Review of Harsh Lessons by LJ Kendall

Being Tamed or Growing Up?

I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.

This book continues the story of Leeth, groomed by her adopted Uncle Harmon to be an archetypical huntress, as she grows from teenager to young woman. Now she is being trained within the secure subterranean facilities of the Department, honing her fighting skills and being pushed to learn other, more difficult, lessons. How can this wild child be taught the social skills, not just to blend into normal society, but to take on the range of personas a mission might require? And what is the motivation behind the evil menace that stalks the streets, The Breaker? In this book, we see Leeth’s transformation from child to adult.

My first comment on this book has to be a warning: like the first in the series, it treads a thin line in its portrayal of violence and sexual abuse within a story intended as entertainment. For me, it hovered on the edge in places, but was saved towards the end by Leeth’s growth, and her budding sense of moral responsibility.

I also felt that more background to the characters and organisations would have helped to establish their motivations. For instance, what is the Department was trying to achieve? Why do they want Leeth badly enough to train her, on an individual basis, for more than a year? Perhaps my understanding of the socio-political situation was inadequate to fully grasp their goals.

The plot revolving around The Breaker felt underdeveloped, too. It was a little disappointing to finish this book with no greater understanding of this part of the plot than I had at the end of book 1.

Don’t let these perceived flaws put you off, though. Leeth is an interesting character tested by a variety of threats both mental and physical and I found her story an absorbing read.

 

 

Musings on Finding My Tribe

These are some thoughts on finding and connecting with potential readers, which arose from a local writing workshop. We were fortunate to have the wonderful Lauren Sherritt from the equally wonderful Queensland Writers Centre (http://www.qwc.asn.au/) come up from Brisbane. Her workshop was about developing an effective on-line author platform.

As she spoke about the importance of having an author website and a blog, of using Twitter and Facebook, it all made sense. I can’t say I’m fond of anything related to marketing, promotion, or having to speak to strangers, but I can see that my personal combination of social ineptitude and introversion is something I will need to adjust if I’m to find people to read my books.

So, one of the things that Lauren asked us to think about for our websites or blogs was how we wanted to brand ourselves. We have to present, immediately, just what it is we are all about. We don’t want to present an image that fails to attract the people we want on our site or (even worse) attracts the sort of people we don’t want. Harking back to an earlier blog post of mine, in which I said our book pitch has to be true to the kind of story we’re trying to tell, https://kaywantcheung.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/the-pitch-part-1-the-importance-of-managing-expectations/ I believe our on-line image has to true to the person we are trying to be.

What, Lauren asked the class, was our core message? And what is our point of differentiation that sets our work apart from anyone else’s?

This was where I felt myself slipping and sliding like a cyborg on an ice-rink. In my hazy thinking, I had assumed that, as a writer of sci fi and fantasy, I could just blog about writing and SF. But that’s not a core message, is it? That’s not a point of differentiation. Somehow, I needed to go deeper. What type of SF do I like reading and why? What am I myself trying to write? In essence, what is Kay Want Cheung the Writer all about?

Not so easy, is it?

It’s something I got half-way towards in a previous post. I tried breaking my work down by genre in https://kaywantcheung.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/the-pitch-part-2-dispelling-genre-myths/ and ended up with this:

May I present my New Adult Futuristic Soft science fiction Adventure series with a Psychological slant featuring Cyborg Spies encountering Alien cultures.

In Lauren’s class, given only a couple of minutes to think about it, I came up with this:

What I do is I combine the classic science fiction tropes of portals between worlds, cyborgs and artificial intelligence, and I add a little modern realism: ‘What would it really be like…?’

Now I’m finding myself wanting to go further, to get past the aliens and the cyborgs and reach for the heart of what I’m trying to achieve. When it comes down to it, I don’t want to market my books as comic-book style adventures of heroes vs villains, because that’s not what they’re all about.

And now I see that ultimately the only thing that matters to me is that my characters are real people, that they love and laugh and hurt and make mistakes. That they do what they believe to be right and when they get knocked down they get back up again and keep fighting. They’re about doing something for a cause that is greater than oneself, about survival and persistence through adversity.

