Book Review – Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft

I am, I confess, something of a hypocrite.

As a self-published author, I naturally harbor a constant hope that readers will be willing to take a chance on books like mine.

On the other hand, being a slow reader with a finite lifespan, I generally only read books that have come highly recommended, either by people whose opinions I trust, or by the greater sphere of readership-and-review at large. For better or worse, most of these tend to be traditionally published works. (Sobering thought: I am 47 years old and lucky to read 40 books in a year. If I live to be 80 and maintain my faculties right up until the end, I only have about 1300 books left in me.)

Still, in fairness to the self-pub world I occupy, I am more than willing to read a self-published book if it achieves the requisite recommendations and/or accolades I would demand of traditionally published fare. That is how I came to choose Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, a book I cannot recommend too highly.

Senlin Ascends defies easy categorization. It is part steampunk, and part what is called “The New Weird” (of which Perdido Street Station is probably the best known example). It features a mild-mannered small-town school headmaster, who takes his new bride on a honeymoon to the Tower of Babel. The tower is the Weird part; it’s an enormous and mysterious tourist destination full of wonders, oddities and (as it turns out, to Thomas Senlin’s chagrin) a huge amount of danger. Senlin becomes separated from his wife Marya early on, and the book tells of his journey into the tower to find her.

While the setting is undoubtedly fascinating and the characters well-drawn, it’s the wordsmithing that’s the star of the show here. Josiah Bancroft is a sultan of the simile, a maestro of metaphor, a Rembrandt of painting scenes in language at once clear but evocative. Senlin Ascends is more literature than fantasy pulp.

Here, for example, is how the main character, Thomas Senlin, describes the season of spring to someone who has never been outside:

“Spring is gray and miserable and rainy for three or four weeks while the snow melts. The ditches turn into creeks and everything you own is clammy as a frog belly. Then one morning, you walk outside and the sun is out and the clover has grown over the ditches and the trees  are pointed with leaves, like ten thousand green arrowheads, and the air smells like…” and here he had to fumble for a phrase, “like a roomful of stately ladies and one wet dog.”

There’s mild irony in me having chosen that as my favorite paragraph, because Bancroft never feels like he’s fumbling for a phrase. His colorful descriptions feel natural in a way that fills me, as a writer, with unavoidable jealousy.

I experienced only the tiniest hiccup in my reading of the book, one which most readers will probably not even notice. The vast majority of the book is written in 3rd-person limited, meaning the reader is shown only things that the main character thinks or witnesses. But on one or two occasions that point-of-view slips into 3rd-person omniscient, and never consistently enough to make it seem intentional.

Also, readers should be warned that Senlin Ascends is the first book in a trilogy, and while it ends satisfactorily, it does not wrap up the main plotline. The second book, Arm of the Sphinx, has already been published, but the third book (Working title The Hod King) has not yet been released.

But, as I want to end this on a positive note, let me sum up: Senlin Ascends is frikkin’ fantastic and you should read it. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read, is vastly entertaining, and is exquisitely crafted. Best of all, it proves that self-published fantasy fiction can be every bit as high quality as what gets through the forbidding gates of the traditional publishing empire.

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Book Review – John Crowley’s Little, Big

Only once before, I think, have I finished a 500+ page book and discovered I could not easily describe what it was about. (That was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.) But it has just happened again, with the odd faerie-tale Little, Big by John Crowley.

I chose the book on the strength of multiple recommendations (and it won a World Fantasy Award) but I didn’t truly understand what I was getting myself into. Now that I’ve turned the last page and had some time to reflect, I still don’t fully understand it. Little, Big is… well, it’s a story about several generations of a family who live in a large and architecturally changeable house on the border between middle America and an abstracted faerie-land. (Possibly the physical border, but more likely the metaphysical.) The narrative shifts around among this large familial cast, showing blurry snapshots of their lives and hinting at their intersections with the faerie realm. Oft-referenced is “The Tale,” which is some grand and ancient story about the fate of faerie-kind, half-glimpsed by the characters, which they freely admit they don’t quite comprehend.

