Thursday, 31 December 2015

List of Lists ... Five

(I did this last year, the year before, the year before and the year before ... I'm doing it again!)

2015 has been kind to The Liar's Key!


Below are the 23 'Best of 2015' and 2 'Best of 2016' lists that I know of featuring The Liar's Key (presented in chronological order of publication). The two main reasons for assembling this list of lists are:

i) A thank you to the reviewers in question. It's a labour of love maintaining a book blog.

ii) You're probably here because you liked The Liar's Key. These reviewers (or in one case, these 200,000+ voters) appear to share your taste in one book, perhaps you will enjoy the other books on their lists.




Bookwraiths
The Bandwagon

Konjam Random
ATG reviews
Bookworm BluesFantasy Book Critic
Elitist Book Reviews
Total Inability to Connect
r/fantasy Stabby Awards
The Royal Library
Won the Cool Story Bro Award on Grimdark 
Fiction Readers and Writers
Lynn's Books
The Fictional Hangout
Fantasy-Faction
A Reading Machine
Leona Henry's Blog of Shadows
Mighty Thor JRS
Best Fantasy Books
The Reading Frenzy
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
The Book Plank
Grimdark Magazine
Buzz Feed
Nerd Much
Goodreads Choice Awards



Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Keep me believing: A writer's plea.

I recently got a Facebook message from EC Williamson. I've copied it below, with permission. I gave my answer (see the end of this post), but since it seemed a heartfelt question, and one that is offered up in various versions quite often in the writing community, I thought perhaps it deserved more than just my opinion. So I've also posed it to successful fantasy authors Myke Cole and Django Wexler whose answers appear with mine below. (click their names to find out more about them). Additionally, I've augmented the basic question with two more parts: i) Are hard work and skill sufficient to assure writing success, or is a large measure of luck required? ii) Is the skill element also due to hard work, or is the skill mostly written into our DNA such that hard work can uncover it if it's there, but if it's not there then no amount of hard work is going to get you to the necessary level of talent? Here's EC's question: Hello Mark,
This is not something I would typically ever do, but I'm just really frustrated. And I apologize for cold messaging you like this. Really, I am.
I'm just getting discouraged, because I've been writing for 25 years, and I'm starting to lose belief in myself that I will ever be able to be fortunate to make a living with my writing. Not even an "uber successful" (even though that would be pretty cool) life, but just a comfortable living.
Without the usual cliche of "just keep writing" - do you happen to have anything at all to keep me believing. Writing is, and has ALWAYS been one of the most sacred things that I have had, to lean on in life. It's the one thing I love to do, and at 43...I've been around long enough to know what I want, LOL. Telling a story, sharing the story or journey of someone for others to enjoy, is a great feeling.
It's easily one of the hardest things to do, successfully. And I don't think writers get nearly enough of the due respect they deserve for what it takes to be a writer.
Again, sorry to bug ya. If you have a moment to respond, that would be cool, and really appreciated.
If not, no problem there either. Just figured I'd try. Myke Cole (author of the Shadow Ops series)
EC, I’m going to answer Mark’s two bullets first, and then I’ll address your general letter. I’m going to be direct and uncompromising, but I want you to know that it’s coming from a place of love and support, and that my ultimate goal is the same as yours: I want to see you succeed.

i.) This question is irrelevant.
Whether or not luck is involved is an academic point that is only of use to scholastics. There’s a limited number of compute cycles spinning around in your head to be expended. Why expend them in trying to factor luck? Luck can’t be scientifically proven, and even if it could, you can’t control it. So, whether or not luck is a factor, or how much of a factor it is, doesn’t impact your goal (to be a professional writer) in terms of an ACTION you can take. Whether luck exists or not, it cannot be controlled. So, focus on what you CAN control: the quantity and quality of your work. There are all kinds of cool bumper-sticker quotes about luck (my favorite is that it’s the intersection of opportunity and ability) and all of them are total bullshit. Forget them and work harder. Focus on making damn sure that, lucky or unlucky, you have produced the best possible work in the greatest volume you could manage while sustaining the quality.
One more thing on luck. I get a little wary that people can use it as a crutch to avoid examining their work with a critical eye. You can shrug and say “Well, it’s not my fault I wasn’t able to sell my manuscript to a publisher, I was just unlucky.” When what you should really be saying is. “Man, I fucked that one up. I better sit down and take a long, hard look at my writing and figure out what’s wrong with it and how I can make it better.”

ii.) Again, irrelevant.
Whether writing ability is baked into our DNA or whether we are instead honing skills necessary to achieve our goals makes no difference in the ACTIONS you must take (writing, revising, submitting) to achieve your goal of selling your work. You will never know the answer, and so again, I wonder why you should waste compute cycles on it. As with my answer above, you have to be wary of the siren song of “talent.” It’s far too easy to throw up your hands and shortcut around the sweat and blood required to make great art. “I’m not even going to bother, because I don’t have talent.”
Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t. But I can promise you one thing: the only way you’ll ever find out is if you write, edit and submit until you can’t anymore. So, why waste time thinking about it? Sit your ass down, stop whining, and get to work.