And suddenly I’m realising that, while there’s nothing wrong with the stories I’ve written in terms of providing light entertainment, adventures with a futuristic slant, that’s not enough for me anymore. I want to go deeper into my characters’ motivations, their inner struggles, their joys and sorrows. I need to write a different kind of book.

So now I have a lot to think about, because when I started this blog post I had no idea that this was where it was going to end. Have I found my tribe? No, but perhaps I’ve found something more valuable at this stage in my writing development: finally, a better sense of direction in my re-writing.

 

The Perilous Art of Critique

Well, you’d better know from the start that I’m no expert in the art of critiquing others’ works. I’ve only studied English up to O Level (that’s like grade 10 or 11 in Australianese, I think) so I’m not about to win any prizes with the depth of my literary knowledge. My only qualification is that I’ve read quite a lot of commercial fiction.

What I can say is that somehow, in the course of all that reading, I do seem to have picked up a basic sense of the elements that a good story ought to have and to recognise when one of those elements might be missing. Writing that down in the form of a critique is something I learnt by trial and error on the website Authonomy (now sadly defunct). I’d also recommend Scribophile as a particularly good website for those learning how to critique.

On places like Amazon’s ‘writeon’, critiques tend to be based only on the first chapter or three (on Scribophile it’s limited to a chapter at a time), so my experience at critiquing full novels is more limited. The basic rule is that, regardless of what I may have rashly promised, I’ll only critique an entire novel if I’m enjoying the read, otherwise it just gets too painful. I’m sure any writers reading this will know what I mean.

So, for anyone still interested after all those caveats, here are my highly subjective (and quite possibly totally misconceived) views on the Perilous Art of Critique:

  1. Why are you here?

Let’s face it, none of us are saints. Generally we’re critiquing someone’s work because we’re hoping they’ll reciprocate in some way. (Incidentally, most won’t – expect one return critique for every three you give out).

You can see the temptation, can’t you? Why not ignore all the faults of the piece and only offer praise? The writer will be happy, will return the favour, and then we’ll be happy. And we’ve made a new friend into the bargain.

Except that the empty praise we get in return, while stroking our egos nicely, is going to do absolutely nothing to help improve our writing.

So ask yourself why you’re here. If your aim is to make a new writer pal and get a confidence boost, don’t do a critique, do a flattering review – that’s what they’re for. If you want honest, constructive feedback on your writing, look for someone who might appreciate the same and give their work a decent critique.

  1. Proceed at your own risk

You’re going to make enemies.

I probably ruffle feathers with about a third of my critiques. If you’re more diplomatic than me (which is likely), you might limit the casualty rate to one in five or so, but basically if you do enough critiques it’s going to happen.

Accept that some fall-out is inevitable – critique by its nature is criticism. You can make it as gentle and constructive as you can, but in essence you’re telling someone that there is a problem with their baby and not everyone’s going to be able to handle that.

  1. Everyone else likes it so why don’t I?

What you’re critiquing may be something outside your normal genre, not the sort of thing you normally read. My opinion on this is that it’s still okay to give a critique as long as you tell the writer that you’re not within their target readership and they might want to put less weight on your comments. Most writers value ‘outside opinions’.

  1. Good news before bad

I think this ought to be a rule set in stone – it reflects something ingrained in the human psyche. People are only receptive to criticism once they are satisfied that we like them, we like their work, and basically we’re on their side. So always start the critique with what you liked about the work.

I’m a shocker for forgetting this and just diving straight into the negatives. The worst thing is, I do it to the best writers, assuming that they already know how good their work is. But of course they don’t, they’re aspiring writers like me, full of the same devastating doubts and insecurities.

We know that writers are often too close to their own work to see the problems with it, but they might also be too close to recognise the positives. We need to tell them what they’ve done well.

  1. Big picture before small

What do you do if you’re reading someone’s work and you see a grammatical error? I know what I do, I pounce on it like a particularly enthusiastic English teacher. It’s like scratching an itch, I long to correct every perceived error (preferably with a flourish of red ink).

I don’t think I’m the only one, either. A surprising number of people consider a thorough correction of grammar and spelling to comprise a critique.

