On Receiving Reviews

You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. Yes, you spent years with these characters, telling their stories, breathing life into them, as a multi-layered story unfolded around them. Yes, you stayed up late when they wouldn’t get out of your head, when they wouldn’t let you sleep because what they wanted you to share about them needed to be put to paper. Yes, you jotted things down at the weirdest times, when inspiration struck. You cheered when they did something heroic; you cried when they experienced loss. But in the end, they were yours, all in the world you shaped for them.

And then you shared them. You took them out of the box they’d been in and you carefully unwrapped that box and let others peer inside. And you held your breath. They liked your characters as much as you did, perhaps, but some of the things they did weren’t consistent. Some of the things they said didn’t sound like them. Worse, some of the things they did … didn’t matter. But this is what happened when you opened that box, and so you let others help shape these characters, shape them from characters into people. People with goals, who loved one another, who hated one another, who argued or collaborated… who lived. 

Now you had a group of friends who had helped you build a set of people to live in a world you shaped. Those friends liked the story and the people. They entered the trusted circle into which you held all this imagination. You took parts of what they shared and applied it, but other parts you didn’t want to change. There are certain things about your people that shouldn’t change. 

Eventually, it was time to open the door, to let the whole world see your people, share your world.

And you held your breath. 

You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. That getting here, publishing something that you’ve spent so much time on, that others have spent so much of their time helping you create, is the real reward. But then you see that you’ve sold copies of your creation to people beyond just friends and family. There are people you don’t know who are reading your book. And they’ll have opinions. 

And you hold your breath.

The first review for Ahvarra came in last week. 4/5 stars on Amazon. A very good review. Someone who not only enjoyed the book but enjoyed it enough to request a sequel. Someone who wants to see more of the world on the other side of the Heart. Perhaps more importantly, someone who enjoyed the people I created: “There were a couple characters I liked more than others and I didn’t want to leave them…” So to erinthedreamer, I give my Heart-felt thanks. You are the first person who has reviewed the full book, and your enjoyment of it has made me very happy.

As I sat down to write this blog this evening, I received another review. 5/5 stars on Amazon. Another satisfied reader:  “I highly recommend this book to anyone that enjoys fantasy or sci-fi stories, the author manages to combine all the individual characters and stories that span different worlds and time lines into a really great book.” Thank you, Chris! I’ve stopped holding my breath now!

I told myself that it didn’t matter how it was received. That getting here, after so much hard work, was mastering the real challenge. A dream realized. But getting here was only half the battle, because of readers like Erin and Chris. 

Validation? Yes.

Motivation? Hell yes.

And the first draft of the second book hums softly in the background. A new writing group is meeting, and their challenge will be to help me shape more of this world beyond the Heart. Stay tuned, readers… fans. 

I. Am. Writing.

Risk vs. Reward – Setting Expectations

You know all the clichés. “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” “Your reach should not exceed your grasp.” “To win you have to risk loss.”

They are a part of our cultural upbringing, that in any gain there must also be the chance of loss. If you gain without risk, what have you gained?

As an independent author, there is a daily struggle with the risk/reward quotient. How often should I self-promote via social media? There must be a point at which I’ve gone beyond self-promotion and into active annoyance, and I’m careful to not push that line. (At least, I think I haven’t.) An author friend of mine recently told me that she is spending a fair share of money each month to have a marketing firm run her social media for her. I can understand the reward side of that equation: more exposure, broader audience, greater chance for sales. But the risk – the high monthly cost – dissuades me. How much time should I spend writing this blog or just relaxing after a full day of activity on my day job vs. writing? Well, the blog is writing, and writing is relaxing, so while there’s reward in that, the risk is that I’ve spent more time not working on the next book.

But recently I had the chance to participate in a contest run by Bloody Cake (http://bloodycake.wordpress.com/), a site that boasts a dark and quirky set of content. The contest was (is actually, as of this writing the winners have not been announced) focused around Mark Lawrence’s upcoming novel The Prince of Fools. Pretty simply rules. Follow Bloody Cake’s Facebook page (done, and by the way, they throw out some lovely art) and then write a 300 word story featuring the words prince and fools. 

Risk? More time away from marketing, writing my book and drinking scotch. Reward? Writing… and the challenge of scoping a tale into a mincer to get to 300 words. But also, the chance to show what happens when risk is greater than reward. When the reach exceeds the grasp. When regardless of whether you take the shot, you can still miss. When even when you risk loss… you can still lose.

 

Thus, Epic Fail:

An axe thumped into the door. There was a grunt behind it, a shift of splinters. 