iii.) It seems like the question you’re asking yourself here is: “When should I give up?” and I really can’t give you an answer. Kameron Hurley has written a number of great essays about this, and it’s something all writers struggle with.
Look, EC, writing is a game with really, really REALLY long odds. The high high high likelihood is that you will labor in obscurity for the rest of your life, never sell anything, never see the success you clearly want. Those odds will either galvanize you, or they will drive you to despair, and only you can know where you fall on the spectrum between those two poles (although, I’d say that if you’ve stayed in the fight for 25 years, then you’ve got some steel).
The odds are just as long for all of us, and the only difference between myself and anyone else is that I have made the continuous decision to get up every morning and stay in the fight. I’ve met with some success that way, but I take each accolade with the full knowledge that my momentum could stall at any time. That every novel is my debut. It never gets any easier, EC. There is never a point where you have “made it,” and you can coast. There will be blood in the water every day you hang in there, and you will claw and curse and burn for every inch of ground and fight even harder to hold it. If that’s what you want, then writing is for you. If not, well . . .
Lastly, give up illusions of making even an uncomfortable living from writing. I can count less than ten people I know who make livings I’d describe as “comfortable” writing in my genre. The vast majority of those of us who work in this business either have day-jobs or supportive spouses. It is possible that you may be able to reach that goal, but it shouldn’t be the thing that drives you.
In the end, the thing that drives you has to be the work itself. Writing is hard, and it is satisfying to do something that is hard, and to know you’ve done it well. The field is merciless, and the material rewards light and fleeting. Telling the story you want to tell has to be enough. Otherwise, you’ll be vulnerable to the despair of not achieving the success you have held out as the brass ring you’re reaching for. Believe me, I know of what I speak.
Personally? I hope you hang in there. Writing is clearly what you want to do, and if you stop, you will wonder into your grave if you could ever have gotten that book deal if only you’d kept at it. Put aside thoughts of luck and talent, and focus on putting your face down in the mud and pushing with all you have.
If it helps, I’m down there next to you.
Good luck.

Django Wexler (author of the Shadow Campaigns trilogy, and more!)
Oof, that’s a tough one, and really hard to disentangle. Let’s take these one at a time. Is luck required in addition to hard work and skill to assure writing success? To my mind the answer to this has to be “absolutely yes.” A lot of people seem to object to this – I’ve seen a fair number of comments along the lines of “I never got lucky, nothing was handed to me, I busted my ass for years, etc”. But that’s kind of missing the point. Saying that luck is involved doesn’t mean hard work is irrelevant, that success comes from having some publisher pick up the manuscript you accidentally dropped on the bus and make you a best-seller. As the question says, you need luck in addition; hard work and skill are required for writing success (usually) but they don’t assure it.

I have to think this, because I know too many people who are very skilled and hard-working and yet haven’t found the kind of success they’re looking for. Some of them probably will eventually, but some won’t, and to me that comes down to luck. Luck can be an agent or editor that your work happens to hit on a particularly good day; it can be a cultural trend that that you accidentally end up on the right side of; it can be a reviewer at a major publication who picks up your book on a whim and loves it.

To cite a popular example: George RR Martin, while a successful author already, was catapulted to super-stardom because two big fans of his book happened to be a) showrunners at HBO, and b) willing to fight hard to get a TV show made. It’s easy to imagine a world in which that didn’t happen, and A Song of Ice and Fire was just a moderately successful fantasy instead of one of the biggest hits in publishing.

I, personally, have been very lucky in my career. I got a great agent who rejected my query in the first pass, then accepted it when I fortuitously got a second chance at him, because he’d just hired an assistant and was looking to expand his list instead of feeling overwhelmed. Would I eventually have been published anyway? I like to think so, but without Seth on my side I’d probably still be working a day job and writing in my spare time. Ultimately acknowledging the role of luck is an expression of humility; the course of our careers is not under our complete control, and nothing can assure success. All you can do is do the best you can, and keep doing it. How much of skill comes from “intrinsic talent” and how much from hard work? This is a really sticky question to answer. You can’t repeat an experiment – every person’s path is unique, so we can’t pop into an alternate universe and see how well they’d do if they worked a little harder. “Talent” is also very hard to disentangle from things like “interest”. When I was in school for Computer Science, for example, there were definitely people who felt like they had more basic talent than others; if you talked to them, though, it usually came out that they’d been poking at this material from a young age because they found it fascinating, and genuinely enjoyed staying up all night debugging code. So do they find these things enjoyable because they’re talented, or are they talented because they found them enjoyable? You see the same thing in all kinds of fields – all my friends who are great artists, for example, are the kind of people who spent their school days filling notebooks with doodles, just because it was fun.

