Publishing Update: Why there haven’t been more Publishing Updates…

When I first started this blog, I intended to use it to document the experience of writing and publishing a novel. I was frustrated at how difficult it is to find information on what this process looks like. I didn’t know what to expect and I knew there were a lot of writers out there who were equally discouraged by the lack of open communication on the subject.

I think I started off on the right track. I blogged about the endless querying, the nightmare of waiting, the inevitable rejections, the scraps of feedback… But as the process dragged on the time between my posts dragged out. I now realize why there is so little information out there about getting published. The experience is so draining, you lose the will continue. You begin to feel like you are just going to end up with a detailed account of your failure to be published, rather than a helpful how-to for other aspiring writers. It begins to feel like an exercise in soul-sucking futility. I admit it. I gave up. On the blogging, at least…

After breaking down and paying a professional editor to pick my manuscript apart, I underwent a heavy rewrite. I cut over 20,000 words, more than 50 pages; the surviving scenes were cut apart and reorganized to improve pacing. What I ended up with felt like a completely different novel. And I had to treat it as such. I had to start the whole querying process over again.

I would love to be able to say that the second time was easier. But it wasn’t. You think that the hard work is writing the novel itself. But the writing is the fun stuff. I know, I know. You’ve heard that before. But I don’t think anyone who is writing a book really takes the time to enjoy it. You’ve got your eye on the prize, the final product, the big shiny book deal. Maybe that’s part of the reason that the querying process is so disheartening. It’s like running a race; you see the finish line ahead and give it all you’ve got. But when you get there, you realize you still have another three laps to go and you just want to curl up in a ball and die. Or maybe that’s just me.

I sent my reworked manuscript out to the few agents who had shown some interested the first time around, letting them know I’d fixed the issues they’d had with the original. None of them responded. I realized that the pitiful one-liner “feedback” I’d received from each of them was likely just dressed-up rejection. Only one of my original queries had elicited real, concrete feedback. And that was the editor of a small science fiction imprint called Bedlam Press. It was actually his feedback that prompted me to hire an editor for my manuscript in the first place. So to hell with agents. I sent it back to Bedlam.

And they signed me! The Timekeepers’ War will be coming out this summer. I’m working with the artist on ideas for the cover and waiting for the final changes to be suggested by the editor. It’s going to be a lot of work getting my name out there and promoting my first novel, but I feel confident knowing I’ve got a great team behind me. Again, I find myself at the finish line only to discover that the race has only just begun.

SF Book Review: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

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3/5 Stars

This first book in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy tackled a lot of interesting ideas and touched on some interesting subjects. Unfortunately, I had trouble reconciling Sawyer’s high-concept plot with his flimsy and contradictory characters. Much of the book came across as unnecessarily preachy, and by the end of the trilogy it was more like beating a dead horse. Of the three, Hominids was the most intriguing novel and ultimately why I chose to continue with the trilogy. Humans did little for me, and felt a bit like a bridge between #1 and #3 and nothing else. Hybrids had potential, but I think the plot got bogged down in Sawyer’s extreme social commentary. This review is mainly of Hominids, although I can’t promise that the other two novels aren’t colouring my perception of it in hindsight.

I have no issues with the science behind Hominids. Granted much of it went over my head, and I’m not much of a hard-SF fangirl to begin with. But it didn’t get in my way, and Sawyer seems to have a good grasp of the concepts that he’s employing. I just went along with it, for the most part. I did find it interesting to read now that we have a little better understanding of prehistoric relations between human and Neanderthal than at the time that was published. For example, studies are showing that most people of European decent actually have some Neanderthal DNA which contributes to our ability to fight certain kinds of cancer and other diseases. Neanderthal may have been absorbed by modern humans rather than wiped out. Interesting, but inconsequential to this review 😉

My issue with Hominds is really an issue with Mary. A Catholic geneticist studying human evolution? Her attachment to the Catholic church makes absolutely no sense. Her work flies in the face of her religion, yet she somehow manages to make excuses for the inconsistencies in her belief as far as it is needed for her professional self. Meanwhile, she gives her personal self little leeway, being ashamed of using birth control throughout her failed marriage and refusing to divorce her estranged husband for fear of excommunication. Throughout the novel she steadfastly defends the more ridiculous notions of her religion with a blindness that is disturbing to witness in a supposed scientist.

