogy Debut – Book One: Mark of Four

Any student of ancient history knows science in its earliest iteration posited that everything around us was made of earth, air, fire, and water. Scientific progress has shown us the elements now number more than one hundred, but what if (oh, that favorite prompt for a writer) in a future dystopia the manipulation of earth, air, fire, and water are so important the government sends adolescents to special schools to hone their skills?

A teen, or Elemental, usually exhibits a talent for one of the four elements but can be taught to manipulate them all, though not to the same degree as their primary element. It’s rare that a person can manipulate all four equally, so rare, in fact, the person who can do that is marked for death. There’s a hunt for a mysterious object (or person?) called the Vale, a bad guy who makes you believe Voldemort is back and worse than ever, and a young woman experiencing all the usual struggles with her parents but has them amplified because of her burgeoning ability with the elements.

That’s a quick and dirty outline of the very complex Mark of Four, book one of the Guardian of the Vale series by Tamara Shoemaker. Shoemaker puts every writer to shame. Earlier this year saw the debut of book one of a different series by her, Kindle the Flame, which has, wait for it, dragons. Really cool dragons. And this from a person (me) who previously thought Tolkein and Anne McCafferty were the be-all for dragon-writing.

MoF CoverMark of Four is a quick read, though unfulfilling in the sense that when you reach the end you’re left wanting more. For me, because I’m not a big YA reader, the amount of teenaged boyfriend angst was a bit much, but the writing is crisp, concise, and comely. The story flows smoothly, and Shoemaker delivers a helluva punch at the end. If you’re into urban dystopia with a good mixture of urban fantasy, this is a series you’ll want to start.

This is where I pull you aside for the disclaimer. Shoemaker is a friend from a local writers group, but I asked to review Mark of Four and do an interview with Shoemaker, and she provided me a free ARC. Also, I recently hired her to do a line-edit on a novella of mine, and, well, her maiden name is Duncan, so we’re probably many times removed cousins. But, frankly, I only do reviews for people I know are good writers. Otherwise, it’s awkward.

So, on with the interview.

Just Who is Tamara Shoemaker?


Tamara Shoemaker

Well, a writer, of course. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, three children, a few jars of Nutella, and a never-ending carafe of coffee. She authored the Amazon best-selling Shadows in the Nursery Christian mystery series and Soul Survivor, another Christian mystery. Her fantasy books include the beginning of the Heart of a Dragon trilogy: Kindle the Flame, as well as the upcoming Guardian of the Vale trilogy, of which, as I said, Mark of Four is the first book. (Oh, and it’s out today, by the way. Once you’re done reading here, shift on over to Amazon and buy it.)

The Interview!

MD: Earlier this year saw the release of Kindle the Flame, the first book in the Heart of a Dragon trilogy. Now, we have Mark of Four, book one of the Guardian of the Vale trilogy. What about the trilogy structure do you find appealing? How do trilogies fit your writing style?

TS: I love a good challenge, don’t you? Sure, it’s difficult to put a book together complete with character arcs and plot lines and no holes and no how-in-the-world-did-THAT-happen going on, but it’s a thousand times more challenging to extend that arc over three (or more) books. Each book has to have some sort of resolution or you’re going to have a very unhappy reader, and you still have to have enough unanswered questions to hook the reader into continuing to the next book.

I find it super hard to make all these elements flow together seamlessly, but the exhilaration that comes when I feel like I’ve completed it successfully is hard to beat—similar to the birth of my children. The high at the end qualifies the struggle.

Plus, I get so involved in my world-creation that I just can’t stop building the story. No one wants to say goodbye to a good friend. My characters live and move and breathe right next to me, day in and day out and through the nights for the entire writing process, so when it’s time to put the book down and declare it done, I miss them—they leave a hole in my life where they had lived so continually before. So I can’t confine them to only one book. Even keeping them within three books is pushing it.

I’m sure I’ll probably be one of those authors that has a million spin-off books about the same world as the main trilogy, mainly because I miss my characters so much.

MD: Mark of Four to me read dystopian, with elements of fantasy and sci-fi; Kindle the Flame is pure fantasy. What is the allure for you in writing both types of fiction? Which is “easier” or more seamless? Which genre makes you “stretch” as a writer?

TS: I’ve always been a fantasy reader. When I was a kid and making my way through C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and later, when I dove into Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I was laying a foundation for myself that absolutely cemented my love of the magic, the edges of reality, the worlds apart from ours. Who wouldn’t want to open their closet and step into a snow-filled winter wonderland?

The thing I love about writing fantasy, whether it’s dystopian or urban or pure fantasy is that the limits are non-existent! The only rule is that that the story must make sense within itself. Anything can happen as long as the world you’ve created accepts it. There are no do’s and don’t’s—Well, if you’re going to have a homicide scene, there’s got to be a medical examiner; oh, you don’t want to include a medical examiner? Well, then you’ll need to cut the scene… and on and on.

I keep looking at the differences between Kindle the Flame and Mark of Four. I wrote Mark of Four first, a couple of years ago, and Kindle the Flame, I wrote last November. I’ve had beta readers of both tell me that while Kindle the Flame was the better “technically-written” book, Mark of Four produced a better concept and connected with them more. It may have been just a matter of preference, I don’t know, but both of these writing styles challenged me dramatically. Kindle the Flame was my first foray into pure fantasy, and Mark of Four was my first into urban/dystopian. Either way, I grew as I built on the foundation I’d laid for myself as a writer and as I figured out how to build a world beyond the one in which we live.