I would like to think that hard work is always enough; that if someone has a real love for the material, and is willing to put in the hours, that they’ll be able to reach any level of skill. But that has more to do with my preferences then any hard information, because the truth is it’s impossible to tell. You can always invent alternate explanations for events. I meet people who haven’t been able to get to a high level of skill; I could tell a story that says they lack some intrinsic spark, but equally I could say they’re not willing to work and improve. From the outside, you really can’t know. It’s frustrating, but that’s the way it is. EC’s question. There’s a couple of things to unpack here. First and foremost, “making a living” at writing isn’t the average, ordinary level of success – it’s actually an extremely high level of success. Writing is not a lucrative profession, as a general rule. Most writers you see in the bookstore fall into the mid-list level, and the vast majority of midlisters have a day job or an understanding partner to support their writing career. And those are the people who have succeeded by almost every metric! Below them is a vast number of people who have gotten somewhere – published with small presses, indies making small but steady sales, respected authors selling short fiction (which pays almost nothing), and so on. The point is that you can tell great stories, reach readers, and even change people’s lives, and that’s all success, but it doesn’t add up to making a living.

A personal anecdote: My first sales were two novels to a small press called Medallion: Memories of Empire and Shinigami. They appeared on shelves at Barnes & Noble. They were reasonably well received, by the people that read them. I still get the occasional e-mail to this day from someone who says one of them was their favorite fantasy, which is immensely gratifying. The point is that it felt at the time (and still does) feel like a success, in most senses. That said, I was paid $2,500 total, for two years of work, and this was not me getting ripped off. My personal career plan always included a day job, and I was shocked when I was able to leave it. (And I still have contingency plans to go back, if I ever have to …)

So my first advice to EC is, don’t define success by making a living. Writing is something you do because you love to do it, because you feel like it’s important, or for a hundred other reasons, but not for the money. I advise all writers to plan on having a day job, and consider it a stroke of great good fortune if you ever get to quit. It’s harsh, but that’s the world we live in.

Now, I don’t know EC’s circumstances, so this next bit may not precisely apply. I’m imagining the question as “I haven’t had any success selling my work after 25 years,” so if that’s not the case you have my apologies. But if that is true, then I think it’s time to consider changing something. I would never, ever advise someone to just give up on writing, but after that long it’s pretty clear that the market does not want to buy what you have on offer. I think you have a couple of choices: if you really love what you’re doing, then you can keep doing it, and accept that it may not ever be enough to make money. If you really want to pursue making a living at it, you need to change up what you’re trying to sell. Try a new style, try a new genre, get some criticism outside your usual circles and stretch beyond your comfort zone to address it. Most of the time, when I see someone who has worked for a long time without success, they’ve fallen into a comfortable groove and stopped improving their work; it’s easy to do, but it means nothing’s going to change. Again, EC, I don’t know anything about you or your work, so any or all of this may not be valid. It’s just the best I can do sight unseen, and I wish you the best of luck.


And ME!! Last and least cool!

(this is just what I typed back as a reply, not with a blog in mind, that idea came later when I thought EC deserved a better reply) Hi EC - I'm not sure I do have anything to keep you believing. Opinion on the matter is mixed but I've always felt that the odds against publication are long however skilled a writer you might be, and that achieving the 'required' level of skill simply buys you a lottery ticket. You then need to be lucky.
Others disagree and maintain that skill will win out. Of course what constitutes sufficient skill is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, and it's essentially impossible to judge how good your own work is by any useful metric.
I took a rather different view of the writing game from the one you appear to have. I was happy enough being a scientist - that was my ambition from a fairly early age. I wrote only because I enjoyed writing and enjoyed sharing the results on small critique groups. I generally advise people to write because they enjoy writing, not because they want to be a writer. That way you're automatically a winner.
This early blog post of mine may, or may not, be of interest:
http://mark---lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/this-ones-for-writers.html So ... yes. My own feeling is that success requires skill and dedication but those aren't enough, you also need to be lucky. With that in mind I won't tell you to keep on believing, or to try harder, I'll simply say enjoy the writing and good luck with it!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Question 3: What are your influences?

This is a question that's been posed in around 70% of the 100+ interviews I've done since being published.

It's a deceptive question that hides a lot of assumptions on both sides of the reading coin.

Many readers (interviewers) seem to think authors can reel off a list of names ... and perhaps some can, but then we're a diverse lot.

I've never liked the question for the simple reason that I don't have a good answer.

I often resort to citing the only clear and obvious influence, which is the influence for the character of Jorg.