I choose words like “blurry” and “half-glimpsed” quite intentionally; almost nothing in this book ever comes quite into focus. With some rare exceptions the faeries in question are only implied, never seen, and though one of them gets some late chapters as a point-of-view character, the humans don’t truly come face to face with them. For the first two thirds of the book there is no clear plot in evidence, and though a larger story starts to emerge near the end, the author keeps it very purposefully abstract. One of the few sureties one can take away from the book is that the characters themselves are never able to clearly articulate what’s happening around them. Some accept that fact while others fight it, but the layer of gauze draped between them and the story they inhabit is not only obviously intentional , but is also positioned carefully in front of the reader as well.

The characters themselves, while numerous, are more setting than cast. They are pieces of the world, cogs in a mysterious machine, but their inner lives are something of a sidelight, a means to an end. Readers who want serious emotional investment in complex characters will be disappointed.

So, Little, Big lacks a clear plot or traditionally enjoyable characters, so obviously I’m not going to recommend it, right?

Well, maybe.

The star of the book is the language. Oh, the language! Crowley’s sentences, his word-painted pictures, are things of absolute beauty. For all that adjectives are given suspicious frowns in articles about the technical crafting of narratives, Crowley delivers a master class in their use. If graded on how often I wished there were someone nearby to whom I could read an exquisite sentence or paragraph out loud, Little, Big would be near the top of my all-time list. I may have been in a constant state of confusion, but it was an utterly enchanting confusion.

And the atmosphere of the story is hypnotic. Reading the book is like being transported bodily into a gorgeous piece of abstract art. The short sections are individually captivating, even if emerging from them left me blinking in a daze, wondering where I was. A slow reader at the best of times, I spent twice as long finishing Little, Big than I expected, because every sentence, every metaphor, demanded close attention. The book is over five hundred pages, and none of them ought to be skimmed. (In fact, often the story would lull me into a kind of daydreamish state, such that I went back and re-read paragraphs that I wasn’t sure I fully recalled.)

Finally, the physical book (at least, the version I bought from Amazon some years ago), alongside its language, is served up in a charming olde-tyme package. It features unusual graphical flourishes at its numerous section breaks, and a font evocative of the 18th century. It is all lovely, truly.

So.

Should you read it? That depends on what you want out of your reading hours. If you do decide to take the plunge, my advice is that you not waste your time trying to clear away the smudged and shimmering glass that will obscure your view of the story’s detail. I’m quite sure it’s there for exactly that purpose.

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Asking People to Punch You

I’d like to talk a bit about Beta Readers.

A Beta Reader is someone willing to read a draft version of a book and offer their opinions to the author. While it’s a bonus to find a Reader who is themselves an author or editor, there are no qualifications beyond a desire to think critically about a piece of writing and deliver unvarnished criticisms.  A books is tempered by the heat of focused opinions; without them, it will crack under the stresses of a wider readership. Like this metaphor, if I try to extend it any further.

For my current book, The Crosser’s Maze, I have employed over 25 Beta Readers, which is a giant horde as these things go. So numerous were my volunteers, I decided to split them into two groups, “Alphas” and “Betas.” The Alphas received an earlier draft. I absorbed their feedback, incorporated it as I saw fit, and then sent the revised draft to my Betas for another round. I’m nearly done assimilating all of their collected suggestions, after which I will send the book off to my esteemed editor with 207% more confidence than I otherwise would have.

The experience, for this humble author at least, has been overwhelmingly positive. I have received an enormous breadth of feedback at all levels of detail, everything from calling out typos, to suggestions about individual sentences, to opinions on characters and their relationships, to heartfelt pleas that I dial back my exposition, to broad feedback about pacing. The only things my Readers had in common were that they had read the previous book in the series, and had an enthusiasm for making my next book better. And they certainly have done that! I’ve made hundreds of changes, large and small, based on their honest feelings and observations. I’ve added whole chapters and cut out huge sections. I’ve fixed plot holes, killed adverbs, and removed over 600 instances of the word “was.” I overhauled the prologue and wrote a new ending. It’s been fantastic.

And now, allow me to switch to the time-honored “fake Q&A format” so beloved among bloggers:

Q: Did you give your Readers any guidelines going in to the process?

