Reviews

After the Greek Seaman debacle, most writers are (and should be) wary of responding to, or criticising, reviews of their work. I have, however, noticed one type of review that unerringly gets on my wick is the ‘This should have been something else’ knockdown.

‘This prose poem should have been a short story’

‘This literary novel should have been a genre book’

‘This novella should have been a family saga’

Just because the reviewer would have preferred a different type of work does not, I feel justify a negative review. Saying “This is a genre book padded with pretentious description to allow it to claim it is literary” is a valid criticism. “I wanted this book to be twice as long because I wanted to know more about the characters” isn’t. It is an opinion, certainly, and it is how the reviewer felt. But criticising a book for being not what you wanted is like going to a shoe shop and complaining that they won’t sell you fish and chips.

 

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Old Post: Book readings

I’ve attended quite a few readings in the last three weeks. I’m not going to name specific events, but here are a few thoughts:

1. Set a timetable, let your audience know what it is, and keep to it. An audience gets unsettled if it doesn’t know when the readings are going to start, or how long the break will be.

2. For the majority of readers, ten minutes is enough. Unless they have a story that needs to be told in full, and can tell it well, and you have comfortable seating for all your listeners, don’t go beyond ten minutes. Keeping people standing still and silent for twenty minutes is likely to lead to someone fainting at the back of the room.

3. Keep the number of characters in a piece to the absolute minimum Rewrite the piece if necessary. Make sure it’s clear which are the main characters, and try to remind the listeners of their identity at least once. Do not give characters more than one name; in a book readers can flip back and reidentify them, but during a reading they can’t.

4. Try to keep to a single plotline; don’t have too many changes of scene; think carefully about paragraphs of description – are you painting a picture or boring your audience to sleep?

5. Don’t mix poetry and prose unless you really know what you’re doing. Poetry, strangely, can suck the power from a piece of prose.

6. The reader must be above the eye level of the audience, even if only by a few inches. They have come to see someone read; otherwise they would have stayed at home and listened to the radio or a podcast.

7 Prepare your introductions, learn them and speak directly to the audience. DON’T read from a piece of paper. ‘Tune’ the introductions to your audience. And try and balance them if you have several readers. Listing twelve publications, an award and a degree for one person, and then introducing the next by saying ‘she lives in Hounslow and likes cats and this is her first short story’ is not fair. If you have to, put this information in the flyers that you hand out at the event, and then keep the introductions brief for everyone. NB – Do not give out a flyer of mini-biographies and then read from it as the introduction. What is the point of telling the audience what they’ve just read?

7a Tell them how many readers there are going to be, so they can plan a getaway.

8. Make sure your readers have their papers in the right order. Losing your place while reading because you haven’t clearly numbered the pages is an insult to your audience. Haphazard scattiness in this situation is not endearing, only irritating.

9. Funny is good. Plot-driven is good. Ask yourself – what do I want my audience to remember of this story by tomorrow morning?

For more about book readings, see Kay’s blog: choosing-material-for-reading-its-not-rocket-science

However, despite all this book readings are fun. If nothing else, you can convince yourself you have some association with the literati, and sometimes seeing famous writers in the flesh is fascinating – not so much for the way they read, but for their behaviour before and after. And you never know…you too may end up on a sofa getting pissed with John Banville.

Writing m/m

If you frequent forums discussing m/m fiction, sooner or later you will inevitably see the question ‘Can women write m/m romance (or m/m sex, or gay characters generally)?

The discussion rarely draws any conclusions, mainly because it’s so easy to find evidence of poor quality m/m fiction online. That’s not a criticism; by the same argument it’s possible to find examples of poorly written fiction of any type online, or printed. If there’s a literary genre, there will always be people writing bad fiction within it.

But it’s a curious question.

A list of gay writers:

Walt Whitman
Oscar Wilde
Marcel Proust
Federico Garcia Lorca
Cole Porter
Leonard Bernstein
Tennessee Williams
James Baldwin
Christopher Marlowe
Herman Melville
E.M. Forster
Noel Coward
Christopher Isherwood

Most of these writers, in fact all, had heterosexual characters in their work. And I’d imagine most of them had heterosexual female characters (the horror! The horror!). And yet nowhere, on any blog or forum, have I seen readers/writers questioning the ability of these men to write about heterosexual relationships.