MD: When writing on one series, have you ever gotten it confused with the other? Have you extensively outlined each series? For example, I find myself having to go back and refresh myself on the sequence of events or character appearance, etc., constantly in my series. How do you keep them straight? Do you have a mental technique for “checking out” of one series while you’re working on the other? Do you miss one set of characters while concentrating on the other set?

TS: I have to laugh. I’ve found, countless times, my ability to be working on a book, and suddenly stumble across a section where I drop my main character’s name in favor of another book that I had been recently working on. It never fails. When I was working on Mark of Four, I kept inserting “Rayna” instead of “Alayne.” (Rayna had been my main character in Pretty Little Maids.) When I was working on Kindle the Flame, “Alayne” from Mark of Four kept cropping up in place of “Kinna.” Before I complete any manuscript, I have to do a search for out-of-place names to make sure they don’t make it onto the final pages.

That said, I don’t really have a tried-and-true method to check me out of one series and into another. Often, I will spend the first fifteen minutes of my writing time reading back over the chapter on which I’ve been working to get me back into the mind-set, but often that elusive “I’ve arrived” point where the words just flow from my fingertips doesn’t come until I’ve been writing at least an hour. And in my life, at this point, an hour of consecutive writing time is hard to come by. For months, I feel like I’ve written piece-meal. I don’t care for it, but I do what I can until I can figure out how to get life to calm down a little.

Not that it’s going to. My three children ensure that. However, if I can get these fantasy trilogies down and published, I’ve decided to only do one project at a time after that. This coming out with two fantasy trilogies simultaneously is equivalent to birthing two sets of triplets at the same time. It’s… terrifying. 🙂

MD: Which writers are your fantasy influencers? Dystopian influencers?

TS: I fell in love with The Hunger Games trilogy, and I really enjoyed Divergent, though I didn’t like the second two in that particular trilogy. A lot of the elements in Mark of Four were inspired by some of what I enjoyed in those books. Primarily, though, Harry Potter has been my main inspiration in any fantasy I write. There was something so fascinating and epic about the interwoven, complicated back-story of Harry’s past. Tolkien will always be an inspiration to me; the world-building in his trilogy has forever fastened itself into my imagination, and grappling hooks couldn’t remove it. So, here’s to you, Tolkien, Collins, Rowling, and Roth.

MD: In both series but in Mark of Four in particular, you have characters making the transition from the YA age group to the New Adult age group. What about this age and the transition appeals to you? What, if any, are the drawbacks to writing that age group?

TS: There’s something about stepping into a new stage of life as a fresh-faced innocent that really appeals to me. High school into college is a huge deal; you’re essentially putting your eggs into the world’s basket and jumping off the cliff hoping for a perfect omelet at the bottom. The Guardian of the Vale trilogy spreads a little over two years, so by the time it closes at the end of book three, Alayne is nineteen, and in the two years of the story has lived a lifetime. I love the journey and the discovery of maturity–from the fresh-faced to the wisdom of experience. It’s riveting.

If there is a drawback to writing YA, I’ve felt, at times, that it would be so much easier if Alayne could just settle down a little, use a head that has had thirty years of experience thinking through things, but that’s not who she is. So she pulls me into her seventeen-year-old mind, and I get to relive the ups and downs and angst and flip-flops of that period of my life all over again.

But it makes it more real to the reader. It would be hard to connect to a seventeen-year-old who carried the wisdom of an elder. There’s something about the silly, shallow, sometimes flighty roller-coaster of it that connects to my past (and even occasionally, my present, but don’t tell anyone). 🙂

MD: In your words, what about your work makes it appealing to those of us much older than the age group you write about?

TS: One of the things I love about the reviews I’ve gotten on Kindle the Flame thus far and the advance reviews on Mark of Four are the ones that say, “I don’t normally read fantasy, but I loved this one.” Something in my work appealed to these people that didn’t particularly seek out this genre or the age group that is the target audience. I like to think there are themes that resound with all of us, young, old, and in between—the confidence that comes when you figure out who you really are, the importance of things like family and friendship and loyalty and love. When those themes are in my books, even when they’re being experienced by a teenager, older and younger will still connect with those themes, because they’re an experience of life, throughout life.

MD: Mark of Four, for me, had elements of both the Divergent series and Harry Potter. Was that a deliberate homage or a happy accident?

TS: Haha, you got me! When I wrote the book, I had only recently read Divergent, and of course, I’m a life-long (or at least years-long) fan of Harry Potter. After I read Harry Potter, I thought, whimsically, if I were to ever write a book, I’d want to put a school in it. Hogwarts, to me, was the fascinating place that was the center of Harry’s story, and I wanted to create a school that would be the central crux of whatever story I was going to tell.

Of course, my story went far wide of Hogwarts, and took on a new shape as I explored the possibilities of what it would be like to have “Elementals” control one of the four elements (air, fire, earth, water), and a school that would train these fledgeling teens how to perfect their craft. It was loads of fun to come up with class names (Points of Motion-Stop, Water-Currents, Throw-Casting, etc.) and the settings for them.

MD: Without giving too much away, what is the take-away message from Mark of Four and the Guardian of the Vale series?

