Reflections on fantasy, SF, writing, music, technology, life…

Refuting Lee Child’s take on Amazon’s book-selling

My thanks to Kathryn Jankowski for pointing out Joe Konrath’s refutation of Lee Child’s opinion piece on Amazon that I posted about recently.

Rather than leave the link in a comment, I am posting it separately as Konrath’s article, titled Fisking Lee Child, makes some excellent points. I particularly liked how he highlights the differences between the few bestseller category authors like Child and the thousands of other writers.

Well worth reading for a balance to Child’s arguments.

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Review: “Snuff Tag 9” by Jude Hardin

This crime / thriller is the third in a series about an ex-musician turned private eye / security consultant called Nicholas Colt. I picked it up through a Kindle offer as I thought the idea intriguing: someone turns a computer survival game called “Snuff Tag 9” into a real-life challenge to survive. However, I was sadly disappointed by the end result. I am reviewing more as an analysis of why it did not work.

The story set-up is straight-forward. Nicholas Colt, the protagonist, dismisses the threat in a letter brought to him by a new client but, for the money, checks out the invitation to participate in the game (with dire threats if not accepted). He finds his client killed and himself substituted to participate. The main problem with this is that the story is told in first person from his point of view so the reader knows he will survive, dampening a lot of the effect, and being about how, not if, he will survive.

The antagonist is a bored billionaire who refers to himself as Freeze, the ultimate control character in the game. However, rather than interesting he is just a two-dimensional selfish psychopath with too much money and who never comes alive as a character, instead wavering between stereotype and caricature.

The late-entering ninth character in the game, we are told, is someone significant to at least one of the players. Given Colt is a late substitute and the weakest player in the line-up, not expected by Freeze to survive the first day, why are both candidates for the role people close to him? Because the plot needs it, I guess and strikes as lazy writing.

While Colt’s back story is well brought in for readers like me entering part-way through the series, the same points about his past are brought up several times in the story. This is another irritant with the story: the repetition is not just back story either. As one reads this novel whole paragraphs are rephrased and re-used sometimes back-to-back. To repeat the point as laboriously as the author, he says the same thing a different way without adding new information. Why? It is more lazy writing, as if Hardin is padding the story to reach a word count. Given this is professionally published novel, what happened to the editor? Given the repetition is worse and more noticeable the further one gets through the story, it is as if the editor was under time pressure and skipped or got fed up at eliminating it.

All in all, a disappointing read but it must give hope to new writers that if this can get published professionally the barriers to entry are not as high as one expected!

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Amazon’s unfair e-book refund policy

Amazon allow refunds on e-books for up to seven days after purchase. While I agree it is reasonable to allow someone to change their mind if they buy a book and then, reading the first chapter, realise it is not what they wanted or expected, I do feel that authors are getting a raw deal here. A 24 hour refund policy should be reasonable. Also, on Kindle, it tracks how far through a story has been read, surely it is not beyond Amazon’s programmers to refuse to refund if a whole book or substantial part has been read?

If you agree, check out this petition at


Review: “Darkspire Reaches” by C N Lesley

This novel is a delightful read – the sort one has to sneak back to read another chapter while knowing there are other things that one really should be doing!

I had the same feeling when I read this novel as I did when I first read “Dragonflight” by Anne McCaffrey many years ago. (A word of explanation: I see there are some parallels – the wyvern for the dragon; the fire-drake for the fire-lizard ; the strong, young, female protagonist is a girl treated initially as a drudge {Raven, Lessa} – BUT they are very different stories in very different milieu. Darkspire Reaches is a fantasy through and through, with magic and transformations, whereas Pern is an SF world.)

My point is that both are well-written and have excellent world-building and that is why I draw the link: within “Darkspire Reaches” I encountered a world I want to go back to, so I can find out more about the Angressi, their conflict with the First Born and the strange world of the Drakken. There is much hinted at, such as the rise of the Emperor Chactar or the Shangrove and Samara Maidens, that could be a story in itself and this adds to the richness of the story since one experiences this as part of a much larger environment not a flimsy theatre set constructed solely to carry this novel.

