Tuesday, 19 September 2017

My Interview With Christine Bernard (Author of Unravel)

As I promised in last week's blog post, my interview with South African author Christine Bernard came out today.

Christine is the author of the psychological thriller Unravel, which I still haven't read (soon, Christine, I promise!), but which looks a treat.

I had a lot of fun with this interview. If you want to see the original on her blog, click here, but I've also reposted her questions (and my answers) below for your convenience:

Christine: Have you always wanted to be a writer? Or did life step in and change your plans?

Graham: I've always enjoyed making up stories, but I don't think there was ever a time in school where I formalised that into "I want to be a writer." In fact, all through Primary and High School, all I ever wanted to do for a career was be a computer programmer. Which I now am, and I'm loving every minute of it. I'm so lucky to be doing what I've always wanted to do - I know that not many people can say that.

I did, however, play a lot of table-top roleplaying games, especially in High School. I played Dungeons and Dragons, AmeriCHAOS 1994, GURPS, and... I can't remember the title; something to do with werewolves. More often than not, I ended up being the Game Master in our group. If you're not familiar, he's the guy (or, she's the girl, if you prefer - plenty of girls play roleplaying games) who makes up the story for the rest of the group, and tells them the results of their actions. It just always seemed natural for me, to take on that role.

One of the genres that I loved to read in High School was gamebooks, and my favourites were the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever. I actually wrote a gamebook on our family's old 286 computer at one point. It was about a private eye, and it was terrible. I don't remember much about it, except for this one scene where the protagonist was following a trail of stompies (yes, I actually used that word) down the street in search of a suspect. Thankfully, this was long before the days of the Internet and backups, so that book has been lost, never to see the light of day.

Christine: Take us through your first novel, how the idea came and how it eventually came out into the world.

Graham: Having read voraciously throughout school, there were was about a decade or so afterward that I lost the habit. I got a job which took up most of my waking hours, and it was getting less and less convenient to pick up a book and read. Besides, when I did read, it was mostly for work - technical non-fiction, whitepapers, that sort of thing.

That all changed in 2011, when my boss bought me my first iPad, and I discovered e-books. E-books changed my life. Suddenly, I could read wherever I was, whenever I had a spare moment. I could read during the day on breaks, on my cellphone, and in the evenings, I could flick on my iPad and pick up exactly where I left off. Slowly but surely, I rediscovered reading, and soon I was devouring everything I could get my hands on again.

And then I started thinking, "Hey, I can do this. I could write something that people might want to read!"

Still, it wasn't very serious. I hadn't heard of self-publishing at that point, and I wasn't about to go looking for an agent and a publisher. That was about all I knew of publishing back then. Find an agent, find a publisher. Get published. Who's got time for that? Besides, even then I instinctively knew that it was a stupid way to go about it. I was a developer, a do-it-yourselfer. It was the 21st Century. Who in their right mind would want someone else deciding whether their work was worth publishing? I knew there must be a better way, but I put it on the backburner.

And then one of my Twitter friends, Ryan Peter, changed everything by self-publishing his fantasy novel, When Twins War, on Smashwords. I bought it, and I was in awe.

"You mean, you can just... do it? Like, all by yourself?"

"Yip, pretty much" was his reply (I'm paraphrasing).

I began researching everything I could about self-publishing. I'd had this idea for a fantasy story swimming around in my head for some time, but it wasn't until then that I put the proverbial pen to paper. I wrote it from start to ready-for-publishing in about four months or so. Then I got hold of a cover designer - one of my ex-teachers from High School came to mind. She had been my English teacher, but she also used to run the Art department. I tracked her down and met with her, and we fleshed out the concept. Things were moving fast, and before I knew it, on 23 December 2012, A Petition to Magic went live on Smashwords.

I published it on Amazon a week or so later, and that's been more-or-less the norm for each book thereafter - first Smashwords, into global distribution, then Kobo (separately, so I can take advantage of Kobo-specific deals and run promos there), then Google Play, then finally Amazon.

Christine: You've gone the self-publishing route - do you have some advice for others wanting to go this way?

Graham: I never seriously considered any other route, but I will say that I've learnt a lot about self-publishing. It's a lot of work, and takes commitment. And it's getting harder as time goes on and the market becomes more saturated.

I'd say, first and foremost, you have to produce a stellar product. That product's not just the story, it's the editing, the title, the cover, the blurb... the whole package. Then, I'd say that you have to realise that what you've just produced is just that: a product. Don't get too attached to it. It's not some ethereal thing up on a pedestal. It's no different from a DVD, a board game, a set of tools that someone buys to do their woodwork with... and it's competing for people's attention with all those other things too.

Also realise, despite all that, writing is a labour of love. Don't expect to publish your first, or fourth, or sixth, book and quit your job. Some of the best known authors in history had day jobs for many years. Some, until the day they died.

Having said that, most of those authors were traditionally published, so I think that if it's your goal to write full-time, and you've got a good head for business and can detach yourself from the product you're producing, self-publishing gives you the best chance to achieving that goal.

Just, think carefully about your reason for writing. Me, I never really expected to quit my job and write full-time. I now see that as a possibility, but I'm not really sure how I feel about it. As previously stated, I love my job, but I'd love to have more time to write. Maybe one day I could reduce my hours at my day job. It's not an "all or nothing" thing.

Oh, and don't ever let other people pressure you or make you feel bad because you haven't achieved their idea of success. This is your journey, so enjoy it.

Christine: Take me through your top three books of all time? 

Graham: Top three? Hmm... Well, first off, I'd have to say The Sneeches by Dr Seuss. I read a lot of Dr Seuss in the '80s, but that one (along with Green Eggs and Ham) are the two that stuck with me the most. I think both those books really speak to our situation in South Africa, then and now, and I think everyone in this country should read them - but definitely the Sneeches.

Secondly (okay, maybe I cheated a bit above, by giving you two), Stephen King's IT. I watched the movie years before I read the book, and I was amazed by the sheer depth of the book. I think it was my first real introduction into the writing of Stephen King, and I've been a massive fan ever since.

Finally, I'd have to say Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Similarly, I watched The Legend of the Seeker TV series some time before I read the book, and I loved it. The book is much deeper again, but also much more vivid, violent, psychological.

Those three (four) books altered the way I perceive the world, which is the whole point of good fiction, in my opinion.

Also, those three books are from wildly different genres, which I think speaks to how I write. I read everything I can get my hands on, because I get bored if I stick with one genre for too long. So too, with my writing: I've published six books in four different genres, and my current work in progress has nothing to do with any of them.

Christine: What are your currently reading?

Graham: Right at this moment, I'm reading a mob-thriller called Paradise Burns by J.P. Sumner. After that, I've been asked to read and review two books - one is a religious thriller, and the other a non-fiction book about writing.

By the time you read this, who knows? I have an interesting system for figuring out what to read next: I have just over 700 books on my Goodreads to-read shelf, and when I finish book, I hit up random.org and generate a number from 1 to 700. I find the book in my to-read shelf at that number, read the synopsis and decide if I still want to read it. If not, it gets deleted from my shelf and I pick another number. If so, I buy it and read it.

And of course, the books on that shelf run the gamut of genres, from fantasy to horror to romance to children's books. I'll read absolutely anything.

Edit: I've of course finished Paradise Burns since I did this interview (see my review on this blog). I've now moved on to the first book I was asked to review, The Chiron Confession by Thomas Greenias.

Christine: What are you working on at the moment?

Graham: Right now I'm working on a story about a guardian angel and the adventures he goes on as he figures out his new role in life. It doesn't have a proper title yet. As to when you can expect it, I don't know - one of the beauties about self-publishing is that things will be ready when they're ready.

It's my longest, most ambitious project yet, though, so it's taking me a lot longer than normal. All of my existing stories have been short, with the longest being just over 13 000 words. For this one, I'm hoping to hit 40 000. Also, as I alluded to above, it has nothing to do with any of my previous works, so I'm finding myself having to come to terms with the expectations of an entirely new genre.

Christine: When you're not writing, what are you doing?