Oh well, but these men lived during a time when they were forced to participate in a heterosexual lifestyle. All too true. And if modern gay writers were therefore criticised in a way their forerunners are not, it would be less surprising. But still no criticism. Nil. Nada.

[Just a note – I’m sure, in the depths of literary criticism, there are many ruminating on this very point. But that isn’t the group I’m talking about. You don’t tend to see them on the kindle forums.]

There is a taint of mysogyny in these attitudes. Of privilege. You’d think by now men would know better than to start out with ‘Women writers can’t write a convincing X’. You’d think we’d all know better than to stereotype any group like this. It harks back to my previous post, about how a majority of men won’t knowingly read books by a female writer.

When I pick up a book my main consideration is whether it’s a good story. Whether the characters are complex, and the motivations comprehensible. I care if the prose is well written, that the pacing is good. But if any of these fail, I don’t flip to the front cover and go, ‘oh, well, a male author, what did I expect!’ There are certainly some genres I have no interest in; westerns have never appealed, and I have read very little horror. SAS-style military fiction leaves me cold. Cosies and religious fiction, too. But a badly written book is a badly written book. A poorly paced book is dull. One dimensional characters are just one dimensional.

As readers we really have to get over ourselves. We have many female writers hiding behind their initials. Hiding their gender completely with careful, gender neutral bios and no public appearances, or writing under a pseudonym of the opposite gender. This is crazy. It’s about the story, people!

The success of the book for me as a reader lies in the writer’s craft – and that has nothing to do with gender.

Self Publishing, part 1

I’m not going to get into the should I – shouldn’t I argument about self-publishing. I’m going to assume you’re seriously considering it, and looking for tips. Here are the things I’ve learned; I’ll try and keep them in a vaguely comprehensible order.

Cover design

You know this is vital, right? And you know that unless you’ve got some great skillz, then using MSWord and clipart is out, yes?

So.

I would suggest you really think about what your cover is going to say, and I don’t mean the title and your name. Really look at how covers are designed, how images are layered, colours are chosen, what the fonts add to the whole thing.

Make sure you can output a file in the correct dimensions and dpi for whichever publisher you’re using.

Invest in some decent software; gimp and serif are free, but pretty good. I use fireworks; even older versions of this will probably have most of what you need.

Aim to spend several days fiddling with your cover design. Don’t forget the blurb on the back, and the spine text (which is what will be on display most of the time). Leave room for a barcode, and don’t forget to put the address of your website on the back.

And if you can’t do any one part of this, employ a professional to do it for you. Your book is unlikely to sell without a good cover. Don’t skimp.

Formatting ebooks

Learn how to put together a table of contents (TOC). No, really. Get on the forums and most readers will tell you they find a TOC vital. If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you really can’t publish without it. If you’re writing a non-fiction book for an ereader and you can’t create links so the reader can flick back and forward through the book, then you shouldn’t really be publishing until you know how to do it.

Paragraphing. A confession here. Amazon’s kindle software indents the first paragraph of every chapter and new scene, and I haven’t corrected it in my ebooks. There is a way of doing it (insert p=0 in the html at each and every para you don’t want indented) but it’s enormously time-consuming and freezes the software I use about every 8 minutes. I’ve decided that in this one case, life is too short.

Make sure each chapter begins on a new page. Check and recheck, especially if you’ve had to convert it to a different format. make sure the Text starts no lower than halfway down an ereader screen. I find that’s about 6 to 8 blank lines in 12-point font, then ‘Chapter XX’, then 2 blank lines, then the start of the text. Make sure this is exactly the same for every new chapter.

Put your cover image on the first page. (centered)

Title and your name on the second page.

Copyright info on the third page.

Dedications etc on the fourth page

TOC starts on the fifth page (Centered, may be several pages long)

Maps next. (centered)

Prologue after that.