Jorg's character is very definitely influenced by that of Alex DeLarge in Anthony Burgess's 1962 classic A Clockwork Orange. I've seen that spoken of as "Lawrence admits that..." There's no 'admits' about it. I've been telling this to anyone who asked since anyone started asking and it's been on the FAQ page of my website since it went up in 2010.

I've also seen people say "Prince of Thorns is a fantasy Clockwork Orange." This is certainly untrue. A Clockwork Orange is part satire, part social/political commentary about how society (in the 50s/60s) dealt with the excesses of teenage sub-culture (a very new invention at the time). Prince of Thorns is none of those things - and where Alex very deliberately has nothing in his past to muddy the waters about the origin of his behaviour, Jorg does have a troubled history.

What about fantasy influences?

When people are making these up on my behalf the one that arises over and over is Joe Abercrombie. I found out who Joe was in 2010 when on a French forum a publisher who read my manuscript said he loved it and it was the best thing he'd read since Abercrombie. I frowned, looked for the "& Fitch" then went to Google "Abercombie" and "fantasy". I've yet to read an Abercrombie book, and that's due in part to my slow reading rate (since Prince of Thorns was published I've read my first books by Rothfuss, Lynch, Brett, Weeks, and Bakker) and in part to what I will admit is a certain cussed resolve not to muddy the waters when I say he wasn't an influence.

Indeed if you look at the time-table of my writing you'll see I started writing Prince of Thorns in 2003 and by the time Abercrombie's debut came out in 2006 Prince of Thorns was 90% finished. Since I put each chapter out on my Yahoo writing group as I wrote it this is a matter of record. I belabour the point since I've become used to being point blank called a liar on this issue (this seems bizarre since I understand from many sources that our writing is not similar and Abercrombie doesn't write in first person), both from behind the anonymity of forum posts and (in one case) by a blogger. Even when there's no outright accusation I've grown used to seeing "Lawrence says he hasn't read", that subtle qualification 'says' introducing the element of doubt.

I've found that my refusal to 'accept' Abercrombie as an influence drives some forum dwellers to grow very hostile very swiftly. Don't care. He isn't. Nice guy though, lives 10 miles from me, met him a couple of times, had dinner. Very smooth. Handsome fella too.

So ... if not Abercromie, Morgan, Bakker, Rothfuss, Brett, Weeks, Lynch etc ... then who?

Well, here's the thing. I don't know. That's not how my mind works. Clearly the fantasy I've read influences how I write ... but it's not a conscious thing. I don't, when writing, think "I'll do this like XXXX." And afterwards, when I read it back, it doesn't strike me: "This is quite like YYYY."

It's certainly true that George RR Martin with his A Song of Ice and Fire series changed the way I thought about fantasy (which I had grown disenchanted with over the ten years prior to 2003 - hence the lack of the recent 'fundamentals' on my reading list). So, although my writing is nothing like GRRM's (multi-character points of view, sprawling, detailed description, love-affair with clothes, food, and architecture) I freely acknowledge him as an influence.

Beyond that I would point at:


Michael Moorcock: High levels of violence, no regard for genre boundaries, sprawling imagination confined within very short books, anti-heroes.


David Gemmell: Sense of the epic, focus on battle both personal and large scale, flawed heroes, fantasy with heart and emotion.


Stephen Donaldson: Epic fantasy set against a real world background, a very flawed and conflicted single point of view character, dark under-currents, a personal journey embodied in a 'global' struggle.


Stephen King: Strong characters. Set me thinking about _how_ he was having the effect on me that he achieved through the words on the page.


Terry Pratchett: Humour with heart. Just because a page makes you laugh doesn't mean it can't also bring a tear to your eye. Just because a line makes you laugh doesn't stop it being world-class prose.


Robin Hobb: I didn't read any Robin Hobb until after I'd written Prince of Thorns, but I had certainly read several of her books by the time I wrote King and Emperor of Thorns years later. Hobb's great strength is a depth and humanity in her characters. The rest of her writing arsenal is very well stocked too. I'm sure I unconsciously took something from how she dealt with Fitz's development.





Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Is Grimdark a thing?


I was impressed to discover that there's a definition (of sorts) of Grimdark on Wikipedia ... and I'm on it!

Cited on the page with me as examples (presumably prime) of Grimdark authors are Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan, neither of whom I've read, and George RR Martin, who I have read.

The key ingredients of Grimdark appear to be:

Nihilism, Violence, Darkness, Dystopian, Moral ambiguity / Lack of moral certainty

Now, I can't claim an overview - I haven't even read two thirds of my fellow examples! But if I constitute one of the four pillars of the alleged sub-genre (even as the least and last) then it might be instructive to see how these key ingredients apply to my work.