Graham: My wife and I watch a lot of TV. We love cooking shows and gameshows. Right now, we're binging our way through Iron Chef America and The Wall.

Other than that, I spend quite a bit of time honing my software development skills, and have a couple of personal coding projects on the go.

Christine: Ever write in coffee shops? 

Graham: I haven't, no. It's quite tough for me to write anywhere else, because I'm not very independent. I suffer from a hereditary eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. In a nutshell, I have no peripheral vision and am completely night-blind, and one of the biggest consequences of that is the fact that I can't drive.

During the week, I wait for about an hour after work for my wife to fetch me That's when I do most of my writing.

Speaking of my wife, I'd be remiss if I didn't give her a mention in this interview. Honestly, words cannot express how grateful I am to have such a wonderful woman in my life. We leave before sunrise in the morning to get me to work on time, so she can drive an extra 30 minutes to be at her own job before eight. And in the evenings, we do it all over again in reverse.

I honestly could not do this without her. Love you, babes!

Christine: Lastly, what is the best way for people to get hold of your books?

Graham: My books are available everywhere, in electronic and print form. Search or ask for me at your favourite store, and if they don't stock my books, badger them until they do.

Failing that, all the links are on my website. Hit me up at www.grahamdowns.co.za, then pop me an e-mail and say Hi.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Paradise Burns by J.P. Sumner (Book Review)

Paradise Burns: Book One of The Adrian Hell Series -

This lightning-paced, all-action thriller introduces Adrian ‘Hell’ - a former Black-Ops soldier turned elite contract killer. Trying to forget a tragic past, he travels America as a hired gun. Helped by his only friend, techie Brit, Josh Winters, he uses his legendary reputation to make a living from killing bad people.

He takes a supposedly straightforward job in Heaven’s Valley, a sun-soaked paradise in the Nevada desert, but quickly finds himself embroiled in a complex plot that could lead to a devastating global conflict.

Armed with just his pistols and a sharp tongue, out-numbered and out-gunned in a city where everyone seemingly wants him dead, he’s left with no choice but to do the only thing he knows how to - fight back!

My Review (3 / 5 Stars)

I had high hopes for this book. A professional killer-for-hire gets commissioned by a mob boss in Vegas to take out someone who screwed him over on a business deal. He completes the job, but it opens a can of worms because things become apparent, involving a terrorist militia cell, a private military contractor, and the U.S. Government.

I still think the story is pretty good, but certain things just kept ruining my immersion. And those things largely boiled down to editing.

In the first place, the author is British. While this is not a problem, the protagonist is supposed to be American. And the book is narrated in first-person. But the narration used way too much British slang for my liking. You don't "phone" people; you "ring" them. He wasn't "standing" in the corner; he "was stood" in the corner. Likewise, people "were sat" in chairs.

While it was kind of nice to see that British slang again, it really didn't gel when a true-blue American started talking about picking up the phone and ringing someone.

The other problem the author has is with keeping a consistent tense. The whole story is meant to be told in past tense, but you'll read things like "I didn't know what was happening, but right now, I don't care." There are other examples of things like that, some more obvious, some more subtle, but I noticed every one.

I'm very sensitive about things like that, and I just couldn't get past them. It's a good story, but it needs the hand of an experienced editor to make it a brilliant one.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Review Requests and an Interview. What a busy week!

My word, but I've had a busy week!

First of all, two separate authors discovered that I review books on this blog, and e-mailled me asking if I'd review theirs.

Secondly, a well known South African author posted on a group I'm in on Facebook, offering to interview a few select authors. She picked me, and has sent me some questions to answer.

Over the coming weeks, you can expect my reviews of both those books, and the answers to my interview questions. In the meantime....

The Chiron Confession by Thomas Greanias

This is the first book I've been asked to read, and I must say, I'm excited about it. I rather enjoy books about cults, and as a Christian I have a particular interest in how our religion is portrayed in fiction. Although I must admit I seldom read such books. This one seems a bit like the Da Vinci Code, which I haven't read, but which is utter bunk, based on the reviews of my Christian friends who have. I'm keen to see if this one's any better.

Here's the write-up:

From Thomas Greanias, New York Times bestselling author of Raising Atlantis, comes an epic adventure of Ancient Rome that illuminates the gathering darkness of the 21st century.
The assassination of Caesar's chief astrologer explodes into revelations of a secret Christian order known as "rule of God." It's penetrated the highest echelons of the empire. Its mission: To fulfill a decades-old prophecy predicting the exact day and hour that Caesar will die. Desperate to prove the oracles wrong, an increasingly erratic Caesar kills all suspected enemies, anyone who even dares whisper of his hairpiece. No one from slave to senator can escape his reign of terror.
Enter the innocent playwright Athanasius. Wrongly accused by jealous rials of being Chiron, the elusive mastermind behind Rule of God, he is condemned to certain death in the unscripted "reality" of the arena. Miraculously he escapes, alone with a state secret that could destroy the empire. Hunted by assassins across the Mediterranean world, his only hope is the terrorist order he is accused of masterminding. But the only way up—or out—is to kill or be killed.
A meticulously researched and masterfully crafted conspiracy thriller inspired by real people and events, The Chiron Confession is the unforgettable story of one man against the world.

The Writer's Lexicon: Descriptions, Overused Words, and Taboos by Kathy Steinemann and Stuart Aken 

The second book is a little different, but I'm equally keen. I've read a lot of books on writing advice, some good, some bad. It's always interesting to see different people's opinions and perspective on what works and what doesn't.

I tend to be quite harsh about poor editing in my reviews, though, and you better believe I'm going to be doubly critical if I find editing problems in a book of writing advice!

Here's the write-up:

You’re a writer. You just read your manuscript and discovered your characters nodding like marionettes in every chapter. When they’re not nodding, they’re rolling their eyes.
Time to slash the Pinocchio strings and turn them into real live people. Award-winning author Kathy Steinemann will provide the tools. She cuts through the so-called rules and offers simple solutions.
Too many repetitions of “little”? There’s a cure for that. Do you rely on “very” too often? There’s a cure for that too. You’ll find the remedies in this book’s dispensary.
Should you ever use anything other than “said” to attribute dialogue? Are exclamation points taboo? The answers might surprise you.
Learn how to harness body language, cut hackneyed adjectives, and draw on the environment for ambience. No more wooden characters. You’ll transform them into believable personalities your readers will learn to love. Or hate.
Get in the driver’s seat, relax, and enjoy your journey—with Kathy Steinemann’s book as your GPS.

Author Interview With Christine Bernard

South African author Christine Bernard is just starting out on her indie author journey, and her first self-published title, Unravel, is out now.

I haven't read it yet, but since I enjoy psychological stories, I'm sure I'll love it.

Christine is running a feature on her blog, where she's hosting interviews with other South African authors. Watch this space for the link to her interview with yours truly. In the meantime, here's the synopsis of her book, Unravel:

A fast-paced psychological mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end!
Rose Madison is of sound mind, with a sharp focus and a willingness to succeed. At only twenty-three, she’s already won an award for her short story, and has been hailed as the next big thing in the literary world. She’s beautiful, funny, intelligent, and comes from a wealthy and successful family. It’s clear to all, including herself, that her future looks bright and promising.
Why then, does the perfect Rose Madison start to slowly lose her mind?
This is a story of a young woman in her prime, clutching at the remains of sanity. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Pyramids of Pluto (A Free Flash Fiction Story by Graham Downs)

For this month, I decided to post a story that I submitted a couple of months ago to The Short Story and Flash Fiction Society's Flash Fiction Contest #13. I didn't win that time, but that doesn't mean the story's not good - it just means it wasn't what they were looking for at the time. So without further ado, here is The Pyramids of Pluto. I hope you enjoy it!

“Can you believe it,” asked the astronaut. “We’re the first humans to stand on Pluto?”

“Absolutely. And it only took us three months to get here.” He pointed at the massive structures in the distance. “I never thought I’d see it with my own eyes. They look exactly like the pyramids on Earth. And those clouds. For five hundred years, we believed there was no atmosphere here.”

He began to take off his helmet.