TS: When Alayne enters the story at the beginning of Mark of Four, she’s a clueless seventeen-year-old who has a strained relationship with her mother and is struggling with identity. Who is she and why is she who she is? By the end of book three of Guardian of the Vale, confidence has bloomed within her. She knows who she is and her purpose for being there. She’s met her fears head-on and has conquered them.

To me, that’s one of my favorite parts of her character arc; it’s inspiring. It inspires me to be confident in who I am, and I hope, at the end of the day, that Alayne can be an inspiration for her readers.


Shoemaker’s characters and her writing are inspiring, as is her work ethic and how she juggles her writing with a growing family. She is a writer worth getting to know.

Follow her on social media:

Twitter: @TamaraShoemaker

Interview–Debut Romance Author Margaret Locke

MLHeader2Debut romance author Margaret Locke has a great novel out, A Man of Character. I’ve reviewed it, and you can click here to read the review or click on the “Book Review” tab above and select it from the drop-down menu. Below is a refreshing interview I conducted with Ms. Locke. Authors of any experience level can relate to her experience–and her joy at seeing her first novel in print.

PD: You’ve spoken in other interviews about your agent-querying marathon, so we won’t go into that here, but what was most appealing, artistically, about indie publishing for you?

LOCKE: I did want that brass ring, you’re right. I wanted it desperately, as “proof” I was good enough. But I realized the brass ring came with encumbrances that seemed more detrimental than beneficial, especially after I listened to other authors share their experiences. The idea of not controlling my publishing schedule, of not having final say over edits, over cover art, over the title of my book—I couldn’t imagine it. Many traditionally published authors also told me they have to do nearly all their own publicity. Not as much control, smaller royalties, and still having to do all the promo? Indie publishing suddenly sounded much more appealing.

I’m so happy I chose this path. I admit, I felt I’d failed, at first, in not securing an agent, and that publishing on my own was somehow lesser. I’ve come around on that idea 180 degrees. Now I relish being completely in charge of my own career—for better or worse—and the creative freedom that comes with that. If I want to write a series in which the first book is a light paranormal romantic comedy, the second a time-travel romance, the third a straight Regency tale, I can. And, uh, I have. It’s a joy to have such freedom.

PD: Regency is a popular setting for romance writers. What’s your strategy for making yours stand apart in a crowd? And, without using the words, “Fitzwilliam Darcy,” what appeals to you about that era as a setting?

LOCKE: Oh, gosh. I have to have a strategy? I do hope my sense of humor brands my books as mine. I’m also partial to quirky, flawed characters. But those things don’t mark me as special; most authors incorporate those these days. Most authors also write series in which characters are interlinked, so I’m not treading new ground there. However, I plan to take familiar tropes and spice them up a bit, do a few unexpected things, have fun with the genre and its expected conventions.

As for what appeals about the Regency—I wish I had an answer. I think that era is a period in time that feels at once familiar and distant. Familiar, because it’s not all that long ago, relatively speaking. Many people, I’m guessing, can more readily envision Regency England than, perhaps, ancient Greece or medieval Germany. And distant, because social structures and social mores have shifted over the last two hundred years. With the Regency, we get a society we can understand fairly easily, overlaid with the whole fantasy element, that romantic idea of Once Upon A Time, especially since the Regency period is known for its grand balls and dukes and barons—all elements familiar to most modern folk from fairy tales we heard growing up.

PD: Describe your writing process. What do you keep around you for inspiration?

LOCKE: My writing process is erratic and not what it needs to be. Random thoughts, plot points, character ideas, snippets of dialogue, hit me at the most inopportune times (just before drifting off to sleep, while out running errands), and I’m frustrated that I don’t capture more of those thoughts (although I am finally using the iPhone’s voice memo option!).

I wish I had a more structured schedule to which I adhered. I always plan on that, but life (and social media) get in the way. However, I’ve long known I work best in the morning, and I work best when I can have a two-hour (or more) time period in which I know I won’t be interrupted. When that happens, I can ensconce myself in the Writing Cave and write—sometimes with inspiring instrumental music playing in the background, other times in silence. When I’m in the zone, I don’t need anything around me for inspiration, because I’m so lost in my own alternate reality that I don’t notice my real life, anyway.

PD: You’ve indicated A MAN OF CHARACTER is book one in a series of five (or six?) What are your plans beyond that, or is that thinking too far ahead?

LOCKE: I don’t know exactly how many books will be in the Matters of Love series. I suppose I should nail that down, but every time I decide I’ve thought of all the characters and stories I want to include in that series, something else pops up, and I think, “Oh yeah, I could write a story about that!” I do have eight potential books loosely sketched out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if secondary characters from those novels demand their own stories. After that, we’ll see. I recently discovered some ideas I’d written down years ago, when I was in my 20s, and a few aren’t half-bad. Then there’s a whole flip-the-fairy-tales-on-their-heads set of ideas that I’ve loosely planned out. I could be writing for a very long time.

PD: What would you say to someone who doesn’t normally read romance to get them to try A Man of Character?

LOCKE: I’ll bake you cookies. I’ll massage your feet. I’ll clean your house for month. No, just kidding. (You wouldn’t want me as your housekeeper, anyway, given the state of my own house.)