Nihilism
General:

Often associated with moody teenagers, and reasonably so. When children reach the stage where they have to make some decisions, do something with their life, find a place in the world etc it's not unusual to question why you're doing such things, and the lack of concrete answers can be rather unsettling, inducing angst and nihilistic tendencies.

Specific:
Since my first trilogy concerns a young man growing from 14 to 20 it doesn't seem particularly ground breaking that the lad should show some nihilistic tendencies. However, I really don't think that Jorg embodies many of the traits popularly associated with nihilism in youth culture. He is neither mopey nor apathetic. Instead he's ambitious, energetic, with a sense of humour,


Moreover, the nihilism charge is leveled against the whole world in a Grimdark novel. I reject that on the Broken Empire's behalf. We see the world through the eyes of one person in the Broken Empire trilogy - that perception is bound to be coloured by who they are and what they're doing. There's absolutely nothing to suggest, for example, that 98% of the citizens of Crath City aren't perfectly happy, living well-adjusted lives full of joy and well-balanced relationships.


Violence

General: Well I've blogged on this before. It's nonsense to say that violence in fantasy is anything new. I've seen violence just as graphic in fantasy books that aren't considered Grimdark as in ones that are, and much 'worse' in other genres.

Specific: The Guardian fantasy columnist told me that Prince of Thorns is full of torture scenes... That's a guy who is paid to read books and write about them. There are no torture scenes in Prince of Thorns. There's a scene in a torture chamber where torture is interrupted by the point-of-view's arrival. And there's one person describing (in non graphic terms) the torture of another person. Put all those words together (neither of them torture scenes) and you have maybe half a page.

I throw this out there as an example of how easily it is to be mislead, or to actively mislead people about the content of a book.

I also point at this quote: (Prince of Thorns) "was exactly as I expected it to be - which is to say, full of unrelenting rape". When of course there were ~61 words in the whole book concerned with rape and they referenced 'off-screen' events.

So, when it comes to the level of something, such as violence, it's very easy to be swayed in your judgement by what other people are saying. Janny Wurts (fine author, great person) told me she thought Prince of Thorns was very well written but too dark for her. I've just started her book Curse of the Mistwraith (great so far, but I'm only 30 pages in). The levels of darkness and violence seem pretty high to me - a sailor clinging to wreckage is beaten to death with oars, the other one in that pair is now trying to provoke the crew into killing him rather than being returned to the king for tortures unspecified... I've said before (provoking a wave of laughter at the Grim Gathering) that I never considered Prince of Thorns to be a particularly dark book. And I really don't. As Jessica Rabbit says: I'm not bad, I'm drawn that way.


Darkness
General: Well, this is a pretty vague one. I guess it's a tone thing. There's certainly 'noir' in film. The city is tall, grimy. and it doesn't stop raining. Whiskey is drunk, the PI is cynical, there's a dame...

But in the books labeled Grimdark? Apart from mine I've read George Martin's, Luke Skull's Grim Company & Sword of the North, Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before, Richard Ford's Herald of the Storm, Week's Way of Shadows, Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora ... I don't see any repeating motifs or themes or tone. Perhaps I'm blind to it, but I don't really buy into that. Returning to my current read ... Wurts has 'the Master of Shadows' front and center, he who is trying to get murdered rather than tortured ... he keeps plunging the ship into unnatural night. That seems to be both literal and literary darkness to me right there.

Specific: In a poll of my readers most considered the Broken Empire books to be 'cheerful'. From my point of view whilst there are ups and downs ... the tone is about defiance as much as anything. A refusal to submit rather than gloom and despair.


Dystopian
General: I see this one a lot. It's possible that many of the people using the term haven't properly considered its meaning. The Hunger Games book is set in a dystopian world. There is an established society that, as in Orwell's 1984, is run along lines that the audience would consider highly undesirable. Someone has made up a bunch of nasty rules and is applying them rigidly to an oppressed populace. Yes there's a resistance but it's a struggling one.

Some of the books I've seen called Grimdark have elements of this. The Lies of Locke Lamora for example. But most of them are actually war-torn. A civil war, countries at war, landscapes ravaged by raiders etc ... none of this is dystopian.


Specific: The Broken Empire isn't dystopian. There's no repugnant order being imposed on a repressed populace. The Broken empire is a chaotic war-torn landscape, and actually during the course of the books Jorg is technically struggling to bring unity and (as a consequence rather than a motivation) peace.

Neither is it dystopian in a 'civilization in decline' sense. Yes in the past there were higher levels of technology/social order. This is also true of say Norman and pre-Norman England - the Romans had more technology and order 1,000 years before. But, like Norman England, the Broken Empire is actually on the up-path from a previous low, rather than on the continuous down path from a distant high. Jorg is a uniter, an empire builder.