“Uh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“Relax, you big baby,” said the other, and punched him in the arm. He removed his helmet and breathed deeply.

“And?” asked his friend.

“I’m a little dizzy. The oxygen density’s not as high as back home, but I’ll survive.”

The first astronaut removed his own helmet. “You’re right. It’s not so bad. Although Houston’d be having a cow right now if they knew.”

The other chuckled. “Let’s take a look at those pyramids.”

They shuffled on towards the structures in the distance in their heavy EVA suits. Even without helmets, the effect was comical. The silence was deafening. The total desolation. No crickets, no night-life... no life whatsoever.

“Do you think the beings that made those, made the ones on Earth, too?” It was the second astronaut, the one who had removed his helmet first. The sound of his voice made his friend jump.

“That’s what they say.”

The questioner nodded, and they continued their trek in silence.
Eventually, the duo reached the entrance to one of the giant structures. It was even bigger up close than they had imagined.

“That’s strange.” The first astronaut pointed at the door. Where there should have been a giant stone slab, there was a pile of rubble.

“Do you think we’re not the first humans here, after all?”

“I dunno. Let’s go inside.”

The two gingerly stepped over the rubble, and into a dark corridor. A blinding flash of light hit them full in the face.


As their eyes adjusted, the two began to realise who it was.

“Doctor Jameson. Is that you? You’ve been missing for months.”

“Damn right it’s me. I beat you to it. I snuck onto the unmanned probe six months ago. And now, this planet belongs to me.”

“Doctor, you need to come with us. How have you been surviving?”

“I’m not going anywhere. There’s algae in these catacombs. Enough to keep a man alive for the rest of his life. And I’m staying here.”

“Ookaay,” said one of the astronauts, as the two backed away. “We’ll just leave you here while we get back to the lander. We’ll be on our way.”

“Oh, no you won’t,” said the doctor, who had produced a gun from somewhere and was now pointing it at the astronauts’ heads. “I won’t have you running back to Houston and telling everyone where I am. You’re staying right here with me. I got here first. I won, gentleman. And what do they say? ‘The winner takes it all?’”


By the way, if you'd like to read the story that did win that competition, click here.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Dark Moonlighting by Scott Haworth (Book Review)

About the Book

Nick Whittier, having been alive for six centuries, has had plenty of time to master three professions. In a typical week he works as a police officer, lawyer and doctor and still finds time to murder someone and drink their blood. He used to feel guilty about the killings, but now he restricts himself to only eating the worst members of society. Few people in Starside, Illinois seem to care about the untimely deaths of spam e-mailers, pushy Jehovah Witnesses and politicians. However, the barriers between Nick's three secret lives start to crumble when a mysterious man from his past arrives in town seeking revenge. Nick must move quickly to prevent the three women in his life, and the authorities who are hunting him, from discovering his terrible secret.

Dark Moonlighting is the first book in the humorous series. It explores four of the biggest clichés in popular culture, and it pokes fun at a number of popular television shows including Law & Order, Bones and House. It also takes a more realistic and amusing approach to the vampire cliché. For example, the average human has the equivalent of five Big Gulps worth of blood in their body. Nick takes twenty minutes to kill someone and, like the vampire bat, must immediately urinate afterwards.

My Review (4 / 5 Stars)

What if vampirism was caused by a good old fashioned virus? In that case, they wouldn't be demons, or demon possessed, and crosses and holy water wouldn't work on them. They'd be able to see their reflections just fine, but they wouldn't be able to shape-shift.

That's exactly the scenario postulated by Dark Moonlighting, a humorous story of a 600-year-old vampire trying to make it in the modern world. He only needs two hours sleep a night, so to pass the time, he works three different jobs.

I really enjoyed this book. It's funny, almost in the style of the Fat Vampire series by Johnny B. Truant, but it's not nearly as silly.

The writing is polished and the plot is fast-paced, but never too much. And there's lots of humour... although it took me a while to "get" the names of Nick's nemesis' henchwomen, once I did I couldn't stop laughing!

The ending's not really a cliffhanger, but it does pave the way nicely for the sequel. Which is definitely going on my to-read shelf.

If you like vampires, but hate Twilight, and you don't feel the need to take yourself too seriously, this is the book for you.

Click here to find out where you can pick up a copy.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Win a $10 Amazon Gift Card

In honour of the fourth anniversary of my e-mail newsletter, I thought it might be nice to do a giveaway. So if you buy books on Amazon and would like the chance of winning a $10 voucher, read on.

I love these: as you may know, my last book, published in 2016, is called Tales From Virdura. It's kind of like the spiritual successor to my first book, A Petition to Magic.

All you have to do is answer one simple question. In the seventh story of that collection, what is the second word in the second paragraph?

To enter, email me with your answer at graham@grahamdowns.co.za.

All correct answers will go into a draw to win the $10 Amazon voucher. The draw will take place on Tuesday, 26 September 2017, and I'll announce the winner in my September 2017 newsletter as well as on this blog.

Sound simple enough?

Oh, and if you need a copy of the book, click the image above to find out where you can get your hands on it.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Night Magic by Thomas Tryon (Book Review)

My Review (4 / 5 Stars)

Wow. Just... wow. There isn't much more to say than that (but I'm going to try and say it anyway).

This book was amazing. A little unexpected, to be sure, but amazing nonetheless.

There's this young street magician and mime (Michael) in New York. He's got some skills, and he makes a decent living, but he wants more.

Enter a very old, and very experienced, magician (Max). Planning his retirement, he doesn't want to leave a void, so he needs a protégé. He comes across Michael, and decides the kid's got potential.

The story blurs the lines between magic and illusion. Does "real" magic exist, or is it all just illusion, when it comes right down to it?

The author clearly thinks it does, but Max isn't so sure. A lot of weird, creepy, and even freaky stuff happens, but even by the end of the book, the reader isn't so sure either... but they're certainly left with lots of think about.

If you enjoy magic, and you're even remotely interested in the occult, I can recommend this book.

It lost its fifth star because I spotted some minor editing issues, but that doesn't mean I don't still believe this is an amazing book. And to think I'd never heard of Thomas Tryon before. Now that I have, his books are going on my to-read shelf right now.

About the Book

A young magician will risk his soul to learn the secrets of the universe

Though he bills himself as the Greatest Magician in the World, Michael Hawke is painfully aware that he’s nothing more than a sidewalk. He plies his trade outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entrancing passing crowds with feats of conjuring and sleight of hand. One afternoon, he plays a trick on a shabbily dressed man whose beard is twisted and whose glass eye gives him a sinister leer. Offended, the man responds with magic of his own, casting a spell that causes Michael to hop like a frog, maniacally splashing in the fountain until the police have to haul him out.

When he recovers from this trance, Michael knows that he has encountered a true magician, one whose secrets he will give anything to understand. But this is black magic, mysterious and deadly, and pursuing it will mean a confrontation with an evil older than civilization itself.

Click here to find out where you can get your copy.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Smashwords Special Deals: $0.99 Each for A Petition to Magic, Stingers, or Tales From Virdura

One of my e-book retailers, Smashwords, has just launched a section on their website called "Special Deals".

On that page, they list all the books that have limited-time coupon codes that you can use to get the books at discounted prices.

According to the site admins, that's pretty revolutionary. And I think I agree: no longer do you have to go hunting down sale prices at your favourite retailer. They're all there, in one place. What's more, those coupon codes are listed everywhere you see the book - in category or search results, even on the book's detail page itself.

To mark the occasion, I've put three of my books on sale at Smashwords, all for $0.99 each. The deals expire on 20 September, so if you want them, click on the book cover below before then:

A Petition to Magic Stingers Tales From Virdura

Of course, my books aren't the only ones on sale. Click here to view the full list of Special Deals at Smashwords.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Writers' Resources: YouWriteOn

I found a really cool website this week, for writers wanting to get their work critiqued.

It's called YouWriteOn.com, and it works like this:

  1. You upload a short story, or sample chapters of your book
  2. You request a "Reading Assignment", which is a random work by another writer, which you're expected to read and review
  3. You get points for completing those assignments, which you "allocate" to your work
  4. Other people get assigned your work to read and review (which depletes your points)
The more reading assignments you complete, the more honest and valuable critique you get for your own work. This really encourages writers helping writers, which is what this whole process is about.