I do claim AMOC is not a typical romance, and yet I don’t want people to think I’m trying to distance myself from the genre. Exactly the opposite. I love romance and would love to encourage people to give a well-written romance novel a shot. They’re so much more than the stereotypes. Is a relationship at the center of a romance? Sure. Is the Happily Ever After a requirement? Absolutely.

But romances are no more formulaic than any other genre fiction. (Can’t write a mystery without solving it, right?) Romances tell women’s stories (or gay/lesbian/transgender stories—there are subgenres for everyone). The hero is crucial, of course. You can’t have a decent romance without an enticing (albeit flawed) hero.

But it’s the heroine with whom we as readers most closely identify, I would argue. It’s she we want to see overcome a variety of obstacles, she we want to achieve self-satisfaction—within and outside of the central relationship. Romance (most of it, at least) provides that. Much romance is much more feminist than most people realize: a story in which the woman’s journey is central? In which her emotional and sexual satisfaction are legitimate, worthy, and expected goals? Yes, please.

I don’t know if that answers the question, so I asked my husband what he would say. (He read the whole book in one day.) His answer? “Tell them they might just enjoy the story and might learn that some of the things they thought about romance were wrong.”

Yup. What he said.

PD: What are some words of encouragement to would-be authors out there, in any genre?

If you want to write, write. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study the craft and learn the ins and outs of your intended genre. You should—if you plan to put your work out for public consumption, at least. But don’t let the Eeyores drag you down. Keep writing. Keep reading. Join a critique group. Find some beta readers. Go to conferences. Get to know authors on social media.

OK, well, those are all the things I did. I don’t know if they work for everyone else. I think the biggest thing is, write if you want to. It might take a while to find the right writing community for you, but keep seeking one out. Sabrina Jeffries told me, “Don’t write in a vacuum.” I 100% agree. Find your groove, and find your group, and don’t give up.

PD: Describe your book launch day, i.e., for those who’ve never experienced it; the emotions, good and bad. Was it everything you expected and hoped for? What will you do differently next time?

It was amazing and surreal, exhilarating and exhausting. There had been some build-up: the first time I saw my book’s listing on Amazon, the first time I held a copy in my hands. (Yes, I shrieked and hopped up and down both times.) But to know on launch day that my baby (warts and all) was out there for all to see—and potentially criticize—was terrifying and elating, at the same time.

If I had to do it all again, I would’ve done more promo prep before launch day. I probably should have contacted book bloggers. I could have created more visual memes. I might have had all the potential excerpts and quotes and promo posts already drafted. I didn’t. But I had fun anyway. And I’m doing some of those now, hoping that “better late than never” still applies.

Confession: I also don’t want to be strung out on chocolate on my next release day. It was such a whirlwind week, I’m not surprised I fell face-first back into the sugar. By actual release day, I was a mix of exhausted and over-sugarfied. Not really a good combo, on Launch Day or otherwise.

PD: You’re barely taking a break, in that your next book in the series comes out in the fall. Give a brief sketch of what it’s about, and dare we hope it involves Eliza and her duke?

LOCKE: The only reason the “break” is so short is that I have the second book already written. (Thank you, NaNoWriMo 2014!) It needs heavy editing, but the basic parts are there, so I think (I hope!) my late fall deadline is workable. And yes, it most definitely involves Eliza and her duke. In it, I introduce you to the Mattersley family—the family around which all my original story ideas were based, before Cat leapt into the picture. I hope y’all have fun reading about Eliza’s struggles to come to grips with what it actually means to live in a different era and to deal with a man who doesn’t necessarily agree that he’s her soulmate.

PD: In your “Acknowledgements” section, you included your writers group, Shenandoah Valley Writers. How are writers groups important, in general, and, specifically, how did yours help you?

LOCKE: How did it not? To be a part of a writing community, to put myself out there and call myself a writer, was one of the greatest feelings ever. I was doing this. And I was doing it publicly! To hear about others’ struggles, successes, strategies, systems…all have helped me grow in my own process. I’ve met amazing people and developed incredible friendships. We’ve gotten together in person. We’ve cheered each other on, helped each other up, told the world about each other.

In fact, it’s hard to remember life without all these writer people in it, and yet that was the case just, what, two years ago? Three at most. Surrounding myself with people who love what I love is amazing! (Even if it bores all my other friends to hear me talking writing all the time. Sorry, guys. I’m trying to find balance.) So thank you, Maggie. Thank you, Rebekah, Annika, Tamara, Foy, Taryn, Allison, Sydney, Morgan, Lindsey, Josette, Christy, Sara, and Audrey. (Eek! I’m sure I’ve forgotten people!) Thank you to the Flash Friday community. Thank you to the writer friends I’ve met online. Y’all are amazing. And you brought me to this place. I’m sure that if I were going this alone, I would not be published.

The first time I joined a critique group, I was terrified. The first time I put myself in the hot seat and let people critique my work, I thought I was going to throw up. And yet I could see how valuable it was to get multiple sets of eyes on my work, to hear from them what worked and what didn’t, whether or not I was on the right track, etc. So find a writing group, find beta readers, but also find a critique group. It might take a few tries to find a group of people with whom you click, with whom you feel safe, a group that has the same approach when it comes to critiquing (I value positive, uplifting interactions, even when giving suggestions for improvement). But it’s worth it.

PD: Finally, what would you like to say–anything at all–on becoming a published author?