A:  I certainly did!  Here’s what I sent, in case you’re curious:


Did you find any violations of strict POV? What that means: each chapter is written from the point of view of a single character. As such, every sentence in the chapter should be something the POV character is thinking, is observing, is doing, or could reasonably infer from context. If you find a sentence that breaks POV, please make a note of it and let me know.

How is the pacing? Too fast? Too slow? Just right? Are there places where the story gets bogged down?  Chapters you find particularly exciting? If you hadn’t agreed to be a reader, was there a place where you would have stopped reading out of boredom or frustration?

Do you enjoy the characters? Do any of them feel flat or inconsistently written? Do they feel consistent with how I portrayed them in the first book? Are there any particular protagonists whose POV chapters you either look forward to or dread? Do you feel as though the characters are changing and/or growing as the book(s) progress(es)? Do you find the characters’ relationships satisfactory?

Do you find the plot interesting? Boring? Confusing? Predictable? Surprising? Are there any particular plot points you find muddled, pointless, fascinating, or otherwise worthy of note? Are there continuity errors, either wholly within this book, or across both books?

Are there any sentences/paragraphs/chapters of the book you feel could (or should) be cut out entirely?

How is the balance of action vs. dialogue vs. exposition?

Did you find the ending satisfactory?  (This is Book 2 out of 5, so naturally, like Book 1, it will leave the Overplot™ unresolved. But I still want it to feel like this book in specific came to a satisfying end on its own, while also making the reader want to read Book 3.)


Note that I did not insist on Readers answering all of these questions.  Rather, I presented them as a set of observations I would find useful, but assured my Readers that they need not be beholden to it, that any feedback they were moved to provide would be greatly appreciated.

Q: I notice that you asked for positive feedback as well as negative.

A: That’s not a question.

Q: You’re a writer; do you not understand inference?

A: Fine. Yes, I did ask for opinions on what Readers enjoyed, in addition to what they thought could be improved. While criticisms are generally more useful than praise to a writer, gathering positive impressions serves a specific purpose: balance. For example, one of my Readers disliked the talking cat character I introduce early in the book. But while I take that Reader’s opinions very seriously, him being a published author himself, I balanced that against ten others who went out of their way to mention how much they liked said cat. Two Readers went so far as to call the cat their favorite addition to the series. As such, I left the cat relatively untouched.

Also: writers are human beings. Hearing some occasional praise can be a soothing balm to one’s ego, especially during a process specifically designed to sand-blast said ego with Things Readers Don’t Like.

Q: Through what physical mechanism did your Readers actually supply you with feedback?

A: Several different ones. Some used the Comments feature of Word. Some sent e-mails listing all of their observations. Some made hand-written notes on a print-out and sent me scans. One even mailed me a physically-marked-up copy of the manuscript! And they all worked just fine. Authors shouldn’t lose sight that Readers are doing them a huge favor; make their lives as easy as possible as they make your book better!

Q: How did you find your Beta Readers in the first place?

A: Shameless solicitation on social media.

Q: Did you incorporate every piece of advice your Readers gave you?

A: Heavens, no. I did read every word of it, and gave each piece of feedback due consideration, but ultimately this is my book we’re talking about. An author should reserve the right to disagree with Readers, though always with at least a little bit of suspicion. One advantage of having twenty-five Readers is that I can sift for trends. If three or four (or more!) different readers all tell me they don’t like a particular scene or chapter, that’s a huge red flag, even if my instinct is to think I know better.

Also, it would be impossible to incorporate every last suggestion because, like the cat example above, plenty of Reader opinion is contradictory. Here are some pairs of actual quoted observations from my Reader team.  (Warning: minor spoilers)

Regarding whether the books feel like a role playing game in book form:

“…the books read very much like an RPG written out.”

“As a general thing, I’m struck in a good way that this doesn’t feel like a D&D campaign.”

Regarding using the aforementioned cat to slide in some Book One Recap:

“…very clever interweaving of recap into the narrative.  Well done!”

“Overall this chapter seemed a little too much “exposition cat’ for me.”

Regarding the addition of an intelligent rat named Visciv:

“It’s thoroughly exciting. LOVED the Visciv chapter btw… Eager to see how this new plot thread plays out.”

