Tag Archives: Book review

X Reasons Why Your Self-Published Novel Failed In The First Three Pages

I have been reading some utter dross recently. And it puts me in something of a quandary. I love reading, I like writing reviews, and I value my integrity, so I will never say I like a book if I deep down think it is uncompromisingly awful.

But I’m also an author, and since the market is peculiar in this day and age – where self-published work sits side by side on the digital bookshelf with products of the traditional industry – it favours the budding author to form a community with the competition, to foster each other’s talent with encouragement, advice and praise. In other words, for writers new to the game, I feel uncomfortable pissing all over their babies.

Torn, as I am, between on the one hand offering the unabridged truth, and on the other, not being a total dick, I struck upon the idea for this blog post. X Reasons Why Your Self-Published Novel Failed In The First Three Pages. (Tim, don’t forget to come back and replace that X with the number you come up with, like a proper journalist.)

So, listed below are examples of howlers I have found, here rewritten or reconceptualised in order to obfuscate their origins.

So, without further ado, I shall begin with perhaps the most obvious:

1.) Typos

Some typos are acceptable, perhaps inevitable. Even in traditionally published bestsellers, which get read more times in production than the average self-published novel does after release, can contain the odd erroneous spelling or punctuation blunder. An accidental double space between words? It will not sully my reading enjoyment. Forgot to close off your speech with quotation marks? It’s fine, I get what is going on; don’t worry your little head about it.

But not all typos are created equal. I just read a book, and subsequently deleted it, because it contained the word “expresso”.

You can fuck with punctuation, but do not fuck with coffee.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “You can fuck with punctuation, but do not fuck with coffee”

2.) Four Weddings And A Fucking Opener

Starting your book with a swear word is not as clever as you thought it was when you first watched Hugh Grant stutter profanity for the first 10 minutes of Four Weddings. Edgy, wasn’t it? Cool and new, right?

THAT WAS IN NINETEEN-NINETY-FOUR.

Don’t forget, although “Fuck” was the first word of dialogue in Four Weddings, the scene had been set with a dreary–eyed Grant awaking from his slumber to reach out and look at his alarm clock. The meaning of “Fuck” in this instance was clear from the outset: the protagonist is late for something important. We have visual clues: bed, clock, dreary-eyed toff.

Starting your chapter with “Fuck” and then spending four paragraphs explaining the expletive is not a great hook. Nor are we invested enough (or at all!) in the scene or the characters to be shocked by such a word. By stripping away everything but the expletive, you’re as sanitising as a redtop tabloid filling every naughty word with asterisks.

Set your scene first. Swear to b****ry later.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “Set your scene first. Swear to b****ry later”

3.) “Inappropriate dialogue verbs,” he careened

This is a style thing, but it so often accompanies amateurish writing it’s like painting a sign on your book that says, “I don’t know what I’m doing – help me.” The point is, we don’t smile, grin, smirk, sneer or grimace our words, do we? You might speak – with a smile. Or you might speak – and then smile. Or, if you absolutely must, you might speak – smilingly. (Ugh)

Don’t make your reader do imagination loop-the-loops trying to figure how your character’s face has contorted so elaborately that they can grin a sentence through their teeth: “EEeer DHuRsst Iiiiek Teer Sserre, yeee urrr reerrryyy beerrTiffflul.”

4.) Action beat minutiae

Compare and contrast:

Meredith plucked an elegantly thin cigarette from her packet and lit it. She let the smoke drift from her lips like ribbons in a breeze, her eyes catching mine in a gaze from which I could never escape. It might have been beautiful, if it wasn’t so inherently vulgar.

With:

Meredith fished out her packet of Vogue Menthol thin cigarettes from her black-leather jacket’s inside-left pocket, pulled out a single smoke and placed it between her ample lips on one side of her mouth. She removed a lighter from the other jacket pocket and, after sparking three times to no avail, coaxed a flame to the tip and inhaled. She held the cigarette six inches from the table and it hovered there, intimidating, until she moved it back to her lips for another drag. Her other hand moved from the table to her coffee cup, the small handle of which she pinched between forefinger and thumb, little pinky sticking out, as she took a loud, unabashed sip. I realised I had been fixated on every mundane detail of her actions, and decided to go and have a lie down.

I literally just read something in which the author tells us how far – in inches – the character’s hand is from the table. I’ve got better things to do than waste time on the position of each person’s every limb, thanks. Just tell me what’s happening, and keep it pertinent.