The story in Darkspire Reaches has a good plot and structure, starting out quiet and focused, in a country cottage with Margie, the local “witch”, and her fosterling, Raven. As Raven’s (and the reader’s) view of the world expands, we become aware of how different she is. The story moves swiftly from the local village and torments of its youngsters, on to the Emperor’s city and then for Raven to make contact with her own people. We see Raven propelled by fear, prejudice, manipulation and politics from a sheltered environment into what is a conflict between races where suspicion rules but help is found in unexpected places.

Raven learns to question friendship and the motivation of others as she starts to experience her world as it really is. This is an adult fantasy, which does not pull its punches.

Add to a strong plot and milieu a couple of very well-drawn ‘point of view’ characters whose misunderstandings of each other, and the mistrust this creates, lead to further confusion and conflict. With a number of other key characters – helping or hindering – met along the way we see good characterisation is another of the author’s strengths.

My one complaint with “Darkspire Reaches” is that I finished it too quickly and there is so much more I want to know about the world, the wyvern and the characters. This story is complete and stand-alone but I can see the potential for further stories filling in background, plus a sequel to Raven and Connor’s story. (After all, there is a good precedent: just look at how many Pern stories we ended up with!)

Highly recommended.

Note: “C N Lesley” is the pen name of Elizabeth Hull.
The book is published by Kristell Ink and is also available from Amazon for the Kindle.

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Interview: Heidi Garrett

In my previous post, I introduced indie author Heidi Garrett’s novel series, “The Queen of the Realm of Faerie”. The first book in the series, Nandana’s Mark, is currently available as a free download on Smashwords.

Here, Heidi answers my questions about her writing and her experience publishing e-books as an indie author.

Your fantasy series is a re-telling of 15th century French faerie tale of Melusine, but told from the perspective of her sister, Melia. What drew you to this story and what is different about your “re-telling”?

When I conceived this story, I researched fairy tales. Sifting through stacks of books from my local library, I was thrilled to discover many that I had never heard of, the Melusine fairy tale being among them. My original idea was to include characters from several fairy tales, but it didn’t take long for that concept to become unwieldy. When I realized I needed to settle on one, it was Melusine’s story that clung to me. I started writing, but since this was my first novel and I had a lot to learn, I ended up writing several different versions before settling on the one that has been published. In the first version, Melusine was a minor character, and in the second version Melusine was the main character. Neither story felt right. After much brainstorming with my husband, I decided to experiment with making the middle sister the main character, and the younger sister an important character. This choice afforded me more freedom as writer, since Melusine’s sisters’ curses are never defined in the traditional version of the fairytale.

Who is your “target audience” for the Half-Faerie series?

Young adults and new adults, readers ages fourteen and older because I do believe that adults can enjoy the story as well.

Why self-publish as an e-book series? Have you had any feedback as to whether the e-book format is a better approach for your intended audience?

When I began researching Indie publishing in the beginning of 2012, starting with e-books seemed like a logical choice since the bulk of sales for indie authors and publishers come from e-books. Plus I have a few boxes of CDs in my basement from years ago, when I was a local singer/songwriter. I didn’t want to add any boxes of print books to that collection. And I do have some awareness of the limited resources of our planet. e-reading is pretty green, so that was another big positive for me. And finally, I am a very satisfied e-reader myself, to the point that I now avoid print books.

How much of the publication did you do yourself? What did you use other professionals for and why?

I use the writing program Scrivener, which thank you, Phillip, you highly recommended to me. I now highly recommend it to everyone I know who is writing, especially if they are considering publishing. It makes the publication of an actual e-book very easy. You can publish mobis for Kindle, epubs for Nooks and iPads and iPhones, and pdfs for folks who don’t have e-readers yet.

I have had both of the books I’ve published edited by a professional editor and I do not do the covers.

You have changed the cover of Nandana’s Mark for the second edition. What prompted this?

It is common knowledge in the industry that if a book isn’t selling well, the first things to assess are its cover and blurb. These two elements introduce the book to the reader; so it is possible that if these elements aren’t right, you could be missing potential readers. Initial sales of Nandana’s Mark were slow. I fiddled with the blurb quite a bit. That helped, but still didn’t have a significant impact on sales. Finally, I had a book reviewer who stated outright she didn’t like the original cover.

I had always wanted my husband to do the covers for my books. However, initially, he had refused as he had no experience with cover design. After the above-mentioned review, we discussed the possibility of him designing the covers again–as an experiment. I am really happy with his results and it seems that everyone else is, too. He went on to design the cover for the second book and right now, it looks like he will do the covers for the entire series.

I first came across your story through reviewing it on the “Online Writers Workshop”. How did workshopping the story change your approach to writing and / or publication?

Workshopping is critical. Novels are long. It is–perhaps–impossible for a writer to catch any, every flaw, or weak point in their story. Whether there are technical issues with the writing, plot loopholes, flat characters, etc., other writers can help one see where the work can be improved. It is so invaluable to see your work through the eyes of another writer.

I am not sure that my OWW experience changed my approach to writing or publishing. I had been writing for three years before I joined OWW and had worked with critique partners, so my writing approaches were pretty much in place and haven’t changed. What I hoped has changed, is the quality of my writing. The feedback of OWW critiquers covered every aspect of the story and was simply invaluable to helping me grow as a writer. I will always be grateful for the OWW writers who took the time to read and critique my submissions. Critiquing other writers is also very eye-opening. I think it can really help you understand in a visceral way, why certain things/techniques work and others don’t.

It was signing up with Twitter that changed my approach to publishing. Even though I knew some writers who were self-publishing, I never considered going indie, until I got on Twitter in the beginning 2012. Amanda Hocking’s story was breaking and it was incredibly inspiring. After spending years being a rather slow and tedious writer, her writing ethic inflamed me. When she was picked up by an agent and major publisher, she had already self-published nine novels. I didn’t know anyone who was writing with that kind of commitment, dedication, or enthusiasm. I don’t know if I will ever be as prolific as she is, but her story changed the way I looked at writing forever. Also, there is a huge, cutting-edge community of authors and indie authors on Twitter that constantly inspire and motivate me. I continue to rely on Twitter it as my primary social media and go-to for publishing-related news and information.

How easy has the e-publication process been? What would you do differently next time? What advice would you give others considering self-publishing in the e-book format?

The e-publication process has been very positive for me. Scrivener made a huge difference in the physical publishing logistics, but connecting with other authors through Twitter, who walked me through every part of the process and prepared me for the challenges ahead (of which there are many) has been what has kept me going. Also, by the time I published my first book, several of my writing partners from OWW had already embarked on the indie author adventure. Their insight and support has been invaluable as well. I don’t think I would/could do anything different. It’s not that I didn’t make any mistakes, it’s just that there is an enormous learning curve, and I think it’s just impossible to do everything right or the best way from the very beginning.

Advice? Hmm…be committed to your story. Take it on as an adventure. Give yourself time to get up to speed. I’d also definitely recommend signing up to Twitter and learning how to use hashtags. Getting active on Twitter for the seven months before my first book was published was one of the things I did right. It can take a little while to understand Twitter and find your voice on the platform. I would say it probably has taken almost a year for me to start to feel really comfortable, but at least, by the time Nandana’s Mark came out, I’d already learned a lot and had already started building a community. If you don’t already have an e-reader, invest in one; and read as much as you can. But the most important thing would be to enjoy yourself and be as genuine as you can.

Your stories are available from Amazon on Kindle. What other formats is the series available in? Is Kindle the most significant in terms of proportion of sales?

The books are also available for Nook, iPhone, iPad, and pretty much any e-reader that exists. As I mentioned earlier, we also have a pdf version for folks who don’t have an ereader yet. At this point, Amazon is more than 90% of my sales.

What’s next? Will it be another “half-Faerie” story? How many do you plan for the series?

My commitment right now is to finish the Queen of the Realm of Faerie series. It’s a story that is inspired by my beloved grandmother, so I don’t think I will have any peace until it is complete. The final number of books will be however many it takes to tell the story. My best guess would be a total of five to seven books, but I am not driving for a number.

Are you writing anything else at the moment?

No. I’m a rather plodding, one story-at-a-time writer.

Thank you, Heidi!

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Introducing Heidi Garrett’s “The Queen of the Realm of Faerie” series

I first ‘met’ Heidi Garrett through the SF, Fantasy and Horror Online Writing Workshop (OWW) and saw her story – a re-telling of the tale of Melusine – develop into the first two short novels in the series. This is one of the pleasures of OWW: seeing a story idea transform through to successful publication.

Here, I introduce Heidi’s story to provide some context for the interview I recently conducted with her (which will be published here next), and that focuses on her experiences choosing to follow the ‘indie’ publication route.

I must confess that, as I was a beta-reader, I cannot give a completely neutral review of her series, “The Queen of the Realm of Faerie”. I can say that her take on the story of Melusine and her dysfunctional family caught my attention when she posted chapters of it on OWW. Her writing style and ideas kept me engaged during the story development; which is a strong recommendation for her work as I am not an avid fan of the “retold fairy tale” genre – nor part of her target market! Her characters are engaging and she provides an interesting twist in a contemporary version of a traditional tale.

NM2Cover Flower of Isbeline Cover Small

The original “Melusine” is a very old fairy story. Wikipedia’s entry about Melusine notes versions from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Wikipedia’s outline of the original tale is:

Elynas, the King of Albany… went hunting one day and came across a beautiful lady in the forest. She was Pressyne, mother of Melusine. He persuaded her to marry him but she agreed, only on the promise — for there is often a hard and fatal condition attached to any pairing of fay and mortal — that he must not enter her chamber when she birthed or bathed her children. She gave birth to triplets. When he violated this taboo, Pressyne left the kingdom, together with her three daughters, and traveled to the lost Isle of Avalon.

The three girls — Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne — grew up in Avalon. On their fifteenth birthday, Melusine, the eldest, asked why they had been taken to Avalon. Upon hearing of their father’s broken promise, Melusine sought revenge. She and her sisters captured Elynas and locked him, with his riches, in a mountain. Pressyne became enraged when she learned what the girls had done, and punished them for their disrespect to their father. Melusine was condemned to take the form of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday. In other stories, she takes on the form of a mermaid.

While following this basic structure, Heidi’s retelling has major changes, notably that the story is told not from the point of view of Melusine but primarily through that of the middle sister (named Melia in her story).

The sisters, “half-faeries”, neither fully Fae nor human, straddle both worlds uncomfortably, discovering as time passes, secrets about their family that do not sit well with their preconceptions. As the story unfolds, each must face up to the impact of their mother’s curse, their role in the death of their father and the evil being unleashed on both the mortal and Faerie worlds.

Heidi’s tale is full of magical enchantments and transformations, wild chases ranging far and wide across the land of Faerie, and unlikely love. As one would expect in a story like this, the central characters discover that both the situations and people, human and fae, they encounter are not always as they first appear. Also, bargains made have an unpleasant way of developing unintended consequences.

An adventure quest, with romance, the stories are also very much about discovering the secrets concealed within the dysfunctional family Melia is part of, coming to terms with this yet being true to who she is.

The first two books in the series are available now for download in all the main formats, including Apple for i-devices.

While I would normally go to Amazon for the Kindle MOBI versions, Heidi informs me “Nandana’s Mark” should be free. However, while she has checked this in USA when I access both the US and UK sites (from France!) they show as having a small charge. Therefore, if you can’t access the free download, I recommend you check out Smashwords. I verified (12 Feb) that it is available in MOBI format as a free download, as well as in all the other major formats.
The direct Smashwords links to Heidi’s stories are:
Nandana’s Mark
Flower of Isbelline

The Amazon links:
Amazon UK: Nandana’s Mark; The Flower of Isbelline
Amazon USA: Nandana’s Mark; The Flower of Isbelline

Heidi is currently working on the third story in the series: The Dragon Carnivale


‘Space marines’ – Games Workshop’s appalling trademark claim on SF trope

Ever heard of “space marines”? If you read Heinlein or Doc Smith, watched “Aliens” or “Avatar” – or many other SF stories from the 1930’s onwards – the term will be familar enough. Yet Games Workshop are claiming it as a trademark as part of their Warhammer 40k universe. They forced Amazon to remove Indie writer M.C.A. Hogarth’s self-published e-book, “Spots the Space Marine”, last December. Read Hogarth’s Blog for her side of the story.

Fortunately, following high profile SF names taking up the case, including a blog by John Scalzi (current president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), Amazon have now reinstated the story. Good – but it should never have been taken down in the first place. GW seem to have attacked an Indie author on the assumption (correct) that she would not have the funds to fight such frivilous nonsense claims rather than attack a mainstream publisher.

“Space marine” is such a common term in SF circles it could be called a trope, a cliche even. What are GW thinking of? What will they try to trademark next?

It is fortunate the SF community is rounding on them over this and defending a writer who used the generic term and did NOT take any GW-specific aspects of the “space marine”. It highlights an issue for indie authors. I suspect we will see more of these spurious claims in the future. Shame on Amazon for how they responded initially.

The story has now made the mainstream press such as the BBC and an excellent article by Lewes Page on The Register which highlights that GW values are ‘Honesty, Courage and Humility’ – all of which are conspicuous in their absence in this case. GW seem to be imitating the “patent trolls” that plague the technology industry.

What do you mean, I can’t use the term “troll” because someone’s trademarked it?

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eReader snoopers: Is Big Brother on your Kindle or iPad?

Every now and again, I come across a website I just keep wanting to revisit. Dennis Baron’s The Web of Language is one, full of fascinating information on the use of language and technology.

One particular article has caught my eye: the e-reader over your shoulder.

I dislike the idea that my reading habits are monitored, assessed and sold. Yet that is the trade-off I entered into when I started using a Kindle (and the same goes for Apple products too). As Baron comments:

Kindles and iPads track what we read and when, record our bookmarks and annotations, remind us what we searched for last, and suggest other titles we may like. They collect our personal reading data in the name of improving… our digital reading experience, and along the way they may sell the metric of how and what and when we read and use it to improve the company’s bottom line as well. … CCTV may monitor our comings and goings from the outside, but e-readers have spyware that actually looks inside our heads. And e-books provide the ultimate interactive experience: they read us while we are reading them.

The whole article is well worth a read, running from teachers being able to monitor student study patterns, through Amazon and Apple selling your reading habits through to the implications of DRM and the fact that one never “buys” but “rents” through their stores.

It makes uncomfortable reading.

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SF review: “To Die A Stranger” by Jilly Paddock

Jilly Paddock’s novel-length story has been on my “to read” list ever since I read her excellent “The Spook and the Spirit in the Stone”. The “spook” of that off-world crime thriller is a creepy “agent-pair”, an intriguing concept of a Terran spy with super-human psi powers. I wanted to know exactly what is an “agent-pair”?

“To Die A Stranger” provides the answer by taking us to near the start of the development on Earth of “agent-pairs” – the linking of humans with strong psi capabilities with AI units – at the Delany Computer Corporation, a manufacturer of advanced computers which is working on a secret programme for the Terran government.

All this is not really a spoiler, since this information comes out relatively early in following the life of Anna-Marie Delany, daughter of the owner of the Delany corporation, and who also lives a pretend life as Amaranth, a holo-drama actress. There is a nice teaser in the intro to Part 1: “…and this is the story of her death.” We then go into Anna-Marie’s first person narrative.