And Mary is not the only religious scientist in the novel. I don’t think there was a single atheist character, other than the Neanderthals. As if being human and being religious were one and the same. As an atheist, I found this a little hard to understand and, frankly, to stomach. I couldn’t tell if Sawyer was intentionally pointing out the inconsistencies between religious belief and scientific progress, or if he is himself struggling with two opposing world views and using his confused characters to sort out his own issues. Mary’s confusion distanced me from her and really just ended up being irritating.

Her religiosity is not the only issue. Mary is fickle in her moods and opinions, continually on the defensive about her own position, closed minded, and shallow. This is really difficult to reconcile with what we are told of her being a brilliant scientist. She comes across as a caricature of a woman: jealous and suspicious of attractive females, angry at all men for the failures of a few, constantly insecure about her own body, etc.

Her relationship with the Neanderthal Ponter Boddit is confusingly shallow. It is as if she becomes attracted to him solely because of her negative experiences with human males, whom she blames for all of the world’s problems. This becomes more of an issue in the later novels when we are asked to believe in their relationship without any kind of understanding of what attracts each to the other. But in Hominids it’s more superficial. Why would a woman who has been recently raped be attracted to the biggest, most masculine male she finds? Granted, Ponter is a gentle giant. But Mary often comments on his size, his strength, even his massive penis (which she catches a glimpse of one morning), while at the same time she seems to be repulsed by masculinity in her own species.

The subplot occurring in the Neanderthal world is really what kept this book alive for me. Ponter’s observations of our world are interesting at first, but quickly come across as preachy (not in Ponter’s voice but in the author’s). While things are different in the Neanderthal world, they clearly would not be suitable solutions for our own. And there are obvious issues with the Neanderthal way of life as well, as we see in Adikor’s legal fight after the disappearance of Ponter. Hominids provides the best balance between the two worlds where, increasingly throughout the trilogy, Sawyer seems to lean towards idealization or idolization of his own creation in the Neanderthal society.

Overall, I think Hominids is definitely worth the read. The trilogy itself is pretty quick and easy, and I don’t regret finishing it. But there are some serious flaws in the characterization that make it difficult to be truly satisfied with the outcome of the plot.

SF/Fantasy Review: Bitten by Kelly Armstrong

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4/5 Stars

I can’t even remember why I bought this book in the first place. Werewolves are not really my thing. Well, they might be my thing if the YA paranormal romance genre hadn’t had them declawed and neutered since the literary apocalypse that is Twilight. I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer’s “work,” or seen any of the glittering tween-porn it spawned. But I think it’s safe to say that Twilight ruined everything, forever. I steadfastly refused to be swayed on this point. Suck it.

Reading the book jacket and any plot summaries I’ve found places Bitten firmly in the paranormal romance camp. Why did I buy it? Was I drunk? Probably. I have no idea. Maybe it was the “erotically charged thriller” tagline that got me, at least I knew it wasn’t going to be YA. But whatever my reasoning at the time, I did buy it. And then I forgot about it. And then I found it, thought WTF is this?!? and read it.

And holy shit.

I might be in love with Kelley Armstrong. Like in the kind of way that might compel me to move to Ontario, stalk her, and try to suck her brain juice out with a green swirly straw. Not really, though. If that ever happens, it wasn’t me.

Now, that’s not to say that Bitten is without flaws. I found it really slow to start, for one. I felt no real connection to the first few casualties of werewolf on werewolf violence—though I felt I was supposed to. I found the sex scenes boring and mostly unnecessary (Are sex scenes ever necessary? Maybe not. But they don’t have to be boring). There was a little too much focus on Changing just to play tag in the forest—I get it, wolves are fun and playful sometimes; time to move on. And Sometimes I wanted to smack our heroine upside the head.

I think the idea of The Pack knowing everything there is to know about all the mutts (lone werewolves) in the whole world is ridiculous. There are like six of them in the Pack. They’d be lucky to be able to control their territory in New York (face it, they did a shitty job of controlling mutts in their own town). And I don’t believe for one second that Elena would be the only female werewolf in existence. Surely if she were such a coveted prize, werewolves would be biting women left right and centre for a chance at their own furry fuckmate. Let’s get real.