It’s surreal and exciting and…surprisingly not all that different from my life before I was a published author. Am I part of the club yet? It doesn’t feel like it. I still wrestle with self-doubt, still wonder if I’m good enough, still fret over whether I’m doing it right (whatever it is: writing, editing, promo). Sadly, I haven’t made a bazillion dollars. I still have laundry to do and meals to cook. My kids still squabble. I still have to grocery shop and serve as Taxi Mom and deal with my own character faults.

Rats. I was kind of hoping once I was published, I’d hit glamour status. Nope. Now I’ve got the pressure to write the next book, and the fear it won’t be as good as the first.

I guess that’s all normal.

But what do I also have? The unbelievable, nearly indescribable feeling of accomplishment. I said for years I was going to write romance. I finally did. I really did it.

You visit Ms. Locke’s blog and sign up for her newsletter by clicking here. You can purchase A Man of Character on

Deciding Not to Review

Because I’ve given the author of a book I was supposed to review the option of my not reviewing it, I won’t be mentioning the book or the author in this post.

I’ve always been a bit quixotic–I voted for George McGovern in 1972, after all. Lately, I feel as if I’m single-handedly tilting at the windmill of “not self-publishing before you proofread.” I don’t want to be like some writers and disdain other writers who have “indie published,” or self-published, if you will. If a writer comes to the decision that self-publishing is for him or her, I respect that decision, and I try not to be judgemental about it. My collection of short stories, Rarely Well-Behaved, technically, was self-published. I won the contract in a short story contest, so I like to think that the merit of the story got the contract. Even up against a submission deadline, I read each story over and over, trying to make the manuscript as perfect as possible. Of course, after the book came out, I found typos.

In a post earlier this month–“Put That First Draft Aside“–I wrote about what I think is the major pitfall of self-publishing, that you can write something and publish it almost immediately. Some indie writers want to skip the editor for fear that will change their work too much. The least you could do, then, as an indie author is not skip the proofreading. If you do it yourself, you have to put the work aside so it’s not so fresh you don’t spot obvious errors. The best proofreading is done by someone who has never seen the work before.

The book I was to review, requested by the author as a result of a guest blog-post I did, is a perfect example of lack of proofreading. The mistakes are all what I call elementary school grammar goofs, i.e., they are diversions from basic, not advanced, grammatical norms. Enclosing dialogue in quotation marks, comma usage, and subject-verb agreement are examples. In the first two paragraphs of this book, I found eleven punctuation, grammar, and usage errors, including using the word “hallow” when it was supposed to be “hollow.” Throughout the work, quotation marks are missing, as are dialogue tags, commas, and contractions, among others. When I read a sentence about a bodily function that was anatomically impossible, I gave up and e-mailed the author to explain why I couldn’t finish the book and didn’t want to review it.

Sounds like a cop-out, I know, but I was pretty frank, and detailed, in the e-mail; merely, I didn’t want to blast the book in a review, which, as an honest reviewer, I would have had to do. I could have done that, and the author would have received a nasty surprise. I’d rather explain, privately, why I couldn’t do the review, and treat the book as if I’d never read it.

All of which is a shame, because I could see glimmers of a thoughtful story. It’s too bad the barbed wire tangle of basic, grammatical goofs hid it.

Indie authors, I cannot say this enough: You can’t do a brain dump and immediately slap it up on Amazon or Smashwords and call yourself a professional writer. Writing is writing and rewriting and revising and rewriting and proofreading, then rewriting and revising all over again. Tedious, yes. Instant gratification, no, but with writing, that’s a good thing.

