Book Review: The Shadow of His Hand

Reading ‘The Shadow of his Hand’ was an unexpected pleasure – it’s rare to find a first novel that can pull me into the story so capably.

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In this epic fantasy, the Jerikan armies are camped on the border of the allied kingdoms and war seems inevitable. When a baby is born with a prophesied mark, the young King Eldilin dares not defy the Unseen God but must send his sister and the babe on a dangerous quest.

Fredrick is a directionless young man who enlisted as a soldier because it “seemed like the right thing to do”. With his uncanny ability to calm the screaming child, he’s an unlikely and reluctant addition to Princess Kathryn’s company. Can they beat the odds and complete the prophecy?

For the genre, I thought the plot proceeded at a fast pace, with never a dull moment, and the world-building was quietly effective (if hazy on the geographical details). The stand-out for me, though, was the characters. There was something appealing in Fredrick’s assessment of himself as an ordinary man out of his depth, and honesty and humour in the way he coped as fate stretched him to his limits and beyond.

Shifts of point of view from the main protagonists to other plot threads were also effectively managed, maintaining my attention. In particular, I became quite absorbed in the secondary plot revolving around the King and his unexpected bride, a meeting of singularly unusual personalities.

Overall, this was a diverting read. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, though less to see how the war will proceed than to be involved in the developing relationships between the characters.

The Square Peg

This post is going to branch off a bit from my usual topics of writing, book reviews and so on, and into a personal concern. This is more to get things off my chest than anything else, so basically I’m writing it entirely for my own benefit, but I guess it might be somewhat enlightening for people who know me.

Diving straight in at the deep end, what’s been on my mind a lot recently is that I’ve come to believe (or very strongly suspect) I’m on the autism spectrum. Or more specifically, that I have what used to be known as Asperger’s Syndrome.

Obviously if I do, it’s pretty mild, considering I’ve got to this stage in my life before realising what the issue was. And when I mention this suspicion to people, and my desire to get a formal diagnosis, the general consensus is: “it’s just your personality, Kay” and “does a diagnosis matter”?

I can see their point, and yet I feel that a diagnosis does matter, it matters a lot. The difficulty I’ve been having is in explaining why, even to myself.

So I’m going to have a crack at it. Let me put it like this:

Imagine, hypothetically, that you’ve always had difficulty getting up in the morning.

It’s a common problem, right?

So what do you do? You might be careful about what time you go to bed and how much sleep you get. You might set alarms on your watch and your phone and your clock/radio. Thanks to these, you manage to drag yourself out of bed and get to work on time.

The trouble is, every day you feel tired, so very tired. You wonder how on earth everyone else manages to look so bright-eyed and alert. You wonder why it is that you collapse in exhaustion when you get home and other people still have the energy to go out. It doesn’t make sense.

Eventually, you start getting the picture. You’ve tried everything you can think of to stick to the same schedule as everyone else, to fit in with other people’s timetables, and still you struggle. So maybe this is just the way you are, the way you’ll always be. You just have to work around it.

So you ask your boss to let you start later in the day, making up some excuse about needing to take your kids to school. Because how can you tell him that you simply can’t get out of bed in the morning?

You ask your husband to take over evening chores, so that you can concentrate on your supposed “health routine”. Because how can you tell him you’re just too tired, even though he works longer hours than you?

And all the time you feel guilty and inadequate that you struggle to cope with such a simple thing as getting up in the morning, which everyone else takes in their stride. And you worry over how many allowances your boss and your husband are willing to make.

Then you discover there’s a recognised disorder called “sleeping-late syndrome”, which fits your situation perfectly, which explains everything.

Would you seek a diagnosis?

