Saturday, 13 August 2022

Shelfish Opinions: 1

 Continuing the Youtube theme - making these videos is also giving me blog material.


I decided that I would move on from critiquing people's writing to critiquing people's writing, but now the writing is whole books, and the critiquing is cursory opinion, and the selection is made by my (mostly) alphabetised shelves.

Since I have a great many fantasy shelves, this could be a new recurring feature that will hit dozens of episodes.

Let's see how it goes.

Imma present one shelf at a time and just talk my way through the titles there, saying if I've read the book and briefly, what I thought of it. It's worth noting that I'm not responsible for the purchase/acquisition of the majority of the books on our shelves. My wife's an avid fantasy reader, and my children have been also at various points in their lives.


Shelf 1:

(the whole thing is too much to read the titles easily, so I've broken it up below)



Bit by bit:

So, we start with four books by Ben Aaronovitch, The Furthest Station, The Hanging Tree, Foxglove Summer, and Lies Sleeping. I've not read any of them. My wife's the fan of the series.

Then there are four books by Joe Abercrombie. Half A King, Half A War, Half A King (again ... so a whole king together), and The Blade Itself. Why do we have two halves of a king? Because Voyager send me ARCs, and my wife pays no attention and buys the book again later. 

I've not read any of these either. There are many gaps in my fantasy reading, and I'd not read Rothfuss, Sanderson, Lynch, and many other big sellers before getting published (I still haven't read Jordan and some others). Since very early on there were a number of people online saying that I'd in some way copied Abercrombie, it's become a purposeful omission. I like being able to answer any such accusation with the fact I've never read him, without have to qualify it with (before writing Prince of Thorns). There's nothing personal in it - I've met Joe at three Grim Gatherings, he's an amiable and witty fellow. And I don't think he's read my books either.

And the last one in this shot is Blood And Bone by Tomi Adeyemi ... who I've also not read. So I'm 0 for 9 on my own shelf here. This may not have been as good an idea as I thought it was!


Ah! Song of the Morning, by Mark Alder! I've read this one. Pretty sure I was sent it by his publisher back in 2013. It's pretty good. Some great prose - I recall an excellent early line about a hawk rotating the world around it. 

Looked it up: "A kestrel, silver in the dusk, turned the world around its wing. A beat, a flutter, a sudden and momentary fury. It tumbled, stopped, and hovered almost motionless, its wings wide, possessing the land."

It's a fat book concerned with medieval France and England. The time of the Black Prince etc. With angels and devils thrown into the mix of politics and war, in an interesting mix of historical fiction with a kind of magical realism - a what if devil and angels were real and had been part of all this, acknowledged and used by/using the various parties.

I actually thought the 'historical' parts were the best, and floundered a little on the angels/devils. But it was a good read over all. There's a follow up I never reached - I read a lot of book 1s and rather few book 2s. Not because I'm hard to please but because I read very slowly and want to sample a broad range, not sink a year into one author.

Next up, Margaret Atwood's famous The Handmaid's Tale. I've not read it 😄

The Skinner, by Neal Asher, is one I have read, probably back in 2011. Asher was one of the first to review Prince of Thorns (on his blog) and was very positive about it, so I investigated his work. I enjoyed the book. I'm not a great scifi reader, but Asher's universe seems packed with cool ideas, and I particularly liked the super hostile planet where the wild life comes in a great number of really dangerous forms that try to eat/destroy each other along with any new additions to the food chain, whether they count as food or not.

Then we have the complete Paternus trilogy by Dyrk Ashton. Paternus, Wrath of the Gods, War of the Gods. I've read book 1, Paternus. It came 3rd in the 2nd SPFBO contest (that I run). It's a heap of fun - basically every mythology you've ever heard of, and a lot you haven't, are real and their gods/monsters run riot in the real world (whilst not disrupting it too much).

I've met Dyrk too - he came to Bristolcon (from America!) a few years back. Lovely guy. Has been in major films too, as aliens and zombies!

The other two books I should read. Just need time.

Black Cross by J.P Ashman is another self-published book. J.P I know from Bristolcon, a nice chap. His book I remember for having an enormous number of PoVs ... like 20 maybe? A monster-fighting romp.


Everworld by Katherine Applegate is a book I didn't know we had! Never heard of her.

