Friday, 31 March 2017

Red Sister, reader art!



Red Sister has its first reader art! These from Mayticks.

There's no sex in Red Sister, and no romance. There are, however, a lot of relationships, and a small number of those are gay. I'm very glad when readers find this well portrayed, and are pleased to see diversity/representation etc. But if you go into the book with your head filled with whatever images the phrase "lesbian nuns" conjures up for you ... you may be disappointed.

What I hope the book does is present a small number of gay characters in an understated and indirect manner that doesn't make a big deal of the fact.






Sister Apple - Mistress Shade by Mayticks


Sister Kettle by Mayticks



Sisters Cage and Thorn
by Francesca Tacchi




Nona Grey by Craig Houghton

Yisht by Mikaela Brennan


Some alternative covers:
From Petros of Booknest.eu

A draft of the Voyager ARC cover

A mashup cover


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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

REVIEW: The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

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Found this in the parents' room at the hospital.

So I've seen a lot of Bakker-talk online and you'd think to read it that the man was either the devil incarnate or a seven-fold genius come to show the true way. A phrase I'm used to hearing is 'marmite book', another is 'you'll either love it or hate it - there's no in between'. All as much bollocks here of course as when applied to my own work. A simple click of the ratings button shows a vast number of in betweens. In fact most people are in between the 5* and the 1* on this book (as on mine). Most people give it 4*, 1* is the least popular rating.

There are plenty of good things to say about the book.

I've heard it comprises 'dense philosophy'. To my mind that would make an awful work of fiction. I've read philosophy text-books, and the fiction of Satre, De Beauvoir, and others. This is nothing like that. This is a fantasy story with a complex plot and plenty of action. Yes there's a little more introspection than typical for the genre. But philosophy? Very little. Bakker wisely opts for aphorisms and a measure of psychology to scatter around and create the ambiance.

The prose is powerful (can be long winded in places), there's an abundance of cleverness and insight on offer, the much talked of darkness of the book didn't strike me as particularly dark at all.

At the end of the book the threads converge and a pretty decent 'climax' is delivered, ending without a cliff hanger and with a (for me) mild impetus to continue.

The intricacy of the many part plot ... well, I admired it but I can't say it really did it for me. I guess it's a ton of material for the epic side of epic fantasy to play with over the course of the next however many books. I perhaps wanted more focus and more character-time.

There's great imagination here and Khellus' methods are a fresh and entertaining idea. All that really pushed this a touch below 4* for me was the fact that the whole book lacked the emotional content I enjoy. I don't need nice characters. I don't need to cheer their every move. And Bakker's character list certainly includes interesting characters - which is great. But I never really felt emotionally involved and that blunted my enjoyment. 

The Mandate Schoolman was the most involving character for me, then Esmenet.

In short then, a book with depth, complexity, written with skill, and well worth a look. Personally I wasn't as swept up and held by it as I had hoped to be, but your mileage may well vary!


You can go and 'like' my review on goodreads, if you like.

Monday, 27 March 2017

On being a girl.

I wrote about 'writing women' back in 2015, while I was writing Red Sister but before anyone except my reader, Agnes, had read more than the first 15,000 words that got me the book deal.

Basically I was wondering whether I would be able to do a good job of it and had decided that all I could do was try to write interesting individuals. There was, I decided, no formula to it. Despite the fact that readers so often talk about how an author 'writes women' I would just write people and be done with it.

And now over a hundred readers have finished Red Sister and left reviews on Goodreads I get the chance to have a look at some of the feedback.

The following four extracts are from female reviewers.



As an aside, Lawrence is uncannily accurate in writing a lifestyle based in a convent where the girls are taught by nuns. I attended a convent school and while the curiculum was definitely different to that of the Sisters of Sweet Mercy (we weren't taught battle skills and poisons for instance - well not deliberately) the dynamic between the nuns, and the nuns and the novices , and between the girls themselves, was spot on. You would almost think Lawrence had been a convent girl himself. For that matter, he writes a prepubescent girl and her friendships with remarkable accuracy too. 





Red Sister was ultimately a coming-of-age story, not something that I’ve expected from this author, and especially not one which dealt so deftly and realistically in the intricacies of young female interactions in a confined, isolated and competitive environment.