What's more, the highest rated stories are routinely read by agents for Random House and Orion, and if they like your work, they may pick it up for publication!

I added a story I wrote some time ago onto the site, which I haven't been able to find a home for (and which is too short to self-publish as a stand-alone). I've already been getting some great reviews for it, so wish me luck.

If you're a writer who's got something just lying around, you might want to give it a go.

You're welcome. :-)

Friday, 11 August 2017

Helens-of-Troy by Janine McCaw (Book Review)

About the Book

“The Gilmore Girls meet Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Fifteen year old Goth-chic Ellie has a lot of explaining to do. She’s just moved to the small town of Troy, fought with her uptight mother Helen, met the boy of her dreams and found a dead body on her sexy “new-age” grandmother Helena’s porch. All on the first night!

But Ellie’s not alone. Helen is hiding something. Helen knows all about the kind of eerie dreams her daughter is having — the dreams that show the whereabouts of the missing children of Troy — because she’s had them herself. But she’ll never admit it. Not while Ellie’s sex-crazed friend Ryan is safely behind bars for the murders. Helen knows what it’s like to be attracted to dangerous men.

Then there’s the little matter between Helena and Gaspar Bonvillaine, the teenaged vampire who is learning to feed on young prey. Now that he’s caught Ellie, he doesn’t know whether he wants to kill her or turn her to the dark side and keep her forever. Helena should have finished him off when she had the chance.

To survive the vampire feeding frenzy surrounding them, mom Helen needs to come to terms with her own insecurities and deal with the gifts she has. Helena must learn to ground herself for the good of mankind and more importantly her own family. And Ellie has the toughest choice of all. Ellie must decide whether its time to let her own childhood go and become the woman she is destined to be, one of the ageless and timeless “Helens of Troy”.

Author Janine McCaw (Olivia’s Mine, Feb. 2006,) has written this 100,000 word novel, the first in a fantasy series about “the Helens”. The three generations of gatekeepers will take the reader on a trip to a realm mere mortals fear to visit alone, and they’ll make her want to stay a while.

My Review (2 / 5 Stars)

You know, I really wanted to love this book. It was billed as "The Gilmore Girls meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer", so I had high hopes.

I started noticing minor editing issues, missing quotation marks, apostrophes used to pluralise words, that sort of thing. This was still early, though (maybe 10% in), and they weren't too bad. The story was compelling enough for me to ignore them. "Maybe it's worth three stars, at least," I thought. Plus, I was really feeling The Gilmore Girls vibe at that point, and I LOVE The Gilmore girls.

But the editing got worse. Not only the punctuation problems, I saw lots of redundancy, people "Thinking to themselves" or "Shrugging their shoulders". No. Unless you're writing about telepaths, thinking to yourself is redundant. Okay, so there are some instances of telepathy in this book, but none of them had anything to do with it - it's not like anybody was thinking to themselves as opposed to thinking to others or anything.

There's lots of head-hopping too. In the same scene, sometimes in the same paragraph. To the point where at the top of the screen on my e-reader, I'm seeing the thoughts and feelings of one character, and by the time I get to the end of the screen, I'm in a completely different one's head. It actually got confusing at times.

The thing is, the story got worse as well... or maybe it was just my enjoyment of it being affected by all those others issues. Either way, by the time I finished the book, it was all seeming just a little silly.

Great potential, but poor editing grossly let this book down.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Ways to Support Me: Patreon

So you want to support indie authors?

Obviously, the best way to support me, really, is to buy my books and recommend them to your friends. But what if you've already read all my books, and all your friends are sick of seeing your face because you won't stop blathering on about this "Graham Downs" character? Well then, my friend, words cannot express how grateful I am to you!

If you've reached that point, and you still want to support me, then that's where Patreon comes in. Please consider pledging a little money to me each month, to help me realise my goals. Right now, my goal is a very modest one: the monthly hosting costs on my e-mail account and domain name average around $2 a month. If I could reach that, then I'd know that those were sorted, and I could focus on spending money to market and really grow my author business.

So what do you say? Help a fella out? Visit my Patreon Page and click the "Become a Patron" button. Besides the great feeling that comes from knowing you've done a good dead, you'll get access to my Patron-only feed. And who knows what you'll find in there? Maybe a free book every once in a while, or exclusive snippets of what I'm working on, or advanced review copies... Right now, I really have no idea.

P.S. If you've never heard of me before and want to check out my work, visit my website at https://www.grahamdowns.co.za/.

Fellow Artist? Want to Earn up to $500?

If you're an indie author yourself (or any kind of content creator), and you're looking for ways to earn a regular income, why not join Patreon?

Here's how it works: If you use the link I'm about to give you and sign up, you have 30 days to get as many patrons as possible. Depending on how many people you can convince to sign up, Patreon will give you a bonus, over and above the money you earn from those patrons:

For 30 patrons or more, Patreon will give you $50
For 75 patrons or more, Patreon will give you $100
For 150 patrons or more, Patreon will give you $250
For 250 patrons or more, Patreon will give you $500

How cool is that? Click here to sign up and start attracting patrons.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Painting Bruce (A Free Flash Fiction Story by Graham Downs)

It's been a while since I did this. How about a free flash fiction story? This one's called "Painting Bruce". Enjoy!

When I was ten years old, I had an imaginary friend called Bruce. Bruce was a small child with blue eyes and short brown hair. He was a wonderful friend, who never got me in trouble with my parents, and we played together often.

That’s not such a strange thing in a child, particularly a child who struggled to make “real” friends, so when I would speak about him to my parents, they would just shrug and laugh it off. The fantasies of youth.

When I was sixteen and still talking about Bruce, they got worried. They told me I was too old for an imaginary friend, and that I should grow up and make some friends. Maybe meet a nice girl, they said. Surely there were some girls at my High School that I was interested in?

There weren’t. There was only Bruce. Bruce had grown up with me – his was now a broad shouldered young man with dishevelled hair who helped me with my homework. But I overheard my mother talking to my father one night. She said that she was worried about me, and if I didn’t stop talking about Bruce, she’d have to send me to the psychologist.

Bruce said that if they did that, they’d put me in an asylum, and pump me so full of drugs that I wouldn’t be able to see him anymore. I didn’t want that, so that was the last time I mentioned Bruce.

Now I’m thirty-seven and live alone. Well, “alone” as far as everyone else is concerned, at least. Bruce is still with me, a haggard man with a scraggly beard, long hair, and a paunch. I keep telling him he needs to exercise, but all he does is sit on the couch all day and vegetate while I’m at work.

Last week, I’d finally convinced him to come with me for some fresh air, so we were taking a walk through the park. At one stage, he stopped and pointed.

“That’s da’!”

I followed his finger and saw an old man, perhaps sixty. He was standing under a tree, painting something on an easel.

“Who? The old man?”

“Shh!” said Bruce, as a passing jogger slowed down to gawk. “They can’t see me, remember? You want to go the asylum?”

I shrugged, as he went on. “No, the painting. Look.”

I couldn’t quite make out what the old man was painting, so we walked a bit closer. As we approached, his painting came into focus. It was that of an equally old man, one who looked quite a bit like Bruce.

My friend jumped up and down excitedly. “I told you. It’s him!”

I tried my best to ignore him, and approached the painter.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I could help but notice your beautiful artwork. What are you painting?”

The man started, and I gave him an apologetic look, feeling a bit guilty for scaring him.

“Why thank you, young man. It’s so lovely out here. So peaceful. I keep telling him to come to the park with me, but he won’t.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

The man motioned towards his subject. “Him. That’s Stephen. He’s been with me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”

Beside me, Bruce was getting more and more excited. “That’s da’!” he kept saying, pointing frantically at the painting.

I started to feel it too. The excitement. Maybe I wasn’t alone. Bruce had mentioned his father once before; all he’d said at the time was that he’d left him shortly before Bruce and I found each other. He never mentioned him again, and I knew nothing about his mother either.

