Series Snippet: Sea Dreams

If you haven’t gotten your copy of Sea Dreams yet, you’re missing out. Here’s the first chapter:

This excerpt from Sea Dreams is copyrighted by Preeti C. Sharma, 2019

Maryn noticed the new boy at school by accident. Sitting on the floor in a corner of the cafeteria with her lunch tray and flicking through yet another college admission packet, Maryn ignored the entire lunchroom the way they usually ignored her.

She missed her best friend Rima now more than ever, especially since she sat alone in the lunchroom. But Rima’s family moved, just before the start of senior year, and now they only exchanged texts and phone calls to bridge the long distance between them. Even Maryn’s cousin David, sitting with the other jocks and half the drill team, didn’t notice her.

But the new boy, sitting across the large room at a table facing her, seemed to wait for her to look up so he could smile at her. Others shared his table, but he didn’t appear too interested in their conversation. He was seriously good-looking, with wavy dark hair, an olive cast to his tanned skin, and a lithe grace that Maryn envied. Even across the length of the cafeteria, she saw his piercing blue eyes. They zoned in on hers, and she offered him a shy smile before cursing herself for being an idiot. She dumped the remains of her lunch and the unread admission pamphlets in the trash and hastily left for her next class. Guys like him did not waste their time on shy, lonely girls dressed in discount store clothes.

He appeared in her Calculus class, and then again in Health, which was odd since she’d put off taking the freshman level class until the last semester of her senior year. With an impressive physique that pegged him as a baseball player or perhaps a fellow swimmer, he left Maryn hard-pressed not to stare when she found him in yet another of her classes. Kai, his name drawing snickers in English since they’d just finished a unit on Camelot, seemed to show up everywhere Maryn looked. And he was looking at her every time she failed to ignore him. The feeling of someone staring followed her all the time, but whether it was real or imagined, Maryn couldn’t be certain.

Maryn 5:14PM

Hot guy alert! U would swoon!

Rima 5:21PM

Do I know him? New crush for u?

Maryn 5:23PM

New student and gorgeous

In most of my classes

Rima 5:37PM

Give him ur number

Probably needs a study buddy

What’s his name?

Maryn 5:40PM

Whatevs

Kai probably has a GF already

Maryn checked the clock. She needed to finish her Calculus homework and cook herself some dinner. With three chapters of a deadly dull novel to read for English, she couldn’t spend any more time goofing off. Swim practice started painfully early tomorrow, so she needed to be in bed by a reasonable hour. Maryn texted Rima an apologetic bye before getting back to work.

But despite her best intentions, her sleep was not restful. The dream returned several nights in a row, waking Maryn exhausted and angry from hours spent in a strange water world, beaten to and fro by long, sparkling fins and chased into terrifying darkness. The dreams started last semester, disrupting her nights and upsetting her diet. The first dream scared her, but it didn’t return for a long time. As the school’s term progressed, though, she dreamt of the angry waves more often, and neither the frequency of the nightmares nor her increasing familiarity with the eerie dreamscape lessened her anxiety. By the time semester exams arrived, the dreams came once a week or more.

Before the dreams began, she was always happy swimming laps, but these days Maryn choked on terror if anyone bumped her in the pool. She wasn’t sure how she was going to perform at the next swim meet if she couldn’t work past this strange new fear. And she shuddered to think what that meant for the scholarship she needed. Her grades were good, but a swimming scholarship for an in-state school would guarantee her ticket out of Stone Pointe. She and Rima were already planning to room together at the University of Georgia at East Cove.

Almost six hours’ drive from her mom’s suburban Atlanta home, East Cove on the Georgia coast was almost the perfect place to go to college: in-state tuition, but far enough from home that she’d have the much-lauded “college experience.” And she was still close enough that she could visit home if she wanted to. Her dad lived in East Cove too and actually worked at the university, but she wasn’t sure if that was a point in UGEC’s favor or not.

That was something to worry about later. The more pressing problem, the nightmares plaguing her sleep with increasing frequency, messed with her waking hours outside the pool, too. She barely picked at her food anymore and lost all of what her mother affectionately called baby fat. Just sitting in the school cafeteria, with its faint odor of stale oil and reheated mass-produced pizzas, rendered her nearly nauseous. Her mom sent her to the mall for clothes that fit, but Maryn just bought a couple pairs of new jeans off the sales rack and continued to wear her baggy old sweatshirts. Other than school, she didn’t have any places to go. Eager but misinformed Aunt Kate bought her some pretty tops for Christmas, which languished untouched in the back of Maryn’s tiny closet.