Moral ambiguity / Lack of moral certainty
General: While this is certainly true of many of the characters I've seen in books labeled Grimdark it also seems to be true of many others too. To me it's more a sign of mature writing than anything else. Many of the heroes from 80s fantasy didn't feel like real, conflicted, people with doubts and with limits to how much they would risk to do the 'right' thing. You would find those sorts of people in literary fiction, in 20th century classics, but they wouldn't be wielding swords or spells. All, it seems to me, that's happened, is that a greater percentage of fantasy writers have started to try to write 'real people' into their made up worlds, sensing an appetite for it from a more grown-up readership.

Specific: Again, I show the world in the Broken Empire through one set of eyes and that individual is definitely amoral to a large degree. But that doesn't mean the whole world he walks through shares that trait. Many of the occupants do, just as many of us do. But there are certainly people who try to do the right thing, who try to be honest, and who follow/agree with generally accepted definitions of good behaviour.



Conclusion:
Well. If you take something as simple as an undulating 2D surface and consider the issue of mountains and molehills ... people will argue about it. Absent moles, when does a bump move from molehill to mountain? Set a value in height as definition and the bumps that reach one foot to either side of it will rage against that definition.

The stories we tell form a rather more complex manifold in many more dimensions and any attempt to draw a boundary with a few words and label those that fall inside it is going to be open to debate.

I don't have any objection to such attempts, but it does sadden me when I see people saying that they will read only Grimdark or won't ever read Grimdark, That mindset implies a belief that Grimdark is a real thing and that books given such a label really will tick a selection of boxes (they won't) and that by doing so they guarantee to contain a story that will or won't please you (also not true).

We're tribal by nature. Fandom is too. People like labels, not only to define books (and many other things) but by doing so to define themselves through their likes and dislikes. Some take it further - one set of labels constitute friends, and the others enemies. You'll see people blanket-hating (or loving) Grimdark with the same passion that others 'love' Manchester United and 'despise' Liverpool. That's fine. Enjoy. As long as nobody is taking it seriously.




Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Wheel of Osheim has a cover!

First came the roughs:

These sort of things reach me by a trickle-down effect. Contrary to common assumption traditionally published authors (at least at my level) have almost no say in their cover design. They might be asked for a selection of scenes the artist could consider, they might be asked for descriptions of the characters, but basically they're bystanders. Which means I can't take any of the credit for my covers, and that the fact that they are (in my opinion) excellent, is someone else's triumph and my good luck.

Each year Jason Chan provides the publishers with a number of sketches and they decide which one to take forward to a full cover.

These are the three I know about for The Wheel of Osheim.





The powers that be at Ace decided to go ahead with this one. Jason Chan polished it to a high shine (see the stages for King of Thorns), the art department at Ace worked on titles, quotes, and background, and presto:


Voyager are going to use the same artwork for the UK cover. Like Ace they'll send it to their art department to work on the lettering and background in order to ensure it fits in alongside the previous covers.

Friday, 18 December 2015

A Year in Numbers ... Five!

So following on from similar posts at the same time in 201420132012 and 2011 I record a year of ups and less ups. I take a minute to do the sums and raid the scrapbook.


It's been a very good 2015 all told!

High points have included selling my third trilogy, Red Sister, to Ace and Voyager, and The Liar's Key being my fifth book in a row to make the Goodreads Choice Award semi-final while Prince of Fools made the final of the Gemmell Legend Award & came 2nd in the r/fantasy Stabby award for best fantasy!

 

And I've published an anthology of Broken Empire short stories!

I also designed and kickstarted (with help from Ragnarok) a card game! Raising over $30,000 from over 1000 backers.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics to follow:

Prince of Thorns got its 40,000th Goodreads rating this year, and I sold my 750,000th book in English in 2015. Plus I hit a 1,000,000 words published or ready for publication, and got my 1,000,000th hit on my blog!

I now have over 100,000 Goodreads ratings and over 250,000 'books added'! The numbers boggle my mind.
I also established a rule of thumb linking Goodreads ratings to sales.

I'm slimming Amazon stats down to the first and latest book. Hopefully this time next year Prince of Thorns will have broken the 1,000 reviews barrier on Amazon.com!


The blog had its millionth hit in 2015 and got almost 70,000 hits in one month!

Blog traffic since inception.
And finally, Twitter, where at last I broke the 10,000 follower barrier!

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Broken Empire short story anthology!


(click for detail)
(cover by Pen Astridge)


Buy it in the US or the UK.

10 short stories from the lives of Jorg and his Road Brothers. Contains spoilers for the Broken Empire trilogy. 5 of the stories have previously been published in anthologies, Contains the short story 'Sleeping Beauty' that is also sold separately. A total of 43,000 words or just over half the length of Prince of Thorns.

Kindle only at the moment. I'm looking at getting it onto other e-platforms but formatting is a nightmare.
There may be a printed special edition at some point. Audio is unlikely. 


