Review Roundup 8/17

Historically, I haven’t written a lot of book reviews, but I’m trying to get myself to do more. I’ve read some good books and some bad books recently; here’s a roundup of the reviews I’ve given on Goodreads lately:

 

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – 4/5 stars

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders – 2/5 stars

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin – 4/5 stars

Control Point by Myke Cole – 1/5 stars

Zeroes by Chuck Wendig – 2/5 stars

Next Round

Finally, at long last, the wait is over. It’s time for…

The next round of rejection. I mean querying.

I’ve spent the last couple months working on more edits for Daughters of Darkness (after several months of writing the book I’m now calling The Obsidian Pyramids), and I’m finally ready to send out the next round of submissions. My changes to the query were minimal, but I think it’s clearly stronger than the previous versions.

For anyone who’s curious, here’s the body of the query:

 

High Lady Iris LaRose always knew she would become one of the most influential women of the Dianic Empire – until her sister brought shame upon the entire family by harboring a failed assassin. After years of struggle to prove their love and commitment to the empire, Iris and her mother have nearly erased the family’s tainted past. Then Iris’s mother murders her daughter’s groom on the couple’s wedding day.

When Iris flees the scene, she’s accused of conspiracy by Empress Elena Flora, a woman with little sympathy left for the LaRose family. But Iris won’t believe that her mother is truly guilty – an imposter must be responsible. Faced with execution, Iris’s only option is to lie, claiming she can bring the imperial guard to her mother.

Her lie buys her just enough freedom to seek the hidden killer, but when answers prove difficult to find, she turns to the most unwelcome of allies: Violet Zino, a brash and charming pirate who can access the criminal underground.

As new assassinations threaten the stability of the empire, Iris and Violet uncover clues that lead them to a shadowy group called the Daughters of Darkness, women who plan to destroy the empire by replacing the empress with a saboteur. Now Iris must choose to risk her life and her freedom to save Elena Flora, or watch as the empire she loves crumbles.

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, complete at 112,600 words, is high fantasy that will appeal to fans of The Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks and The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes, as it shares their adventurous tone and touch of irreverent humor.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 

It’s a bit longer than I wanted – and quite a bit longer than the first draft – but I think this is the best possible version.

So I’m off to put together and send out those submissions. Then on to the initial reading of the first draft of The Obsidian Pyramids. No summer vacation for his writer.

Writing Ambitions

November will mark the ten year anniversary of the day I started writing The Doorway, the first novel I ever completed. I knew when I started it that I would never have a chance of getting it published – though I pretended that wasn’t the case as I wrote it. But I still had a great time writing it.

Over the years, I’ve become more and more serious about trying to get a book deal with one of the big publishers. It hasn’t gone like I’d hoped, but I’m working on it. I still enjoy writing, but I’ve found the rejection on my query submissions to be more painful than I’d like.

Recently, I came across an older blog post by one of my favorite authors, Mark Lawrence:

http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/writing-fail.html

Mark talks about failure in writing, and how difficult it is to become a successful author, especially at the level of a bestseller. His main point is that most writers will never reach the level of success they desire, and that writers should view anything they do as an accomplishment. You, if you’re a writer, shouldn’t allow yourself to fail, simply by not allowing yourself to feel like you’ve failed – no matter what.

This strikes me as wise, and good advice. And yet…

And yet I don’t believe I can ever view things this way. It just isn’t within my personality to think like that. I suppose that’s a weakness (and it really does lead to a lot of pain and disappointment), but it’s just how I operate.

I’m rather competitive and goal-oriented. I often set my goals high (too high?), but that’s how I motivate myself. I’m just not sure I can take the mentality that I’ve succeeded just by trying, just by writing, even if it’s the wise thing to do. Even if not doing so hurts me.

The best I can do, I think, is to believe that the rejections I get are more due to bad luck than my own failures, and keep going. Keep writing, keep submitting.

***

P.S. While Mark’s advised mentality may be good for writers, I would get eaten alive in my primary career if I adopted it.

P.P.S. If you haven’t read Mark Lawrence, and you like fantasy, I highly recommend Prince of Thorns. It’s a bit of a tough read for some people, but it’s worth it. It’s pretty unique within epic fantasy for it’s short length and consistent fast pace. The main character, Jorg Ancrath, is one of my favorite of all time – If you’ve read this, or do in the future, don’t judge me for that 🙂

Broken Fantasy

I wrote my first book when I was 28. Finishing up grad school, trying to figure out, at a late age, what I should do with my life. Not my first attempt at writing an entire novel, but my first success.