“Fools!” Thark shouted at me. “Attack the Prince, you said! We’ll be rich, you said! And we fecking believed you!” 

There was blood on the left side of his face, streaming from a cut he’d suffered in the ill-fated battle on the road. We’d fled when it became obvious my plan had failed. Fled and left my men to die. I felt it like a blade in my gut. When I looked down, my fingers were in the wound that had been dealt me. The blood dripping through my fingers splashed in a puddle on the floor. 

The axe thumped again and the door groaned. 

“Now what?” Thark asked. 

I looked around the small room. A store room really, at the back of a cabin. We’d put a blade through the owner and hoped to sneak out the back, only to find there was no exit. A stout bar across the door and a quick prayer we wouldn’t be found; only one was working. 

The axe thumped again and the blade shot through the door. 

“Surrender?” Thark asked. He lifted his sword, clotted blood dark as dirt down to the hilt. “Or not?” 

The axe thumped again, shattering the top of the door. The bar ripped from the wall. The door swung open and men filled the space. 

Thark rushed forward and a blade slid through his jerkin, right through so the blade stood out from his back. 

I looked up as a man approached. He smiled through broken teeth. I remembered hitting him in the mouth with the hilt of my blade. He spat blood into the puddle at my feet. 

Then he brought the axe up for one more swing.

 

 

Well, I didn’t win the contest. However, unlike our friends Thark and the silent protagonist of the tale, I did receive a reward. Namely, accepting a challenge. You see, the first pass of Ahvarra was close to 190K words. I have almost always been a novelist when it comes to writing. I think in large stories with multiple characters, conflicts and relationships that require explanation and action. A tale in 300 words? I wasn’t sure it could be done, at least by me. But I did it, and considered it ironic that in describing a failed risk, I received reward for myself.

The moral of the story, of course, is what each person must address when facing the decision to take a risk. Not necessarily how great the reward will be, but to set your expectations so that the reward seems the greater. 

And so, to the daily grind. I decided to put Ahvarra into a Countdown Deal. I asked friends and family — and thank you all again for helping — to share the link to my book with their friends and family. I chose to write this blog tonight. And soon I’ll choose whether to take a dram of Glenmorangie or Aberlour single malt to unwind. 

Small risks, setting expectations. When you’ve got a long road ahead, there’s time to take caution. After all, “Behold the turtle.  He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”

World Builders, Start With Your Characters … and Build Their World Around Them

“Good fantasy fiction: … explores real human conditions through fantastic metaphors which universalize the characters’ individual experiences to speak personally to us all.” 
― Laura Resnick

 

A writer of fantasy fiction will always keep the setting of his or her tale in mind while placing characters within it. But as I come across comments on forums or within articles, I see that many build the setting before understanding the characters who will populate it. World-building is certainly an art, and there are rules to the worlds we build that must be followed by its inhabitants. But I’ve often found that starting with a world — whether it be new or old, far away in space and/or in time — limits the story that will be told. So many want to re-capture the imagination that Tolkien used to build Middle Earth, but starting there, on the outside looking in, with god’s brush in hand, calls into question exactly what will happen in the world being built.

Stories are about characters, who are people. Many of us have arguments with our characters, or find ourselves wondering what this one or that one would do in certain situations. If caught in a traffic jam, would Alynna just get out and walk? Possibly. Almost certainly if the distance were not far. 🙂

The difference between fantasy fiction and general fiction comes down to how your characters interact within the world you’re building. But first there must be characters, and they must have goals and ambitions, a reason for being alive. And those ambitions must be placed in direct conflict with the ambitions of other characters, who want goals that are the opposite. In conflict there is story, and conflict is not created by whether a wizard can shoot fire from his hands or whether a river forks just so around a mountain pass on a map, thus creating a border between battling nations. 

Understanding who your characters are and placing them within your world, at the right time, where an event will serve as a catalyst to the tale, that is the foundation from which to build a world. Cast your hero on his quest, but keep in mind his strengths and weaknesses. Find him friends and enemies, but always understand why those friends would provide aid, and why those enemies choose to thwart.

In short, build from the inside out. Start small, in the thoughts and aspirations of a single character with a single goal, and allow the world that character will inhabit to develop around him or her. That is where the story begins… now where in the world will it lead?

Spritz – The Future of Reading? How Should Writers React?