Contains the short stories:

A Rescue
Sleeping Beauty
Bad Seed
The Nature of the Beast
Select Mode
Mercy
A Good Name
Choices
The Secret
Know Thyself

With brief footnotes!

That's footnotes people!

Here's a poll on which story/stories were people's favourites. The good news is that each story was among the favourites selected by multiple people.

Have your vote HERE!


Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Page 1 critique - "Betrayal" by M. K. Ryan

I'm critiquing some page 1s - read about it here.

First the disclaimers.

It's very hard to separate one's tastes from a technical critique. There are page 1s from popular books with which I would find multiple faults. I didn't, for example, like page 1 of Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (I didn't pursue the rest of the book). But that book has 150,000+ ratings on Goodreads, a great average score of 4.12 and Goodkind is a #1 NYT bestseller. His first page clearly did a great job for many people.

I'm not always right *hushed gasp*. You will likely be able to find a successful and highly respected author who will tell you the opposite to practically every bit of advice I give. Possibly not the same author in each case though.

The art of receiving criticism is to take what's useful to you and discard the rest. You need sufficient confidence in your own vision/voice such that whilst criticism may cause you to adjust course you're not about to do a U-turn for anyone. If you act on every bit of advice you'll get crit-burn, your story will be pulled in different directions by different people. It will stop being yours and turn into some Frankenstein's monster that nobody will ever want to read.

Additionally - don't get hurt or look for revenge. The person critiquing you is almost always trying to help you (it's true in some groups there will be the occasional person who is jealous/mean/misguided but that's the exception, not the rule). That person has put in effort on your behalf. If they don't like your prose it's not personal - they didn't just slap your baby.


I've flicked through some of the pages looking for one where I have something to say - something that hopefully is useful to the author and to anyone else reading the post.


I've posted the unadulterated page first then again with comments inset and at the end.

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It was an odd thing, looking down the blade of a sword. The sun was high, glinting off the smooth metal and into my eyes. The tip of the sword pricked against my throat as I swallowed and contemplated the situation before me. I wasn’t even really sure how I’d gotten here, bandits fanned out in front of me and a raging river behind. Solo’s reins were frozen in my grip as she threw her head, picking up on my nervous energy. She’d thrown a shoe otherwise we’d still be running.
We had been out on a hunt when we were attacked. I worked as a horse trainer for Niall and Helen Byron. They bred some of the nicest horses and hunting hounds in eastern Atrea. It was my job to train the horses and bring any potential clients out on hunts to put the horses through their paces before they were purchased.
After an hour out in the woods, the hounds had picked up the scent and taken off in pursuit, our party hot on their heels. We were ambushed while crossing a small glade. The bandits had just appeared out of the woods, startling some of our horses. Neill yelled for us to run, I whistled to the horses closest to me and urged Solo back toward the farm. The bandits gave chase and I’d broken off from the group, hoping to draw them away from our clients.
Solo was fast, we should have been able to outrun any horse the bandits had.
But she’d tripped over the uneven ground and thrown a shoe. I’d gotten off and started leading her, hoping we had enough of a head start to get to the river and cross before the bandits caught up.
Obviously, that had not been the case.
The sword pricked my throat again as the man holding it shifted to take a step toward me. I stepped back, feeling the river bank crumble slightly under my heel.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said, stopping mid-step to see where I’d go. “A swim in the river at this point would be lethal. Come on, lass. We aren’t here to hurt you but we can’t have you running around telling people where we are.”
“Why do you care then? If it’s lethal then I definitely can’t tell anyone.” I edged back a little more, considering the chances I’d survive the tumultuous water.
“As I said, we don’t want anyone to get hurt. Besides,” he shot me a cheeky grin and a wink, “we wouldn’t want such a pretty face to go to waste.”
I grimaced at the line and glanced behind me at the rapids. The water foamed and misted over sharp rocks hidden just below the surface. A hundred yards downstream the water was calmer, we would have been able to ford the river at that point but not here in the rapids.


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It was an odd thing, looking down the blade of a sword.

I would be less passive. I don't want to get bogged down in technical definitions of passive, but here just changing the tense to make it a more general statement works for me.

It's an odd thing, looking down the blade of a sword.

Some immediate indication of which way it's pointed might be good too. 

The sun was high, glinting off the smooth metal and into my eyes.

Again - I would be less passive.

The noon-day sun glared from the metal into my eyes.

Or, involving the PoV more directly:

I narrowed my eyes against the sun's glare off the metal.

I would drop the 'smooth'. People know what swords are like. Save your adjectives for when you need 'em.

 The tip of the sword pricked against my throat as I swallowed and contemplated the situation before me.


The tip of the sword pricked against my throat 

We got here a little late. It could be the opener.