Maryn and her mom went to lunch over at Uncle Andrew’s as usual on Sunday, her favorite day of the week since Aunt Kate’s cooking was so much better than Maryn’s. Her mom didn’t cook much, and Maryn was left to her own devices during most of the school week. Her mother worked long hours—usually the night shift—at her nursing job, always needing overtime to pay the bills her dad’s monthly child support check didn’t cover. She tried to be home with Maryn part of the weekend, though she spent most of her time off trying to catch up on sleep. Her mother looked more wan than usual, a sure sign she would soon switch antidepressants or doctors again.

Maryn didn’t feel much better herself with the pile of homework the teachers assigned for the start of the semester compounding the sleep deprivation brought on by her nightmares and the relentless swim practice schedule. She could not afford senioritis any more than she could afford the application fees to more than one college, so she opened her backpack with a sigh when she, David, and Brandon moved to the family room to finish their homework.

With its large table, computer center, comfortable chairs, and soothing sage-colored walls—not to mention the easy access to the kitchen—this room was perfect for long homework sessions. Maryn usually put off going home as long as she could on Sundays just to work here, even after David packed up his books and left to go play basketball with his friends or hang out with his girlfriend, and Brandon wandered back to his room to play video games. 

Today, Brandon huffed as he banged away at a report on the computer, while David’s attention switched like clockwork between texts on his phone and the history unit he was supposed to review. The two brothers shared brown hair with hints of red and friendly brown eyes, though Brandon didn’t quite fill out his frame yet. Skinny, pale, and studious, Brandon’s resemblance to his athletic older brother was superficial at best. David loomed next to him, his imposing figure softened by the good humor evident on his face.

Their companionable silence as they worked was interrupted by the occasional “How do I solve this problem?” or “Can you proofread my essay?” but Maryn missed the lighthearted teasing of previous years. David and Brandon were a lot of fun, cracking jokes and doing silly impressions. Between David’s devotion to his tedious girlfriend and her own continuing nightmares, they weren’t as close as they used to be. And they didn’t talk at school, either, since they had their own friends and interests. If David noticed her sitting by herself at lunch, he probably would invite her to sit at his table, but then she’d have to endure Jen’s barely disguised sneers and her exhausting attention-seeking conversation. Maryn silently vowed to look for some girls from the swim team to eat lunch with over the coming week rather than sit alone. Surely a couple of them shared her lunch period this semester.

Aunt Kate and Uncle Andrew never minded giving her a ride back home no matter how late she stayed after lunch. She’d spent what felt like half of her childhood in this house. After splitting with her dad, Maryn’s mom moved the two of them back to Stone Pointe to live closer to her brother. Maryn wasn’t sure how her mom would have managed single motherhood if not for the support of their family. She and David had been inseparable as toddlers, and once they started school Maryn spent her holidays and weekends mostly with her cousins and Aunt Kate. Visits with her dad were few and far between, and though Maryn had some good memories of time with him—usually in East Cove—once she moved to middle school it seemed like their schedules never matched up. Her dad always had to attend another conference or the time that worked for him didn’t jive with her schedule.

Maryn sighed and shook her head to clear it. She needed to concentrate on her homework, not moon over the past. What else was on the to-do list anyway? She consulted her planner to decide which assignment to tackle next, then finger-combed her dark hair into a high ponytail. When she looked up again, she caught David studying her.

“You feeling okay, Mare?” David asked. “You’re moving through the day like a zombie.”

Maryn couldn’t resist the opening. “Brains!” she moaned, tilting her head to the side and lurching in her seat.

Brandon burst out laughing and David snorted on his grape juice, which only made his brother laugh even harder. Maryn grinned before turning back to her calculus problems, but a little envy nagged her. David never looked tired—with his perfectly disheveled blond hair and easy smile, her cousin fit right in with the popular crowd he called friends. And while she wanted to paint him with the same brush as the rest of that crowd, he surprised her sometimes, like now. The fact that he even noticed that she wasn’t quite herself in between all the texting on his phone was a small miracle. But coming from the guy she could usually depend on to provide a play-by-play of the last party or school game—often from the same night—Maryn supposed his notice wasn’t really that strange. David provided good company in that sense, needing little more than a nod or a mumble to keep up steady chatter.