The final 9 books are by Issac Asimov. They include two copies of Foundation And Earth, and a boxed set of 4 Foundation books. Also Nine Tomorrows, The Stars Like Dust, Mutants, The Robots of Dawn, and a collection of short stories.

It's been at least 40 years since I read any Asimov. I did read and enjoy the Foundation books, while recognising that they are pretty dry with paper-thin characters. And The Stars Like Dust was one of my earliest sci-fi reads. I recall liking it, and not one other thing about it. It's sad that not only can I not read all the books, or even a good chunk of the books on my own shelves ... but I can't even remember all the books I've read.

Ah. Mortality.




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Friday, 12 August 2022

Youtube if you want to.

Look at me spitting out posts like they're watermelon seeds!


This one is just to say that I have finally bitten the video bullet.


After posting my first Youtube video (in which I do not feature) 11 years ago:


I have finally appeared on one, and not merely blessed the multitudes with my face ... I speak too!


I have posted two videos on "Perfecting Page 1" - aimed at writers.

In due course I plan to post some reviews, thoughts, who knowns, and maybe even swell my subscriber numbers past double figures 😮

Here are the two I've done this week (sadly in the second I forgot to plug in my new £35 microphone, so the audio is a bit 1950s):







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Thursday, 11 August 2022

Page 1 critique - "Children of Gods and Fighting Men" by Shauna Lawless

So, I've decided to reprise my series of page 1 critiques - you can read about the project HERE, and there's a list of all the critiques so far too.

I'm also posting some of these on my Youtube channel (like, subscribe yadda yadda).

And it was after seeing my first video that the writer of this page, Shauna Lawless, volunteered her page 1.   

It's worth noting that I have read, reviewed, and very much enjoyed the book Children of Gods and Fighting Men, from which this page 1 comes. The book is due for publication in a few weeks (September 1st 2022).

First of all I'm going to cut and paste the disclaimers, and anyone prone to outrage really should read them:

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.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Amlav’s armour, sword and axe gleamed as if new. His beard, washed and bathed in lavender-scented oils, glistened in the soft candlelight and curled elegantly over his chest.

I leaned forward and rubbed my finger over his lips, down his cheek, until I touched the wolf-fur cloak which covered the stone slab he lay upon. Only a stray lock of hair that had fallen across his forehead marred the effect. The nuns had dressed him well, but it was my duty, as his wife, to ensure he crossed over to the afterlife looking like a king. I pushed the curl back, sweeping it into line with the others.

Once satisfied, I smiled.

Lying down, eyes closed, had always been the way I preferred Amlav. But this was better. Death had a finality that sleep could only imitate.

Death suited him in other ways too. His right hand had stiffened to grip his sword tighter than I’d ever seen him hold it in life. He’d been a warrior once, true enough, but by the time my father inflicted this marriage upon me, Amlav had been almost seventy, his fighting days over. When his armies left Dublin to fight the Irish, he had gone with them, but I knew when the battle was at its worst, he sat on his fat horse while our warriors drew their swords. Well-deserved, the warriors said, for Amlav’s reputation preceded him. The number of men he’d slain in his prime numbered over a thousand. No one dared to call him coward – only old.

Sinking into the chair next to Amlav’s body, I waited for the abbot to arrive. The monks had taken an age to dig the grave, rain and storms hindering them from their work. Last night, finally, they finished. I almost pitied them, though pity was wasted on the clergy. They’d chosen a life where misery was a virtue. If they felt closer to God by freezing to death on this hateful piece of rock, who was I to tell them otherwise? Not even the gold crosses that Amlav had gifted the monks, and which now adorned the altar, could give this miserable hovel any glamour, and somehow, the morning sunshine seeping in through the windows made the stone walls look more tomb-like than when lit by candlelight alone.


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


First, it's worth noting that this page one does not do several things that I offer as 'things to do on page 1' in general advice. And since this is a very good page 1, that fact speaks to the truth of my oft repeated qualifications regarding my way not being the only way.

Two principle things it does not do, which I advise generally, are (i) include dialogue (ii) include action/tension/a problem.

These things are 'generally' advisable early on, page 1 is great, chapter 1 'generally' a must. Lawless keeps us waiting til page 3 for dialogue, but then it's a full-fledged conversation.

I said in my review that the book is an understated one, and noted that there's considerable power in understatement in expert hands. And this relatively gentle opening fits with that.

The advice I've offered on earlier page 1's is intended to be easy to follow and bring good results. This page 1 succeeds using more sophisticated, and harder to achieve, methods.