5.) Clunky dialogue

Two characters are walking to a crime scene, a drugs bust gone wrong. One is briefing the other on the situation, and offers his opinion on the state of the narcotics problem in the town, namely the Afro-Caribbean population. The other replies with a pre-prepared thesis on the correlation between socio-economic depravity and drug use, and the accompanying theory that race is less linked to drug abuse than it is with poverty, though they oft go hand in hand, and in fact, if statistics included incidents in which white folk were cautioned for drug use but released without charge, plotted against the ethnic proportion of whites to people of colour, the results would reveal a shocking discordance with the ethnic makeup of those currently detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

All this over doughnuts on the short walk round to the victim’s apartment.

Take it easy with your message, guys. Go for a little subtlety. Assume the best of your readers – they will get what you’re trying to say, I promise.

6.) Irrelevant description

If your character looks out of a window and describes the trees blowing in the wind just so you can fill a paragraph with words, cut it. We don’t need to know how the billowing branches waved at the sky, its leaves rustling like an overzealous percussionist. We don’t need to know about the squirrel, gleefully bounding from branch to branch in search of nuts, or the woodpecker, noisily carving out a home from the bark.

That is, of course, unless those details are related to your story or its theme. If the forest is about to be cut down by an evil property developer and the protagonist has spent their entire life protecting woodpeckers from extinction, and your character’s life is going to be thrown into turmoil, sure, set that mother-fucking scene.

I recently read a story in which the character describes the wake of a boat, because there was one, and because the author needed something to pass the time between the character setting off on a journey and later arriving.

Cut it out.

7.) Too many characters

Slow it down – seriously. There’s no need to introduce your entire cast, by name, in the first three pages. Introduce one. Develop them through their interactions with another. Sprinkle one or two for setting, perhaps. But don’t give all of them things to do and say and names for the reader to remember, because (a) people won’t remember them and they’ll get confused, and (2) people won’t know who to care about!

It sounds reductive to say it, but it’s true. A reader needs something to grasp onto within the first few paragraphs, and a good, solid protagonist (whether they be anti-hero or otherwise) is the author’s greatest asset. Make a person interesting and your readership will follow them wherever they go. Even if they just need a shit.

8.) Shit characters

One trend I’ve noticed an awful lot is the desperate attempt to create a “strong female character” that brazenly flouts clichés by being not only jaw-droppingly hot, but able to fight her way out of a pugilist arena filled with snarling WARTHACKS.

HINT: “strong female character” doesn’t mean she can bench a rhino and goes to bars to pick up guys – literally!

“Strong female characters” just means fleshed out, real people, with fucking agency, who don’t bow to the men of the piece simply by virtue of their gender. Jesus Christ, try talking to a woman. There’s a few of them about, if you look hard enough. They have opinions, some of them, and likes and dislikes and they’re all different and when they turn up at a crime scene to collect forensic evidence they don’t always swoon over the detectives or get disparaged by sexist comments from the constabulary.

Similarly, people are bored with the humourless, burly action hero with the jaw and the eyebrows and the biceps and a dislike of guns because when he has one, bad things happen. Too hard, too indestructible, too boring.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “People are bored with the humourless, burly action hero”

My favourite action hero is John McClane, simply because he’s a bloke fucking up his marriage, who when trouble strikes keeps getting shot and beaten up, but all he really wants to do is hide until the cops can sort it out. Despite all the travails and body trauma, he keeps going, and uses his wits to reach Holly and get them both out alive. His stubborn masculinity fucked over his marriage, remember. The crux of the story is when McClane realises how much he loves Holly and how much of a jerk he’s been.

Write a human.

(Or an alien, if that’s your bag.)

————-

That’s all I’ve got from the last batch of self-published books I’ve read, but let me know your instant turn-offs in the comments!

And if you want to, I’ve set up a Facebook author page that I have yet to tell people about. The odd Like will be greatly appreciated!

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The Stars Are Legion – Kameron Hurley – [Book Review]

Kameron Hurley’s biopunk sci-fi adventure The Star Are Legion is as unique as it is bizarre. Hurtling through the cosmos in an organic starship, space-faring women wage war with the other world-ships in the cluster, en route to some long-forgotten destination, while birthing ship components and murdering mutants.

The story revolves around two main characters, one with amnesia, who spends the book trying to discover who she is and what she has done; and her handler, who tries to enact some gradually revealed master plan.