But! There was so much good and refreshing about this book that I’m willing to overlook all that other stuff. And I don’t do this lightly, believe me. First of all, Kelley Armstrong is Canadian and she doesn’t pretend that she’s not. A good chunk of the novel happens in Toronto, she references Vancouver, the Robert Pickton murders, the Separatist movement. And she does it without tooting her little “Oh! Canada” horn. Second, Elena Michaels is the best female narrator I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. She’s all hard edges and no fluff. She doesn’t just play at being tough, she’s a cold mother-fucker. She likes sex and doesn’t apologize for it, and it’s never implied that she should apologize for it (why is this so fucking rare?!?) She screws up, but in believable ways that are consistent with what we know of her character. She fights those animal urges for violence and loses. Next to Clay, Elena is the most violent and impulsive member of the Pack. She’s refreshing. Not always likeable, but refreshing.

Violence in a werewolf story should be mandatory. No one wants to read about werewolves as domesticated pets. And by that I mean, I don’t want to. A good werewolf story needs a certain amount of blood and gore. Sex is optional. Blood and gore is not. I mean, what’s the fun in being a werewolf if you don’t get to disembowel the occasional person? Don’t lie. If you were a werewolf, it’s the first thing you’d try. Okay, after you ate the neighbours Chihuahuas. Maybe. Why gloss over the good stuff just to become another bodice ripper?

I know, I know. It’s called paranormal romance for a reason. But why is that the only place to find vampires and werewolves these days? Who turned these once terrifying monsters into Valentine’s day fodder? Everyone has sex (eventually, I hope). Reading about it is never as fun as actually doing it, so what’s the point? I refuse to believe that there are that many women out there sitting at home not getting any. If you are, stop it. There’s no reason for your suffering. Then maybe we can take back the monsters for the horror genre. We miss them here on the other side.

Now, we’ve all imagined getting to rip the throats out of our enemies and chew on their spleen. I’m sure we’ve all imagined it. Of course you have. I’m not just some kind of freak. This is the animal impulse that intrigues me, not sex. Our capacity for violence is what connects us to and separates us from other animals, and Armstrong does a fabulous job of exploring these ideas. Both thematically and in its plot, Bitten is a far more complex read that I ever would have guessed, even if we have to forgive a few flaws to see it. I personally felt that there was a little too much emphasis placed on the romantic sub plot, particularly because the main plot was more than strong enough on its own. However, the complexity of this main plot is enough to elevate the novel to true Speculative Fiction from the dregs of the appalling sub-genric slime that is paranormal romance. A rare feat, indeed. That’s some sticky shit.

SF Book Review: “Undead Reckoning” by Mike Slabon

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2.5/5 Stars

I’m giving Undead Reckoning, a debut novel from Canadian author Mike Slabon, 2.5 out of 5 stars. This rating is based on Goodreads’ rating system with 2 meaning “it was ok” and 3 meaning “I liked it!”. Undead Reckoning is a difficult novel to categorize, falling somewhere in between SF and Horror and genre parody of the two, but I can safely say that it’s not a genre I typically read. I’ll try not to let that colour my review too much, though, I promise! Undead Reckoning was better than just okay, and there are parts of it that I really liked which is why I’m sticking with 2.5. But I felt the really good parts were dragged down a bit by areas that could have used a little tighter editing. That being said, Slabon shows definite potential as a developing writer and I will look forward to reading his work in the future.

I should clarify that by “tighter editing” I do not mean proof-reading. I was actually impressed by how few minor punctuation/typo style errors I found in the text. This is a huge challenge for indie press writers who often must rely on beta-readers to catch typographical errors, rather than professional editors (whose services are extremely expensive). I’m referring, rather, to content editing for pacing, clarity, and balance. I’m also going to question a couple of Slabon’s stylistic choices, which could have been used to greater effect with a couple of tweaks.

Tangent/ This review will probably be long. I apologize in advance for that. But I believe that new writers, especially independent writers, need and deserve precise and meaningful feedback in order to hone their craft. As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to come by honest constructive criticism and I hope that some of what I have to say will be helpful to Slabon and any other writers who may be reading. /end tangent.