Book Review – WEIMAR VIBES

In his novel Weimar Vibes (228 pp, $0.99 from Amazon) Phil Rowan has written a topical story about a frightening near-future that we, here across the Pond, see reflected in the campaign slogans of politicians who have misappropriated the term “Tea Party.” In the England of Weimar Vibes, rising unemployment and falling economies turn many people away from the usual political parties toward someone who can restore order, address moral failings, and make Britain great again. Sound familiar? It should. Rowan, who knows his history, reflects Weimar Germany in his title on purpose.
Into this power gap comes a neo-Nazi named Oskar Kerner, who exploits peoples’ fears and innate biases. Again, sound familiar? His followers call him “Der Fuhrer,” and instead of being repulsed by his skinhead acolytes, the average Briton begins to think order of any kind may be acceptable.
Kerner’s following in the U.K. piques the interest of the Home Office, who seek some way to discredit him. To do this, they recruit, improbably, a near-alcoholic, down-on-his-luck journalist named Rudi Flynn.
Drink and a failed marriage (his ex-wife is in a mental institution in Alabama) have wrecked Flynn’s career, and the only place he can find employment is on a Murdoch-like tabloid. The Home Office convince him to pretend to espouse Kerner’s beliefs (Flynn and Kerner were college classmates), get into Kerner’s organization, then discredit him. This is the stuff of many an espionage novel, and, since that’s what I write, I was eager to read Weimar Vibes.
However, rather than using Flynn to discredit Kerner, the Home Office people decide Flynn can be a more moderate alternative to Kerner. They begin to dictate his articles, script his appearances on talk shows, write his speeches, and develop his PowerPoint presentations. What doesn’t come across well is why Flynn, who has liberal leanings, agrees to act the part of a reactionary. None of the typical counterintelligence reasons are there—money, blackmail, a cleared criminal record, family held hostage, etc. The only possible reason is that Flynn’s motivation is patriotic, but Flynn’s behavior doesn’t convince me of that.
As a result of the Home Office’s manipulation of him, misadventure follows Flynn everywhere. His house gets fire-bombed. He’s blown-up, but survives, during an appearance on British TV where a trio of lefties do nothing but call him a Nazi. Indeed, the extreme right wingers come across in Weimar Vibes as having more depth than the leftists, who, in Rowan’s tale, are no more than name-calling, establishment toadies.
Flynn also elicits the worst from women—they either seduce him or attack him, sometimes both, which makes the women characters in this story shallow. It seems Flynn believes women universally use false rape charges against men they disagree with. Flynn fears this from almost every woman of opposing views he encounters, and the one woman who articulates the false charge, he did assault, though not sexually, by shoving her head in a toilet. Yet, somehow, we’re supposed to believe her actions were worse than Flynn’s.
Though he claims to still love his mental-case ex, Flynn is in love with a friend’s wife. That doesn’t stop him from having anger sex with a house guest or fantasizing about then sleeping with his Home Office handler. When Flynn finally consummates his lust for his friend’s wife, the language is that of an adolescent male: “I’m on the carpet and Julia’s smiling down at me. [sic] Her glorious breasts descend like archangels from paradise.” Yeah, had to read that a couple of times to make sure that’s what it said.
Up to the point of Flynn’s recruitment and infiltration of Kerner’s inner circle, I found this a mis-punctuated but believable story. Then, all of a sudden, Flynn is in demand, advising Prime Ministers and Presidents. That was too much of a leap. Then, there were a couple of other things that didn’t sit well with me.
For example, Flynn’s therapist is named McVeigh. An American audience won’t be able to accept a therapist whose name is the same as the worst American domestic terrorist in history. I flinched every time I read the name. Also, after the bomb attack at the British TV studio, Flynn is guarded by a “cop with an AK-47.” I wondered about that choice of weapon by the British police, so I Googled “weapons used by the British police.” They prefer H&K carbines and automatic rifles (as do many American and European police forces). All right, I’ll concede, perhaps, Home Office had hired a “security consultant” whose weapon of choice was an AK-47 or Flynn didn’t know a Kalashnikov from a Heckler and Koch. But still.
Rowan wrote Weimar Vibes in first person present, which I find hard to sustain (as a writer or reader) through a novel-length work. Rowan mixes his tenses on occasion, and Flynn’s point of view sometimes becomes too omniscient—especially where women’s lustful thoughts about him are concerned. Also, at times you just can’t tell whether Flynn is thinking or speaking, since Rowan frequently misses an open or close quote.
I eventually got over the missing Oxford commas (aka Harvard commas, aka serial commas) in Weimar Vibesbecause Rowan is British. Oddly enough, the Oxford comma isn’t standard usage in the U.K. However, a comma before the “and” connecting two, independent clauses is. Mr. Rowan leaves that out, also, as he does the periods after Mr. and Mrs. or quotation marks on numerous occasions. Then, there were the single ‘quotes’ instead of the proper double “quotes” around dialogue. For a former editor, such things detract from the appreciation of the story.
All of which is too bad, because Weimar Vibes is, as I said, a story that can serve as a warning to those who think the extreme right wing anywhere has a point. An editor or, at the least, a copyeditor would have made this good story a great one. Rowan’s writing is very visual, and he can incorporate or extrapolate both history and current events into his story seamlessly. His just-in-the-future Britain was spot-on reminiscent of Weimar Germany, and the parallel continues throughout the novel to the very end.
Yet, as England is crumbling around him, Flynn has dinner with his lover Julia, and they talk about whether to go to the Caribbean or India. I wanted to like Rudi Flynn, but, after a while, I couldn’t sympathize with him. Whether it was his narrow-minded view of women or his inability to stand up to his capricious Home Office handlers, I don’t know. I felt he—and Rowan—had something important to say, but I grew tired of supplying the proper punctuation in my head.
Some indie authors think a good story will shine through bad grammar or lack of proper punctuation, but that’s a pipe dream. Even if you’re not a former editor, a reader wants a packaged story—both well-written andaesthetically pleasing. If indie authors want to have their work appreciated by a mainstream audience, then that work has to be in a state where the audience can’t tell whether it was indie or traditionally published.
So, if lack of punctuation or “loosing their jobs” doesn’t bother you (but I hope they do), you’ll probably findWeimar Vibes a less frustrating read than I did.

Interview with an Indie Author – Jennie Coughlin

To coincide with my review of Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter by Indie author Jennie Coughlin, which appears in the December 2011 issue of eFiction Magazine, I interviewed Ms. Coughlin about her works, in print and in progress. To get a better understanding of the interview you might want to read the review. Better yet, buy the book. (Thrown Out is available to download at and Smashwords and as a paperback, also from Amazon.)