It’s a tricky prospect in first person present tense. Although the mind-wiped Zan discovers the world with the same curiosity as us, the cunning Jayd must keep her goals from the reader, which can get a little frustrating at times. It was a brave move to adopt her perspective, and is admittedly well-handled, but the risk is always of making the reader want to shake the narrator by the neck to spill the beans. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW, DAMNIT – WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?

It’s hard to know who to trust with all these unreliable narrators, but gleaning the evidence with Zan is a compelling way to reveal the backstory. The twist did not smash me in the face, though, which I had hoped; but I’m not sure how else it could have been delivered. Elements of the mystery sprinkled throughout perhaps gave too much away, or maybe it was the choice of using both POVs that softened the punch.

However, the visceral descriptions of the world-ships, the ubiquitous imagery of birth and pregnancy, and the ignorant civilisations that inhabit their rotting worlds all make for a powerful read. It’s bleak – hideously so, at times – all oozing membranes and cancerous cityscapes, pointless conflict and maniacal despots, who dismember dissidents and drive their civilisations into oblivion.

It wasn’t until I read an interview with the author that I grasped the concept – the ships are colony vessels, whose inhabitants have evolved while in space on their way to some destination, but the mission has long since been forgotten in the annals of time. It’s a bit like the movie Pandorum, but without non-evolved humans to tie the story to a contemporary foundation (and it’s rather more sophisticated than simple devolution to mindless savagery).

Not that this matters terribly. Characters with clear agency don’t require exhaustive back-stories to be engaging, after all. As long as we know what they want, and perceive their obstacles, we can get behind them, cheer their victories and mourn their losses.

It’s also a very quick read, as first person present tense tends to be. Though I admittedly felt the second act was a little too long in comparison to the end and the beginning, the range of settings, ideas and characters kept me interested. And I’d definitely read more from Hurley. Entertaining, evocative, visceral sc-fi fantasy that recalls 1960s-style bizarre space romps. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Handy links!

Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion is available on Kindle here

The author is good on the Twitter too, and worth following for insights into publishing and all things sci-fi. She can be found here: Kameron Hurley

Finally, Hurley often posts candid blogs about her publishing income (among a raft of other things) over at kameronhurley.com

A Game of Thrones – George R R Martin – [Book Review]

Before you start, I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I bought a copy of Game of Thrones because I’m a fan of the show and wanted to read the original work from which it sprang. I’d been told about its narrative structure, too, and wanted to see how it was handled, as multi-viewpoint third-person is how I’ve set my own work.

For those unaware, each chapter in Game of Thrones bears the name of the character it follows (which results in a contents page that looks like a goldfish trying to name all the protagonists).

The problem with coming back to evaluate a story having seen the TV series is, all the characters already have faces – Peter Dinklage will always be Tyrion in my head, Sean Bean will always play Eddard. There’s no imagination involved because those roles have already been filled by HBO.

Similarly, there are no surprises. The first series followed the first book down to the last scene. My friend tells me the show diverts from the books more in later seasons, and outright cuts many characters from the narrative, but this first book is practically the first season’s screenplay. Apart from, of course, this page of differences, which includes nerd-facts like:

  • In the book, Jaime pushes Bran from the window with his right hand. In the show he uses his left hand.

Right. I can’t believe the filmmakers took such liberties.

Continue reading A Game of Thrones – George R R Martin – [Book Review]

Dying for a Living – Kory M Shrum – [Book Review]

Zombies! 

They’re bloody everywhere aren’t they? Western media is awash with the shambling degenerates, mindlessly meandering through malls or ineffectively banging against baffling barriers of glass. Of all the stages of human life, only babies are more hopeless.

The zombie theme has reached saturation point – nay! It reached saturation point over a decade ago when 28 Days Later tried to reanimate the rotting genre with super-fast zombies. Cillian Murphy tried to trick us, but we knew what they were. You can call it “the Rage” all you like – they’re still zombies.

So while The Walking Dead went back to basics to find human drama in a world of brain-chomping corpses, Kory M Shrum sought an entirely different form to explore life after death.

Continue reading Dying for a Living – Kory M Shrum – [Book Review]

Wool – Hugh Howey – [Book Review]

If Plato was still around today, it’s likely he would have been a big fan of science fiction. After all, he used fantastical constructs to explore the human condition, pioneering a unique exploration of individuals’ perception. That’s pretty sci-fi.