Okay, let’s begin.

Slabon essentially has two different novels competing against one another in Undead Reckoning, and I feel that each would have been served better had they been given their own space. On one hand, Undead Reckoning is a kind of horror spoof. It’s a parody of the zombie genre, almost a parody of a parody it gets so goofy at times. Which is fine, if that is what it is. And I thought it was, at first. However, the hack and slash zombie slaying is used as a trope to move the subplots along, rather than being the meat of the novel. The subplots themselves are so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that blowing up zombies appears to be the only unifying theme (NOTE: the subplots are one area that could have been aggressively pared down without losing anything of the main plot, but more on this later). The effect is actually quite disorienting at first, and it took me well over 100 pages to get a handle on what was going on.

This is when I began to realize that there was something more to Undead Reckoning than the simple spoof I thought I was reading. There are aspects of the novel which move outside the necessarily simple landscape of a zombie parody and into more serious speculative fiction. The main plot of Undead Reckoning is layered with complexity, and Slabon ultimately does an impressive job of tying his subplots together into a cohesive whole by the end of the novel. But I almost felt that he was afraid to give his main plot, the spec fic novel, the attention and seriousness it deserved. In the end, the underlying parody novel, acted as a defence mechanism to deflect from Slabon’s “real” writing—I actually think Slabon is a better writer than he is giving himself credit for, and the dual-genre does him a disservice in his debut novel.

When we first meet our hero, NFL superstar Eddie Griffin, we land smack-dab in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Griffin is coming to terms with the new world he’s living in as he helps Lieutenant Jim Shrike with a top secret mission investigating Undead activity at a nearby abandoned military base. We jump right into the action with limbs flying and brains exploding in typical zombie annihilating style. Fight scenes are interrupted by the obligatory wise-cracks and expletives, but otherwise make up the majority of the first hundred pages. This brings us to the issue of pacing.

Nothing is worse than reading a novel where nothing happens. It’s boring. I think everyone will agree with me there. So a novel that is full of non-stop action should be super awesome, right? Well, not necessarily. For non-stop action to equal good pacing, a couple of things need to happen. For one, “telling” must be balanced with “showing”. Too much telling, and the action reads more like stage directions in a screenplay than a paragraph (or chapter) in a novel.

Player A enters on right, weapon drawn. Player B turns at the sound and shouts in surprise. Player A shoots Player B between the eyes and exits stage slowly. Curtains drop.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Reading these initial action scenes, and some subsequent ones, was a little like grinding MOBs. Or worse, it was like reading about grinding MOBs—I didn’t even get to level up or loot anything. And with too much “telling” there is little opportunity for the reader to visualize the world and the action for him/herself. Other than knowing that Eddie Griffin was a big guy who used to play football, I had little idea what he looked like. Same with Jim Shrike. This isn’t too much of an issue for secondary characters, but main characters and setting should be clearly defined as soon as possible (I’d say first 20 pages). Putting this off disconnects the reader from the text, and limits empathy for the characters.

So action is great, but too much action is problematic for a couple of reasons: 1) The “big picture” plot gets lost in the grind, and 2) The lack of “showing” limits character development and world building. For example: For the first seventy pages or so, I was picturing Eddie Griffin as a thick, ruddy skinned white boy with a buzz cut and Jim Shrike as a lean, muscular black man who didn’t smile a lot. By the time I realized that Eddie was black and Jim was actually green—my first WTF moment—it was too late. My original pictures stuck with me, and I had to keep reminding myself of what they actually looked like as I read. Which is really too bad, because minority groups are severely under-represented in SF literature.

Tangent/ I think it’s great that Eddie Griffin is a young black man. But I think that it’s especially important to let the reader know that he’s black, specifically because there are so few non-white protagonists in the world of SF and Horror. It’s easy enough to do without rubbing it in the readers’ face. In the first couple of pages, a single sentence such as “My dark skin did little to protect me from the harsh rays of the sun” for example, could have clued us in without being too obvious (the fact that Eddie is a football player wasn’t enough for me—I thought there was a pretty even mix of black/white football players, but I know nothing about football). I know some will argue that the colour of his skin shouldn’t matter, but I disagree. I think it’s important that literary characters are representative of the world we live in: there should be many races, religions, genders and sexualities, and we shouldn’t shy away from defining them as such. Otherwise the tendency is just to assume that all characters are white, heterosexual men because for so long, that’s the way it has been. I had the same problem in my own novel, with identifying my main character as female. I left her gender ambiguous on purpose, but found that too many people were confused when I did finally describe her as “her”. I later ended up identifying her as female early on and then emphasizing her androgyny after that, which was better received. /end tangent.