The other novices in Red Sister are pretty cool too, and the friendships that develop over the course of the story are really well-executed. Considering he's never actually (I assume) been a little girl moving towards puberty, Mark Lawrence does an amazing job of conveying what it feels like to be a girl who's not quite on the brink of womanhood.




And boy, does Mark know how to write women! Although I think he's a follower of the rule "just write real people", rather than making men/women that different.  <snip>  It's a book that should be mandatory reading for all young girls.




So that's all rather encouraging. But the thing that interests me most is the idea (posed playfully here, but in more earnest elsewhere and about other authors) that you have to be something to write it successfully. It's certainly true that to give a high-fidelity portrayal of a real-world experience of something like what it is to be a minority in a particular society, encompassing all the political and social nuances of that situation, you do need to have been part of it or to have done a vast amount of research. But there the author needs to capture a particular situation that others have lived. In fantasy there's nobody to jump up and say "It wasn't like that!".

I certainly wasn't method acting to write this book. I didn't try to inhabit the role of a young girl (and her friends). The lesson here is perhaps not how hard it is for a man to write women or vice versa, but just how similar we all are, or rather how different we all are but how gender really isn't the key to those differences.

I haven't been a young girl on the verge of womanhood. But equally I haven't been a violent young prince or a womanizing dandy. The answer seems to be: write people.


Jack Nicholson is given a funny line about writing women in As Good As It Gets, but that's all it is. The film itself has a great female lead and the writer/s responsible really weren't thinking like that.





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Friday, 17 March 2017

REVIEW: The Vagrant by Peter Newman

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I really enjoyed this book. 'loved' may not be too strong a word. Best thing I've read in quite a while.

It's an original tale. Every review will mention that it focuses on a man (our 'vagrant') who doesn't speak, and his co-stars are a baby and a goat. More importantly, the man's non-speaking is backed up by a text that spends no significant amount of time in his head - so he remains an enigma, illuminated only through his interactions. A second story thread begins eight years earlier and proceeds to explain the parlous state of the world we're dropping into. This past thread advances by leaps and bounds, revealing the Vagrant's backstory and seeking to wed it to the present action. It's cleverly done and works well.

I should mention the writing. It's very good. Sharp, efficient, full of observation and pleasing turns of phrase. None of it wordy or over-wrought. The writing doesn't try to milk emotion from you - just shows you what's what and leaves the reaction to you.

The world is 'new weird' - demonic-types have entered the world through a breach and proceed to warp, corrupt, co-opt, and take-over. We have all manner of monstrous constructs and most people are warped to some degree.

The goat provides a welcome edge of comedy, as does the baby. Newman clearly knows a lot about babies. I suspect him to have been a new father at the time of writing!

Although the demons do terrible things they're so alien that they don't fill the role of 'baddie' in quite the same way that a person doing terrible things or seeking to end our heroes would. They compensate that lack of someone to really blame/hate by being diverse and interesting, focused on their internal fights as much as they are on taking over the new world they've entered.

I found the story intriguing and the writing's 'voice' a fresh and compelling one.

For me The Vagrant started strong, and kept strong. Endings are hard and I wouldn't call it the perfect ending. It's difficult to avoid anticlimax at the end of any tale and it wasn't wholly avoided here, but there was a lot to like. And it left plenty hanging for a sequel.

Looking at my friends' reviews and the general rating I see the book has got a good reception but not the acclaim I would have expected. I guess this might be because the lack of a (human) head to watch events unfold from doesn't allow us to bond with a hero and their goals in quite the same way we might in more traditional tales. Possibly the weirdness is too much for some readers. And some may seek tighter plotting rather than a sprawling journey punctuated by 'random' encounters. But I really liked the journey, seeing it as canvas onto which the characters and world could be projected. I enjoyed the slow reveal of backstory and agendas.

All in all, very good. Something fresh and new. Give it a try!

It's also worth noting that this is a swift read, a book of modest length at ~90,000 words, which makes a nice change after Big Fat Fantasies over-topping 200,000 words. 



You can go and 'like' my review on goodreads, if you like.