Okay, so obviously, autism spectrum has nothing to do with sleeping late (I just enjoy thinking in metaphor). But the fact is that the issues that affect people with mild autism are, to a certain extent, issues that everyone has to deal with. So an autistic person has difficulties with social interactions, but doesn’t everybody, sometimes? So we’re bad at remembering names and faces. That’s not so unusual. So we might get overwhelmed in noisy, crowded places, but why not just avoid them? On the face of it, these issues don’t seem like a big deal. And therein lies so much misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, these seemingly minor issues can actually have major consequences. Because what you don’t see is the amount of effort even a mildly autistic person is putting in, every day, to function in society at a level which would be considered ‘normal’. There’s constant pressure to perform in a way that goes against their nature, just to fit in.

And what you may not be aware of is that every day a person with Aspergers walks the edge of a precipice. It only takes one inappropriate comment in an important meeting to lose that job. It might only take one ill-judged remark to wreck a friendship, or one serious meltdown to destroy a marriage. It’s all too easy for an autistic person to find themselves both jobless and socially isolated.

A presentation I saw on youtube by Michelle Vines (author of ‘Asperger’s on the inside’) made a lot of sense. She said that autism is a classic case of the square peg in the round hole. This rang a bell with me, because I feel as though I’ve spent much of my adult life being that square peg and trying to hammer myself into that round hole.

A few years ago, after coming way too close to a breakdown, I finally recognised how much stress being ‘normal’ was causing me. I threw away the hammer. No more forcing myself into situations that made me uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, that didn’t work well at all, because when you’re married with kids, you have responsibilities which mean that retreating into one’s autistic comfort zone is simply not an option.

Basically, I was stuck, halfway in and halfway out of that stupid hole, unable to hammer myself further without breaking, and unable to retreat.

Realising I’m (probably) on the autism spectrum has been a relief. Now I understand that however hard I try, my autistic brain is never going to be completely compatible with ‘normal’ expectations, I’m in a better position to accept my hard-wired limitations.

While I have no intention of using ASD as an excuse for the worst of my behaviour (and I hope people will give me a kick up the backside if I try), maybe I can ease up on the feelings of guilt and inadequacy when I do get things wrong.

Which is not to say this awkward peg can never get through that hole. Here’s how I imagine having a diagnosis would help:

  • It would allow me access to the Asperger community. Already, from reading about the way others on the spectrum deal with the same issues I have, I can see positive changes I can make in my life – and this time they’re changes that work with autistic traits and ways of thinking, rather than against them.
  • It’s belatedly occurred to me that sometimes I ought to ask for help. When I do so, if I have a diagnosis, I’ll finally have a way to explain the true nature of the issue, without being met with a dismissive “doesn’t everybody feel like that sometimes?”
  • Hopefully, I might get help that works for me, rather than being presented with solutions based on neurotypical expectations. And if that means sometimes asking society to adjust to my needs, instead of the other way around, so be it.

Maybe, by getting a formal diagnosis, I’ll be able to swap that hammer for a chisel, and start reshaping that round hole into a square.

 

(Of course, I might not get a diagnosis at all, but that’s another topic for another day…)

Websites for Writing Feedback

Just a short post this time, because I’ve been busy writing. Inspiration struck and I’m two chapters into a new novella and revelling in that wonderful ‘first draft feeling’ (a little like stepping onto the moon), even if I was supposed to be working on my rewrite of The Sapience Assessment.

Something that’s not so great is the news that another writers’ website is shutting down. I was gutted when my go-to site Authonomy vanished just over a year ago, but decamped over to Writeon, an Amazon version which I assumed would be sticking around. The idea of these sites is that you can post chapters of your work for people to comment on, so it’s a useful way to get feedback. The problem is that they’re set up by publishers hoping to spot new talent, but because they’re sites serving writers they’re just not accessed by the quantity of readers needed to do the publisher’s work for them as intended and weed out the good stories from the bad.

So now Writeon is also going the way of the dodo, it seemed like I had two main options. One was to post my work on Wattpad. This is much more of a site for readers, so in theory it should be possible to get your work out to a bigger audience, maybe start developing a pre-publication fan-base. On the other hand, the comments tend to be one-liners, not particularly useful as feedback, and I’ve heard there’ve been serious issues with people’s work being copied.