Her goofiness certainly distracted them from David’s question. If she told David about her strange dreams he might start checking in on her more often, especially at school. And she didn’t want to risk him saying something in front of his friends—particularly not his gorgeous, popular girlfriend Jen, who already looked at Maryn a bit like she was a squashed bug on the bottom of her brand-name shoes. Jen really didn’t need to think Maryn was more of a loser than she already did. Maryn tuned out David’s mundane commentary the rest of the afternoon as best she could: the new basketball coach changed the varsity team’s entire training program over Christmas break.

Maryn crawled into bed later than she intended that night after spending even longer than usual in her nightly bath, enjoying a homemade lavender bath bomb. She hoped that her exhaustion—coupled with the soothing soak—meant that she’d escape any nightmares. But in her dreams that night, bright blue eyes followed her wherever she swam. No matter how deep she dived, how fast she kicked, or which way she turned, Maryn couldn’t escape. She couldn’t swim any further when the insidious lull of the ocean waves drew her under, then hands grasped her ankles and pulled her lower, holding her under the surface until her lungs ached for air. Her body demanded breath, and salt water filled her nostrils and her mouth, gagging her, choking her. Maryn awoke coughing, her throat hoarse and her pajamas sticking to damp, rapidly cooling skin. After a moment spent trying to orient herself, Maryn took a tiny, fearful sip of water to soothe her throat before she tugged her blanket more snugly around her, trying to dispel the chill. She willed herself to go back to sleep but those glowing blue eyes stared back at her every time she closed hers.

Maryn caught herself looking at Kai the next day at school, trying to figure out just how Kai materialized in her dreams.  Sure, he was hot, but she didn’t need a silly crush affecting her head. Nothing could come of it anyway. Why would someone like him notice someone like her?

***

Juggling a large portfolio in addition to a backpack and a number of loose paintings, Kai walked into health class late and ducked into the empty desk beside Maryn in the back corner of the room. Coach, still at his desk writing detentions for a couple of freshmen from his last class, either didn’t notice or didn’t care about Kai’s late and dramatic entrance.

Probably has his hands full with those future delinquents, Kai thought, rolling his eyes. He dropped his backpack beside his chair and carefully smoothed each painting before sliding them into his portfolio. He took his time, waiting for Maryn to glance over casually and then give him—and his art—her full attention.

Her reaction didn’t disappoint. When he reached the last painting, she gasped. The churning sea, the strange reddish coloring of the sky, the silvery fins whirling in every direction, they all appeared on the canvas in an eerie dreamscape.

Kai looked at her, feigning surprise at her reaction. Eyes shining more keenly than ever, Kai pounced on Maryn’s sudden interest in his art. “You like it?” He’d been willing her to talk to him since he’d first seen her in the cafeteria, sitting by herself immersed in a magazine. But she hadn’t taken the bait. He could even tell that she wanted to—he caught her looking at him more than once, but each time she flicked her eyes away, a blush staining her cheeks. Kai secretly commended her efforts to ignore him—he certainly wasn’t worth the attention he now demanded of her. Now he was forced to approach her himself.

The stark contrast between her skin and her dark hair sharpened the vivid green of her eyes even across the lunchroom, and her self-effacing oversized sweatshirts and careless ponytail made it clear that she didn’t seek anyone’s attention. Between her appearance and what he’d so far gleaned of her personality, Kai would have recognized Maryn as Irving’s daughter even if he hadn’t specifically been looking for her. Sitting next to her now, Kai could see that Maryn was actually rather pretty. Close up, he could see the dark lashes framing those eyes and the rosy pink of her lips.

“Where did you see that?” Maryn whispered, still staring at the painting spread across Kai’s desk. Her pale skin seemed to have lost even more color, and her hands trembled.

Kai shrugged, his prepared answer deliberately nonchalant. “Just an idea that popped into my head. It reminded me of some of the cool stuff I saw in Hawaii when we were visiting my grandparents.” He tucked the watercolor into his portfolio. Exuding steady concern, Kai peered at her face. “Is everything okay? You don’t like it?” He tried to sound insecure about his work, hoping to coax her into a conversation.

“It sounds stupid, but I dream about that place almost every night. That exact same scene is when I wake up.” Maryn stared at the pencil-graffiti-covered surface of the old desk. “And now you think I’m some sort of weirdo.”

“No, I think you’re pretty cool.” Kai smiled at her warmly, though she didn’t look up to see it. She was already having the dreams—he couldn’t have planned his timing better. “I’ve seen you at swim practice, right?”