Then the first chapter.

Easy, eh?

Formatting text – and don’t forget that your tab, or indent, in a Word document is often quite large. In a book it should be about the width of 2 or 3 characters.

Next time – how does formatting differ in a physical book?

Blogging woes

It goes like this:

I wanted to keep myself anonymous, as I write books in several different genres. So, I thought I would keep this blog for only one book. I would put my initials and surname only on the covers of my books, and no one would know my first name.

Well, that worked.

By the second Amazon review someone had my full name. I suppose it’s not that hard to find; for a start it was on the email I sent to the first reviewer to thank them.

Conclusion:

This anonymity thing is harder than I thought, and I’ve blown it already.

But why bother, anyway?

Well, ever noticed that a number of female writers only put their initials on their books? And ever wondered why?

The answer lies in part in a study I read about a decade ago (still trying to find it online; grateful for any help). It showed that while female readers don’t care much whether the author of a book is male or female, relying mainly on blurb and cover design to choose a book, 98% of male readers would not read a book if they knew it was by a woman.

That’s right, 98%.

And that’s not 98% of all men, that’s 98% of men who habitually read.

So, if I put ny first name on my book covers, I lose half my potential audience. Instantly. And it’s not helped by mysogynist writers (I’m looking at you, Banville, and you, Naipaul) constantly dismissing women as incapable of writing literature of merit. Now, you might say that what John Banville thinks of literary writers has little to do with those of us who write (predominantly) genre fiction. But these kinds of attitudes have a trickle-down effect. Theey contribute to a chilly atmosphere. And they reinforce the barriers that stop men from picking up a book with a woman’s name on the front cover and actually walking with it to the till, then taking it home and reading it.

Cause it’s got a girly name on the cover. And eeew, that’s embarassing.

See also:

Robin Hobb
JV Jones
KJ Parker (theoretically)
JK Rowling

Fantasy Manuscript Panic

I like editing.

I’ll say that again.

I like editing.

I have to keep repeating it because, faced with a manuscript that (single spaced) is nearly two inches thick, I’m beginning to feel a little…anxious.

Fantasy Manuscript Panic (FMP) is a newly recognised anxiety-spectrum disorder.

I think, discounting A Dance to the Music of Time, this is a syndrome that is specific to fantasy. There is so much worldbuilding, so many stories running on parallel timelines, such a profusion of walk-on parts that it reaches a tipping point where any one part of the manuscript feels frighteningly distant from much of the rest.

FMP starts to occur once the story passes the 80 000 word mark, and recurs regularly thereafter, and its diagnostic feature is that it’s the one writer’s dilemma for which there is no advice on the internet.

Nil. Nada. Not a flaming sausage.

So, as a service to allĀ  first time multi-book fantasy writers out there, may I say: You are not alone. We are all there with you, cowering away from the MS as it quivers and mutters to itself on the edge of your desk. You can tame the beast – witness the number of published writers who have done so. It can be done.

The first watershed was when I realised that it was all right to spend a day (or several) reviewing the story. You do not have to spend all the time on the actual words. In fact to do so will actively harm your tale, in most cases. Divide it up into chapters and lay it out on the floor.

This was the point at which I realised that I need to sell this manuscript in order to buy a bigger living room, but that’s another issue entirely.

Anyway.

Lay your story out. Then work through each chapter at a time, checking that it holds together as a whole, that those pesky scenes all have some sort of narrative reference to each other. If they don’t, you have a problem, but not as big a one as your reader will have. A few scene shifts here and there – not a problem. If each chapter is a sprawl of unrelated scenes, then you’re going to have to either rewrite, or work through the novel in sections, switching scenes around to regain coherency. Fortunately, most manuscripts have some sort of linear coherency, and this is a manageable problem, though possibly a time-consuming one.

Next, look at the chapters. This is especially important if you have multiple plotlines. I usually find that this is the point where the timeframes of my subplots bear no relationship to one another, and have vanished off into an alternate dimension of time and space that would make Einstein weep.