What I’ve done instead is started posting my work on Scribophile. This is not set up for readers but neither is it a ruse by publishers to get their job done for free. What I like about Scribophile is that it’s not intended specifically to spot talent so there’s no sense of competition and works are not rated. No back-scratching or back-stabbing to get to the top. The basis of the site is that you critique others’ work, gaining you karma points, which you the spend to post your own work up for critique. It can be a bit hit-and-miss whether you’re going to get a good critiquer or a bad one, but (shrug) you’re guaranteed three critiques of each posted piece and the basic level of membership is free. All it takes is a little time and effort.

I’d be interested to hear which websites, or other means, people use to get feedback on their writing. And how much feedback is enough? After how many people have looked at your manuscript do you say: yes, that’s good to go?

Lack of Empathy is not Strength

It took me a while to decide on the topic for this blog. I was thinking I’d write something about my novels and what they’re all about, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I briefly toyed with the idea of commenting on the US presidential election along with half the world. Yesterday, though, I had a chance encounter with the over-used phrase “strong female character”, wondered why it irritated me, and in thinking about it realised these topics are all bound up together. Forgive me if this is a long post, but here’s how:

Let’s start with “strong female characters”. What irks me about these are two-fold: first that the phrase is often used for those stereotypical “badass” women, who make certain they get what they want by whatever means.

In the words of Carina Chocano in New York Times Magazine, they are “tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.” They “tolerate very little blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.”

In other words, they’re driven and strongly individualistic, with little regard or lost sleep on behalf of those around them. Which is not a problem in itself, there’s definitely a place for such characters, and they can make for some fun reading. It just bugs me how misleading it is to term these women “strong” and applaud them for it, when in real life, strength, as in “strength of character” is so much more than being kick-ass.

With a bit of googling, I found I wasn’t alone. Here’s something written by Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman:

“What happens when one tries to fit iconic male heroes into an imaginary “Strong Male Character” box?  A few fit reasonably well, but many look cramped and bewildered in there. They’re not used to this kind of confinement, poor things. They’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.

Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question. A better question would be – “What is Sherlock Holmes like?”

He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius. Adding the word “strong” to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.

I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness… I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power.”

I find that characters who are not of the alpha female type inevitably are dismissed with a label of weak. It’s as though the definition of weakness is as broad as that of strength is narrow, so that characters who are far more emotionally nuanced must be compared unfavourably.

Just take the backlash against the 2015 film Cinderella. In this version, her mother’s dying wish is that she “have courage and show kindness”. But it seems in modern society, these traits are no longer considered admirable. Cinderella was seen as passive, if not pathetic, for not standing up for herself more, or just leaving, but to me she shows remarkable strength. For a discussion which explains my feelings on this far better than I could, I quote from this site:

http://feministfiction.com/2015/04/08/cinderella-the-feminism-of-kindness/

“The idea that anyone with sense and self-respect would fight back is insidious, and it does not match up with reality, not even in a modern, non-fairy tale setting. Cinderella is initially a victim of micro-aggressions, each of which seems perfectly justifiable in the moment. The abuse escalates gradually, until it becomes a norm that Cinderella feels that she cannot escape.

That is the reality of abusers using a victim’s own kindness against them. Cinderella’s great strength is not just that she stands up to her stepmother in the end. It’s also that she retains her own kindness, remains true to her personality — she doesn’t have to become someone she’s not to escape”.

The way I see it, Cinderella is not passive, she is not accepting the situation she finds herself in. What she is trying to do is find a way out that does minimal harm, not just to herself but to those around her. She is showing enormous courage.

It’s the type of courage displayed by leaders who follow codes of non-violence – think Gandhi or Martin Luther King. These people are respected for having the courage of their convictions and for their understanding of the common humanity of all people. Nobody would call them weak or passive, they had a different kind of strength.

The thing that worries me is what society we are living in now that can place so much emphasis on the sort of strength which is characterised by a lack of compassion or empathy. And before you accuse me of sounding like an old maid, harking back to the mythical golden times of my youth, there’ve been studies done on this. Apparently, in America at least, levels of self-reported empathy have plummeted.