“Has… can anyone else see Stephen?” I asked tentatively.

The old man sighed. “No. No they can’t. You probably think I’m crazy. Most people do. I’m pretty far past caring, to tell you the truth.” With that, he returned to his painting.

I pressed on. “No, sir, please. I don’t think you’re crazy at all. Please tell me, does Stephen have a son?”

The man looked at me, and I saw a glimpse of recognition in his eyes. Of belonging. Of someone who finally discovered that he wasn’t alone.

“Why, yes,” he said. “As a matter of fact, he does. Or at least, he did. He told me about him, once. I think his name was… Bryce. No, Bruce. He disappeared about thirty years ago, maybe a bit less. Stephen says he never saw him again.”

Thursday, 27 July 2017

A Court of Mist And Fury, by Sarah J. Maas (Book Review)

My Review (3 / 5 Stars)

Tricky, reviewing this book. There were lots of ups and downs for me.

From the first paragraph, I got the impression that this wasn't going to be as good as the first one. It starts out with Feyre vomiting in the toilet. My first thought was, "Oh, they've got indoor plumbing in this world? That's strange."

And indeed it was strange, but I got past it. It's a fantasy world, yes, but that doesn't mean it has to conform to the default medieval style of most fantasy worlds...

At least, I thought I'd gotten past it... but I still cringed every time somebody opened a tap. To help it feel a bit more fantasy-like, the room these toilets, sinks, and baths are in is called the "bathing room", but I think if it's going to look like a modern bathroom, just call it a bathroom.

Then there's what our heroine was doing in the toilet in that first paragraph: vomiting. Yes, there's lots of vomiting happening in this book, as well as "vomiting my/his/her guts out". It just doesn't seem like a word/phrase that would be used in the time period in which this book appears to be set.

The characters wear sweaters, too. Did they have sweaters back then? Tunics, yes. Woolen overshirts, yes. But sweaters? I think not.

There are other examples, but okay, enough hating on the language. I believe I mentioned that in my review for the last book in the series, too. It's not right, it destroys the verisimilitude, and it rips me out of the world every time I see it. Enough said. Moving on.

There's a lot more introspection in this book than in the first one, and it doesn't really paint a consistent picture of who Feyre is. Sometimes she seems like a spoilt child, other times she comes across as a tough-as-nails warrior, only to be the spoilt child again a scene or two later. There's character growth, but for no apparent reason, there's also regression.

The first book was clearly young-adult. One thing this series has going for it is the growth and general maturation of the characters from book to book. In the previous installment, Feyre was very much a child. In this one, she's well and truly an adult, and the things she goes through and the decisions she has to make reflect that. Kudos to the author for achieving that.

Having said all of the above, the overall story is still something I enjoyed, as a fantasy fan. Enough to want to pick up the next book in the series. Which I most certainly will be doing.

About the Book

Feyre survived Amarantha's clutches to return to the Spring Court—but at a steep cost. Though she now has the powers of the High Fae, her heart remains human, and it can't forget the terrible deeds she performed to save Tamlin's people.

Nor has Feyre forgotten her bargain with Rhysand, High Lord of the feared Night Court. As Feyre navigates its dark web of politics, passion, and dazzling power, a greater evil looms—and she might be key to stopping it. But only if she can harness her harrowing gifts, heal her fractured soul, and decide how she wishes to shape her future—and the future of a world torn apart.


Click here to purchase the e-book from your favourite online store.

If you prefer paperbacks, and you happen to be in South Africa, it's available on Loot for (at the time of this writing) R151.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Internet Down

I'm on leave from my day job, and was hoping to write you a nice long post this week. Murphy's Law kicked in.

My Internet has been offline since early Sunday morning, and I'm on my mobile data (a metered connection) typing this today.

Apparently, it's due to some construction work that was taking place at our telephone exchange about two kilometres away; it seems that the other company broke a cable, and it's going to take up to a week to fix.

Oh well, good ol' Murphy, eh? My sincerest apologies, everyone. I'll make it up to you next week, I promise!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Cinder by Marissa Meyer (Book Review)

I really enjoyed this.

As science fiction goes, the world is truly compelling. On the one hand, it's post-apocalyptic, but on the other, it's a bit of a utopia.

World War IV happened a long time ago, and almost destroyed the world. That's the apocalypse part. What came out of that war was a treaty that saw all the countries of the world consolidated into less than ten, mostly based around continents, so you have the African Union, Europe, the Americas, and something called The Commonwealth.

This story is set in New Beijing, a massive city-state that's part of The Commonwealth. Technology has progressed to the point where humans can be cybernetically enhanced, everyone flies around in hovers, and intelligent androids, able to show emotion, are commonplace.

Now for the bad news. There's this worldwide plague, you see, with no cure, and a 100% mortality rate. If you contract it, you die. Within days. Scientists all over the world are racing against time to find a cure, while every day thousands of people are dying. It's a losing battle.

Enter Cinder, a teenage cyborg who runs a small mechanic's shop, repairing androids, portscreens (pretty much tablet PCs), and other miscellaneous electronics. She has an evil stepmother and stepsister, and a prince invites her to a ball.

This story is VERY loosely based on the Cinderella fairy-tale, but if you didn't know that, and I hadn't pointed it out to you, you might miss it. The fairy tale served as inspiration for the author, but that's where it ends. It ends up going in an entirely different direction.

There's some romance here, but not very much (less than I expected, anyway), and you're sure to enjoy it even if you're not a fan of love stories.

The one thing that bugs me is that this book is billed as Young Adult. I think the only thing that technically makes it YA is the age of the protagonist. But it doesn't take place in a high school or anything, nor do any of the characters face typical teenager-type problems, nor do they behave like teenagers would be expected to behave.

No, this is quite clearly an adult book, and it deals with some pretty adult themes. Having said that, I should point out that it's a WHOLESOME adult book. There's not a single swear word to be found, nor even any blasphemy. Which is refreshing, because blasphemy is often what stops me from giving a book 5-stars.

Editing-wise, there's the odd typo here and there, but it's very well polished, and none of them detracted in any way from the story.

If you like science fiction, and you like a good family-friendly read, I don't doubt for one minute that you'll enjoy this book!

(My rating: 5 / 5 Stars)

Click here to see all the places where the book is available.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

How I (More Than) Doubled My Newsletter Subscribers on Instafreebie

I'd been hearing lots of things over the years about Instafreebie, as a tool for authors to use to boost their mailing list, but all I knew about it was that it came with a monthly fee. I didn't think I'd be able to afford it, and didn't really have the time.

In June 2017, however, I embarked on a drive to get more e-mail subscribers, so I thought "What the hell?" and signed up for Instafreebie's free plan.

Their free plan doesn't allow you to collect e-mail addresses, so I just put up my perma-free book (Billy's Zombie), to see what happens.

Within a week, with zero marketing on my part, that book had garnered 40 free downloads. What a shame I didn't have access to any of those e-mail addresses.

I signed up for the 30-day trial of their paid service (which normally costs $20 a month), set up Mailchimp integration, and offered a free copy of my first short story, A Petition to Magic. The rest is history.

Okay, so how many subscribers are we talking here?

A lot of the time, when authors talk about growing their mailing lists, these are authors who already had thousands (or tens of thousands) of subscribers, and their advice has limited application to the rest of us.

Well, I'm not one of those authors, so in the interest of full disclosure, I'm going to share my exact figures with you.

At the end of May 2017, before I started any of this, I sent out my monthly e-mail newsletter to 50 subscribers. Early in June, I signed up for Instafreebie, and didn't do any marketing of my giveaways for the whole month. I sent out my June newsletter to 67 subscribers. 17 subscribers from Instafreebie in just less than a month. With zero marketing.

When it all blew up

I started looking around for ways to promote my giveaway, and everybody said that to really start seeing benefit, I needed to participate in group giveaways with other authors.

Instafreebie has a "Forum" section, where authors post giveaways, and invite other authors to participate by sharing links to blog posts. In return, the host author includes the other authors' books.