So, onto the page 1. Let's see why it works 


Amlav’s armour, sword and axe gleamed as if new. His beard, washed and bathed in lavender-scented oils, glistened in the soft candlelight and curled elegantly over his chest.

Line 1 just shows us something. I'm pretty neutral on it. At least it's not the weather, and the presence of weapons and armour could promise excitement.

By line 2 we're getting a slightly off-kilter feeling. Washed beards and lavender oils in soft candlelight don't normally live next to armour and axes. A subtle question has been posed. Off-kilter is good. It's a "what's going on?" in a good way. 

I leaned forward and rubbed my finger over his lips, down his cheek, until I touched the wolf-fur cloak which covered the stone slab he lay upon.

The author is keeping us on our toes by subverting minor expectations a second time. I was reading about Amlav, a bearded warrior. But now I discover he's not the 3rd person Point Of View (PoV) character. Instead the PoV is first person, and watching Amlav. Touching him in a curiously invasive manner. More questions.

 Only a stray lock of hair that had fallen across his forehead marred the effect. The nuns had dressed him well, but it was my duty, as his wife, to ensure he crossed over to the afterlife looking like a king. I pushed the curl back, sweeping it into line with the others.

More revelations. Amalav's dead - earlier strangeness explained. The PoV is a woman. The setting is beginning to fill itself in despite the author having spent almost no words on it. By slowly expanding and changing our awareness Lawless has created an implied setting in our heads without needing to spend words describing it to us. A dead king, dressed by nuns, candles, a stone slab. I'm thinking some sort of chapel, a king lying in state, ready for burial/cremation.

Once satisfied, I smiled.

And again, the author continues her series of small surprises, expectations subverted/contradicted. A newly dead husband, but she's smiling.

Lying down, eyes closed, had always been the way I preferred Amlav. But this was better. Death had a finality that sleep could only imitate.

We're learning about their relationship now, but without being 'told' it in an inelegant statement "I never liked my husband." or "I was glad he was dead. We didn't get on." etc - instead observations on his state in well-written prose 'show' us.

Death suited him in other ways too. His right hand had stiffened to grip his sword tighter than I’d ever seen him hold it in life. He’d been a warrior once, true enough, but by the time my father inflicted this marriage upon me, Amlav had been almost seventy, his fighting days over.

More observation and brief facts that through the reader's understanding of arranged marriages in times of swords and axes tell us a lot. It seems clear that she was much younger than her husband. The word "inflicted" is very efficient, speaking volumes. We don't need paragraphs here, just enough hints to reconstruct the likely situation. We feel grounded.

 When his armies left Dublin to fight the Irish, he had gone with them, but I knew when the battle was at its worst, he sat on his fat horse while our warriors drew their swords. Well-deserved, the warriors said, for Amlav’s reputation preceded him. The number of men he’d slain in his prime numbered over a thousand. No one dared to call him coward – only old.

Plenty of world-building here - 'leaving Dublin to fight the Irish' either raises questions or answers them, depending on the level of your understanding of the period/place. If he's in Dublin and isn't Irish then it seems he's a Viking king, an invader.

-- as an editing point, that "the number ... numbered" is a bit awkward and the line could be reworked to avoid the repetition.

We also see a hint that our PoV's, perhaps understandable, antipathy is not well contained. If the man has killed 1000+ warriors in person in battle, it's hard to consider him a coward, but she rather implies he should be called cowardly for sitting out the hand-to-hand stuff in his old age. 

Sinking into the chair next to Amlav’s body, I waited for the abbot to arrive. The monks had taken an age to dig the grave, rain and storms hindering them from their work. Last night, finally, they finished. I almost pitied them, though pity was wasted on the clergy. They’d chosen a life where misery was a virtue. If they felt closer to God by freezing to death on this hateful piece of rock, who was I to tell them otherwise? Not even the gold crosses that Amlav had gifted the monks, and which now adorned the altar, could give this miserable hovel any glamour, and somehow, the morning sunshine seeping in through the windows made the stone walls look more tomb-like than when lit by candlelight alone.

And finally we get more scene-setting observation - which is ALWAYS much better than scene-setting absent a PoV. Always make description come through the eyes of someone with opinions, thereby illuminating both the place/thing and the person. The more "stuff" that writing can deliver, comfortably, in a small space, the better it is. It's more nourishment/excitement per line. If you were to separate out the description from the opinion here and deliver them separately, it would take more space and be far less digestible.

