Tag Archives: reviewing

In Which I Expound On Reviews and Awareness

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Do reviews matter?

The answer depends on who you ask, how you define “reviews,” and what you mean by “matter.”

Ask a trade-published writer, and you’ll likely learn a review is first and foremost something written by a pro or semi-pro reviewer that will appear in an industry-supported or industry-centric publication.  That sort of review is expected to (fingers crossed!) boost enough interest and offer enough praise to filter down to the general readership in time to impact sales in the first week (or month, on the outside) after publication.

Ask a self-published writer, and you’ll likely learn a review is first and foremost something written by a reader, directed at other readers, that will appear on the online retailer’s sales page for the book or (second best) on a site like Goodreads.  That sort of review is expected to (fingers crossed!) boost enough interest and offer enough legitimacy to immediately impact the reader’s purchasing decision in the first week, the first month, the first year, and far beyond.

But no matter who you ask, the truthful answers all share one critical element:

Fingers crossed!

Like most other authors, I cross my fingers a great deal (when not using them to, y’know, write).  That’s why I put Sand of Bone in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off hopper.

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Not-Reviews and Links

100_2354On this snowy day, I’m taking a break from Sand of Bone revisions.  My darlings, I know the revision process has gone on far too long–so long that it feels quite irresponsible to take a break of any sort.  But, well… Here we are.

I’ve been reading and muchly enjoying Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy.  I could go on and on about how much I enjoy the characters and their interactions, or how tickled I am to see the insides of a revolution amidst a realistically convoluted world.  But one of the other things Elliott has done beautifully is measure her characters against the immutability of core morality—but never confuses morality with affiliation.  With our own current political climate utterly polarized by affiliation, it’s refreshing to watch characters find their allies, question their choices, and make externally-conflicting-but-internally-consistent decisions that are adjusted based upon new information.  I haven’t finished the trilogy yet, and so look forward to reading the last third of the third that I find myself purposefully slowing my reading so I don’t reach the end so quickly.

Not too long ago, I finished Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest, recommend by Sherwood Smith.  This, too, deals with revolutions and revolutionaries.  One central character finds the strength she needs to endure and succeed by holding more and more tightly to narrowing set of goals.  The other central character finds her strength though asking tough questions and adjusting her goals and perspectives.  Neither is more right or wrong that the other.  The challenges the characters face, and the settings in which they face them, require wildly different approaches even though their goals are essentially the same.

Between those two novels, I’ve tried repeatedly to sink into Ancillary Justice.  It isn’t that I haven’t liked it—I’ve really been taken by the concepts, in fact—but I haven’t found it as compelling in terms of story.  I’ll likely return to it after I finish Elliott’s trilogy in the hope the story will catch me.

On the nonfiction side, I’ve been reading The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back.  It’s as long and detailed as an epic novel, and I’ve been very pleased with the data used to back up the claims and proposals, but is too much for me to read and process all in one fell swoop.  Even so, I’m repeatedly struck by how we continuously make programs and policies bigger and more complicated in an attempt to make life simpler and easier.  It’s essentially investing millions to teach people to do more with less, rather than investing thousands to ensure there is more to do more with.  Forex, when I was living on a thousand dollars a month, I didn’t need an expensive training program to help me land a new job.  I needed six hundred dollars for new tires so I could drive to the job I was already trained to do.  Alas, I qualified for a training program, but there wasn’t even a “buy new tires” program to which I could apply.

Next up on nonfiction is How Can You Defend Those People? recommended by Nancy Jane Moore over at Book View Cafe.  The work of criminal defense attorneys fascinates me.  (In fact, when I looked into law school, it was with the goal of working as a defense attorney.)

And now, for a few links:

Hackschooling Makes Me Happy is a TEDx talk from teenager Logan LaPlante.  I love what this kid is saying, and adore the “structure” of his education.  If I had to do it all over again, I’d have homeschooled more fully along those lines.  Really, it wasn’t until this year that I completely let go of the curriculum-driven mindset.  Would that I had dumped it two years ago!