Now suppose you’ve gone through three chapters nit-picking on grammar and you suddenly realise the story has a massive problem. Maybe the plot has a hole big enough to put a foot through, or the main character inexpicably changes personality to keep the story going, and it’s just not going to work.

What I try to do (and occasionally I manage it) is to read through the whole piece once without making any comment at all, just to get the gist of where it’s going. Then I comment on the big picture issues. Biggest for me are probably interesting characters, a novel or exciting plot, and enjoyment of the story. Second most important are things like believable dialogue, flow of the language, and evocative descriptions. Right at the bottom of the list is grammar.

Of course, there are exceptions – those unfortunate times when you get stuck about two pages in because the writing has too many mistakes to ignore. On these, I’ll let my inner English teacher out of her box.

(So if you receive a critique from me with only grammar corrections and no comment on characters or plot, what can I say? You’re either a great writer or a terrible one. I’ll let you work out which.)

  1. The Stop Test

What’s the ultimate test of a piece of fiction? For me it’s that “unputdownability”, the wrench I feel when I have to stop reading, the sense of being pulled out of another world, and the dinner burnt on the stove because I was too busy wondering what was going to happen next.

So the most useful feedback you can give a writer is to tell them where it was you decided to stop reading and why. Give it a good shot, read three or four chapters, and decide at which point the book became too putdownable. What was missing?

I reckon that’s about it. Happy critiquing!

 

 

Stories of the Dark and Light

dark and light cover

Today was a big day for our writers’ group, Wordwick3d. After several weeks walking around the pool nervously, dipping our toes in to test the temperature, we decided it was well past time to jump right in.

A fraught few hours on the web, which nearly saw us drowning in details, saw us making our first book upload. You should have heard the squeals of delight as we went into Amazon and found it there in the store!

Our first collection (one of many, hopefully) crosses the genres of fantasy and science fiction. There’s something for everyone in the mix: dark paranormal fantasy with hints of romance, and tense confrontations in alternate realities.

“Stories of the Dark and Light” is now available in Kindle and e-book. Enjoy!

2016-07-04 001_Aiyson-Kay-Barb(15) - Copy (1)

L-R: Alyson Walton, Barbara Strickland, and me – just after upload

Review of Contagion: Eyre by Alison Sinclair

What do you get when you mix sci fi and medicine? You get the Plague Confederacy Series, possibly the only example of Medical Space Opera.

After mixed feelings  about the first book in the series, Breakpoint: Nereis, I’m not entirely sure why I picked up this one, but I’m glad I did, there was much to love. It was not an easy read – it took me weeks, taking it in small chunks – but I stuck with it because it intrigued me. Here’s why:

It does that wonderful space opera thing of putting us onto a whole new world and a society at once different from ours and believable. In this book, we have a post-plague society with a medical-based theology, melding the concepts of physical and spiritual ‘stain’. Those who dare to question why power rests entirely with the Caducean Order are subject to mind-altering drug treatments known as ‘mercies’ by psychopractors. Those who work with the dead, the necropractors, must ritually cleanse themselves.

So when the confederacy team arrive wishing to study their gravesites, right in the middle of a revolutionary uprising, they are quickly accused of doing the work of the Adversary.

Like the first book in the series, the story is told through a variety of major characters. This was one of the reasons I found it a hard read, because it was a big ask to develop a strong enough bond with each of these characters to handle all the changes in point of view. I kept feeling that it would work wonderfully as a television series, with more visual clues to bring these people and their environment fully to life.

What I particularly liked was that we spent more time in the pov of my favourite character, Teo, the ninety-something-year-old no-nonsense doctor with surgical tools embedded in her prosthetic hand. She’s wonderful.

Altogether, this was sort-of great and sort-of flawed, at once an intriguing and frustrating read. I’d recommend it for the unique melding of medical, spiritual and political manoeuvrings.

 

Editors, where are you? – A Rant

I’ve got steam coming out of my ears. No, not from eating Bertie Botts beans, from a build-up of frustration. I’m going to have a rant.

First I wrote that as: ‘I’m sorry about this, but I’m going to have a rant.’ But I’m not in the mood to be sorry, so I’m not apologising. And I may regret this… no, I swear, I’m not going to regret it, this is going to feel too good.

Where to start?