Another thing that I found detracted from the main plot was that there were too many subplots. Each chapter seemed to have a new villain or conflict which, once resolved, didn’t carry over into the next scene. While some subplots did end up tying in to the main plot in the end, it was impossible to differentiate between the two. Slabon gets extra points for creativity, though. There are some gems hiding in the confusion, lots of good ideas that could have been great if they were working on their own (Juan the spider demon could have been the villain of a Christopher Moore-esqe comdey-horror novel) but just ended up competing with one another for attention. Kind of like a mini-version of the genre competition I mentioned earlier.

This brings us to the two stylistic choices that I felt could have been used differently. One: footnotes. Footnotes are largely unnecessary, and interrupt the flow of the narrative. Unless you’re Terry Pratchett, in which case you have elevated the footnote to an art form in and of itself–rife with sly humour, supplemental story lines, and lessons in magic and/or physics. For the rest of us, 95% of material that could be footnoted could also be worked into the text or simply left up to the reader to figure out. The only exception to this rule would be for language translation if a word or phrase from another language is used without enough context to be understood on its own. Anagrams can be spelled out in full, and then abbreviated later if they’re going to be recurrent in the novel. For example, military anagrams like CFB (Canadian Forces Base) or LAV (Light Armoured Vehicle). Slang, military or otherwise, should only be defined by the context that it is used in not by footnote. I just finished reading Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, and I never needed to use the glossary once. Language is like that, we’re pretty good at filling in the blanks. Not only slang, but any words that were made up and only exist in the world of your novel should be defined by context or dialogue, not footnotes. Real words should never be footnoted. If you’ve chosen a word that is so obscure you doubt your reader will know it, use a different word. If it’s necessary, have another character be confused by it so that you can explain it in dialogue. Example: thanatology. If your reader doesn’t know what C-4 is, that’s his problem. Let him google that shit and give the rest of us some credit!

Stylistic Choice Two: Sound effects. Less is more when it comes to BANG! SMACK! RATTATATAT! and/or KABOOM! This isn’t a comic book. Again, this is just my opinion. I can see how the onomatopoeia lends itself to the parody genre, but I also preferred the non-parodical stuff, so that’s just my take.

Okay, I hope you’ve stuck with my ramblings this far, because now I’d like to talk about what I really liked about this novel. There are three sections of Undead Reckoning that really stood out to me. The first is in Keek’s lair. Slabon does a great job of describing the underground lair and entrance to Nabisusha. The novel started to feel alive to me at this point. And it is because of this scene that I feel justified in wishing there were more descriptions of characters and settings earlier in the book. Once I realized that Slabon had all this great imagery up his sleeve, I felt extra ripped off when I didn’t get it. The next scene that really stands out is in the Anomalies Amok fantasy that Eddie gets trapped in. Slabon shows real potential for world building here, and I’m curious to see what he would do with a high fantasy novel. Not only this, but the characterization of the AA players trapped in this fantasy are better developed, and the fight scenes better realized than anywhere else in the novel up to this point. Finally, the flashback scene explaining the fate of the Masters and Custodians—much high fantasy and speculative fiction potential is demonstrated in this scene. Again, Slabon is a much better writer than he gives himself credit for, or than he seems to, by hiding behind the goofier aspects of this novel. The complexity of the final plot actually stunned me, and I really wished that this main plot line had been more heavily invested in throughout the novel.