Success? Hahaha, no, it was crap. Just a total piece of garbage.

But it was an amazing feeling, just to write those last words. To think to myself, holy shit Kevin you just wrote an actual, real novel. All the way through from beginning to end. Even if it does suck.

Last Thursday night, I finished my seventh novel. I’d say the feeling that night was more relief than elation, given that I struggled through this one, but that’s not right. I mostly felt… nothing.

***

My job’s been especially stressful lately, though in truth, my job is especially stressful all the time. It’s just the nature of my career. Two and a half years ago, the day of the company holiday party, I had the worst day of this ridiculous job. I woke up, saw I was losing many millions of dollars, and immediately reached for a beer and my book, the one I was writing at the time. It was my fifth book. The alcohol comforted my a little, but writing for hours comforted me a lot.

Back then, I was able to use writing as an escape from my failures, in my job and in my life. I could fantasize about becoming a great writer. Not strictly about becoming famous or rich by writing – that’s reserved for a handful of people per generation. Just about creating something wonderful that a bunch of other people would like and recognize as something great. Flawed, sure. Not for everyone. But beautiful. Amazing in some way.

But as my career continues to go to hell (I’ll figure it out, somehow, I think, maybe), I haven’t been able to escape into that writer fantasy. It hurts, because I don’t know where else to turn – I mean, alcohol obviously, but I think that may be less healthy.

***

Seven books. The first two were total crap. I was just starting out, messing around, hadn’t learned much about writing. The third, The Book of Terrors, I genuinely liked. The first book I queried agents on, even though I had no idea what I was doing in that regard. No requests. Eventually I realized it just wasn’t good enough. Not big five material.

My fourth book was meant to be a practice book, a shitty attempt at writing YA. I’m not sure if I learned much from it, but hey, it was a thing. If nothing else, a chance to practice sentence-level writing.

Book five, Blood Price (not a vampire novel), I queried on with… zero requests. Again, after getting some distance, I realized it wasn’t great material, didn’t stand out the way I wanted. Sure, another practice book.

Then came Daughters of Darkness, which I’ve blogged about here before. I still believe in this book, in the characters, in the world. Twenty-four queries so far and… zero requests.

***

During the query process for Daughters of Darkness, I realized I’ve made a big mistake throughout my writing non-career. I haven’t solicited enough feedback. I’ve had a few critiques, but mostly partial or informal. One of those partial critiques was from a freelance editor for DoD, and a couple comments she gave me were very useful, but rather embarrassing for me. Pretty fundamental shit that I should’ve understood/learned years ago. Sophomore year kinda stuff (In my defense, I was an engineering major, I only took one semester of writing in college, come on).

But even with my mistakes, I believe I’ve progressed as a writer over the years. Not as much as I could have, if I’d done all the right things. Still, it seems like real progress. But I don’t see it in the results. The proof, as they (old people?) say, is in the pudding. And there’s been no pudding for Kevin.

I’m not done trying to find an agent for Daughters of Darkness, and I haven’t even begun to query on book seven (no title yet), which will be months from now, after much revision. But…

It gets harder to keep going. To believe. To keep the dream, the fantasy, alive.

Yes, yes, I’ve heard it a million fucking times, every writer experiences rejection. NEVER GIVE UP. But…

If you let the rational mind leak in for just a moment, it’ll tell you that the probability of landing a legit agent is low. Very fucking low. (Self-publishing is a thing, it works for some people, but I know myself well enough to know it isn’t for me)

My rational mind thinks about selection bias (or survivorship bias, if you prefer), and all those stories about writers getting rejected so many times and then breaking through. The thing is, these are the success stories. For every one of those, there must be hundreds, maybe thousands of writers who kept getting rejected, kept trying, and… kept getting rejected. Without success. Just because most/all successful writers experienced a lot of rejection, that doesn’t mean that most writers who experience rejection and keep going will be successful. Sorry, that’s not how it works.

***

As writers, we’re not supposed to think about giving up. That’s the only way you fail, guys!

But I don’t agree with this sentiment. Most of us have “regular” jobs. In better days, mine used to pay me pretty well. At some point, I may have to accept that it might be better for me to give up the dream of becoming a bestselling author. Doesn’t mean I can’t still write for fun, right?

Over the last couple years, as I’ve tried to work toward doing all the “professional” things that published authors need to do, I’ve found so much to not like about “writing.” I don’t mean the actual writing of a book, or even the editing. I mean things like learning about the business, writing/revising/perfecting the query submission. Figuring out which agents are good fits for me, which agents rep my stuff but are, um, let’s just say, not what I consider quality agent material.