She smiled. “And most of my other classes,” she pointed out. “I’m Maryn.” She fell silent, and Kai willed her to ask about Hawaii, or art, or anything at all. He’d given her plenty of details to start a conversation. How was he supposed to get to know her—and win her trust—if she wouldn’t talk to him?

When Coach gave them a partner assignment that day, Kai counted himself lucky, intent on pouncing on this opportunity to get Maryn talking about swimming and the classes they shared while they worked on their assignment. That was before he looked at the subject matter. Maryn studied the questions with a moue of distaste. Kai leaned in close and glanced at the paper. He frowned too.

Today’s topic was mental health, and the first task required them to identify the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Pressing her lips together, Maryn uncapped her pen and scribbled a number of responses furiously. She didn’t even crack open the textbook. Loss of appetite, sleeping more or less than usual, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, trouble concentrating, suicidal thoughts, persistent aches and pains, digestive issues…

“Um, loss of interest in normal activities,” Kai suggested quietly. How did Maryn happen to know so much about this topic? he wondered. Kai’s own history left him too knowledgeable on this particular subject.

A deep-seated pain glimmered briefly in her green eyes as they flickered up to meet his gaze for the barest instant, and Kai felt a tug at his heart that urged him to comfort her. Maryn added his response without comment. She moved to the next part of the question.

“Anxiety,” Kai said mechanically. “Feelings of doom, difficulty controlling worry, tension, elevated heart rate, sweating, shaking, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating…”

Maryn captured the answers quickly.

“Okay, so treatment options,” Kai said, scanning the next question. “Psychotherapy—”

“Is that really what you want to call it?” Maryn asked sharply.

“That is a clinical term,” he said, defensive despite himself. “I mean no disrespect. It’s not like people can help getting sick.”

Maryn’s shoulders relaxed a little at that and she wrote in the answer and added one of her own. Medication.

The coach wandered over to glance at their work. “What about exercise?” he suggested.

Maryn turned to face the teacher. Her words were laced with unexpected venom when she spoke, though she remained just this side of civil. “Coach, if going for a run or pumping weights could cure depression, it wouldn’t be a seventy-something billion dollar industry.”

“As you say.” Coach smiled tightly and moved on to the next group of students.

Kai watched Maryn take one deep breath and then another before turning back to the paper.  For her to know the annual cost of depression off the top of her head suggested that she knew more about this illness than he realized, and it piqued his curiosity. What demons haunted her? As for his own familiarity with both conditions…Kai didn’t want to dwell on bad memories. Maryn finished writing the last sentence and moved to write their names on the top of the page. Their assignment was complete, and almost twenty minutes remained before class ended.

“What’s your last name?” she asked, her pen hovering at the top stroke of the “K.”

“Sterling,” Kai said, “like silver.”

“Or a reputation,” Maryn suggested, adding her own name with a small flourish.

Kai started in surprise. “Not many people think of that right away.” Despite it being the source of the family name… Kai tried not to let bitter thoughts consume him. He was here to make a new friend.

Maryn shrugged. “I like to read.”

“What do you read?” Kai responded automatically. As someone who’d spent too much time alone in recent years, they could surely find some common ground on such a safe subject. Maryn’s face brightened as she answered, surprising him with her appreciation of a broad range of classic novels he recognized. 

She was smiling at him by the time the bell rang, so Kai walked out with her and kept up a steady stream of conversation. He was a bit out of practice talking so much, but after listening to the students around him since he arrived at the start of the semester, mimicking the rhythm of their sometimes sarcastic slang came much easier. Their chatter flowed differently than the strict diction of his own schooling and understandably less formally than the adults he normally spoke to. Kai reminded himself of the need to blend in, to absorb the mannerisms of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood.

“Do you have a job to get to after school?” Kai asked as they walked out of class together.

Maryn shook her head. “I don’t know how I’d fit in a job, though a little spending money would be great. Between swimming and homework, I just don’t have the time. These AP classes keep me pretty busy.”

Kai met her eyes. “I don’t know,” he said. “You seem to have it all under control.” He’d watched her enter their homework in her planner, note the date of their next test, and make a list of topics the test would cover—all seamlessly—before dropping her planner back in her book bag just before the bell rang.

“Yeah, I really have to keep on top of it. Good grades and a swimming scholarship are my ticket to college.” Maryn bit her lip as if afraid she revealed too much.