“What? A rat???? Please no.”

Regarding a burgeoning relationship between two of the characters, Tor and Aravia:

“OMG! … BEST CHAPTER EVER. The ending brought tears to my eyes.”

“The Tor/Aravia ‘love affair’ seemed a bit stiff.”

Regarding whether the characters have it rough or not:

“I am finding the continual kicking that the party are getting a bit of a downer. It seems as if everything which could go badly goes horribly terribly badly. I want some light amongst the shade.”

“Much of the book feels like it is all fated to work out for the best.”

And there were plenty more examples I could have listed. For instance, while most readers had positive things to say about the pacing, two in particular listed specific chapters they liked/didn’t like in that regard—and they were exact opposites! Sure, that kind of thing can be mildly frustrating, but it also serves to remind me that every reader is different, that every reader comes to a book from a different place, in a different frame of mind, and with different expectations. Trying to please everyone would be a fool’s errand, and when the dust settles, what’s most important is that I’m satisfied the book is what I want it to be.

Fortunately, regarding the unasked question of whether Readers genuinely enjoyed Book 2, the overwhelming opinion is that they did, even more so than Book 1. So, there’s that.

Q: Wait. Your book has a talking cat AND an intelligent rat? Is it…is it a Talking Animals Book?

A:  No! I mean, yes, a little, but the rat and the cat are both minor characters.

Q: Really?

A: Yes, I promise! Not that there’s anything wrong with Talking Animal Books if that’s your thing.

Q: Anything else you want to say about Beta Readers?

A: Hm. Let me think. Oh, yes! One nice side effect of individual reader feedback is that the opinions you collect are unsullied by “groupthink.”  Everyone is giving you their highly personalized feelings, which can be difficult to gather in a group setting.

Q: It’s entirely likely that some of your Readers are reading this blog. You should thank them!

A: You’re right, I should. Hey, Readers, every one of you is wonderful! I hope you sign up a year from now to forge Book 3 in the fires of your criticism, to beat the steel of my prose against the anvil of…oh, you get the point.

Questions about any of this?  Observations you’d like to share?  Please make liberal use of the Comments section!

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Ye Olde Language of Fantasy

I’ve started listening to the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, Sanderson being a conspicuous gap in my coverage of modern fantasy. I noticed early on his use of the word “ashmount” to describe what I assume are volcanoes, and that observation prompted me to write this piece on the use of vocabulary and language in fantasy fiction.

When I wrote my first fantasy novel, The Ventifact Colossus, I made a decision to write in a more modern, casual style than is typical of the genre. Some of my readers found this a refreshing positive, while others suffered the occasional jolt from unexpected words or phrases. One reader in particular, self-described as an “elderly English grammar fanatic,”  took exception to words like “passel,” “skedaddle,” “bushwhacked,” “passive-aggressive,” and “scarf” (used as a verb).  She wrote: “Who would use such expressions in that setting, especially the ones that refer to something cultural? No only don’t they fit, they’re not even from the same modern era.”

The Ventifact Colossus is set in the fantasy kingdom of Charagan, and obviously no one there is literally speaking English, nor do they have any of Earth’s cultural background. One of the unwritten rules of secondary-world fantasy (i.e. that doesn’t take place on Earth) is to avoid words that are derived from blatant cultural sources. I agree with that as a general rule, but it’s a fuzzier line than it may seem at first.

Since no one is speaking English in the world of Charagan, every single word I use is at cultural odds with its origins. I suspect readers would not disapprove of me using words like “celerity” or “amicable,” even though there were no Holy Roman or Greek empires in the annals of Chargish history.  Whence then came the roots for modern English words with Latin and Greek origins?  Should I avoid words like “autograph” and “astronomy?” “Latitude” and “famous?” “Martial law?”

I consider myself, in a linguistic sense, to be a translator of words with no grounding in English, but meant for a reader who is intimately familiar with English. To object to the word “skedaddle” is to maintain there was no word in my fictional world for which “skedaddle” was the best translation. Well, I say that there was. It’s my world! And given that I’m translating Chargish into English, I’m not bothered that “skedaddle” and “passive-aggressive” come from different eras, any more than with the temporal divide between “scoot” (mid 18th-century) and “amble” (Latin).