That sounded like a good plan, but I couldn't find any group giveaways that were suitable for my target audience (readers of multi-genre short stories). So, like any enterprising author would do, I started my own.

On 7 June 2017, I posted on the Instafreebie Forum, asking if anyone was interested in doing short story giveaways, in any genre. The giveaway would "officially" run from 27 June 2017 (the day my June newsletter was scheduled to go out), and end on 7 July - the day my 30-day trial with Instafreebie was set to expire.

The deal was, that I would write a blog post, where I'd share the giveaway links to all the participating books. I'd e-mail a link to that post to all my subscribers, and share it on my social media channels. All the other participating authors would do the same.

The results

I got ten authors to participate in my giveaway, wrote the blog post (you can see it here), and sent it out. Then I posted the link to that post to the forum, and asked everyone to share it wherever they could.

Two days later, my list had swelled to 77 subscribers. But of course, I wanted more.

I e-mailed Instafreebie to ask if they'd be willing to promote my giveaway to their mailing list of several thousand subscribers. They said yes!

Instafreebie's e-mail went out on Friday, 30 June 2017, and during the course of that weekend, I got so many subscribers that I was actually afraid I'd exceed the 2 000 subscriber limit of my Mailchimp Forever Free plan!

As at 11 July 2017, I now have 141 subscribers on my e-mail list. That's more than double the number I had when I sent out my June newsletter, and almost three times the number I had at the end of May.

What's more, that blog post has now been viewed over 2 500 times, and I've earned around R25 (~$1.87) in Google Adsense income from people viewing and clicking on the third-party ads. That's nothing to sneeze at, for a little author like me.

Don't some people unsubscribe as soon as you mail them?

Well, I was warned that that might happen. I have a long automation process set up in Mailchimp, and I must admit I've seen a few Instafreebie subscribers unsubscribe as soon as they get their first mail. Not many, though: maybe 15% of them.

Instafreebie tells me that A Petition to Magic has been claimed 89 times, and my list has grown by 74 since starting the group giveaway. So I lost 15 subscribers. You do the maths.

I obviously still need to find out how many subscribers I lose when I send out my July newsletter at the end of the month, but it looks promising!

In conclusion, Instafreebie works. And works well. Even for those of us with tiny lists. But in order to take full advantage of it, you need a Mailchimp account, and you need things to send to your subscribers. If you're an author with a mailing list, and you're looking to grow it, give Instafreebie a try. You also need to participate in the community, though. Take part in group giveaways, like I did, and don't forget to pop Instafreebie a mail to ask them to help promote for you.

Get $30 in Mailchimp Credit

If you don't yet have a Mailchimp account, click here to sign-up. If you subsequently become a paying customer, you'll get $30 in credit, but only if you use that link.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Annual Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale is On

It may be the middle of winter here in the Southern Hemisphere (and freezing cold, I might add), but it's the opposite in the North. Just last week, I saw some of my British friends complaining on Facebook about a heatwave.

Each year, Smashwords celebrates these polar opposites by making thousands of books available in their Summer/Winter sale, which is now in its ninth year.

Please support them by checking out the catalogue of all books on sale, which is open from 1 July and runs right up until the end of the month.

They have loads of books on sale, from 25% all the way to 100% off. Click here, or the banner above, to see the catalogue.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Short Story MEGA Giveaway

Who wants free short stories? Well, you've come to the right place. Welcome to the short story MEGA giveaway!

Simply click on one of these book covers, follow the instructions, and claim your free book. It's that simple.

These giveaways run from now until 7 July. Some of them may still be active after that date, but that's when this promotion "officially" ends. Also, some of them might require that you sign up for the authors' mailing lists, and others may not. It's a mixed bag. Take your chances. :-)

In case you can't make out the covers, these are the books that we're giving away:

  • A Petition to Magic, by Graham Downs
  • An African Soccer Story, by Evadeen Brickwood
  • Environmentally Friendly, by Elias Zanbaka
  • One Mississippi... Two Mississippi, by Duane Lindsay
  • Lassiter, by J.T. Dusky
  • Nefarious: Volume One, by Lucille Moncrief
  • Honor the Suffering, by Lucille Moncrief
  • Changeling Fog, by Nicola McDonagh
  • From Beyond Comics: Primer
  • The Seven O'Clock Man, by Kate Heartfield
  • No Option to Fail, by N. R. Hairston

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Buddy Ads - Support Your Local Communities

I discovered something over the weekend. Well, actually, I've known for some time, but I only bothered to take the time to investigate this weekend.

My church distributes a monthly "classifieds" pamphlet at all its services. The pamphlet is put together by an organisation called Buddy Adverts, and my church isn't the only church it gets distributed to.

I decided to go take a look at what it costs to advertise, because as a local author in the community, I thought it'd be a good fit.

It costs R50 ($3.91) a month for a text-only classified ad. The ad runs for the whole month, gets distributed to the congregants of all the participating churches, and is visible on the Buddy Adverts website. Plus, you never pay more than R400 (~$31), so if you book for a whole year, you basically get four months free.

I think that's a fantastic deal, plus, it makes me feel good to support the church and my community.

I took out an ad for July 2017. If it goes well, I'll be renewing it. Here's my ad:

Heading: Local Independent Author
Body Text: Independent author from Alberton. Colouring books and fiction in various genres. E-books and paperbacks available.
Contact Info: Visit www.grahamdowns.co.za or e-mail graham@grahamdowns.co.za

The churches they distribute to are:

  • Brackenhurst Methodist
  • Alberton Methodist
  • Brackendowns Baptist
  • St Paul's United
  • The Bush Church
Obviously, Buddy Adverts won't be suitable for everyone because you may not fall inside that community. But the point is that, as small business owners desperately looking to advertise, you shouldn't discount these local community-driven opportunities.

What about you? Do you have a small business, and if so, have you ever considered advertising in a community-driven publication?

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Instafreebie, anyone?

You may have gathered from last week's post that I'm on a mission to grow my mailing list subscriber base.

To that end, I've just discovered Instafreebie. It's pretty cool - as an author, I load my books, set up a giveaway, and share it with readers (Instafreebie does some of their own promotion, too).

Readers then enter their first name, last name, and e-mail address, and select their preferred book format - the site offers a choice between epub, mobi, or PDF. Instafreebie then sends them the book in the format they chose.

It seems really slick. I downloaded my own book, and now I'm on their mailing list, so every day they send me links to other giveaways I might be interested in.

When you set up your giveaway, you can choose whether or not readers are required to opt-in to your mailing list in order to get their free book. Then, they give you a list of the e-mail addresses of everyone who opted in, and you can also optionally integrate with Mailchimp.

But there's a catch... Isn't there always? You see, there free plan doesn't let you allow readers to opt-in, and therefore doesn't give you access to the e-mail addresses. For that, you have to pay at least $20 a month.

I signed up for a 30-day trial anyway, and added two of my books: Billy's Zombie and A Petition to Magic. Billy's Zombie doesn't require people to opt-in to my mailing list, but A Petition to Magic does.

I signed up on Friday, and I have to admit, I've been very impressed. Having done almost zero marketing of those giveaways so far, I've already picked up a few subscribers! What's more, some of those subscribers even came from Billy's Zombie, where you'll remember, readers don't even have to give me their e-mail addresses if they don't want to.

If it continues like this, with me getting a couple of sign-ups a day, I might even be tempted to continue with $20 a month after my trial expires.

Authors, Wanna Try?

If you're an author interested in growing your mailing list, are you on Instafreebie yet? If not, and you'd like to give it a try, click here.

That's an affiliate link, by the way. If you click through and sign up, and end up taking a paid plan, I get credit that I can use towards my own plans. So if you're considering it, please use that link instead of any other.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Shadows And Teeth: Ten Terrifying Tales Of Horror And Suspense (Book Review)

My Review

This is a wonderful collection of strange stories, with a variety of different themes, by a variety of different authors. While none of them scared me per se, some of them really freaked me out.

I particularly enjoyed the Pied Piper story, about a championship eater (of all things) with a chip on his shoulder. Spawn stuck with me as well, but only because it was just plain weird.