Web and social media sites have been abuzz about Spritz (http://www.spritzinc.com/), a new app that allows readers to read words at a phenomenal rate and is akin to a technology called RSVP (Rapid Serial Visual Presentation). When I saw this, I thought, “Wow! It’s going to revolutionize reading.” We’ve been reading the same way (tracking words across page be it left-to-right, right-to-left or other) for thousands of years. But the digital age is full of amazing advances, and Spritz appears set to provide another. 

Obviously, for those of us who have a monstrous reading backlog, the first impression is that this is a good thing. Personally, I’ve whittled away at my hardcover and paperbacks to the point that they fit in one set of shelves, and in the process I’ve amassed a library of e-books that I can carry around wherever I go. Along with a hefty wish list and the ever-present list of upcoming titles. So, imagine being able to hum right on through this library with this handy-dandy app! 

But hold on. Critics argue that comprehension goes down the tubes the more words you try to jam into your brain all at once. Spritz gives you the option to slow things down or speed them up, from 250 words/minute all the way up to an eye-blistering 600. But can your brain actually grasp what is going on at those speeds? And perhaps more importantly: would you want it to?

One of my favorite authors is Guy Gavriel Kay. I don’t often re-read books (see backlog + lists above) but I’ve re-read Tigana and A Song for Arbonne several times. Two of my favorite books ever. But one of the things I love most about Kay’s books is his style. Truly, reading one of his books feels as though I’m at the feet of a bard. I never blast through a Kay book. I digest them, piece by piece, enjoying the nuance, the language, the absolute splendor in his voice. I simply cannot imagine capturing all of that by cramming it into my brain at lightning speeds.

Let’s then take the occasional arresting moment. I’m currently reading Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns. I came across a passage (and I don’t want to share it because of mild spoilers) that made me stop. The sentence was fantastic. I re-read it. I tweeted the author about it. It was really that good. Had I whizzed by it at 300 words per minute I might never have given it a second thought nor the author his due.

But to the point. Let’s assume that this catches on with readers. To assume it won’t is to make the same mistake many publishers did when they claimed digital distribution would be a fad. The world is all about speed. Technology changes at a rapid pace. You get your news moments after it happens; you tweet with your friends about what you’re doing right now; and you carry tomes of books on devices that weigh a few ounces. So let’s assume that a few years from now a good portion of the reading world is flying through books using this or some other speed reading app.

Should writers think about that when they sit down to write?

The answer could very well be yes. 

Certainly as a writer of speculative fiction, I’m already considering what my reader can envision in his head. For many speculative fiction authors, world-building is part of the art. Can you see the world I’m trying to build? Is the magic system (if there is one) complex enough that I need to describe it in detail? Setting becomes so critical, because when I say “Athynea falls” … I need to describe Athynea to you, why it was important to the characters who defended it. On the other hand, if I say “New York falls” then you have a picture of New York in your head. 

So the art of world-building, of telling a tale in an otherworld, becomes one of imparting the vision of that world to the reader. Think of Lord of the Rings. Would Tolkien have needed to spend more time describing Minas Tirith if he’d known you were pulling a fly-by? He might have. Because to me, the need for you to comprehend my world, to grasp its rules, is critical to the tale. So in a world where readers are reading at 500 wpm but perhaps not comprehending at 500 wpm, I need to describe my world and my rules in simpler terms or in even more detail. 

And let’s just throw in a brief mention of names. I’m used to creating worlds with strange names: Athynea, Darramor, Logenbressa, Elryssen. To a reader catching these strange names for the first time as they fly by, the import of their name and their place in the world could very well be missed. And if so, what should I do, as an author, to fix that name and that place in the reader’s mind, regardless of whether they’re reading at normal speed or high speed? More description, simpler terms. 

Reading comprehension is obviously critical regardless of what you’re reading. But there are layers to it in speculative fiction that demand the author be precise. If the law of physics is being changed, if the world I’m building is not the one the reader is already familiar with, then I am already concerned about imparting comprehension.

But in the near future, how closely I impart it may need to change with how quickly the reader is reading it.

 

 

Day 11 – Learning to Market My Book

There was a particular scene in the Disney movie Mulan that I really liked. All of the trainees are tripping over each other and causing all sorts of havoc and they land at the feet of the auditor who is now in charge of their training. He looks down his nose at them and writes on his parchment with an imperious, “Daaaaaay 1.”

Being an indie author is sorta like that. There’s a lot of tripping and falling and havoc and at the end of the day you can take a look at how many copies of your book you’ve sold and sigh. Of course there’s always tomorrow.