The rules for how to use language in a secondary-world setting are extremely vague, blurry, and (in my opinion) wide open to an author’s interpretation and style. For vocabulary specifically, I personally draw the line at explicit foreign expressions (that have not entered the English mainstream) and references. For instance, none of my characters will say “When in Rome…” or “je ne sais quoi.”  And I avoid direct anachronisms. I will not use words like “computer” or “helicopter,” along with expressions like “reboot” or “drained his battery.”  And I’m on board with not referring to listless foot-soldiers as “cannon fodder” in a world with no cannons.

Did I go too far in places when writing The Ventifact Colossus?  In hindsight, yes, a couple of times. I think I may have strayed across the line with “shanghaied” and “ritzy.” But beyond that I have no regrets for my word choices.

All of this is not to say that language, and specific words therein, cannot be used to powerful effect. I find word-choice a highly useful tool for characterization in particular. One of my characters is a hyper-intelligent, book-learned wizard, and so uses words like “hypothesize” and “elucidate” that none of the other characters would ever consider. (And in one scene, one of the less-educated protagonists specifically fails to understand some of the words used by said wizard.)  Fantasy characters, like the people of 21st-century Earth, use words and language quite differently from each other.

Now, clearly there are well-established conventions for style and word choice in the fantasy genre. There is a certain formality lent to fantasy works by the stately, old-style language that most fantasy authors use these days.  And that slang- and modern-idiom-free prose has a side-effect (or maybe it’s the primary intended effect?) of making all the characters sound serious. Even the irreverent, wise-cracking ones. Is that a good thing?  A necessary thing?

In my work-in-progress, The Crosser’s Maze, the most irreverent character, Dranko, says the following after hearing a litany of horrifying dangers he and his friends might encounter while traversing a jungle:

“You know what all that sounds like?” Dranko interrupted. “That sounds like a bunch of stuff we’re going to fly over.”

“Bunch of stuff.”  I’m fairly certain most fantasy authors these days would forbear from using that particular phrase. And yes, that kind of slangy, casual utterance does sand the pearly sheen of Ye Phantasy Literature off of my prose. But I am merely a translator into modern English, and if Dranko had grown up speaking English, that’s absolutely the sort of thing he’d say.

Am I inviting opprobrium by stretching those conventions? Maybe. But I also think it helps my book(s) stand out from the crowd. It’s part of what shapes my “voice,” the style in which I naturally tell stories.  And if there’s one piece of universal advice out there in Author Land, it’s “write in your voice.”

So, was Brandon Sanderson consciously avoiding the word “volcano” because of its Roman origin? I have no idea. Though I am early into his book, he has not (yet) given anything else an exotic name to avoid culture-mining. But he’s not wrong if that’s his reasoning; every fantasy author will find a place to draw their line—or more accurately, will evaluate every word near that line and decide on which side it lies. And they’ll be evaluating subjectively. I think there’s no other way to do it.

Have any thoughts about this?  Remember this blog has a comments feature; go use it to write a bunch of stuff!

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Showing, Telling, Filtering, Grounding

“Show, don’t tell.”

If you’re a writer or have ever taken a writing class, you’ve heard this advice, probably many times over.  Readers want drama, not dry explanations. Give them something they can visualize!  Don’t say “Joe became angry.”  Say “Joe slammed his fist down on the table. His face turned an alarming shade of red, his lip trembled, and the veins of his forehead visibly throbbed.”

Is it generally good advice? Yes.

Is it universally good advice?  Of course not.

A writer has to weigh many priorities while crafting scenes, and sometimes there are higher priorities than “paint a complete picture for the reader.”  The most obvious of these is brevity.  You can Google “show not tell” and find hundreds of before-and-after examples like the one I used above.  In 98% of those cases, while the “showing” version is undoubtedly superior taken in a vacuum, it is also longer. Often much longer.  And there will be times in your story when you need a short bit of telling more than three long sentences of showing.