'As' connections are used too often. I do it. I would make this two sentences.


 I wasn’t even really sure how I’d gotten here, bandits fanned out in front of me and a raging river behind.


To me this read as if the bandits were fanning out at that moment.


 Solo’s reins were frozen in my grip as she threw her head, picking up on my nervous energy. She’d thrown a shoe otherwise we’d still be running.


All of a sudden there's a horse. I assume the character is riding the horse but I don't know.

As a non-horse person it sounds odd that losing a shoe would stop one being able to run. If pursued by bandits ... wouldn't you keep riding? Many readers may share my confusion on this point.

If the character is on the horse and it's nervous ... it sounds as if an accidental throat-stabbing is moments away.

We had been out on a hunt when we were attacked. I worked as a horse trainer for Niall and Helen Byron. They bred some of the nicest horses and hunting hounds in eastern Atrea. It was my job to train the horses and bring any potential clients out on hunts to put the horses through their paces before they were purchased.
After an hour out in the woods, the hounds had picked up the scent and taken off in pursuit, our party hot on their heels. We were ambushed while crossing a small glade. The bandits had just appeared out of the woods, startling some of our horses. Neill yelled for us to run, I whistled to the horses closest to me and urged Solo back toward the farm. The bandits gave chase and I’d broken off from the group, hoping to draw them away from our clients.
Solo was fast, we should have been able to outrun any horse the bandits had

This flashback takes a lot of pace out of the piece. It's too big. A couple of lines would be better. I don't need to know nearly so many details. He/she has a sword at their throat - that's the story.

We had been out on a hunt when they attacked. I lost the others back in the woods.

I don't need to know the surname of the people he/she works for right now. Also Niall/Neill changes his name. Or your two characters are too similarly named.

What would make this more real for me would be talk of the fear he/she felt, or the anger, or the thrill of thinking he/she was going to escape on this fast horse etc. Also 'bandits' is getting old. A few glimpses of them would help. How many? Ragged? Scary? Screaming? Is our PoV aware of their reputation? Utterly amazed to see bandits? Get us there, in the moment.

"Hot on their heels." is a bit tired.

But she’d tripped over the uneven ground and thrown a shoe. I’d gotten off and started leading her, hoping we had enough of a head start to get to the river and cross before the bandits caught up.

Again this issue with the shoe - our PoV should at least rule out continuing to ride. Does he/she value the horse's well-being above their own life?

Obviously, that had not been the case.

Redundant. I would cut this line.

The sword pricked my throat again as the man holding it shifted to take a step toward me. I stepped back, feeling the river bank crumble slightly under my heel.

OK, so he/she is definitely on foot.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said, stopping mid-step to see where I’d go. “A swim in the river at this point would be lethal. Come on, lass. We aren’t here to hurt you but we can’t have you running around telling people where we are.”

So our character is female. This could have been established with an "Easy, lass." right after the first sword pricking. It helps to visualize the scene and ground the reader.

"A swim in the river at this point would be lethal." Sounds a bit awkward to me.

If "telling where we are" was their concern ... then how about just "not attacking/surprising" these people in the first place? 

“Why do you care then? If it’s lethal then I definitely can’t tell anyone.” I edged back a little more, considering the chances I’d survive the tumultuous water.
“As I said, we don’t want anyone to get hurt. Besides,” he shot me a cheeky grin and a wink, “we wouldn’t want such a pretty face to go to waste.”

When you interrupt dialogue with action but no speech tag the rules change - I would double check what you've got here.

I grimaced at the line and glanced behind me at the rapids. The water foamed and misted over sharp rocks hidden just below the surface. A hundred yards downstream the water was calmer, we would have been able to ford the river at that point but not here in the rapids.

I think this is the third mention of the river? Probably want to move on.
Does she know this river - it seems like it because she knows there are sharp rocks but she can't see them.
Would she really be grimacing at the line rather than the sword and the raging river?



++++++++++++

For me this is a decent page 1 which could well hook the reader with its immediate imperilment of the character. I think it could do considerably more though.

There are more opportunities for dialogue - a line at the start to establish the character's gender. A line or two in the forest flashback to replace exposition. Tighter, less wordy lines at the end.

The main opportunity though I would say is to put us more in the character's head. I have no idea if she is terrified, more angry than scared, quietly confident ... I don't know if escape is her only thought, if she's worried about the other two, if she has any idea what's going on etc. Is she armed? Is fighting an option?

I would like to have more of a sense of being there - is she exhausted after the chase? Sweaty? Hurting? Drop me a hint of description here and there - the sun through the forest canopy as she gallops through - the smell of the horse - the sound of the rapids etc.

I'm asking for a lot in 1 page, but I'm asking for it in efficient short single lines and saying you should cut the exposition about Helen Byron, potential clients, etc to make room.

Hope there's some help here!