“Are you done with all your college applications?” Kai liked that she wasn’t ashamed to admit that she worked hard to earn her grades. And it appeared she knew the value of that work if she was planning to pay for college herself. He mentally added a note to ask her about that next. 

Maryn nodded. “I applied early to my first choice. My best friend and I want to be roomies at the University of Georgia at East Cove. We’re just waiting on acceptance letters now, and I can still apply to another school here locally as a backup if it doesn’t work out. Just keeping my options open.” With a last tentative smile, they parted ways in the hall as Maryn hurried to her next class.

Pick up your copy of Sea Dreams now!

Ghostwriters and Passive Income Scams

Recently a would-be author reached out to me for help with marketing a book. I will call this writer Harry Potter.

Harry, an apparently successful professional, must have heard about ghostwritten ebooks as a great passive income stream.

I will guess that the Stormtroopers who contacted Harry with this proposal required Harry to provide a story premise. He signed a contract for three books at a cost of $10,000, payable in installments.

He paid the Stormtroopers $2000 and they required the next $2000 installment after the first book became a bestseller on Amazon. The next installment of $3000 would be due once Book 2 reached bestseller status, and finally the remaining $3000 when Book 3 attained its rank.

So Harry wanted guidance on how to better market his book, of which he has sold about 50 copies. I did not enquire whether these books were sold to friends, family, or strangers.

As marketing is not my strong skill, I had limited advice to offer. So I visited Harry’s sales page on Amazon to see what I could learn.

Some of the gaps I found:

  • An incomprehensible title
  • An amateurish book cover, apparently provided by the ghostwriting Stormtroopers
  • A blurb that did not read as if it were written by a native English speaker
  • No reviews
  • An odd price point
  • No categories selected, which I think ultimately saved this writer a lot of money.

Now Harry obviously hadn’t done his research, didn’t know that his books should be priced for each country’s market, didn’t’ have any knowledge of the relative costs of editing, proofreading, cover design, and advertising, which, if done properly, would have eaten up much of that original $2000 he spent.

But in this case, it can be hoped that Harry only lost $2000 instead of $10,000 because of his lack of knowledge. Because if he HAD selected good, specific categories, the sale of those 50 books would have resulted in an Amazon bestseller.

He would have made a pittance in comparison to his scammers, though. For a book priced at $3.99, an author makes up to a 70% royalty, minus a few other deductions. 

$3.99/book * 70% * 50 copies = $139.65

Per his contract, he would then owe the Stormtroopers the next installment. It is my belief, based on some quick web-searching, that the 50 copies purchased were likely bought by a group of Stormtroopers who spent $200 to make $2000. I have also seen that bots exist to prevent plagiarism detection, and other bots exist to design random text that generally makes sense. A team of Stormtroopers could even divide up and dictate some kind of rubbish related to the story premise enough to satisfy Harry. Possibly they could take a collection of pre-written scenes from another victim, change some critical details, and pass it off with Harry none the wiser.

Ultimately the most baffling part of my conversation with Harry was his insistence that his story was worthwhile and that he still stood to make money.

Honey, if it were that easy, we’d all be rich.

Now I will freely admit to not being the most tactful person, but I also hate to see people make avoidable and expensive mistakes.

But Harry was so convinced that absent a quality book, absent any advertising, that his “bestseller” was going to make his fortune. An Amazon bestseller, unfortunately, is not a New York Times bestseller.

If I were to hire a ghostwriter to put together a first draft, I would then put my own writing skills to use and rewrite the draft to sound like my writing voice. It does not appear that Harry did this or even planned to do this at any point, instead trusting the ghostwriter(s) to handle all of this for him.

As a personal point of pride, I also don’t know how I would feel about claiming that work product as my own.

Harry provided an idea, and a pretty thin one at that, for each of his three books. Anyone who has written a novel knows that there is a lot of plot that has to be developed beyond giving a character a name, a career, a history, a problem, and a love interest. There are many people who believe their ideas and their words are heaven-sent and unable to be further improved.

I am not one of those people, and I fall firmly in the “write a crappy first draft and fix it, then let someone else fix it.” Accepting criticism freely from people I trust allows me to share a quality work with strangers and not greatly fear their adverse reaction to my beloved story.

Harry, however, apparently believes that he has a chance to make money from books he’s buying from people who are clearly in it to make money from him. I can’t help people determined to believe a lie.