“Jane’s face brightened when Tom entered the room.”   Yes, we could describe Jane’s facial expressions and body language in loving detail in place of the word “brightened.”  We could describe Tom’s gait, his speed, and whether the door swung in or out.  We could show with fifty  words what this sentence tells us efficiently with eight, but at what cost to pacing? Without knowing the context, I would not suggest that this sentence needs to be fixed – or at least not suggest how it should be fixed.

Another case where telling can be superior to showing is when a writer wants the reader to understand a complex thought process.  If Jane is smiling at Tom but inside she’s furious, and Tom has no idea, this is effectively impossible to show – because anything the reader can “see,” so could Tom.  One of the advantages of written stories over (say) movies is that an author can give you a direct look inside a character’s head (without one of those goofy voice-overs, at least).  Often what’s most interesting, most meaningful about a scene is how a character’s thoughts and emotions are juxtaposed with the surrounding action.  And if I may stray further into the realm of the subjective for a moment, I find it annoying when an author relies on hiding the motives of a POV character in order to create drama or suspense.  (This doesn’t apply to non POV characters, of course, or any character in 3rd-person omniscient storytelling.)

I find this topic on my mind quite often as I write my current series of books, and specifically as I consider a specific subset of telling called filtering.  I was introduced to the concept of filtering by friend and published author Edward Aubry, and soon realized it was a sin I was committing on every page of my books. Simply put, a filter word is one that comes between the reader and the direct observations of a POV character.

Here’s the simplest example I can think of. Imagine a chapter told from the POV of the character Dave.   He hears the doorbell ring.  I could write that as ““Dave heard the doorbell ring,” but it’s better to cut out the middle man.  “The doorbell rang.”  The reader doesn’t need to be told that Dave heard it; we’re in Dave’s head. There’s no one else it could be.

Likewise:  “Dave decided to open the door.”  Unless the decision making process itself is important to the scene, it’s better to write “Dave opened the door.”  Other common filter words: realized, wondered, seemed, looked, noticed.  There are plenty of them, and it’s best to get rid of them when they’re not needed. After Ed pointed out this pitfall to me, I excised literally hundreds of examples of it from my working draft of The Ventifact Colossus.) It sounds straightforward, right?

Well, no. Not always.

In my current series, I’m writing an ensemble cast of protagonists that spend most of their time in a group. Think Fellowship of the Ring. But unlike Tolkien, I’m also writing each chapter in the strict POV of a single character in that group. (That means I never write about something that the POV character cannot directly experience or infer.) One of my biggest challenges is maintaining strong POVs despite the large group, particularly in scenes when the characters are having group discussions.  If I’m writing in Aravia’s POV while all seven characters sit around a campfire chatting, many lines of dialogue can pass without Aravia’s POV being asserted.  Yes, I could interject a reaction between every line of dialogue, but that, it turns out, is pretty awful to read.  But the alternative is that readers can slowly drift away from the POV.  Just because it’s Aravia’s chapter doesn’t mean a half-page can go by without her saying something or reacting to someone else.  Sometimes it’s important that she witnesses interactions between multiple other characters…and that’s where I end up wrestling with filter words.

For example, imagine that the seven heroes are hiding out in a barn, discussing a plan. Aravia is the POV character, but at the moment she’s watching as Ernie and Morningstar argue.  Several lines go by of just those two talking:

Aravia sat and stroked her cat, content for the moment to let others argue their course of action.

Morningstar stood and glowered. “We have to try it.”

“No,” said Ernie. “We don’t.  The prisoner will be injured . Probably killed.”

“It doesn’t matter if he  gets hurt!” Morningstar was forgetting to keep her voice down. “If we fail at this, a hundred people will die.”

Ernie was defiant. “You don’t know that.”

Morningstar crossed her arms. “If you have a better idea, tell us. We have five minutes before it becomes moot. The moon is almost down.”

Ernie stammered something unintelligible. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again.

“That’s right,” said Morningstar. “I agree it’s a dangerous plan, but it’s our only plan.”

Anyone with a brain could see this was a terrible idea; there were too many variables, too many unknowns.