Corporations. Big corporations. You know what they’re like: everything’s about the bottom line, chasing the big wins, the immediate gains. Who matters to the corporations? The clients, anyone who will buy the product. What about the workers, the people who produce the goods? Well, you’d better hope you’re the lucky one who catches the boss’s eye, who makes a quick splash and gets a name for being a money-spinner, because otherwise they don’t give a damn.

Right now, in the major economies of the world, we are facing a crisis of youth unemployment. Maybe this is partly to do with contracting economies, but that’s not the whole story, is it? The guys in their forties and fifties are holding all the jobs, because they’re the one who know what they’re doing, who provide immediate value to the company. In the corporate mindset, school leavers and new graduates are worthless, because they don’t have a clue – yet.

Before you think I’m disparaging the younger generation, let me tell you my gripe: companies don’t train people any more. Okay, massive over-generalisation, but, you know, I’m not in the mood to be all PC about this. I believe that, in general, short-term-ism rules. Nowadays, if you want to get training, you have to do it yourself – pay for courses, seek out mentors, and basically work your butt off, all while trying to hold down your day job if you’re lucky enough to have one.

You may be wondering why this bothers me on a personal level, since I’m one of those lucky forty-somethings.

It’s because I write. And I’ve been writing just long enough now to have realised that its not easy, producing a novel of a decent quality, or even half-decent quality. Like any other skill, it takes training and practice and hard grind. But just as any number of training courses won’t necessarily make someone an instant success story in industry, working at writing alone doesn’t get you anywhere. It requires mentoring, someone in the industry, more knowledgable than yourself, to take the time to look at your work, gently identify the flaws, and point you in the right direction.

People say publishing is facing a crisis. Well, of course it is, and you can’t place all the blame on a generation that supposedly doesn’t read. No, the problem is that it’s an industry dominated by a few big corporations. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Who is taking the time to mentor new authors? Who is looking, not for books that will sell, but for authors who are willing to develop themselves? Who is training the authors of tomorrow?

I’m sick and tired of arrogant publishers who use agents as their gatekeepers and hang around waiting for a brilliant book to land in their lap with no effort on their part. I’m fed up with Literary Agents who expect an author’s manuscript to be so perfect when it arrives on their desk that all they need do is mail it to a publisher. And I’m gutted to see the closure of bookshop after bookshop, not only because of competition from on-line retailers, but because the quality and scope of books on offer from said big publishers is plummeting.

You’ve received something like this, haven’t you: “We regret that, owing to the enormous volume of manuscripts that we consider, we are unable to provide individual comment…”

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. If you provide no feedback, that same author is going to send you another flawed manuscript, and another, and another, all the time wondering what it is they’re doing wrong.

As I write this, I’m struggling through the third major edit of the first book in my Transhumanity series. So you can see where I’m coming from. I don’t think it’s blowing my own trumpet to say that, if I can get this series finished, structurally edited, line-edited and polished, there are people who are going to enjoy reading it. Possibly, they might even be willing to pay a few dollars for the privilege. But how am I supposed to get to that point? No one in the industry has helped, or ever will help.

Individuals have helped. Other struggling wannabe authors have taken the precious time to read my work and comment, bless their hearts. I wanted to name them here, but this rant is going on a bit, so I’ll have to save that for another blog. The local council and library has helped, by bringing writing workshops to our little corner of Australia, bless them, too. But is that enough?

I’m now seriously thinking about self-publishing. Maybe it will condemn my books to unread obscurity, who knows, but it’s becoming a matter of principle. Why should I go through all the hard grind of training myself as a writer, only to give away a hefty chunk of my earnings to some faceless corporation that offers no author development whatsoever? No wonder publishing is in crisis.

Is it corporate realities and bean-counters stopping Editors from taking risks on new authors? I suspect so. And we desperately need good Editors – not the type who just proof-read and pick up the odd grammar mistake or missing comma, I mean the ones who have a stake in your product, and are actively trying to develop your book to be the best it can possibly be.

Professional Editors, where the bloody hell are you, when we need you the most?

 

The One Rule to Write them all

Let’s assume we know the nuts and bolts. We can spell, we can put our nouns and verbs in the right order, we know our active from our passive. Okay, so maybe we occasionally misplace an apostrophe or a comma, but who doesn’t?