Other stories were less memorable, as is often the case with collections like this. I had to look back at the table of contents to remember what some of them were, so here's a really quick synopsis of each:

Water, Ice, And Vice by Antonio Simon Jr.: A geeky guy moves in with a jock, and discovers a magic wish-granting refrigerator in their new apartment. I never really got into this one.

The Dinner Party by Trevor Boelter: Interesting concept. It starts out with a woman preparing food in the kitchen while dinner guests get slowly sloshed in the lounge. There's a pretty cool twist that made me sit bolt upright and pay attention, but until the twist happened, I was pretty bored.

Routine by Mia Bravo: I actually really enjoyed this one, but forgot all about it by the time I reached the end. It's very weird, about a guy plagued by weird nightmarish creatures.

The Final Spell by Mark Meier: This story grabbed my attention early on, because of its uniqueness. The entire story is written in the second person, which is very rare, and very difficult to pull off. It's about a wizard relating the story of how he taught the reader magic. I liked the moral at the end.

Back Through The Mist by J.S. Watts: It was... okay, but battled to hold my attention. It's basically a British murder mystery with a paranormal twist and links to ancient Roman mythology. If you enjoy that type of thing, you'll probably like it, but it wasn't my cup of tea.

Spawn by Paige Reiring: Some people have emotions so strong that they're able to create magical creatures known as "Spawn". One such person is an assassin who uses her Spawn to help her ply her trade.

The Pied Piper's Appetite by Rich Phelan: This is the one I mentioned earlier. I can't say too much about it without spoiling it, but you'll love it. The price of the book might even be worth it for this story alone!

Riana In the Gray Dusk by Viktoria Faust: The memoir of a photographer who had a weird encounter with a woman years ago. It's the shortest of the bunch, and while I thought it had potential, it didn't really go anywhere for me.

The Autobiography of An Unsuccessful Author by Brittany Gonzalez: Am I the only author who gets drawn to stories about authors? This one's not bad; it's about a has-been author who tries his hand at a completely different genre. In his case, horror. Weird things ensue.

Crying by Darren Worrow: Oddly enough, I'd just read this story a few weeks before, as a standalone. It's about a guy reminiscing about his childhood, specifically about an old painting that he and his gran used to look at. He discovers some weird things about the painting's history. Generally speaking, Worrow's a comedy writer, not a horror one, so there are elements of comedy in here. It's still pretty deep, though, and makes you think.

So that's it. Some good, some bad... but more good than bad. If you're into weird things, I think these stories are definitely worth a read.

My rating: 4 / 5 stars

About the Book

Prepare for extreme horror. You have in your hands the first volume in our award-winning series. This unique collection of ten stories features a range of international talent: award-winning authors, masters of horror, rising stars, and fresh new voices in the genre. Take care as you reach into these dark places, for the things here bite, and you may withdraw a hand short of a few fingers.

Water, Ice, And Vice, by Antonio Simon, Jr.
– Jeremy's new apartment harbors a demonic wish-granting fridge, which he uses to exact bloody vengeance on his obnoxious roommate.

The Dinner Party, by Trevor Boelter
– A dinner party devolves into a massacre when the blood flows as freely as the wine.

Routine, by Mia Bravo
– Edward's life is neat and orderly, just the way he likes it. It doesn't stay that way for long once bizarre apparitions threaten to end his life, and worse – break his daily routine.

The Final Spell, by Mark Meier
– Ken, a modern-day wizard, risks life and liberty in pursuit of the ultimate magick. How far will he go to obtain limitless power?

Back Through The Mist, by J.S. Watts
– Police Sergeant Comberton's investigation of a baffling murder strains her resolve to its breaking point. When the enquiry takes an otherworldly turn, she questions whether the past holds the key to her future.

Spawn, by Paige Reiring
– Assassin-for-hire Alice's personality is so keen, it can kill. She'll need every edge she can get when the hunter becomes the hunted.

The Pied Piper's Appetite, by Rich Phelan
– A competitive eater leads a ghastly double life in pursuit of a gruesome personal crusade.

Riana In The Gray Dusk, by Viktoria Faust
– A hastily taken photograph leads to a shocking revelation and a rare glimpse at a singular individual.

The Autobiography Of An Unsuccessful Author, by Brittany Gonzalez
– A one-hit-wonder's search for inspiration blurs the line between reality and insanity, with horrifying results.

Crying, by Darren Worrow
– Vinny's research into an urban legend about a haunted painting reveals more about himself than he ever dared to ask.

Buy the Book

The e-book is available at a variety of online retailers. Click here to see them all.

If you're in South Africa and prefer paperbacks, you can get it from Loot for (at the time of this writing) R310.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

MailChimp Automation, Facebook Lead Ads, and Zapier


I use MailChimp for my e-mail marketing, but I have a confession to make: my subscriber numbers are nowhere near 2000, so I'm still on their free plan.

I love MailChimp, but the one thing I've always been missing is access to their incredibly powerful automation features. So, when they announced a couple of weeks ago that all subscribers would have access to their Automation function, I was ecstatic. Previously, it was only available for paid accounts, and with my abysmally low numbers, there was just no way I could justify paying for it.

The whole of last weekend, I spent building my automation workflows, and to be honest, I think I may just have gone overboard a little bit. Here's what happens when you sign up for my mailing list (after you get your final "Welcome" e-mail confirmation):

  1. Four days after signing up, I send you an e-mail, thanking you for signing up and asking if you've had a chance to download your free book yet. If you need any help downloading it, you can reply to that e-mail and I'll do my best to help you out. Then I ask if, once you're done with it, you would mind writing me a short review.
  2. Eight days after signing up, and depending on the free book you chose to receive when you signed up, I recommend that you might enjoy a different one:
    1. If you picked A Petition to Magic, then you might enjoy Tales From Virdura.
    2. If you picked Heaven and Earth: Paranormal Flash fiction, you might enjoy Billy's Zombie.
    3. If you picked Stingers, you might enjoy the anthology that Stingers originally appeared in, I am not Frazzle!
  3. When you sign up for my mailing list, one of the things you're offered is an invitation to our private Facebook Group, so twelve days after signing up, if you haven't yet joined the Facebook Group, I send you a reminder with the link to that group.
  4. Finally, sixteen days after signing up, I'll send you an e-mail letting you know that you can Like me on Facebook, or Follow me on Twitter.
This sounds a little convoluted and over-the-top, but I don't want a situation where you sign up in the beginning of a month, and then don't hear from me again for three weeks until my next monthly newsletter. This way, you'll get used to seeing my name in your inbox, so by the time you receive my regular newsletter, you won't have forgotten who I am. Besides, if you can make it through all those e-mails without unsubscribing, there's a good chance you'll stick around!

Facebook Lead Ads

Right, so now I had this beautiful workflow in place, it was time for some subscribers to test it. I've run Facebook Lead Ads before, and had moderate success.

I set up an ad, offering A Petition to Magic for free if people on Facebook clicked my ad and gave me their e-mail address. The ad targeted people between the ages of 21 and 35, living in South Africa, who like both e-books and short stories, and I spent R50 (around $3.90) on it.

The results were pretty... meh (resulting in fewer than five leads), but it was enough to test my MailChimp automatons. Plus, I learnt something....


Normally, when you run a Facebook Leads Ad, you get a CSV file at the end, with a list of people who took up your offer and their e-mail addresses, and you have to import them manually into your e-mail software.

But this time, as part of the Leads Ads wizard, I was offered the chance to sign up to Zapier, which automatically pushes new leads into MailChimp and sends them the link to download their free book.

I'd never heard of Zapier before, but what a pleasure! I woke up the morning after running my ad, logged into MailChimp, checked my List, and all the subscribers from my ad were sitting there waiting. They'd been sent the link to their free book, and were sitting in my workflow's automation queue. No importing required.

The only problem with all this is that I subsequently discovered that I'd signed up for a 14-day free trial at Zapier, and if I wanted to continue using that feature after my fourteen days were up, it would cost me $20 (about R250) a month. Yoh, but that's expensive! There's just... no way I can justify that cost.