DuncanIn a way you haven’t used in other interviews, tell me how the concept of Thrown Out came about.
CoughlinThrown Out started as some writing exercises to dig more deeply into the characters and help my editor get a better sense of them. I was posting the exercises on my blog, and, based on the feedback, we decided to go ahead with the collection while I was working on the novels. Once I had “Bones” and “Thrown Out,” the first two stories in the collection, we decided to take another look at the character Joe and his family, which led to “End Run.” Since at this point, the collection had themed itself as an introduction to the characters, Becca and Riordan were the logical choice for the final story. Although at least one of them had appeared in each of the other three stories, neither really was the focus of any of them. Thus, “Intricate Dance” was born.
DuncanThe title story, “Thrown Out,” touches on a timely issue, gay rights, one of which is to be able to live your life without fear. I confess when I saw the title, I was certain the ending wouldn’t be a happy one, but I was glad to be wrong. The fictional town of Exeter seems remarkably progressive in this area. Was that a conscious decision, or did Exeter “reveal” its nature to you in the writing?
CoughlinInteresting take on it, and I think there are a couple of pieces to that answer. First, the title story “Thrown Out” is set in 2001, after Vermont had approved civil unions and shortly after the court case was filed that would lead to gay marriage in Massachusetts. So in that time and that place, it’s certainly a more open climate than in many other states then or now. But really, a theme that came out as I was writing “Thrown Out” was that we accept things in people we know that we might not in people we don’t know.
That cuts both ways — the Exeter residents know Dan as a friend, a neighbor, the star running back on the high school football team, the guy who fixed their front steps, Kevin and Eileen’s son. He happens to be gay. Likewise, Joe is the local insurance agent, the kid who rang up their bread and milk at his dad’s store, somebody active on the Parish Council, a member of the Rotary Club, dad to their kids’ friends. He happens to be homophobic. You can’t exclude either one of them without big ripple effects. And if you already know somebody, already have them in your life, you’re likely to be more accepting of something than if you’ve just met the person. In “Thrown Out,” Dan’s partner Chris has a much different reaction to Joe than Dan, Evan, and Liz, who grew up with him. Likewise, Chris gets a measure of acceptance from the town just because he’s with Dan.
DuncanAs an Irish-American, I can “see” your characters so vividly. I suspect some people without the cultural background might not “get it.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Coughlin: Well, I’ve heard the same thing from readers who aren’t Irish-American, so I’m going to generally disagree. I suspect some things might not resonate as much, but that’s also true of the Catholic elements and the New England elements. The character Chris, who’s not from Exeter, serves as the bridge for readers who aren’t familiar with some regional terms, such as jimmies (chocolate sprinkles on ice cream), but there probably are pieces that are less accessible or read differently to people who don’t have some element of those backgrounds.
DuncanYou also touch on a taboo subject among Irish-Americans—the Irish Mob. Why was that important to you? I mean, Irish-Americans will talk easily about the IRA but not the Irish Mob.
Coughlin: I grew up in a town that was heavily settled by Italians, and I’ve heard stories all my life about Mafia ties in the town. The first newspaper where I worked even had a two-inch-thick file on the former police chief, later a Town Council member, who was jailed for perjury when he alibied a mobster back in the 1960s. The Irish mob was further afield, but Whitey Bulger fled when I was in high school, and periodically I’d get stories from home of FBI agents going around questioning people trying to find him. The story that touches on the Irish Mob, “Bones,” I drafted the week after the FBI caught Whitey in Santa Monica earlier this year, so that’s probably why my plot bunnies headed that direction.
DuncanYou went the Indie route for publication, but you used some traditional publishing aspects, e.g., an editor whose input you considered and incorporated. Do you think Indie publishing is at the point where it needs standards? Or would that miss the point of Indie publishing?
Coughlin: I’ve been pretty outspoken about the need for Indie authors to make sure their work is up to traditional publishing standards. I think the opportunities Indie publishing present are amazing, but it’s not a path without pitfalls. If we put out work that’s substandard, it hurts both the overall Indie reputation and the reputation of that author. Once we publish something, we can’t take it back. For those authors who do good work that the publishing industry just deems unsalable, Indie publishing gives a chance to prove that wrong. For those authors who see it as a shortcut to honing their craft, Indie publishing gives us lots of chances to torpedo our career.
That said, I don’t think there’s a way for the Indie community to set and enforce standards. Any mechanism like that becomes a new form of traditional publishing, which some people are doing in new types of small presses.

I do think that for Indie publishing to become a long-term, viable part of the publishing ecosystem, something will have to arise through book bloggers and review sites to provide readers with a place they can go and trust that the books recommended there will, in fact, be quality publications. Not all will be something any given person would want to read, but all meet the standards of good writing and good storytelling.