What if, just what if, giving up on the dream of getting a book contract, saying fuck it and just writing for the fun of it, even if no one will ever read it… what if that’s honestly the best thing for me? Does that make me weak, a quitter, a failure? Or pragmatic?

Letting go of the dream… forever… sounds painful. But it could be freeing, as well. Hell, I wouldn’t have to go through the terrible, no good, very bad feelings I get every time I send out a round of queries and get nothing but rejections. When I write just for myself and no one else reads it, I can be proud of my story, of my characters. I can pretend that it’s super fucking great!

But when I continue to query and revise, query, fail, learn and start over, query again and get nothing but a cold shoulder, there’s a voice in my head that I have a hard time ignoring. It doesn’t just say I’m not good enough. It says I’m downright terrible. No, far, far worse than that. The absolute, unfathomable, serious fucking worst ever. So bad I shouldn’t tell anyone I’ve failed this much just to save myself the embarrassment.

***

Seven books. Not a single request. I still believe I can get better, that I can break through. I don’t want to give up the dream yet, whether the rational part of me says I should or not. I’m looking back at the mistakes I’ve made, working out in my head how I can learn from them. I wouldn’t be the first author to query on several books and fail before making it. But…

It’s hard to keep believing. And then I see things like:

schwab_being_sexist

Because apparently, it’s so fucking easy for every white male in the publishing industry. You don’t have to be good, if you’re a white male, scratch some drunken shit on a napkin and BOOM – big five contract. If only everyone else had the crazy advantages I have! I shouldn’t be able to fail even if I try!

Yet after ten years, after seven books, this white male still can’t get a single request from an agent.

And that voice? The one that says I’m so bad, so over-the-top embarrassing level incompetent that how is this even possible? It gets louder every day. Even the beer and whiskey don’t seem to quiet it.

But I’m not giving up. Not yet.

Not ever? I don’t know.

How Many is Too Many?

The other day I saw a brief Twitter thread by one of the editors I follow (she works at Tor). She tweeted about the number of POV characters in a manuscript, and how it becomes difficult for the author to manage them all as the number increases – this is assuming third person limited, though she mentioned third person omniscient as a different issue. As an aside, I’ve never been a fan of the third person omniscient head-hopping style. Kids, don’t write this kind of perspective. Just say no.

Said editor says she worries when the author writes more than 4 POV characters. The main risk, she explained, is that it’s tough to differentiate between them. The reader should be able to identify the POV in any given scene by the narrative voice. This is challenging, and I personally think that many great novels exist where this just isn’t the case. But this is something that I strive for, and has been one of my main focuses for improvement over the last 3 books I’ve worked on.

In may last finished MS, Daughters of Darkness, I went with 5 POV characters (eek!). This was the first time I wrote more than 3, and I was worried about this issue. When I started, I thought there was a significant chance I would have to cut one of those (her name is Talia Soren) – not cut her out of the book, I mean, just cut her perspective. But I think (I’m a little biased here guys) it worked out well, and the personal editor inside my head said I didn’t need to cut anyone. Still, 5 is a lot for a 112k word novel.

With current WIP, I originally decided on 5 again, but as I wrote through Act I, I started to wonder about one of those characters (her name is Maria Fonseca). And as it turns out, the day before I was supposed to write the first chapter from her POV, I saw these tweets. I revisited my thoughts about this character, and eventually decided it was best to use her strictly as a non-POV character. The MS is already getting longer than I wanted, and I didn’t feel like I had a clear narrative arc in store for her, so I think cutting her makes sense from many angles.

And it gets me down to the magic number of 4 POV’s! Yippee!

I think using more than 2 or 3 POV characters can add a lot to a novel in terms of range, but it is challenging to maintain the necessary differentiation. As I talked about in a post earlier, one of my preferred tricks is to focus on a different voice for each character by picking different tag words and phrases for each. For me, this mostly comes down to the different curses 🙂

Anyway, work on my current WIP continues at a steady but slow pace. I broke the 50k word barrier today, and right now I’m projecting a finished 1st draft of around 150k. Longer than I wanted, but I’m working toward making this story truly epic – this is meant to be the first book in a series (How many books planned for this series? I got no idea at this point. Lots, perhaps?). I’m hoping to finish the 1st draft before June, but we shall see…

Origin Story

So I just sent out a round of queries last Friday for my most recent novel, Daughters of Darkness (only 1 rejection so far!), and I’m gearing up for the next project, which I don’t have a title for yet. I still have a bunch of pre-writing to do, and I’m trying to cram it all in by the end of the month so I can start the first draft on Nov 1st – for NaNoWriMo, obviously.