Really, Undead Reckoning had all the elements of a strong SF novel, but they were obscured by the sillier subplots and could have been enhanced by aggressive editing. Slabon could easily have written a spoof novel akin to Night of the Living Dead, a couple of Christopher Moore style comedy/horror novels, and have an SF trilogy started with the material that is in this book. It’s a little much for one novel to bear, but there’s no denying Slabon’s potential as an up and coming writer. I’d like to see him move with confidence into speculative fiction. Or parody, for that matter. But I think we’ll find that his strengths lie in those areas he was reluctant to meet head on in his debut novel—complex plots, intriguing characters, and fascinating worlds—and it’s my opinion that those strengths will be best realized in an SF or fantasy series. Whatever he chooses to do, though, I’ll be reading.

PS This novel and future novels need more ladies! Undead Reckoning was a serious sausage fest. I realize that half the world has been zombified, but shouldn’t half the survivors still be women? Especially with the reveal at the end of the novel about why some people turned and some didn’t. I doubt Slabon intended to make a comment about how fulfilling women’s lives are, and how many of us are essentially “dead already”. But that’s the conclusion I was forced to draw! I want to see chicks with machine guns riding on dire-wolves in the follow up. Make it happen!

The Timekeepers War– Final Edit Complete! (again)

Well, I’m sure some of you were starting to think it wasn’t going to happen (myself included)… but I finally completed the final edit of my novel, The Timekeepers’ War! Again.

Editing is really the hardest part of writing a book, I swear. I’d heard that before and I never believed it. But that’s because what I thought was editing was really proofreading. And the two are very, very different beasts. After I finished my behemoth of a first novel (it came in at 503 pages, and almost 147,000 words…) I gave copies to a few trusted people to read for consistency, grammar, spelling, and readability. They came back with lots of little changes. I went through TKW three or four times with suggestions from various people, making what changes I deemed necessary, and TA-DA! Final edit complete (pt. 1)

I was feeling pretty good about myself, as a first time author. I’d gotten some really great feedback from my beta readers, along with some constructive criticism that I was able to apply to make my novel the best that I could make it. I sent it out with quiet confidence to agents and publishers alike. And waited… and waited…

And then the rejections started to roll in. I did receive some interest though, which was encouraging. I had requests for the next 10 pages, the next 30 pages, the next 50 pages, and even a couple of requests for the whole novel. I must be doing something right, I thought. They want to see more! They must like it! But nothing panned out. Eventually, each of those requests for more ended in yet another rejection. I was heartbroken!

Two good things came of this process. One: I received some really great feedback from a small publisher who highlighted my strengths and went to the trouble of explaining exactly why The Timkeepers’ War wasn’t working for him. And suddenly, all those vague rejections started to make sense. I had a great story idea, I had likeable characters, I had an intriguing setting. But I needed to seriously work on my pacing if I wanted to sell this as a commercial novel. But I didn’t really know how to go about fixing that issue. I read a lot of long-winded fantasy and sci-fi, and I enjoy them. Pacing isn’t something I knew how to do, it isn’t something I look for in a book. It isn’t my style. But as a first time writer, you have to be able to market your work to a wider audience. And agents and publishers like to see action, they like pacy, they like movement, they like all these things I didn’t know how to deliver (and in many ways, felt I shouldn’t have to). But that brings us to good thing number Two:

I decided to hire a professional editor. One who specialized in SF and worked in the publishing industry. And it wasn’t cheap. But it was totally worth it. My editor echoed some of the feedback that I had already had regarding my strengths as a writer.  And he really, really drove home the point about my weaknesses. It was hard to read at times, but I had decided when I hired him that I would listen and learn from what he had to say. So I had to suck it up. And that can be very hard to do when you read “Boring! Get on with it!” and “I’m losing interest here” and “I’ve forgotten what this story is about now” and “I really want to throw this book at the wall!” written in the margins of your baby. Okay, so that last one never happened, but I that’s how I interpreted it.

But when I started going through some of the changes that he made, I got it. Slowly it dawned on me that my readers don’t need to know everything I know about my world and my characters. I’d spent so long envisioning them, and building a world to hold them, that I found my self rattling off inane details about everyone and everything in my novel. As the person building the world, these details were necessary to me. They helped me to visualize my world and my characters, and kept my environment consistent and believable. But what we need as writers is not the same as what our audience needs as readers. Lesson learned. I started cutting like a crazy person.