We attempt to write a novel and what happens? Suddenly there’s a whole new set of writing rules. We’re told to avoid the passive voice like the plague, and adverbs like the pox. Not to mention clichés. Never open the novel with the weather and prologues are a definite turn-off. Above all, be sure to show and not tell.

Don’t listen.

Seriously, these are not writing rules. Guidelines, perhaps, but not rules. Some of the best authors break them. You don’t believe me? Okay, here are examples that I came up with in less than an hour’s research (i.e. trawling of my bookshelves):

Too Much Passive Voice:

From the first few pages of the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“I was removed from my brigade… There I was struck on the shoulder… I was removed… when I was struck down… my life was despaired of… I was despatched…” etc.

Why does it work? Because the reader is interested in what was done to Doctor Watson, not the agent who caused it to be done. The use of the passive serves to emphasise that this is a man who has no power over his life but has had things done to him by some nameless, faceless bureaucracy.

Too Many Adverbs (especially after ‘said’):

From the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J K Rowling:

“…said Aunt Petunia fondly… said Harry coldly…said Harry firmly… he said tonelessly… said Uncle Vernon forcefully… said Dudley breathlessly… quietly… frantically…” etc.

Why does it work? Because the reader does not want to have to follow clues to guess at a character’s emotional state, they are too busy following other clues to unravel the magical plot. The shorthand of using adverbs provides speed and clarity.

Clichés:

Hmm… I couldn’t find many examples of clichés. Perhaps this is the exception which proves the rule (that there are no rules).

Opening with the weather:

The opening sentence of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson:

“Ash fell from the sky.”

Okay, I’m cheating a little here, but it demonstrates the point. Weather can set the scene, give a hint of the opening mood of the story and sometimes it’s actually interesting. I admit I’m biased on this point, I have little patience for people who think the weather is boring. As I write this I’m feeling tempted to change all my opening sentences to include some weather.

Having a Prologue:

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch:

A 28-page prologue in 9 parts.

Why does it work? It works as all good prologues work – it provides background to former happenings and it tells a riveting story. It’s a story within a story. Maybe the bias against prologues is because they’re easy to do badly, as an info-dump, not what you want at the start of your novel. That doesn’t apply to us, though, because we’re going to do ours right. Right?

Show Don’t Tell:

Chapter 0005 of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline:

Basically a massive, 8-page info-dump.

Why does it work? Because in the preceding four chapters the author has managed to hook the reader so firmly that we are primed, in fact we are dying to know this background information. It is all, of course, absolutely central to the plot, and the reader knows that.

Short Sentences for Action:

I couldn’t resist adding in this one (and hoping no one makes a fuss about copyright). You know they say to use short, declarative sentences to keep up the pace during action scenes? This is from The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall:

“It happens. It happens sometimes: the director in the field sets up a model deployment of his shadow executive and his support group and his contacts and couriers and whatever he needs for a given mission, spinning his small and delicate network of resources and testing it out for strength and making changes where potential danger threatens, sitting back in his inner sanctum plugged into his communications system with its portable scrambler and its bug monitor and taking signals from the shadow out there and relaying them through the mast at Cheltenham to the signals board in Whitehall, the whole thing running like silk through a loom, and then one man and one man alone can suddenly send the web shaking because he’s made a mistake, talked to the wrong people, exposed a password, missed the half-seen face in a doorway or the figure humped at the wheel of a parked car or the broken hair across a drawer in the hotel room, and the network becomes an alarm system and all we can do is shut down signals to prevent interception and get out of the safe house before it’s blown, run for cover, go to ground, hole up somewhere as the smell of the smoke starts drifting through the field where the fuses have blown and someone reaches for the chalk in the signals room in London and writes it up on the board: Mission compromised, clear all channels and stand by. It was happening now.”

If you’re going to break the ‘rules’, you might as well do it with confidence and flair.

The One Rule:

So, do you want to know the magic rule, the One Rule to Write Them All?

Sh… don’t tell everybody… here it is:

Choose which rules to break – this will become your ‘style’ – and know the impact of that choice on the reader.

How exactly do we do this?

Er, no, I have no idea.