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Red Sister - I has it!

By lucky happenstance my brand new bookcase arrived an hour after my consignment of author copies of Red Sister from Ace.



On the same day I was sent these photos of the special edition!




Monday, 13 March 2017

Hype is a three-edged sword!



Hype, eh?

You need hype to get someone to pick up a new book these days. There's just so damn much to choose from. What's going to get someone to pick up Book A rather than Book B? Well, lots of people raving about book A will generally help.

And to get a lot of people raving about Book A you do need Book A to be pretty damn good. Nobody is going to rave about a book that was so-so or just decent.

But there's a second edge to the sword that cuts through all that noise, and that second edge can cut you instead. If a book gets too brilliant a press, if the readers are too hyped up, too excited ... then they expect to open the book and sit there twitching and slack-mouthed as each line sears itself unforgettably into the back of their skull, filling them with the kind of literary ecstasy that can only ever be remembered from your first great fantasy book and never recaptured no matter how many times you revisit that same story.

And if your new novel does not leave the hyped reader in a spent and satisfied pool of their own juices. If it turns out merely to be a great read, merely a 5* novel ... then there is always the risk of backlash, always the risk of it being rated and reviewed against what they had imagined it might be from the hype rather than against the competition.

So, hype, a necessity and an evil.

What about the third edge? Oh, I just tossed that in to hype it up. Who wants to read about a boring old two-edged sword?








Friday, 10 March 2017

Outlining a novel.

**Spoilers, of course.**

I am often asked how much planning I do for my books. I generally answer that I'm a gardener rather than an architect and that I follow where the story leads me. I find it more interesting and motivating if I don't know what's going to happen next.

However, publishing is a business and publishers, particularly the accounts department, like to feel they are in control of where things are headed. A business needs to manage its risk, or convince its shareholders that it's doing so.

So, "I'll make it up as I go, trust me!" doesn't really fly with them. At least not until you've earned that trust.

When I was nearing a three-book deal with Ace (and Voyager) on the strength of Prince of Thorns (titled "The Hundred War" at that point), I was asked for an outline for book 2, and 3 if possible.

I sent one back for book 2 the same day. I think it took me an hour or so to write. I didn't do one for book 3.

This is what I sent them for King of Thorns, as it's now known.

I never referred back to it, but clearly some of the ideas stuck and made it into the finished novel. Others were left out entirely, and large sections that appeared in the book weren't included at all here.

Anyway, it did the job. I got the deal.




King of Thorns outline.

Issues -

Queen Sareth births competing heir, Jorge's half brother

Gog becoming fire-mage - likely to die - Gorgoth plays a role

Has grandfather on the Horse Coast (mother's father) - will seek an alliance there

Insert more modern tech issues.

Very powerful faction will threaten Renar and Ancrath kingdoms - possible alliance with father.

Chella and Sageous to return.

Jorge's death magic to grow and cause problems.


---------
(2 threads one now (18) one 3 years earlier (15) - the now finds him about to be overwhelmed by the army of Arrow (with Katherine leading/featuring in it) and also about to get married to 'some girl'. Also he is haunted by the ghost of a child (3 years old) and has a terrible memory in a box.

The current thread is desparate preparations for defence.

The past thread is the below where we learn why Katherine uber-hates him, why the child is haunting him and toward the end find out who his bride is and where his help to withstand/defeat the Prince of Arrow comes from.

Jorge needs more men - Renar is a copper-crown kingdom. There is a power moving in the Ken Marshes. Baron Kennick has been over-run by his neighbour the Prince of Arrow and this huge army now threatens both Renar and Ancrath.

Jorge wants an alliance with his Grandfather's people on the Horse Coast and sets off leaving Coddin and Makin to guard his throne. He's travelling as a Road-Brother with his old crew because no amount of soldiers is going to keep him safe, it will just attract attention. Gog and Gorgoth stay at the Haunt. The wild fire is growing rapidly in Gog and threatening to destroy him. Jorge sees a parallel between Gog and himself. Both haunted by a lost brother, both with something wild burning in them, threating destruction.