Quoting from:

http://knowledgenuts.com/2013/08/25/humans-are-far-less-empathetic-than-they-used-to-be/

“According to a comprehensive study from the University of Michigan, we care about others 40 percent less than people in the 1980s did, with the biggest drop-off in empathy occurring after the year 2000. 

But also, researchers suggest, the expectations of modern society have changed—and not necessarily for the better for college students. Competitiveness and a must-succeed-at-all-costs philosophy is far more prevalent than in previous generations… Feeling empathy for others takes time and effort, which could be better spent, at least in the minds of young people, on achieving their own goals”.

Apparently, we’re living in an age of narcissism, the defining features of which are: an inflated sense of self-importance, and little or no ability to empathize with other people. And I’m sure you’ve heard about the skewed proportion of people in upper levels of management, the corporate CEOs, who have sociopathic traits. What does this mean for society?

To quote from Psychology Today “Beware America’s Shocking Loss of Empathy”:

“Here’s a sobering thought for the idealists among us: Even if we someday achieve a truly fair and just society, that society will nevertheless be inhabited by the same species that produced the Holocaust.

…the country’s political dynamics—the interactions between candidates, the policy proposals being considered, and even the conduct of ordinary citizens—increasingly reflect a complete lack of human empathy, a view toward others that is willfully insensitive, if not outright contemptuous.

…voters are getting the political discourse that reflects their own mindset: angry, fearful, incapable of complex analysis, and hostile toward others.”

I think you can see where Donald Trump fits into this blog, so let’s not re-tread that muddy ground, I’ll leave the politics there.

What you may be wondering is how all this relates to my novels and the answer is: it is key. At the core of my Transhumanity series is an exploration of loss of empathy. In fact, the title of the last book in the series is just that: The Empathy Key.

My protagonist is a young woman who, over the course of the series, becomes increasingly cyborg. By the last book, she is barely recognisable as human, and this has affected her not just physically but in how she relates to other people.

In one scene, Mac tries to explain to his daughter:

“Would you ever kill a flutterbug?” he asked.

            “Of course not.” Flutterbugs were delicate flying creatures the length of a hand, with iridescent wings. 

            “When I fly the aircar, sometimes I hit a flutterbug and kill it.”

            Lilly frowned. “Yes, but you don’t mean to. It’s not like deliberately squashing one.”

            “No,” he agreed. “It doesn’t seem the same. Because I’m not touching it myself, I feel more distant, as though it was the car that killed it and nothing to do with me. I think that’s what life’s like for Thea. Her cybernetics are like the aircar, buffering her from the world. She becomes detached from other people. It was hard for her because she knew she ought to still care about the flutterbugs, but she didn’t, not really.”

What I’ve created, you might say, is the ultimate stereotypical strong female character. Physically, she’s almost indestructible. In her powerful cyborg form, she becomes a force for justice, but in a sense she has become something evil, a sociopathic killer.

The remains of her organic body cannot stay attached to the cybernetics all the time. Sometimes she has to disconnect and then she is disabled, very disabled, and physically helpless. This dichotomy of physical strength and vulnerability could be seen in terms of levels of power and agency and how they affect our relationships with others.

The big question is not only whether she can save the world, but whether she can recover her humanity. Of the two battles, it is the second that takes real strength of character, the reclaiming of her own humanity with all the flaws and “weaknesses” that implies.

When it comes down to it, the cyoborg’s physical strength and disconnect from the concerns of others is, in fact, a flaw. Her true strength of character lies in her recognition of that, and in her determination to regain a sense of compassion.

 

Review of Riversend by Sylvia Kelso

This was breathtaking.

I read the previous book, Amberlight, and enjoyed the beautiful prose and the imagination at work. A city run by women and the mysterious sentient stone, querrique, is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a stranger. In places, I found the plot hard to follow, but by the end I was so caught up in the unique love story I just wanted more.