Now freeze. This is an Aravia chapter, so that last observation is hers.  It has to be hers. But the reader has just spent 15-20 seconds watching (through Aravia’s eyes) two other characters bickering.  I didn’t want to interrupt that argument with Aravia’s internal play-by-play—that would have diffused the tension of the scene—but by the time I get to that final line, the POV is no longer in clear focus.  The line as written is confusing. Who’s thinking that again? Ernie?

Instead I’d be inclined to write:  “Aravia could see clearly this was a terrible idea…”   In this case the filtering serves the additional purpose of re-grounding the reader in Aravia’s POV.

Is my inclination correct? My writer friends could perhaps find more elegant solutions. I invite any readers to comment; I’m always in the market for writing advice!

UPDATING TO ADD:  Kevin Kulp has indeed suggested a non-filtering solution:

“Aravia frowned. Anyone with a brain could see…”  Solves the regrounding with no filtering!

 

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Book Review – Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies

Today I finished a book.

I do this occasionally and usually with little fanfare, but this was a special one. The book was Robin Hobb’s “Fool’s Fate,” and in completing it I ended a 4500 page journey through one of the greatest collected works of modern fantasy.  Those would be the three books in Hobb’s  Farseer Trilogy as well as her subsequent Tawny Man trilogy.  The trilogies together chronicle the life of royal bastard FitzChivalry Farseer, a man who must surely be one of the most long-suffering protagonists in the annals of fantasy fiction. (There is a third trilogy that jumps the story 10 years and continues with mostly the same characters, but I haven’t read it, and I need a break. I love these books but they’re emotionally exhausting!)

I don’t think I exaggerate when I describe Hobb as one of the greats.  Google for lists of “best fantasy” or “greatest fantasy series” and the like, and these books appear on all of them, often near the top.  But it would help a prospective reader to understand exactly what they’re getting before they pick up Assassin’s Apprentice.

Hobb’s Farseer books are at the far end of the character-driven scale. As fantasy literature goes, they are extremely light on traditional action sequences.  This is not to say they don’t have engaging plots that will drive a reader forward on their own, but the stories themselves are not the main event.  The characters are complex, highly varied, fascinating, sympathetic, and deeply flawed in realistic ways.  (Also the villain of the first trilogy is every bit as hateful as any of the most loathed villains of the genre.)

The books tend to fall into a spiraling pattern, where the first-person narrator FitzChivalry Farseer interacts with a dozen other characters in turn, each time expanding on and developing those relationships. The result is a bogglingly-deep understanding of, and familiarity with, all the major players in the story. Every major pairwise relationship is deeply explored, and every sentence is fraught with relevance to one of these relationships.

The writing itself is also top-notch.  No, that’s not strong enough. The writing is exquisite.  It is flowing and poetic without ostentation, and serves to make even simple observations and mundane events a joy to read. Hobb is a master of language, and knows exactly how to use it in service to the exact kind of story she’s telling.

Fair warning: Robin Hobb is a “food-and-clothing” writer. You will be treated, often, to detailed descriptions of what the characters are eating and wearing.  Were I getting these details from a mediocre writer (or even one merely good), I’m sure I’d find them tedious, but Hobb’s use of language is so deft, I enjoyed reading about every ruffle of lace and fruit tart.

The books are undoubtedly slow in places.  You can pick up the first book in the second trilogy (Fool’s Errand) and read an outline of the main plot on the back cover, but you will then discover it takes something like 200 pages before that plot begins in earnest. And I think the last book in the first trilogy (Assassin’s Quest) drags a bit in the second half.  But for me these are the most minor of quibbles.  I still enjoyed those 200 pages, which consisted of in-depth re-introduction to the major characters and how they related to one another.

Finally, these books are not uplifting. Terrible things happen to the main character, and his choices – both wise and unwise – tend to lead to misunderstandings and heartache.  You will read and be desperate for FitzChivalry to catch a break, but that seldom happens.  That said, these are not books of the “Grimdark” school of fantasy.  Deaths are neither brutal nor frequent, and nothing ever feels gratuitous, so there will be no confusing these books with Martin or Abercrombie.  But there is a gauzy layer of inevitable tragedy draped over everything that happens; the books are engrossing but not joyful.  (And one particular death scene is absolutely heart-wrenching.)