Whilst skirting Ancrath border he learns that his step-mother has given birth to a son. Jorge decides to pay a call on his half-brother and maybe renew acquaintances with his aunt Katherine. This will require stealth and subtlty - skills that have not been top of Jorge's list this far

Jorge meets Katherine in woods near the Tall Castle. She turns down his advances. She isn't attracted to him.

Jorge watches Katherine from her window ledge sleeping. He moves on and with a little throat slitting gets his hands on the new-born heir. He holds the child agonizing over whether to kill it. The child dies in his hands - the death magic just seeps into him and stops his heart. His horror at what he has done feeds into rage and Katherine wakes to see him racing from the child's room. He nearly strikes her down. He escapes, rejoins the brothers, and sets off for the Horse Coast, haunted by the baby.

The ghosts of Jorge's life blow wilder than the wind - they follow him. On the journey he starts to go insane. They cross a rad-desert and Jorge encounters a seer, a traveller from the Utter East, possibly tutor Lundist's father. The seer helps him recover his way - the bad memory is put in a box.

Takes ship the last leg of the journey to avoid an unwholesome section of the coast where the corpse-eaters live.

Arrives at grandfather's castle on a rocky prominentry (shaped like a horse's head). Insinuates himself into service to learn about his relatives. Discovers they have a machine beneath the castle that in addition to powering some lights and doors will also replicate a non-functioning mechanical version of any animal placed in a chamber. It also generates a hologram of an annoying Builder who evades questions. Eventually Jorge tricks it into powering up a stainless steel wolf.


At the castle Jorge saves his uncle (mother's younger brother and heir to the throne) from an assassination and reveals himself to grandfather. The alliance is sealed with a marriage to his cousin and grandfather pledges ships and men to Jorge's aid.






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Monday, 6 March 2017

Sobering Sales Statistics!

First off, note that these graphs show the number of Goodreads ratings a book has.

For books in the neighbourhood of Epic Fantasy and published in the last 5 to 10 years I have observed a close correlation between number of GR ratings and sales.

For books in other genres and for books published pre-2007 this relationship will get sketchy. My impression is that the formula for sales in English (multiply number of GR ratings by 8) will start to underestimate sales more and more as the publication date retreats into the past. Additionally children's books (as opposed to YA) are heavily underestimated by the formula as children are less likely to use Goodreads than adults.

Anyway. Here are the numbers of GR ratings for a selection of fantasy books often discussed in places where my books are discussed.

click for detail

The interest in various forums skews in different directions, so in some places you might come away with the impression that any one of these was really killing it in terms of sales and "dominating" the genre.

But when we add in some of the really heavy hitters also discussed in those locales...

click for detail

...we get rather a different picture.

The level to which A Game of Thrones outsells the rest of the field is quite staggering, particularly when the publication date means this difference will *increase* significantly when converting figures to a sales estimate.

But when we widen the field of that fantasy lens still further to include urban fantasy, paranormal romance fantasy, YA fantasy, SFF, literary fantasy and fantasy written for children... even the mighty GRRM is dwarfed.

click for detail


I'm a minnow swimming in a puddle and even genre stars like Lynch, Hobb, and Sanderson are just big fish in a small pond. Fortunately even if sales may correlate to GR ratings, they don't always correlate to quality and there is excellent reading to be found both among the leviathans at sea and the little fish in the ponds.


I present this merely as an interesting (to me) representation of data.

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Red Sister art




 






Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, two thirds through!

The scoreboard is here.

This is just a snapshot of how things stand at the 2/3rds mark.

That's 2/3rds of the allotted time. We have 55% of the scores in and the number of scores per book right now varies from 4 to 8 of the final 10.

Here's how the finalists rank in terms of average score.

8.58    The Grey Bastards
7.25    Paternus
7.20    Path of Flames
6.93    Fionn
6.83    Larcout
6.50    Outpost
6.42    Assassin's Charge
6.25    The Moonlight War
5.25    The Music Box Girl
5.12    The Shadow Soul











Thursday, 2 March 2017

REVIEW: A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin



I rated this in 2010. In 2017 it's time I actually use my words.

Here's my long overdue review of A Game of Thrones. I was looking at the current reviews. Here you have a book with a ridiculously high average rating, vast sales, and … the most liked reviews are three 1*s and an unrated comedy piece. 