They have a free plan as well, and Facebook Lead Ads aren't the only thing they integrate with. There are over 750 apps that Zapier can help automate, from sending tweets to Slack, to e-mailing you when people fill out Google Forms, and more.

Many of these apps can be used on the free plan, which gives you a hundred automations a month at no cost. Unfortunately, Facebook Lead Ads is a "Premium App", and premium apps are explicitly excluded from Zapier's free plan.

Oh well, that was good while it lasted. I guess it's back to importing CSV files and manually sending Welcome e-mails for me from now on... unless you nice people buy lots of books. :-)

So what do you think? If you run an online business, have you used the above combination of tools to automate your marketing? How did it go?

I'm also interested to hear from readers - have you ever given your e-mail address to an author from a Facebook Ad? Did you stick around, or unsubscribe as soon as you got your freebie?

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Authors' Newsletters: Private Facebook Groups

This post is a revisit of one I wrote a few months ago, Authors' Newsletters: What Makes You Sign Up?

In that article, I spoke about how difficult it was to persuade potential readers to sign up to my e-mail list, and how even the offer of a free book doesn't seem to be enough.

The topic came up a few weeks ago in an author's group, and someone said they'd had success with offering people the chance to be part of a private Facebook group.

I thought, "hey, that's not a bad idea!" and immediately set about creating one. So now, dear reader, I'd like to offer you the chance to get exclusive access to our private Facebook group, when you sign up for my newsletter.

I hope to turn it into a community where we discuss books, books, and more books. Let us know what your favourite genres are to read, ask for book recommendations, share reviews of books you've read, and just generally have a wonderful time.

If it does well, I may even consider contacting some indie authors I know to come and do Q&A sessions for us.

Does that sound like something you'd be interested in?

To join, all you have to do is head on over to https://www.grahamdowns.co.za/get-free-stuff.html, and fill out the form.

To close off, I'm going to ask the same question I asked in my original post: Do you, as a reader, subscribe to the e-mail lists of any authors? If so, what was it that made you sign up? Did you give them your e-mail address freely, or did they have to woo you with something?

Please let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Word-Loss Diet, by Rayne Hall (Book Review)

Rayne Hall's writing books are always right on point. This one's no exception. It's filled with no-nonsense things you can do, right now, to make your writing really sizzle and pop.

Throughout this book, there's this analogy of obesity, as if the very inclusion of certain words bloats your book. From "filler words" to advice on adjectives and adverbs, to dialogue attribution tags, there are things you can cut, often without any change to the surrounding sentence, which will make your prose leaner and meaner. Too much fat, Ms Hall says, and your readers lose interest. Stop saying "very", shorten your dialogues, cut introspection and descriptions of travel. Hall claims that, depending on how much of this stuff you're doing wrong, you could cut your manuscript length by as much as 20%.

And for the most part, it's good advice. I happen to have the opposite problem at this moment, with my work-in-progress: I'm trying to bulk it up. But at least, armed with this book, I know what NOT to do to try and make it longer. I'm definitely keeping all this in mind, now.

At the end of the book, Rayne Hall includes two sample stories, in the hopes that you'll see just how much better this new style of writing is. I more-or-less see her point, but I did find that there were a bit TOO few attribution tags in her dialogue sometimes. See, I read for five-minute stretches, and I sometimes have to stop in the middle of a dialogue. When I pick it up again an hour later, I've forgotten who's involved in the conversation, and when I have to go through two pages or more without an attribution tag, I tend to lose interest.

But hey, that's my particular reading style. Everyone's different, and besides, one of the over-arching themes of Rayne Hall's books is that you should find your own unique voice. I still think this book is useful, and I'd recommend any writer read it. There's no doubt it'll make you better at your craft.

(My Review: 4 / 5 stars)

About the Book

Tighten and tone your writing style, and use simple revision tricks to slim down your manuscript. Shed thousands of words without changing the plot.

Strip away the word fat and reveal the muscle of your unique author voice.

This book is short, but potent.

It is perfect for

- self-editing before you submit your book to agents and publishers, or before self-publishing

- understanding why your stories get rejected, or why so few readers buy your book after downloading the sample chapters

- taking your writing craft skills to the next level

- polishing your writing style for the move from amateur to professional

The book is based on Rayne Hall's popular class of the same title which has helped many writers shed word weight and develop a leaner, stronger writing style. Some authors say the class was the best investment they ever made. Now you can study the techniques in book form at your own pace.

Click here to find out where you can buy the book.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Stingers: Questions for High School Pupils

For some time now, I've been raving about how Stingers is set to be taught to Grade 9 English pupils at Bracken High School in South Africa. Just recently, I blogged that it is happening.

And boy, is it happening fast! The teacher just sent me a list of questions that she's set for the class. She's even set up a presentation that will be used to introduce the kids to the story (view it on Slideshare here).

Reading through the questions, I wasn't quite sure how to feel. On the one hand, I'm really humbled and awe-inspired. On the other, I'm amazed that anyone can get so much out of my simple story. There's stuff about the themes of friendship, courage, parenting, and fear, which I never consciously intended when I wrote it (although, of course, bullying is there, which is something I did intend).

With her permission, I'm sharing the questions for you below. What do you think?

Chapter One

1. What game did they start to play?

2. What was the Phys. Ed. teachers’ name?

3. Why did James prefer to have his head buried in a book?

4. Who was the English teacher?

5. How did James react when he was hit with the ball? Please refer to both times.

6. Who was the school bully?

Chapter Two

7. Explain why Emily Evans thinks her husband is mean. Provide evidence for your answer.

8. Do you agree or disagree with the statement below? Provide a reason and evidence for your


“A little humiliation is good for anyone…”

9. Name the job Emily Evans had when she first met Jack Evans.

Chapter Three

10. Describe how James’ mother saw his bruises?

11. Why do you think James started to cry?

12. Explain why Mr Evans is irresponsible.

13. How did James’ mom try to fix the situation?

Chapter Four

14. Give two reasons why James was having a difficult year.

Chapter Five

15. Summarise chapter 5. You must focus on the plot, setting and the characters (description

and behaviour).

16. Discuss the reader’s first impression of James’ mother and Harry Taylor’s father.

17. Why did Harry give his father money?

18. What advice did Bill Taylor give Harry?

Chapter Six

19. Why was James angry with his mother?

20. Is his anger justified? Substantiate your answer.

21. Explain why James was proud of his dad.

22. Who gave James a lift home?

Chapter Seven

23. Where does this chapter start?

24. Why was James in the hall studying?

25. Do you think Mrs Cox made the right decision by excluding James from Phys. Ed.?

Chapter Eight

26. Why did James not leave the hall during break?

27. What forced James to eventually leave the hall?

28. Why was Harry angry with James?

29. Explain how Harry “taught James a lesson”?

Chapter Nine

30. What reason did Harry give Bill for stabbing James?

31. Describe Bill Taylor’s response to what his son had done?

32. Why did this make Bill angry?

Chapter Ten

33. Who was waiting for James to come out of his operation?

34. Explain how Olivia found James.

35. How many times was James stabbed?

36. Who wants to talk to Olivia?

Chapter Eleven

37. What were the two reasons for the emergency staff meeting?

38. Who loses their temper in the meeting? Why?

39. Who attacks Jack Evans?

Chapter Twelve

40. Summarise chapter 12.

Chapter Thirteen

41. Who was the first person James saw?

42. Describe James’ emotions when he first woke up.

43. Who came to see James?

44. How long will James be off school?

Chapter Fourteen

45. Why was Mrs Evans not at home?

46. Who came to visit him?

47. What did Ted Wilson’s dad do to him when he was a child?

48. What will Ted never allow?

49. What did Ted Wilson do to Mr Evans?

Chapter Fifteen

50. What was Bill Taylor worried about?

51. What was Bill Taylor drinking and how does this affect his driving?

52. Explain how Bill crashed his car.

53. How does Bill Taylor die?

Chapter Sixteen

54. Summarise this chapter.

Chapter Seventeen

55. Why did James decline sitting on a chair?

56. Have they found Harry Taylor?

To see where you can buy the book, click the image below: