Split Seed Review no longer seeking submissions, but offering quality-control reviews for published books

Over the past six months, I’ve had the chance to read a lot of independently published books, and I’ve learned a lot about the state of publishing independent fiction. It’s full of life and determination – I’ve loved hearing about everyone’s work, and I’m convinced independent fiction is here to stay and to grow. Independent authors are also learning about the vast expertise required to professionally publish a book, and I’ve seen several growing edges in the books I’ve read, whether in story development or design or cover copy.

But I’ve also learned a lot about book reviewing – and myself as a book reviewer. I feel far too beholden to the author to help them improve their work, which isn’t the point of a book review and doesn’t help an already-published book. I also find myself incapable of just being a reader – I can’t seem to keep myself from thinking about editing, or design, or marketing techniques – again, not appropriate for book reviews. In other words, I find myself wanting to serve the author rather than the reader – and I’m interacting so deeply with each book that it’s hampering my ability to get my other work done.

So I’ve decided to get out of the book review business and focus on helping authors develop and edit works before they’re published, where I think my feedback may have the best effect. To those of you who have submitted books for possible review – thank you so much for entrusting your work to me. I still intend to read through them and spread the word about the stories that have taken root in me, so your submission was not wasted. In fact, it’s been treasured so much that I’ve found it difficult to thoughtfully read each one, responsibly write up my response to the best, and take care of my current clients too!

For those of you who are concerned about your book sales and wonder if it might have to do with the quality of your book (rather than marketing techniques or market relevance, for instance), I’m now offering quality-control reviews of published books that will comment on story development, writing quality, and design, to help you know for sure – and to help improve your process for your next book (which you’re already working on, right?). Prices will be on the same scale as manuscript reviews (which review unpublished manuscripts on a broad and comprehensive level) – approximately $500 per 70,000 words. If you want to talk more about this option (or about a manuscript review for your next book), just contact me and we can talk about it.

In the meantime, I’d love to send you to two sites that have greatly enriched me as a writer and an editor: Writer Unboxed and its new sister site, Reader Unboxed. The first offers encouragement and tips on the craft and business of writing from well-published fiction writers and industry experts (agents, editors, etc.). Although most have found success with traditional houses, several respected indie authors are interviewed or contribute directly. Reader Unboxed reviews published fiction, and they even have an Indie Alley category. Here’s a sample review. They’ve done a lovely job developing their sites, as has the book review site Uncustomary Book Review, edited by the generous Kat Kiddles, and I can’t compete. Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s almost impossible for only one person, as a labor of love, to review books consistently and well. These sites wisely solicit reviews from a pool of passionate reviewers who firmly identify with the readers they’re writing for, and the Unboxed sites are considering using targeted ads to fund their effort, in addition to donations. Unless someone is independently wealthy, value deserves to be paid for – which is why I will always be willing to pay for books (and inherently distrust free or 99 cent books). I know the countless hours of effort that goes into a well-produced book, and the creators deserve to be compensated.

Bottom line: I’m much better suited to serving authors by developing, improving, interacting with, and polishing their work before it’s published, rather than judging it after its finished when I can’t really help change anything. Thanks to everyone who has borne with me through this experiment.

Keep sharing your stories,


Weary of the conservative/liberal religious rhetoric? Read L.D. Wenzel’s Caught in the Winds

Every religion has it: the conservative vs. liberal rhetoric. The conservatives want to preserve the strictest reading of the sacred texts to preserve life as they know it (and want everyone else to live it). The liberals want to read the sacred texts allegorically or through a personal lens, feeling free to take or leave whatever fits their situation. Yet both extremes do the same thing: attempt to control God with rhetoric. L.D. Wenzel, an American author living in Norway, addresses this specifically in the Christian context. In his story about an undergraduate caught in the conservative vs. liberal wars on an American campus, the honest fallout of his encounters with both camps forces us to admit that any full theological account of God has to leave room for mystery and truth beyond words.

Morrie, a transfer student from a community college to a large evangelical college in midwestern America, enters college like any other student: seeking the truth about himself, his future, and the world around him. True to form, these questions very quickly center on his relationships with young women, even against the backdrop of the conservative vs. liberal wars across campus. Two slightly otherworldly mentors appear in Morrie’s life, both showing him how to discern the true motives behind people’s actions (both his own and others’) yet alternately offering very different possible responses. Once Morrie learns how to discern the heart behind people’s behavior, he is forced to choose whether he will manipulate that knowledge to his gain, or choose to love that person for their benefit. Will vulnerability be exploited or rewarded? And what does love really look like? Wenzel skillfully brings religious issues away from the rhetorical and ideological and into the very heart of our daily interactions with others, and the secret motives that drive what can look like noble behavior. He takes religion from the head to the heart in language accessible to the most nonreligious.

I spoke to the author by phone this week, and he shared that although his book has received good reviews in the United States, he’s been surprised at the positive feedback from young, not-necessarily-religious Norweigians he’s met at work and around town. Wenzel has written an honest story that puts the real heart issues of religion front and center, in a direct and simple way.

Those of us who have been on an American college campus in the recent past may find some of the minor details a bit dated – don’t let that trip you up. I found the characters interesting and believable – and when you get to the point in the book where things really take off, you’ll know it. That’s when you won’t be able to put it down. And the best part is that it wasn’t just entertainment – it really named some issues for me that I don’t think I had ever named so succinctly, even after an M.Div. These topics won’t interest everyone, but if they do, you know who you are. Wenzel has written an unassuming, quietly profound coming-of-age book that was a delight to discover and share.

L.D. Wenzel’s novel, Caught in the Winds, is available for purchase at amazon.com and Smashwords. Visit www.ldwenzel.com for a free download of Part One.

The Counselor, the Cleric, and the Crook by Hank Shrier and Laurence Becker

Title: The Counselor, the Cleric, and the Crook
Author/publisher: Hank Shrier and Laurence Becker/GBN Publishing
Date: 2011

The co-author, Hank Shrier, did his due process by submitting a review request and an e-copy of his book to Split Seed Review, but primarily I know Hank as moderator of two helpful LinkedIn groups for independent publishers. The Counselor, the Cleric, and the Crook is the elaborate story of the life and death of Rabbi Baruch Teller, his estranged family, the several opportunists attempting to swindle the rabbi (and his heirs) out of his substantial estate, and the good-intentioned lawyer trying to help the family manage the morass of deceit and dysfunction. Little did they know there were forces at work larger than all of them.

Admittedly, this book is long, told from an “objective observer” perspective that struck me much like a lawyer carefully recording every detail so as to leave no stone unturned. Don’t expect a fast-paced novel, but a plodding account of how one family in Israel served as a connecting point for revenge, murder, and intrigue that had their beginning decades earlier and in various continents. (That’s all I can say about the story without risking spoilage.) About halfway through, I had to really use my willpower to keep reading, precisely because the style was so thorough that I thought I knew exactly where this story was headed and became impatient with the author’s need to record every detail. But now that I’ve read to the end, rest assured that all these details are there for a reason. There’s no way I ever could have predicted that ending.

The story takes place in modern-day Israel – this was the closest I’ve ever made to a visit there, and the authors were hospitable hosts. Whenever I travel (as sadly infrequent as that is these days), I’m the kind of traveler who does my best to blend in, to visit the places the locals frequent, and avoid looking like a tourist at all costs. This might mean I miss the big, famous sites (and the traffic), but it yields a longer, deeper impression of the real character of the city or country – what it might be like to live here, what kind of people choose to live here, where I seem to fit, and where I might want to visit again next time. What was unexpectedly delightful about this book was that the authors gave me just this kind of tour of Israel and the Jewish life, a context largely unfamiliar to me. I got the clear impression that this book didn’t intend to be “about Israel,” in an exotic sense, but just happened to take place in Israel, a perhaps-subconscious approach that revealed quotidian, subtle, but deeper details that made me feel like a local right away. Easy references to lesser-known details of Jewish life (to non-Jews, at least), the Mediterranean landscape, and the different character of various districts in no way distracted from the storyline.

Design notes: I read the pdf version on a Kindle (horizontally orientation greatly improves readability, which I figured out how to do half the book and one aching head too late), and it appeared generally well edited and designed. Any minor issues didn’t distract from me from the story. Would have loved an e-book version, and I hear it’s in the works. Based on an online picture I saw, the cover is well done and styled as a thriller novel – yet I wonder if a subtler, photograph-based cover might not capture the intended audience better.

This story may be a fictionalized version of a true story, but it certainly caused me to wonder anew at the simultaneous human capacities of depravity, resilience, and family loyalty.

The Counselor, the Cleric, and the Crook is available at http://www.gbnpublishing.com/.

Quality in, quality out

Last night I watched an Italian-directed movie version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, with William Hurt as Mr. Rochester. Even as an undergraduate English major, I somehow managed never to read Jane Eyre. In fact, I never even took the core major courses on 19th century British literature – they were “strongly recommended” by my university, but not required. Unfortunately I was a particularly arrogant and intellectually rebellious college student, so I thumbed my nose at the recommendation and took contemporary literature instead – without any knowledge of the classics. (This nose-thumbing also ensured my rejection from the thesis program. Just as well, as I doubt I would have produced anything terribly helpful with that attitude.)

Here’s the point: This story, originally written over 150 years ago, absolutely transformed me. It gave me fresh and much-needed perspective in my 21st-century life, particularly in terms of enduring life’s difficulties and the beauty of imperfection. And this was the movie version. The story still lives – 150 years, one continent, and a technological revolution later.

I was sufficiently humbled. Who am I to think I can produce something of value to the literary marketplace if I’m not well acquainted with the stories that have lived for centuries? Just another reminder that as I work on my novel, I need to watch my content intake. Garbage in, garbage out. Transformative content in, transformative content out. These stories are out there. We just have to work a little harder to find them – and the hardest work, for me, is not finding good recommendations, but being humble enough to take them.

Inaugural review: Dead Line by Richard Sanders

Title: Dead Line

Author/publisher: Richard Sanders

Publication year: 2011

Review copy: Kindle edition

“In recovery,” Richard Sanders writes in his prologue to Dead Line, “they tell you to get addicted to something that won’t kill you.” Thanks to a mandatory screenwriting course in film school, Sanders got hooked on writing, even in the midst of full-blown drug addiction. But when the two addictions went head-to-head, as he realized the drugs consistently worked against his writing, the writing high won. “Once I made that choice,” he writes, “I never used drugs again.”

One might cringe at the thought of an author beginning his self-published novel in such a confessional way (Did an editor approve this? Are we safe here?). But Sanders is also an experienced media professional, having worked at Entertainment Weekly and People, and he reports the facts, even about his own motivations, in a direct yet unassuming way. This quality very quickly establishes him as a trustworthy storyteller, which for me made his novel – dare I say it? – an intoxicating read.

The story begins with a graphic description of a very odd murder, and the drama only builds from there. The sister of the victim, fifteen-year-old Trish Fenellosa, was found on the scene, yet was so stunningly cavalier about the death of her sister that a jury convicts her of murder. Seven years later, she’s released early from her 25-years-to-life sentence, and she begins her new life in San Francisco as the founding editor of an over-the-top, tell-it-like-it-is women’s magazine. When she’s acquired by a New York media group, her status as eccentric but wildly rich media queen is secured. But after Trish is involved in a mysterious car accident, she becomes obsessed with Indira Gandhi, and the media group sends Quinn McShane, an ex-detective-turned-journalist (who has also spent time in jail for manslaughter), to San Francisco to figure out what’s going on. When it becomes clear that it’s not just Trish’s sanity but her life that’s in danger, Quinn reluctantly dusts off his detective skills. And we discover that the circumstances regarding Trish’s sister’s murder are a lot more complicated than we thought.

In terms of your standard high-action, high-titillation mystery, all the usual suspects are here – sex, violence, vulgarity, plot twists, colorful characters, and drug & alcohol references. (No hint of noir here – this is a relentlessly funny book.) So how did this literary fiction aficionado not only stick with the story, but even laugh at jokes I’d have to walk away from in real life? Sanders somehow manages to be direct without being offensive. Again, he writes about these events just like he wrote the prologue: as an observer who takes a closer look when most people turn their heads.