Riversend was an easier read – the prose has more clarity without losing its poetic qualities, bringing to life a different world, and the story is strong in its exploration of relationships under pressure.

Tellurith and her House are in exile after the destruction of the querrique, around which their society was based. Now she must lead her people, not only to safety, but through an upheaval in gender roles and traditions. At the heart of this is the struggle of her two husbands to accept their new roles, at odds with their upbringing.

I was a little thrown in places by plot twists that seemed to come out of nowhere, but it didn’t matter too much. The strength of the story was in the depth of moral integrity displayed by the main characters, and the exploration of their choices under intense and competing pressures of love and duty.

It is also a reflective tale on gender roles, an interesting mirror to our own society. In places, where actions shocked or surprised me, especially the depiction of sexual violence, I tried turning it around – if genders had been reversed, would I have felt the same? And when the answer was ‘no’, why not?

If you like fantasy based around mature, strong-willed characters, or are interested in gender roles and expectations, I think you’ll enjoy this.

A Theory on Self-Publishing Success

Here I am, wondering, as one does, just what it would take to make a living from writing novels, from self-published novels, and whether it is a goal I could possibly attain. The odds are bad, we all know that. And it’s premature, seeing as how I’m still struggling to get a decent draft of first book completed. But, you know, I like to dream, and I love to analyse, so here goes.

Oh, hang on, here’s the caveat: this analysis is based on no actual data whatsoever. Don’t believe it, don’t trust it, this is no prescription. What I’m trying to do is only this: to illustrate for myself (and anyone else who’s interested) how I think it might work. This is the contents of my head, transferred to the screen. Don’t stress on the numbers, consider it art.

So, here’s the secret to my imaginary success, and it’s oh so boring:

  1. Quality of product
  2. New product launches
  3. Marketing

And, without going into the detail of the modelling, here’s how these imaginary factors affect imaginary sales:

  1. Quality of product

Thinking wishfully, my books would be so knock-your-socks-off fantastic that every ten readers would generate a new reader through word-of-mouth. For such a book series, success is almost guaranteed. See my snowball factor at work in this wonderful, swooping, exponential curve:

graph1

But let’s not obsess on that. This is a self-published book we’re talking about – not good enough to land a publishing deal, and rather lacking in editorial input and development. What are the odds of a one-man back-yard electronics start-up developing the next breakthrough smartphone? It’s not going to happen.

What if the book is, let’s say quirky and misunderstood, and only one in a hundred readers generates a new reader. Then we get this:

graph2

See those spikes? Each of those is a new book launch, but even with four books published, we’re going nowhere. Time for a re-think of our life plan.

But let’s not dwell on that, either, let’s pretend this couldn’t happen to us, that our books are at least going to be mediocre. And why not? That sounds perfectly achievable.

Here’s where the surprise comes in. The numbers are telling me that even with a pretty ordinary kind of book, one in which you have to reach twenty readers just to pick up another one, it might be possible to make a few bucks.

  1. New Product Launches

The important thing is to have a whole series of books, ready to launch, one after another. Quantity counts. Here’s what I get with the second book launch six months after the first, and another book every year (ignoring the odd dip where I couldn’t be bothered refining things):

graph3

No way am I going to make any money on the first book. In fact, if you look at the figures and ignore the scales, the number of sales of my first mediocre book is the same as those of my first misunderstood book. Virtually exactly the same.

It makes me wonder if this is where people come unstuck. Maybe they self-publish a book, get no interest in it, think it’s a disaster and give up? Whereas really, there’s this beautiful compounding effect going on. With three years of perseverance and four mediocre books under our belt, we could be earning enough to pay the rent, at least.

Being only mediocre, we do need to keep going, churning out book after book, year after year, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We get to do what we love, for a living.

Time is a critical factor here. Suppose you only publish a book every 2 years. Here’s what you get (data courtesy of my entirely hypothetical model):

graph4

Within the same three-year period, you’ve got half as many books published, and only a quarter the monthly sales. It might take six years before you can give up your day job. Conclusion: we’ve just got to keep the books coming, one after another.