DuncanYou’ve said writing a short story is the opposite of writing a news story. What’s the journalistic opposite of writing a novel, which you’re now doing?
Coughlin: I don’t know that it’s the form so much as fiction vs. journalism. Whether it’s a short story or a novel, the process I go through is basically the same. That’s what, for me, is reversed from my reporting days. Because I’m not a visual thinker, when I covered events where the scene was integral to the story, I would record lots of details while I was there to help myself re-create it back at the office—this was in the days before mobile reporting was common. All those details painted a picture for me that went beyond what people were saying.
Now, when I sit down to write, I know what the final picture is, and then figure out what it is the readers would need to see to draw that same conclusion. Some scenes flow easily, and it’s an unconscious effort on my part. Others I really have to slow it down to step by step interactions for it to feel real to me.
DuncanThumbnail the Exeter novels for us and give us an idea of how long we need to wait for each installment.
Coughlin: I have at least six in mind, but I’ve been finding that the original first novel keeps getting pushed back—it’s now on track to be novel four of six—because earlier stories bubble up as I dig into the characters. So I’ll give you the first four, but I do plan to do others after those four are done, and others might join the mix as I go.
All That Is Necessary is the novel I’m revising right now, with a plan to release it in late March. While it starts and ends in present time, the bulk of the story starts right before Dan and Evan find the bodies in the marsh as kids [The story “Bones” in Thrown Out.] and goes through the fallout from that, which changes many of the characters in the town. Dan has to stand up to a lot of adults when almost everybody else around him is afraid to rock the boat.
The second novel, as yet untitled, follows from that story. Liz’s nemesis returned in All That Is Necessary, and that causes a lot of problems for her and those around her.
Fate’s Arrow pulls back from Exeter a bit to focus on Ellie, who’s still living in DC. After her annual holiday visit to Becca, she realizes her life has some holes and must figure out how to plug them.
Better The Devil continues some developments from Fate’s Arrow and puts Dan, Liz, and Ellie together for a big project that could alter Exeter’s future forever—if they can figure out who wants to stop them and why.
I have two others beyond that, but last week at the first book club discussion on Thrown Out, several of the members wanted to know what happens with Joe, Annabelle, and their family in more detail, so that’s now higher on my radar than it had been before.
I’d like to release a new novel every six months, but since I have a full-time job as well as a part-time one, some of it depends on those not going too nuts, as well as on my editor’s other commitments. There also will be periodic short stories. Some of the small ones will be posted on my blog, either as Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge entries or just as flash fiction like last week’s “Now What?” Thanksgiving short. Longer ones probably will be released as 99-cent eBooks, and I’m not ruling out future short-story collections.
DuncanDo you see Exeter and its wealth of characters as a story well that is unending? Or do you have plans for non-Exeter stories or novels?
Coughlin: Yes. The beauty of the small town setting is you have a limitless cast of characters and developments with those characters. In present day, I have characters who range from middle school age into their early seventies, so the multiple generations allow me to move forward and backward in time to tell all sorts of stories.
I might branch out from Exeter at some point, but right now I have more stories than I have time to tell in that world.
DuncanWhat’s your advice for people who opt for Indie publishing, i.e., how to go about it as a professional writer, how to deal with flak from fellow writers who don’t see Indie publishing as a viable option?
Coughlin: The biggest advice I can give is to get a good developmental editor who can provide feedback. If you can’t find one, a good critique group also can be invaluable, as well as beta readers. But an editor is the best of the available options if you can find a good one. Also, honestly evaluate your skill set and available time. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of design, graphics, copy editing, web design/HTML, social media, and formatting experience from my journalism background. With all that, plus a group of beta readers, I’m able to produce a quality product.

If you don’t have skills in a particular area, be prepared to hire somebody to handle various elements of each project for you. And if you do have the skills, be prepared to spend the time. In the six months since I started production on Thrown Out (three pre-release, three post-release), probably fifty to sixty percent of my time has been spent on non-writing elements, and that’s including most of the revisions on Thrown Out and all the writing to date on All That Is Necessary.

As for the current debates about the validity of indies, both online and from fellow writers you may know in person, my best advice is to think through why you’re taking this path before you choose it. My two main reasons were the chaos in the publishing industry right now and a concern that my series doesn’t fit neatly enough in a single genre/category to convince a publishing house’s marketing department that it’s salable.
The industry chaos is something I’ve been fairly outspoken on, especially in its parallel to newspapers’ struggles in the past decade. Publishers aren’t learning any lessons from what newspapers went through, and I prefer to stay out of the arena while they’re figuring all of this out the hard way. The salability is something I would disagree with the marketing folks on. By going Indie, I’m betting my career on my being right, not them. And if I’m right, when the industry has finished this eBook-driven shakeout, I’ll be able to pitch to traditional publishers, or whatever the closest approximation to those entities is, with a fan base and solid sales—assuming I want to. It’s possible I could decide that staying Indie is the best bet, and I won’t know that for a few years yet.
As I hope I just demonstrated, I have a reasonable, logical answer for people who hear “Indie” and think “vanity press.” Most people—in the industry and not—who hear my reasons agree with my approach, given my perspective and circumstances. Those who still scoff, I just tune out. As long as each of us taking the Indie path has a reasoned-out approach that can be backed up by facts, I think those who want to denigrate our individual choice can be safely tuned out.
DuncanWho is the one author (non-screenwriter) who inspires you to write? Who is the author (non-screenwriter) you’d like to be compared to, favorably, of course?
Coughlin: Sneaky, to take out my usual answer. 🙂 Once that answer is excluded, the answer to both questions is actually the same—Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite book and has been since the first day my freshman English teacher assigned it in high school. I stayed up until midnight that night to finish it, and I’ve read it a couple of dozen times since then. Atticus Finch is one of three lawyers—the other two are real people—who inspire Riordan Boyle’s (from Thrown Out) approach to law.
The other author I would mention is Natalie Goldberg. I’ve never been able to read more than a few pages in herThunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft without having to put the book down and starting to write. In terms of inspiration, she’s the non-screenwriter who has the strongest effect.
Lee inspires me to tell great stories, but Goldberg inspires me to put pen to paper and make the words flow.
To visit Exeter while Jennie Coughlin works on her novels, go to her blog: