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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.)

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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 Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – Rod Duncan – [Book Review]

Bought on a whim in an International Book Day promotion for 50p from Angry Robot, Rod Duncan’s The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter was a very pleasant surprise indeed. The steampunk mystery is set in a parallel-universe England around the turn of the century. Britain is divided between an aristocratic Kingdom that extends from the Midlands to the English Channel, and the sober Republic to the north.

Told through the eyes of cross-dressing private investigator Elizabeth Barnabus and her “brother”, the story weaves a rich and absorbing world through glorious Victorian language and sensibilities, while drip-feeding us the setting’s history as and when we need it. This is the correct way to give the reader the information they require – on a need-to-know basis, allowing us to enjoy the characters, the action and the peril without unnecessary distraction.

Much to my delight, my fears of an unresolved storyline left open to reel the reader in to an entire series were unfounded. The story is complete in itself, with the merest hint of a wider narrative to come sprinkled into the glossary appendix, with talk of falling empires and the involvement of our humble heroine. Again, this is how it should be: entice readers back with a good story, not unanswered cliff-hangers.

Having said that, I have bought the second book in the series – which is unusual for me. With so many stories out there in the market, I try to keep my choices eclectic, and seldom return to a world, even if I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it (Hyperion being an exception – both books are essential reading). So to have drawn me back for another episode in high praise indeed.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of the steampunk genre.

——

[For larks – here’s a couple of pictures of me in a costume I made for Bestival 2010 of a steampunk time-traveller I made up, named Dr Heimlich Spoading. The backpack was designed to carry two bags of space wine (those silver bags inside boxes of wine), and had a latch for the tap to poke out. I don’t think I’ve ever been as drunk as the night I wore that little number – and it unfortunately did not survive the muddy night.

Photo on 2010-09-07 at 17.35

Photo on 2010-09-07 at 17.35 #2

Handy links!

You can buy Rod Duncan’s first book in the Gas-Lit Empire series here: The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.

Rod is also quite active on Twitter, and seems a nice chap; so here’s his Twitter handle: Rod Duncan

The end is nigh, and other novel-writing revelations

A few weeks ago, the latest draft of Citadel tipped over the 100,000 words mark. It’s drawing closer to an end, when I can finally put this project to bed. I’ve spent the best part of 10 years on this story – though most of that time was spent learning how to tell it, rather than writing it, if that makes any sense.

That’s the nature of writing, I think. You can smash something out, but unless you study the craft and hone your talent, it is guaranteed to be a waffling mess. I look back at my early drafts, and they are practically instruments of torture – I cringe so hard reading them I give myself cramp. A lot of that was down to ignorance – ignorance of deep POV, narrative arcs, scene structure, character agency and the other mechanics of the trade.

But I’ve also learned to find the theme of a piece – the answer to the question: What am I writing about? If the answer is, “Radical battles and death and gore and political intrigue and titties!” you’re not quite there yet.

If your answer is actually another question, you’re getting closer.

But the biggest reason I’m excited to finish the story is that I want to do something else for a change. I want to write something new, something different and exciting. Something that I haven’t been mulling over for a decade. I can’t wait!

Why don’t I just sack off this project and do precisely that? Well, there are a few reasons: firstly, stubbornness is a factor. I said I’d do it, and I will, and not even me can persuade me otherwise!

Secondly, I don’t want the last decade to feel like a waste of time. I know it’s been a learning process – and that in itself is valuable – but to go so long without something complete and whole at the end of it would be pretty demoralising.

But thirdly, I’m not entirely without hope that Citadel is, in fact, a good story. I’ve no doubt I can do better, knowing what I know now, but there are scenes and characters in Citadel that I come across in the draft and think, “What the…? Who wrote this? It’s good.” There are moments that make my skin tingle, dialogue that’s witty and insightful (sometimes I don’t know if it’s me or the characters that came up with it), and tragic events that shake the very fabric of the world I’ve created.

So, I have to finish. And maybe an editor will say, “You need to cut out this entire sub-plot,” or “Do we need to see the antagonist in this light, or can we just leave him evil?” or “Have you considered doing away with description?”.

But that’s OK. It’ll be done. Finito. Complete.

A long, winding road leading to two words:

The End.

I can’t wait.

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

#NaNoWriMo taught me how to pummel the page full of words

Yeah, that’s right Inner Demons – you were wrong about me. All that hopelessness and doubt you whispered in my ear was baseless baloney. You’re like the Breitbart of my mind – telling me everything is awful and finding people to blame other than myself.

Well eat this, you Pessimistic Pixies!

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_winner_congrats

Read it and weep, you Imps of Uncertainty. I came at this challenge unprepared and you told me to quit at every turn, telling me “You didn’t have time to prepare!” – “Sack it off and do it properly next year!” – “50,000 words is impossible with a full-time job!”

Continue reading #NaNoWriMo taught me how to pummel the page full of words

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – [Book Review]

I’m the first to admit, some of my book reviews can be somewhat scathing (my treatment of Rogue Forces by Dale Brown and The Hook by Donald E Westlake come to mind). I think that’s because it’s often more fun to find fault than it is to fathom finesse, if you’ll excuse the alliteration. It’s certainly easier to pick holes.

That’s why this review of Station Eleven by Canadian author Emily St John Mandel is so difficult. If there’s one word I can use to describe it, it’s “effortless”.

Effortless in the sense that I was never obstructed by some forced narrative technique, or distracted by a clumsy phrase or metaphor. I was taken by the hand around this fictional world, the events of interest pointed out but never laboured over, and never was my hand squeezed too tight or my head shoved to examine something uninteresting. It was effortless storytelling.

That makes it difficult to analyse. It kind of washed over me, leaving an evocation of regret in its wake – for that seems to me the central theme.

Continue reading Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – [Book Review]

My book craving has been Kindled

It was my birthday on Monday and, aside from the delicious ninja omelettes my wonderful fiancée made me for breakfast (did I mention I’m THIRTY-FOUR YEARS OF AGE?), she also bought me a Kindle Paperwight.

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That’s right, I have finally joined the ranks of the e-reading cyberpunk revolution, jacking in to my favourite synth-novels with all the other sub-commuting fiction-hackers.

And what a joy it is! A brief gander reveals quirks like the ingeniously simple integrated dictionary, enabling instant vocab expansion as you read; a handy quote-saving mechanic that will prove useful for reviews; and a backlit display that will last for months without recharging.

That’s pretty special – not to mention its lightweight and slender build, particularly in relation to the hulking Medieval tree-mulch we know of as “books”.

Continue reading My book craving has been Kindled