Based on “The Spook” and the intro I had been expecting another crime thriller but, while the story has some of these elements, this story is more an entertaining “space opera”. Following a horrific air-car crash, Anna-Marie, disfigured and with her acting alter-ego killed off, becomes linked to a recalcitrant AI manufactured by her father’s firm and the story becomes a chase thriller, with our protagonists hassled by a shadowy Earth Intelligence unit, full of dirty tricks. The pursuit then takes up most of the rest of the story, moving swiftly from Earth to planets in other parts of the galaxy.

The way the psi powers work and the easy interstellar travel combined with the whole traditional SF tone of the story reminds me of some of the SF romps from the 1950s and 1960s. Its style feels to me not as if written by Isaac Asimov but rather as in the tradition of stories by Eric Frank Russell, who had a light touch and more humour in his tales. This is not a criticism, I thoroughly enjoyed Russell’s work, which I consider to have been under-rated.

In conclusion, recommended as a light but good traditional escapist SF story. It is available for download through Amazon UK:
Jilly Paddock – To Die A Stranger
Or, in Amazon USA:
Jilly Paddock – To Die A Stranger

So now, having found out about Agent-Pairs, I’m waiting for the next Afton and Jerome story!

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Review: “Bruno: Chief of Police” by Martin Walker

This novel, the first of a series, is set in the Dordogne area of South west France, the next major river valley north of where my family lives. The book itself was recommended to me by a local English friend and I had been hoping to find a great new series to read, based in an area I know well.

The first book in the series is only £1.80 for a Kindle download from Amazon so it was a good way to sample without splashing £7 on a paperback. I was even able to start reading on the Sunday it was recommended to me, deep in South West France. The internet is a wonderful tool for instant gratification.

To the story, which I went to read WANTING to like, yet I came away disappointed.

Probably the most important thing in a crime novel is the plot, and this works so I was able to read this through to the end. It is the story of a typical sleeping rural town, where there is a murder that appears to be a hate crime. Of course, nothing is that simple and the investigation unfolds down through a number of twists and turns, relatively conventional but to a clear conclusion.

Martin Walker, a Guardian journalist, lives part of the year in the Dordogne so I assumed the research and setting would be up to scratch. It is, but in a way that makes it one of two weaknesses of the novel; the other being the characterisation. Had I not known that Walker had published a previous novel I would have assumed this is a first novel, with the associated faults and weaknesses.

The two main problems go hand in hand. The best way I can describe them is to say this story is “murder in ‘A Year In Provence'”. There are lots of colourful French characters but they verge on or move into caricature. Most irritating is the new head of the Gendamerie for the Commune, who does not develop and is merely there to be a persistent hurdle the protagonist, Bruno Courrèges, must overcome at every step of the investigation. I did like Bruno, Chief of Police because he is the only local policeman in the town, but most of the villagers who appear as characters were two-dimensional.

The setting itself is a typical rural town in the area but rather than letting it unfold naturally, with French terminology the reader can look up if they don’t recognise it, every time a new term is introduced it is explained, interrupting the flow and making it feel like one is reading a travel guide not a novel.

It is true I have an advantage over many readers in that I am familiar with the local structures and political complexities and rivalries between the various police forces in France but many of the target audience could have a passing knowledge from news and holidays in France. Description and information should not be at the cost of the flow of the story and to the level where it is intrusive and irritating.

Another irritant was the black-and-white antipathy of the villagers to Government bureaucracy in Paris and Brussels. It felt like we were being treated to the author’s prejudices rather than a rounded view. After all, the rural farmers expressing their ire are the same French small farmers who do so very nicely out of the EU agricultural support mechanisms – yet that never had a mention. The few English characters, well-to-do and single – one becomes the ‘love interest’, seem to be there more for an English audience than because they serve a really necessary part of the story.

So, all in all, disappointing. A rating of 3 out of 5 – I finished it. But with the rest of the series all being over a fiver on Kindle download I will not be investing in more of the series. A shame because, as I said, I really wanted to like this.

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