And there’s one more thing to consider:

  1. Marketing

I’m not going to talk about how to market a book, because right now I’m basically clueless. But what I can show you is how my model reacts to the number of readers you can get each book to on its launch.

If you were wondering what the ‘200’ meant in the title of the graphs, this is my assumption that you could reach 200 readers on your book launch. (If you’re really nitpicky, you’ll see that I’ve spread these as 100 readers in the first month and 50 in months two and three, just for argument’s sake). And no, I don’t have any advice on how to reach those readers – look, I haven’t actually attempted this yet.

So what happens if you get your book out to only (ha!) 60 readers instead of 200? This:

graph5

Basically, three years in, we’ve published 4 books, but total sales are no more than in our ‘two years between books’ model. And no, the royalties are not going to cover the rent. Mediocrity means we have to work a bit harder on marketing.

I think the reason for the difference between 200 and 60 is that the snowball effect needs a kick-start – we just have to get those early numbers of readers up, however we can. This is how discounts and free give-aways work – anything to build reader numbers in the early stages ought to pay off.

So, here we go, this is the graph for those who ‘get’ marketing and are going to nab a whopping 600 new readers over the three months after every book launch:

graph6

It takes a lot of effort, but see the way we’re starting to get that exponential curve going? And the actual numbers are not too shabby at all. Even if, on publishing your second book, you give away your first for free to get those reader numbers up, you’ll recover your expenditure in as many months. Within two years you’ll be earning a basic income. How hard can it be, finding 600 willing readers?

Well, yeah, I suspect the answer is: very hard.

But that’s that, the numbers have spoken. As daunting as this all is for someone like me, who would love to just stick my head down and write and leave all that marketing stuff to someone else, the prescription is clear. (Did I say at the start this blog was no prescription? My imagination and a few graphs have convinced me that it is, after all.) Here it is:

  • Write the best novel you can, and then another, and another.
  • Market the hell out of each (and give your books away – in the hundreds).
  • Persevere – it might take three or four books before the gamble really starts paying off

Now if anyone out there has any REAL data on this, I’d love to hear from you.

The Magical Realism of Raymond St. Elmo

In this post, I want to introduce you to self-published author Raymond St. Elmo (Raymond Holland). He writes ‘magical realism’, about which I have no idea, except to observe that his stories mindbendingly blur the boundaries between reality and dream.

He’s not afraid to play with the occasional metaphor, I like that, but what appeals most to me is the humour in his writing.

Read his books if you have a love of stories, especially stories of the kind which play games with reality. His writing references and extends literary traditions and he clearly revels in the magic of the written word.

Find out more about Raymond at his site here: http://raymondstelmobooks.com

And below are my Amazon reviews of his books – two books in two different styles, but with a solid thread of connection. Check them out here: https://www.amazon.com

Product Details

The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing

In which our hero, having worked hard to achieve a respectable degree of seriousity, discovers a clue to a lost manuscript written in the footprints of birds. A self-imposed quest to decipher its meaning sends him tumbling down a rabbit-hole of dreams within dreams, pitting wits against dead authors, human and ornithological.

A story about the transcribing of stories, told with wit, humour, and a touch of magic.

(Especially recommended for those of us who work in cubicles, neglect most of our emails, and are supposed to be in a meeting).

Product Details

Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons

I have no idea how to describe this book. It’s the sort of fantasy in which you can get lost, escaping from this world to another.

In this other world is a doomed ship with a terrifying cargo, a crew of incompetents, and two mysterious books. There is a failed poet, dreaming of his girl left behind, arguing Blake with the murderous, conversing with gods, courting lightning and dancing with the undead. There are puzzles and mortal dangers and a quest, of sorts.
It’s a story within a story, with even the narrator of this tale a mystery. Is he the blind old man the unseen interviewer claims him to be?

Read this if you pine for love and adventure, if you enjoy the uncovering of sly deceptions and deeper truths, or need an injection of wit and humour. Great stuff.