Fit and Feminist on the neurosis that has permeated The Biggest Loser.  I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve seen who are so obsessed with the notion of “healthy weight” that they’re driving themselves into illness to get it.  An extra ten or twenty pounds is not nearly as unhealthy for a person as a sedentary life or a diet devoid of essential nutrients.  And people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that, if they eat stuff like “healthy” granola and yogurts, they might as well chow down on a candy bar.

Over at Books by Women is an article on coming to writing with a theater background.  I love and can relate to her discussion of using the tools of compelling theater to write compelling fiction.  There is cool stuff there that made me think more about how I use my own theater background.

Lastly, there is The Destructive Power of Publishing.  I’ve never been one to completely and utterly dismiss all that Big House publishing is and can be, but I think I’ve made it clear why Big House publishing is not for me.  For more on that, check out Judith Tarr’s series on Escaping Stockholm.  This article speaks to those reasons.

I like getting my validation directly from readers.  Every sale is an acceptance letter!

Don’t Leave the Cool Stuff For the End

I read a trilogy recently that had me so captured, so invested, that there were times I felt I couldn’t read quickly enough to find out what happened next.  I was frantic in a couple key scenes.  I can still hear the voices of the characters, still remember their expressions, still clearly picture the world in which they lived.  I’ve already purchased more books by the author, even though I think the writer made some missteps in the trilogy’s final chapters.

See, I had to force myself to pay attention to what was supposed to the big climactic scene of that trilogy—not because of the frantic can’t-wait-to-find-out feeling, or because it was a bore to read.  No, I felt adrift and disconnected during the climax because the writer had dumped so much “Cool Stuff” in at the end.

Cool Stuff is the unique collection of setting, culture, character and magic that make our fantasy stories fantasy.  Presentation of the Cool Stuff—aka worldbuilding—makes or breaks a novel within the first chapter or two.  Too much Cool Stuff at once, and the reader doesn’t have enough of the familiar to anchor her; she will spend too much time figuring out the world, and not enough time connecting to story and character.  And once the Cool Stuff is established, the reader trusts the writer to maintain it.  It must be as consistent as from which horizon the sun will rise.  Proper use and introduction of Cool Stuff enables the reader to accept the magical and spiritual, and invest the rest of her reading time connecting with characters.

If the Cool Stuff was the most important factor, everyone would buy Guide to the Ring’s Power rather than Lord of the Rings.

So there I was—happily reading along, thrilled with the world, loving the characters, feeling both thrilled and anxious as the trilogy’s characters prepared for the final confrontation.  Then all of a sudden, this non-industrial world gained a cool underwater city with elevators and cool bits of technology disguised as natural vegetation.  And the grand revelation of the Story’s Whole Point was pretty cool, too.

Even though the ideas were awesome, they were revealed at the worst possible time.  I wanted to know what the characters were thinking, feeling, hoping and fearing.  Instead, I got characters extrapolating about how this Cool Stuff must have come to be, what it might mean, and how it might work.  I got descriptions of all these new things punctuated with bits of action–action that was more difficult to envision because nothing about the setting was familiar.

Totally dissatisfying.  The characters—their fears, losses, challenges and victories—all took a backseat to integrating new Cool Stuff into an existing and stable (and fascinating!) world.

On the other hand, I recently beta-read a novel by one of my VPXV classmates.  It was filled with Cool Stuff from page one.  I had the same urgency to read it as I did with the trilogy mentioned above, and I approached the climax with the same anticipation and excitement.  The writer delivered a final confrontation that was engaging and satisfying and filled with Cool Stuff.  But no new or special or astounding Cool Stuff was introduced.  Instead, the characters confronted variations of existing Cool Stuff, and used their Cool Stuff skills in special and astounding ways.  That left me, the reader, free to engage with the character at his most critical moments.

And what do we really read fiction for?  Character.

I think there’s a writerly temptation to “save the best for last,” holding back what we think are the most awesome pieces of our imagination until the Big Special Moment when we will just blow the reader away.  But what really blows the reader’s mind isn’t the Cool Stuff.  It’s how the characters use/confront/transform the Cool Stuff.  Cool Stuff is a tool, and a true craftsman doesn’t admire tools for their tool-ness, but for what the tools can help create.