Were I rating these books on any common scale, I’d give them all the stars.

(Addendum: There is yet another trilogy – the Liveship Traders – that falls chronologically between the two trilogies I’ve been talking about.  The Liveship Traders is only tangentially related to the Farseer books, but the latter contains a few minor spoilers for the former, in case you are a completist about these sorts of things.)

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“How’s Your Book Doing?”

On a regular basis I am asked some variant of the question, “How is your book doing?”  Here, let me answer that.  Warning: numbers!

Today is May 14, 2016. The Ventifact Colossus has been out for just over four months.  In that time it has sold 513.91 copies. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you bought one of those. Thanks!

Now you may be saying to yourself, “Dorian made that up; how can he have sold 91% of a book?”  The answer to that is Kindle Unlimited.  KU is a service Amazon offers that’s like Netflix streaming for books. You pay a monthly fee, and in return you can download as many books as you like, provided those books are (like mine) included in the KU program.

The way authors get paid for that is by pages read. The Ventifact Colossus is 626 “Kindle Edition Normalized Pages” long, and the payout is (with some month-to-month variance) about $.004 per KENP.  So, when someone reads my whole book as a KU download, I make about the same amount of profit as I do from a traditional e-book sale.

So far, readers have read 46,267 pages of the book through Kindle Unlimited downloads, which is about 73.91 “complete reads.”

Of my 513.91 sales, the breakdown is as follows:

  • 107 copies of the print book
  • 165 copies of the e-book at full price ($3.99)
  • 168 copies of the e-book at discounted price ($0.99)
  • 91 copy-equivalents read on Kindle Unlimited

TVC was also downloaded 4,691 times during my free giveaway, but as useful as that was, I don’t count those downloads as sales.

Those 107 print copies are actually quite a few more than I was expecting, as a percentage of the total.  Most of those were sold early, many to friends who wanted a solid physical book written by someone they knew.  More numbers:

First two weeks:  70 print books,  106 full price e-books (including KU reads)

Sixteen weeks since then: 37 print books, 134 full price e-books (including KU reads)

Since May 1:  1 print book, 36 e-books.

That last one is more indicative of the ratio I was expecting.

As for the question “Is 513 sales a good number?” I don’t have a good answer to that.  Maybe? It’s impossible to discover how many copies self-published books typically sell.  I’ve read estimates that most self-published books don’t top 100 copies sold over their lifetimes, and that the average is in the 200-500 range, but none of those estimates are sourced in traceable data.  All I can say is that The Ventifact Colossus falls somewhere between “abject failure” and “Hugh Howey.”

As for the question “are readers enjoying the book,” I’d say that so far signs are positive. My Amazon and Goodreads scores are quite respectable, and include some blush-worthy praise from people I’m sure I’ve never met.  Where there has been disappointment, some readers have lamented that the book is too “G-rated” for their tastes.  (I would say PG/PG-13, but they have a point. I am intentionally writing the series such that parents should feel okay letting a 12-year-old read it, even though I am also trying to interest and capture an adult audience. It’s a fine line, and I don’t pretend to be walking that tightrope without an occasional wobble.)

A couple readers also seem irked that the end of the book is a cliffhanger.  I don’t think it is; as my friend Ed opined, there’s a difference between a cliffhanger and foreshadowing.  I would hope that readers would notice the “Book One of…” at the top of the cover, and realize that not every mystery and subplot would be neatly wrapped up by the end.

It is a near certainty that my average review scores will go down significantly, now that 4,000+ people out in Internet Land have downloaded the book.  But that will be fine; having more reviews is better, even if they’re not all glowing.  A score of 4.4 over 200 reviews helps a book much more than a score of 4.9 over 11. For better or worse, many readers want to feel as though they’re getting in on something big.

While I’m here, a quick update on Book 2, “The Crosser’s Maze.”  I still feel as though I’m on pace to finish the first draft in July or August, which means a release sometime early in 2017.  I’m 110k words in, and I’m guessing the draft will come in around 150k words.  (For reference, The Ventifact Colossus was about 127k words.)

Feel free to leave comments or questions!

Thanks,

-Dorian

 

 

 

 

 

 

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