Do we love to hate *that* much? Apparently we do. Not only is knocking down easier than building, it’s also more fun to watch. 

 

Well, sadly all I have to offer here is a less exciting set of praise for the genius and importance of this book.

The first bit of genius is that on paper GRRM writes in not only the opposite manner to me but in a manner I profess to dislike. Wait … I like how he writes on paper … you know what I mean.

Things he does that should annoy me:

I) Lengthy descriptions of … everything, especially food, clothing, and architecture. Normally I hate wading through that stuff to get at the story. Somehow GRRM does it in a way I like.
II) Large numbers of point of view characters. I normally find this makes each of them rather shallow and stereotyped. GRRM is magnificent with characters and brings even the throw away non-point of view ones to life.
III) Huge, expanding story lines. I tend to like some sort of focus but every corner you turn in this series can end up leading you down a seemingly endless rabbit hole of minor noble houses, their retainers, local squabbles, history etc. And this has irked me at points, especially in the later books, but it’s also kind of marvellous and makes everything feel really real, and also deep-rooted in a Tolkienesque way.


I maintain that not only is Game of Thrones a brilliant read, it’s also an important one for the genre. It’s meaningful to talk about post-GRRM fantasy. 

For many people, indeed for a decent chunk of a whole generation of fantasy authors, George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones was a step change in the genre.

 

For me and a lot of other authors Martin's work opened our eyes to what felt like a whole different world of what fantasy writing could be, and we've run out into those new territories eager to try to copy not the style or substance, but the quality.

In my youth when we entered a fantasy land we were expected to suspending our belief about magic and alternate worlds, but not only that. We were expected to enter a sort of mythic / fairy tale world where people weren't quite... real. They didn't feel like actual regular humans, bound by the same fears, worries, ambitions, aches and pains as you and I - they felt more like actors in roles, cogs in a plot engine, icons and ciphers. They were too good, or too evil.

Fantasy had its conventions and we played within them, reader and author exercised a mutual understanding regarding the rules - rather like ancient Greek theatre, or a musical where for no reason the cast can break from the story into a rousing song.

 


Of course I exaggerate. And this isn't to say that authors didn't weave fascinating and compelling stories within those conventions. The fantasy of the 70s and 80s kept me very happy and some of it was written by writers of surpassing genius. Even so... it was quite definitely 'apart' from the books that really touched me or showed me new things about 'what it's all about' - works of literary fiction, and miles distant from what 99% of the public was reading.

The step I'm talking about may be entirely artificial or demonstrable fact. It may be that in the 90's when I was reading very little fantasy the genre moved smoothly into what it is now. It may be that GRRM is talked of as a step change by so many simply because his success meant that A Game of Thrones was the first book that fantasy exiles actually picked up after their absence, and thus they saw in it a 'sudden' significant difference ... or it may be that he really did raise the bar in one swift move.

Either way, what he did was to present us with real people. I'm not talking about the 'gritty realism' that is of late so hotly debated in some quarters of the interwebs - I'm just talking about the strength of his characterisation, the creation of real people with everyday weaknesses, wants, ambitions, set in a world that feels like it has a genuine past that matters to them, both on the grand and small scales.

What he did drew many people back into the genre, as readers and as writers. His work was both a challenge and an invitation. He showed what fantasy could be. Real people who didn't carry a particular flaw around like an attribute rolled up in a role-playing game, but who were complex, capable of both good and evil, victims of circumstance, heroes of the moment. Heroes in gleaming mail could suffer from corns without it being a joke. That's a big part of his secret - EVERY ONE IS HUMAN - get behind their eyes and nobody is perfect, nobody is worthless.

I don't write anything like George RR Martin. I don't lay claim to any significant portion of his talent. But I do count myself as one of his many inheritors (in this game you can inherit without requiring the other person to stop writing!). And what I inherited was the desire (if not the ability) to put it all on the page. Fantasy no longer feels like an acquired taste, a club where you have to learn the conventions, the forms, what the masks mean, what the short hand is for... fantasy feels real. And I love it.


If you like this review you could "like" it on Goodreads!