FMP usually strikes, low and hard, as I look at the sheets of paper all over the carpet. It is followed by at least two cats, who add their own interpretation of linearity in plotting by racing across theliving room and vanishing under the bed.

Pick up the chapters, trying not to get distracted by actually reading them. Reorganise them so that the chapters line up in such a way that temporally related events will actually make sense to your reader.

At this point you will likely find that book one has about 130 000 words, which will fall neatly into the required count when you’ve added a few linking scenes and edited. Book three will be about 50 000 words, but that’s all right, because you haven’t written all the subplots and battles into it yet.

Book two has 200 000 words, and you haven’t got anywhere near putting in everything relevant yet.

This is the point at which you get up, chase the cats from the room and sit down with alcohol, caffiene or whatever your relaxant de jour is. FMP swirls around you, making you feel dizzy and sick.

Breathe deeply.

Repeat to yourself:

Book two is always a nightmare. It can be fixed.

Now, without letting yourself think any further about book two, go and finish book one. Book two is a figment of your imagination until you have had an agent or publisher nibble at book one. Book two can be sent to John jarrold, so that he can hack through the forest of prose and rediscover your plot. Start saving for the editing fees right now, if necessary. But it’s all academic until book one is finished. You will, by now, have a better sense of the shape of your story, and what needs to be in that first book. You can even add a bit more to book two, for light relief, weeping hysterical tears as you do so. But do not allow anything to distract you from finishing book one. Without it, all is mist and magic.

Gods and monsters

…well, mostly gods.

Fantasy novels shouldn’t be polemics. Using a book to bang on about your personal bugbears is never a good thing, which is why the idea of religion is still pretty central to Stormwatcher. I did toy with the idea of ditching religion entirely(it would have made me much happier), and I still have the desire to create a fantasy world in which the concept of religion doesn’t exist, but I have pretty much come to terms with the gods of this story.

Why should it bother me so much? I guess that as a considered atheist, who has come to this point after much thinking, observation and careful reading, I am still a little uncomfortable with producing anything that seems to affirm the religious viewpoint. Having had yet more of the same-old same-old today, I once again realised how little most people know about the underpinnings of science and how it differs from religion. I clearly can’t rely on my readers to discern the difference, and I’m certainly not going to plunk the explanation (see below for a brief version) into any sort of fiction until I can work out a graceful way of doing it. There are hints, of course; Caedun’s discussion with Merrel about whether dragons are myth or reality is one, because it centres on the idea of evidence. Much later, Keron and Tiel, trying to help Merrell in the infirmary, come up with what is essentially a randomised controlled trial, and the scientific concept of blinding.

Perhaps this is really the only way it can be done – not with the actual proofs, not with debunking the vagaries of human perception that result in concepts like the numinous and transcendent (which, incidentally, can now be reproduced scientifically) or in neurological and evolutionary explanations that take time and a basic scientific understanding. If people grasp why the truths of science have a concreteness about them that is utterly different from that of belief, then maybe they can at least start along the path to understanding the scientific view.

And gods are going to be with us for a long time yet. Even if the world turned atheist overnight, they are there in our myths, our paintings and our architecture, and that’s just the obvious places. However the fact that so much beauty has come from religion is not an argument in its favour; you have to remember that until recently, religion was the only game in town, or at least the only paying one, and it was also the one that could kill you with impunity if you didn’t fall into line.

There are a lot of people out there who would like to take us back to that.

Explanation: people claim that scientists are ‘believed’ in the same way the tenets of a religion are believed, and it’s true that in this complex world a lot of science has to be taken on trust. But for any aspect of science, absolutely, one hundred percent any part of it, if you took the time to study it and learn its techniques, you could prove those scientific truths yourself. ‘Belief’ in science is simply an admission that I don’t have time to run around training in astrophysics and cellular biology and pure mathematics. But I know that if I wished to, all the explanations and proofs are there for me.

I may not be able to demonstrate right now that the moon is a rocky sphere that you can land on, but (if I were younger and fitter) I could apply to NASA for astronaut training and prove to my satisfaction that it was.

Nothing about faith can be proved in this way, and that is how belief and science differ.