Plato Cave
Plato’s Cave

We can assume, too, his favourite sub-genre would have been dystopian sci-fi, if his Allegory of the Cave is anything to go by. In it, he imagines the plight of chained captives, held in position underground, their reality controlled by restricting their vision to view nothing but shadow puppets cast upon a wall by the light of an unseen fire behind them.

With no frame of reference or experience of the outside world, the shadows on the wall would constitute reality for those hapless captives. The sounds of the captors’ footsteps and voices would reverberate in the cave, Plato thought, and thus the illusion would be formed that the sounds were made by those very shadows. This was Plato’s dystopian vision – a populace imprisoned and manipulated by their overlords to such a degree that they knew nothing of it.

It is perception and the revelation of truth that drives dystopian fiction. At its best, it represents a functional, albeit oppressed, society, unaware of the shackles that bind its citizens: take for instance the controlled happiness of Brave New World; the Papa John’s clones in Cloud Atlas; the history-incinerating regime of Fahrenheit 451. Drama is drawn from characters finally noticing their prison, and rebelling against it.

Continue reading Wool – Hugh Howey – [Book Review]

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours — a call for critique

Writers! I seek critique and offer my own unique services in return.

I propose a scheme, if you’re keen, in which we swap stories of similar length and critique the bejeezus out of them, before sending the mutilated corpses of our creative babies back to each other, weeping ourselves to sleep over the deluge of red ink.

I have three tales ready to be torn to smithereens, and suggest a straight swap with anyone who has a story of similar length (let’s say no more or less than 500 words’ difference?), to ensure we’re not exchanging a short story for a Tolstoyan tome.

All three are vaguely horror, while The Pumice Stone opens with a little bit of rude blueness.

Continue reading I’ll show you mine if you show me yours — a call for critique

The Martian – Andy Weir – [Book Review]

So I finished reading The Martian – yay!

But now I have to write a review – bummer.

Why am I bummed out? Well, I could focus on the childish prose inherent in the protagonist’s epistolary narration, but detractors would argue his persistent wise-cracking is a character-building defence mechanism.

Instead, I could laud the compelling science behind stranded Mark Watney’s struggle to survive on Mars – and be shouted down by the literary brigade for valuing detail over drama; equations over emotion.

If I talk about the adolescent dialogue among Nasa’s supposed brightest, I’ll be derided…

If I admit the science got dull, I’ll be scorned…

And, if I try to parody the writing style in my review, I’ll just kind of explode…

So, yeah… I’m pretty fucked.

 

Continue reading The Martian – Andy Weir – [Book Review]

The Last Family in England – Matt Haig – [Book Review]

Labrador Prince struggles to keep his human family safe
Bought in Pai, Thailand

I found The Last Family in England in a bookshop in Thailand and bought it for my girlfriend. She’d loved The Humans, also by Matt Haig, but had lost it in a hotel somewhere before finishing it, so I figured this would plug the gap until I bought another copy (yeah, you’re welcome, Haig, you’re welcome).

But, before she could glance at it, I thought I’d take a look.

I read it in two days.

Continue reading The Last Family in England – Matt Haig – [Book Review]

Notes from the 60s – my Mum’s take on Graham Greene

Four shillings
Printed in 1969

I’m reading Graham Greene’s The Heart Of The Matter at the moment. It’s not exactly inspiring anything towards my ethereal steampunk fantasy, but Greene’s one of my brother’s favourite writers, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

It’s the kind of thing that was probably on my Uni literature course that I neglected to read because I was too busy farting about.

I found it on my parents’ bookshelf a few weeks ago – a yellowing Penguin classic print from 1969 nestled among its peers, all bought by my Mum while she was at university.

The price on the back cover says United Kingdom 20p / 4 shillings. That was probably about 50 quid in today’s money.

The story’s about a middle-aged Englishman in West Africa during WWII, whose love for two women, and his attempts to keep them both happy, lead him to disaster.

It’s good, but what I’m enjoying most are the little notes scrawled in the margin by my 19-year-old mum-to-be. They’re few and far between, but I love coming accross them.

Continue reading Notes from the 60s – my Mum’s take on Graham Greene

The Hook – Donald E Westlake – [Book Review]

They say “Write what you know” – and if I was Donald E Westlake’s wife, I’d have been having kittens when The Hook came out in 2000.

That’s not to say I view all fiction as a reflection of its creator’s nefarious fantasies, but The Hook is so self-referential, the comparison is unavoidable.

Continue reading The Hook – Donald E Westlake – [Book Review]