So this isn’t your standard thriller. For one thing, this wasn’t just another hopeful screenplay disguised as a novel, like Dan Brown’s latest. (Well, in his case, it’s not hopeful, it’s inevitable.) It was entertaining precisely because I had the distinct sense it wasn’t written merely to entertain. The story is a tightly woven, mind-spinning tapestry of opulence, relentlessly crude quips, chase scenes, and strange characters – yet I still got the sense this was rooted in real-life experience, however far this experience might be from my own. Here’s a typical scene, which is Quinn’s first glimpse of Trish’s compound upon arriving in the San Francisco area:

“The grounds were ruled by two main buildings, one large, one small, that looked like a cross between Persian towers and magic mushrooms. They’d been designed by the Barcelona architect/madman Gaudi, and he must’ve been in high rheumatic fever during this period. Each Persian mushroom was styled with Italianate Victorian touches – decorative cornices, balustrade balconies, bay windows with Tiffany stained glass” (Kindle location 676ff).

Most of the material is frankly unquotable if this blog is to keep its “PG” web rating. And the parade of oddity is so incessant I did often feel as if I was witnessing a hallucination. But the protagonist’s unassuming perspective kept me grounded. (The constant levity kept me from being too grounded.) As crazy as this world was, you got the sense it was crazy enough to be true. And that there was even a safe way out, eventually, if you just stuck with Quinn.

But the lasting value in this story is revealed by reading the novel through the lens of the prologue. Dead Line’s main point is that everyone has addictions, but some are more socially acceptable than others. Sanders has been honest about his addictions, but most Americans still haven’t acknowledged theirs: many of us are addicted to gratuitous entertainment because we’ve all forgotten what our life story is. The typical stories we’re exposed to don’t help: the business model of most media empires forces them to prioritize the blockbusters and celebrity authors. But we readers don’t need more gratuitous entertainment or wannabe blockbusters – we need stories that help us find our true story.

As Sanders has discovered, the surprising truth is that our life story might actually be more dramatic and exciting than any made-up story. This book, which capably describes the worst of life precisely because it knows there’s a way out, provides a valuable guidepost on the path towards that truth.

Design notes: Minor distractions, such as several typos and multiple lines of greater-than/end-tag symbols separating front matter sections and chapters, indicate a proofread of the final Kindle edition was needed. A table of contents was conspicuously absent. But the e-book format seemed appropriate to the content – I don’t think a print version would add anything crucial. (In fact, a quick review of a sample of the print-on-demand version available at Amazon revealed a desperate need for a skilled interior designer.) I wanted a transparent medium that would allow me to focus on the story, and I got that, by and large, with the Kindle edition.

The most desperate need was a professionally designed cover. The lopsided montage was likely meant to represent typical fare in TrishDish, but a skilled cover designer could do much, much better for this book.

How I found it: Lucky for me I never saw the cover or the POD version. Online buying and the e-book format worked to the author’s advantage, at least for this crossover reader.

First, social networking, not a bookstore nor even the Amazon “storefront,” sold me this book. I had found the author’s comments helpful in a shared LinkedIn group, I clicked on a link he had posted to an online interview with him featuring Dead Line, and I was intrigued enough to buy it. Because I bought the e-book through my mobile Kindle app, the cover was far too tiny to play much of a role. This is going to be an increasingly common scenario, with social networking filling in the quality-control gap that traditional publishing typically provides. Readers connect with individuals through social networking, they appreciate their insights, they discover they’ve written a book, they check it out in their spare time on their phone, and they click “buy.” Had this book been published by a trade publisher and displayed in a bookstore, I likely wouldn’t have picked it up, because even a professional cover would have been designed to appeal to its niche audience (likely not me, who tends to read literary fiction).

Second, the e-book format allowed me to dive into the story without preconceptions. Even if I decided to pick up that print version in the bookstore, just one flip through its pages would reveal far more vulgar references than I usually tolerate, and I would have gingerly put it back and moved on. But you can’t “flip through” a Kindle e-book, so I couldn’t decide not to buy it based on surface assumptions of what I like and don’t like. I had no choice but read page by page. Once I realized this was a little over-the-top for me, it was almost too late – I had already read the author’s story in the prologue, which interested me, and I had already sensed there was more to this story than just entertainment. So I stuck with it, despite my well-honed likes and dislikes. Which, of course, flies in the face of conventional marketing assumptions: sometimes the customer doesn’t know what she wants. And in this day and age of targeted marketing, serendipity is a pleasant surprise indeed.

Dead Line, by Richard Sanders, is available at smashwords.com and amazon.com.