We get hints that our PoV is perhaps not a very agreeable person. Her situation hasn't been great but she also comes across as spiky. That's good too. It suggests that we're not getting a vanilla goody-goody here. We might be getting someone with edges who is going to be proactive and maybe even cause trouble. All to the good - I want to know more about her and her situation. Is she going to rule now? Is she in danger? Who will fill the throne?


It's a strong page 1 that pulls you through from line 1 to the bottom of the page by relentlessly edging the boundaries of our understanding outwards, all the while keeping us on our toes by, if not pulling the rug out from under our expectations, then by giving it a good yank on a regular basis.

Confounding expectations is a powerful technique. The first line of my book Red Sister is often quoted, and the strength there comes from confounding expectation.

"It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure you bring an army of sufficient size."

The 'nun' being the object of important advice about 'killing' is a surprise. We might expect a dragon or a lion or something traditionally fearsome. And expectation is upended a second time when instead of being told to bring a sharp knife or make sure nobody's watching ... we're told to make sure we have a big enough army.

A page one that spreads that effect out across five paragraphs and a series of minor shocks, can work very well too.

 

The rest of the book is written with similar skill and I recommend you give it a read.






Monday, 1 August 2022

Prince of Thorns is eleven today!

 Prince of Thorns has been on the shelves for eleven years!

The UK paperback has reached at least 28 printings.



I'll take the chance to say thanks - thank you to my readers (and my publishers) for letting me spend the past 11 years writing stories, and more than that - living in them. It's been an unexpected privilege.


In other news, I now have a Patreon. Check it out!



Check out the 10th9th8th7th6th5th4th3rd2nd, and 1st birthday round-ups. 



I now have 16 books on the shelves!




The most recent addition was The Girl And The Moon, in April.




Being a numbers guy as well as a words guy I like to keep track of things and record them for when I'm doddery and old, looking back at my 'glory' days.

At this point I need to inject a comment concerning Goodreads. The Goodreads site has been an open joke for many years. It's one of the worst coded things on the internet. If you imagine a decent site as having an internal combustion engine, Goodreads is more a series of blackened saucepans propped up over trash fires, with a spaghetti mess of leaking twisted pipes siphoning off the steam in the hopes of driving a Victorian era piston.

It used to be that authors were forever questioning the admins about missing ratings, and the answer was always: "the buffers need flushing" and after a while a splurge of 200 ratings would appear.

Then, several years ago, my books and many others suddenly got a boost of thousands of ratings, which were attributed to some Goodreads engineer finally unblocking the pipes and dealing with the 'buffers' issue once and for all.

...this year though, my books started to lose hundreds of ratings a day, and ultimately several thousand from the most rated ones, like Prince of Thorns. I queried this several times. At first it was "an issue that the Goodreads team are aware of" and then finally it was "concluded". It was never fixed though. Those ratings just vanished. They weren't 'good' ones necessarily. The Red Sister average rating shot up...

What happened, I have no real idea. I'm not sure Goodreads do either. Certainly, they're not talking about it. My working theory (on no evidence) is that the big surge a few years ago was an error that has now been corrected. But it's just as likely that Goodreads randomly pissed away 10,000 ratings from my books.

Anyway - if any of you watch these stats closely enough to notice (and I would bet money that none of you do) then that's the story!



I have been slightly more active on the blog of late, it hasn't impacted the plateauing traffic, but still ~30,000 hits a month isn't too shabby and this year it so nearly reached 4 million hits in total.





And my quest to conquer Twitter crawls on...




It's also worth noting that this year saw the release of not one but two 10th anniversary special editions of Prince of Thorns (offering less eye-watering postage options). One in the UK from Broken Binding, and a super deluxe leatherbound one in the US from Grim Oak Press. Both publishers plan to follow up with 10th anniversary editions of King of Thorns.

Where things stand with my special editions:

Grim Oak Press
The Broken Empire omnibus - SOLD OUT
The Red Queen's War omnibus - 50 of 1,000 remaining.
10th anniversary Prince of Thorns - 60 of 750 remaining.

Broken Binding
10th anniversary Prince of Thorns - SOLD OUT

If you want to see how they appreciate, try buying a copy of the sold out editions on ebay.


Well, that's my annual stock-take. Over & out, until next year.


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