At first, this was difficult. But I saved all of those little scraps of imagery, unnecessary scenes and characters, and I told myself “They’ll still be here for me when I need them.” And as kept cutting, and rewriting, the process became cathartic. Sometimes less really is more, and I finally was able to see what this meant in relation to my own work. The middle of my book required extensive rewriting to deal with info dumps. I rewrote about 200 pages of text just to get the pace moving again after I had killed it dead and beaten it’s corpse like the proverbial horse.

And it didn’t always go smoothly. There were good days and bad days. Good months and bad months, really. The hardest part of editing like this is the urge to give up and move on to something new. I was so disheartened some days to be still working on the same book when I have so many ideas for my next projects. I have new projects started, waiting for me, calling out my name! I had thought The Timekeepers’ War was done, I had cut the strings and moved on. I felt stuck.

I started procrastinating. I started to fear finishing it, actually. I was afraid that I would go through all of this, only to find that my novel was still nonpunishable. That I would be a failure at the one thing I really wanted to do. That I would let down everyone who had believed in me and supported me up to this point. Even thinking about my novel started to make me feel anxious and depressed.

Luckily those people who believed in and supported me, continued to do so. I was ready to throw in the towel on more than on occasion. But after a serious kick in the ass from my partner and biggest supporter, I realized that the only way I was going to fail all of these people, and fail myself, is if I stopped trying. I was going to quit because I was afraid to fail. That didn’t make sense. That didn’t even leave me a sliver of a chance to succeed. I’m no gambler, but those are some shitty odds. So I made myself do it.

And as I plowed through I realized that it’s a better novel now than it ever was. And what I considered my best before is sorely lacking compared to my best today. I have become a better writer for this process. And every time I have to do this in the future, I’m going to come out ahead. This is what it’s all about. Blood, sweat, and tears, no lie. Lots and lots of tears. It’s no cakewalk… no wonder so few people make it in the publishing game. Will I be one of them? Only time will tell. But I’ve learned so much in the process that, if nothing else, I can say that my attempt wasn’t a failure.

So the final result? I cut over 20,000 words from original text. I’m down to 127,191 words, down over 50 pages of info dense text. And I feel like a new person with a new and better book. I’m read to start all over again.

I will be looking for beta readers for this round, if anyone is interested in helping. Please send me a message.

Thanks for reading!

SF Book Review: The Artemis Effect by Kasia James

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4/5 Stars

Science fiction can be an iffy genre to go exploring willy nilly. I usually like to stick to the beaten path (my own, anyways) rarely abandoning my tried and true authors. Most of my forays into the unknown (unless they’ve come recommended by a reliable source) have been disappointing. Sci-fi shelves seem to be a haven for poorly disguised political/religious allegories, plotless nerdier-than-thou techno-babble, and sagas of sexually liberated space sluts. Often some combination of the three. The trouble is, with such a vast world of possibilities before them, too many science fiction writers indulge in formulaic drivel.

That said, I’m glad I took a chance on Kasia James’ debut novel, The Artemis Effect. I was pleasantly surprised by James’ refreshingly different take on the post-apocalyptic theme (or should I say peri-apocalyptic?). Hers is the only novel I’ve read which actually looks at the breakdown of modern civilization as it’s happening, rather than simply assessing the aftermath. This is an interesting spin, as it allows for some truly interesting and engaging character development (all too neglected in many SF novels), as well as painting an almost intimate portrait of the individual lives that are affected during the crisis.

James’ characters are one of her strongest assets as a writer. She does a wonderful job of bringing Scott, Kimberley, Bryn and their circles of friends/family to life, drawing parallels across the globe as the story progresses in Australia, Wales, and the USA. The dynamics between the main characters and their cohorts are believable, entertaining, and often touching. Conversations actually read like conversations, rather than info dumps and uber-correct robotalk (another skill that many authors never master).

The only glitch for me, as a North American, was in the language used by Kimberley and Ray and the other Americans. James was born in Wales and currently lives in Australia, so I trust her use of idioms, etc. for the characters in these areas. But sometimes the Americans just “talked funny*”. Now, I’m Canadian, so I’m used to a bastardization of British and American English. These errors were very minor (we would never say ‘auto accident’, for example, but ‘car accident’ or ‘car crash’) and didn’t detract from the text at all. But it’s worth mentioning if you’re one of those colloquial-grammar-nazis (if there is such a thing). To be fair, this probably happens all the time with NA writers screwing up localized variants of English across the globe, and I don’t notice because I’m an ignorant North American. Maybe I should just shut up.