But before I make my transition to the next project (or technically, back to the next project, since I interrupted my pre-writing to do some more edits on DoD before sending out more queries), I decided to write up a little story about how DoD came to be. I give you, the origin story…

Twas the year 2010. Or was it 2011? I can’t really remember, it was a few years ago and I’m getting old and things are a little fuzzy these days. Course, that might have something to do with all the whiskey I drink. Anyway…

I was living in Prospect Towers in Milwaukee. (Where I still live. But I left then came back). I’d written two very terrible books over the previous 2-3 years, and I was thinking about writing another. I tried messing around with a SF story about an incurable disease raging through the galaxy, and a small band of deserters from a war on a remote planet that carried the only treatment for the disease – and the best hope for developing a cure. But I kinda messed it up and I eventually set it aside.

Then I had a dream. I tend to dream in fantasies, like I’m playing the role of a fantasy hero in some kind of big role play (LARP, anyone?). Not always, but this time I did. I was the crown prince of a dead nation, visiting a different nation where no one really knew who I was or didn’t care. And that made me feel bad. I was supposed to be important, dammit!

I don’t really remember what happened in the dream, but afterward I thought it might be fun to write a story with a MC who would’ve become king if only his kingdom didn’t fall apart. I decided it would be torn apart by demons, and all the survivors would have to flee to a neighboring kingdom (or empire) as refugees. And then I wanted the MC to be a super awesome bad ass warrior, dedicating his life to the study of swordplay and martial arts (and maybe magic, too) in the hope that he would one day be able to revive his kingdom.

And then I decided to add an element to the story that I thought would be cool, something I hadn’t seen much of within epic fantasy – I wanted this kingdom/empire (the one the MC fled to, not his dead kingdom) to be a matriarchal society.

So then I figured the MC should have a lady counterpart, someone important that could be a thorn in his side and treat him like a silly peasant boy and make him feel all kinds of bad for losing his throne before he even had it.

I named the MC Ataris, and the woman, who was the empress’s daughter, Isis.

Back then, no one ever heard of a terrorist organization in the middle east with a name that matched the Egyptian goddess, so these names were totally fine at the time.

I put together a chapter by chapter outline, which I’d never done. I wrote the prologue.

I didn’t write the book.

Then I moved to LA.

Then I wrote a completely different book (adult high fantasy). Then made a really terrible attempt at a YA book.

Then I moved back to Milwaukee. I wrote an adult contemporary fantasy.

And then I wanted to return to the idea I had several years before. But… I realized if I was going to write a book with a matriarchal society, it was awfully dumb to make the MC a dude. In fact (I then thought), most of the characters should be women.

So I decided that Isis would be the MC. (Eventually her name became Isys, then Iris) She’s a sassy, sassy lady forced into a fight for her freedom (and her head!) as monsters and assassins converge on the capital of the empire.

Ataris is still in the story, but he’s only the 3rd or 4th most important character.

The other POV characters are Violet (a pirate), Talia (an imperial guard captain), and Elena (the empress). (side note: Iris is not the empress’s daughter as originally planned; they are political frenemies).

I just finished the fourth draft last week. I hope someday I can sell it to one of the big publishers, but the odds seem to be against such things. For now, though, it’s time to move on and work on the next thing.

The Next One

While I’m currently working on querying agents for Daughters of Darkness, I’ve also been spending some time pre-writing for my next project. I don’t have a working title for it yet, so for now I’m referring to it as either 12 Pyramids or Alaeric’s book (for the main character).

I did very little formal pre-writing for my earliest books, but with Daughters of Darkness, I took a far more in-depth approach. I even did a scene-by-scene outline for the first time ever.

I’m doing the same thing with this project, though I think the order of my approach is a bit different than last time around. In the first few weeks of working on 12 Pyramids, I did a fairly extensive brainstorm on the major characters, as well as a lot of the worldbuilding. It’s only the last few days I’ve started thinking about the plot.

So far, I’m finding it a bit of a struggle to come up with the major plot points. I already know the primary desires of each of the major characters, but fitting everything together is proving a challenge. I think it’s super critical that the plot contains rising tension – I gotta have interesting ways to raise the stakes throughout the book – but I also can’t start with stakes that are too low. This leaves a bit of a balancing act, one that I’m a little worried I won’t get right.

But fortunately I have almost 2 months before I plan to start writing the first draft. Gives me plenty of time for brainstorming while drunk (and some while I’m sober, too, I suppose).