Ahvarra has been available for 11 days, and I’ve sold 11 copies. The glass half full version of that is “hey, that’s one per day!” We’ll go with that. There’s a lot of works involved in selling 11 copies, regardless of how many went to friends, family, etc. Some have gone to people I don’t know, and that’s exciting and terrifying. I don’t have a review yet, but I’m anxiously F5’ing Amazon awaiting word.

I realize I shouldn’t be nervous. A lot of people have read this book, or at least a prior version of it. An entire writing group’s worth of people, more than a dozen, gave me line edits, character consistency comments, story/plot feedback, etc. It’s gone from a 180K+ word draft to a crisp 120K+ word novel. It’s a novel. And at least from the feedback of the writing group, a good one.

Which leads me to the marketing. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a flock of people just waiting for my book to hit Amazon. And so the marketing has begun. A Facebook author page (with the obligatory “Like me here: https://www.facebook.com/ahvarra), signing up for free advertising from eBook sites, looking into things that might or might not be legitimate, and finally learning how to tweet. 

I’ve followed a lot of people on Twitter over the past 11 days. Some of them likely think I’m stalking them, and I’ve undoubtedly made a social media faux pas or two already. I’ve horned in on conversations (are they really private if they’re on Twitter?), I’ve started a fight over whether dark or milk chocolate is superior (dark) and had actually had a brief discussion with two of my favorite authors about single malt scotch. And in the process, I’ve gained followers, and maybe one or two sales, along the way. 

But it’s a scratch and bite business. There’s no doubt that seeing my Amazon rank in the thousands early on was exciting, and seeing it dip to 300,000 was… not. Meanwhile, I’ve got a full time job, boys who need help with homework and to continue plugging away on the second book. Which reminds me, I need to get the writing group back together again.

But you know what? I wouldn’t change it. I’m a published author. Bring on Day 12.

Best Fans and What’s Next?

I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about my family, who are definitely my #1 fans. First off my wife is simply amazing. She has helped me find a way to host this web site, wrote most of the biography I used on Amazon (because apparently when I try to write about myself it’s boring), and has been supportive every step of the way to making Ahvarra’s publication a reality.

My eldest son immediately captured a picture of my cover and put it up on Instagram, urging his friends to buy it. 🙂 He’s taken on lead marketing duties and, once he’s caught up on all his schoolwork, wants to read the book.

My youngest son immediately started reading the book and loves it. He likes to tweet about it while he’s reading it, so he’s not only enjoying the reading but also helping with the marketing. 🙂

My brother was book sale #1 and my sister was book sale #2. 

Just want to say how great it is to have my family in full support of this book and my writing career. It is truly a pleasure and blessing!

 

Now, as for what’s next? Well, I’ve only sold 10 copies in the first week, so there will be a continued marketing push. Really looking forward to getting some reviews up on the site to see the reaction from my audience.

Other than that, it’s on to my second book. This one will be darker than the first. It’s also one I wrote some time ago, so I’m pulling it out of the drawer and starting the laborious self-editing process before engaging with the writer’s critique group again. 

Originally this second book was to be completely separate from Ahvarra, but again my wife stepped in with a fantastic idea. I’m going to need to make some pretty interesting modifications, but tying it to Ahvarra by sub-titling it “A Tale from the Other Side of the Heart of the World” will at least keep an over-arcing story — and a consistency to my magic system — in place.

And It’s Complete!

I just finished. I hit the “save and publish” button and Amazon whisked Ahvarra away for review. In 12 hours or so, the English version of the book will be available.

It’s difficult to describe my feelings. I’m both tremendously euphoric that I’ve gotten the book to this point, where I consider it done, ready for the world; I’m also quite a bit nervous that the world will say, “Meh.” And obviously I’m full of hope as well, that many readers will find the story interesting, riveting and will feel the pull of the characters and world I’ve created.

When I began writing Ahvarra I wanted to tackle different themes than what I saw in traditional fantasy. Much of the genre had seemed to me at the time to be locked in the epic tale of good vs. evil. It also seemed that you couldn’t pick up a fantasy novel without understanding that it was the first in a trilogy or an even longer series.

I wanted to write a story that didn’t need a sequel. I wanted to write a story where the characters weren’t good or evil necessarily, but where the reader could recognize and even sympathize with their intent. Don’t get me wrong: there are characters whom you will want to see win, and there are characters whom you will want to see lose. But that doesn’t mean that the winners are good and the losers are evil. These characters are, for the most part, people. They have goals, ambitions and interests that conflict with one another. And where there is conflict, there is a story.

I hope you enjoy reading Ahvarra as much as I enjoyed writing it.