*Southern hick voice.

On with the review! The Artemis Effect has a unique and substantial plot to give a solid background for the character development. And I’ve gotta say, I had no idea where James was going with it until the very end, which is awesome! (I’d be curious to know if James is familiar with the novel Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, as one of James’ subplots can be strongly linked to themes in Griffith’s work) I love not being able to predict where a story is going, just being able to enjoy the flow. The pacing was great, there’s lots of action to keep you reading. The tri-part narrative was perfectly balanced so that each section had enough detail to give some insight but not so long that you forgot what was going on with the other characters.

Long story short, I recommend it. You can purchase Kasia James’ novel on Amazon, here. (Do it now!)

Note: I stubbornly refuse to convert to an e-reader and James was kind enough to humour me. She sent me a lovely paperback copy to review, for which I am eternally grateful. I promise, good customer service did not in any way affect my review. But I believe James deserves personal brownie points for being so accommodating. Also, check out her blog, Writer’s Block.

Fantasy Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

3/5 Stars

A Discovery of Witches was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t really know what to expect, coming into it, which is probably a good thing. I hate having a book built up in my mind before I start, and the inevitable disappointment after imagining that it will be different than it is. Deborah Harkness’ debut novel came up as a book recommendation based on other books I’ve read. I gave the blurb a cursory glance, decided it had all the makings for a nice fluffy read next time my brain was too tired for “real” books, and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart. “Magic Realism” is a kind of cotton candy genre for me. They are light and sweet and disappear too quickly. And when I’m finished I have that twinge of guilt that I shouldn’t have gone there, and I worry about rotting some important bits of my head.

But A Discovery of Witches did not end up being the fluffy read I imagined it to be. Harkness has built a surprisingly complex world in which three supernatural species—witches, daemons, and vampires—coexist, mostly unnoticed, with humans. She works a vast amount of history, science, and religion into this world and blends the lines between them quite seamlessly. A large portion of the novel is set in Oxford, particularly the Bodleian Library, where an enchanted text from the 1500’s finds its way into the hands of our heroine—Dr. Diana Bishop is a Scientific Historian—as she is researching her latest paper on alchemical poetry. Bishop, though she is a witch by birth, has long since denied her magical heritage and wants nothing to do with the shimmering book before her. She promptly sends it back to the stacks, and tries to forget about it. Which, of course, is never going to work. Her denial of the book sends a shockwave into the supernatural community, and suddenly Diana Bishop is thrust into the very world she has been avoiding for her entire life.

Now I didn’t go to school anywhere near as awesome as Oxford, but Harkness had me yearning for those early years of university. Reading it makes me reconsider my decision not to pursue a career in education. Oddly, the most “magical” aspects of this book for me were Harkness’ simple descriptions of that great, historical campus and the vast libraries, coffee shops, and academic fuss-budgets that are at the heart of any college or university.

Even better, is the fact that Harkness has peppered the text with beautiful little excerpts of poetry from some of my favourite writers—and some I’m not familiar with—which she almost seems to have written the text around. If you are in any way a lit geek, this book holds more than a few thrills. Harkness also uses folklore and mythology to her advantage. Myth enriches her story when she decides to embrace it, but she’s not afraid to deconstruct it intelligently when it doesn’t suit her purpose.

My only complaint about A Discovery of Witches is that it leans a little more heavily on the romantic subplots than runs to my taste. The star-crossed lovers theme has never been my thing. When the lovers in question are a witch and a vampire, my cheese-o-meter starts flashing. Their love, however idealistic and sickeningly sweet it is, is actually integral to the main plot, though. And so I will forgive it. But please, Harkness, if you’re going to make me sit through chapter after chapter of goo-goo eyes and endless descriptions of what vampire breath smells like (if it’s not blood, I’m not interested) you’d better make with the fucky-fucky. Seriously. If Diana and Matthew don’t have wild monkey sex in the first three chapters of the sequel I’m going to be writing a strongly worded letter.

Okay, that’s not my only complaint. The book moves a little too slowly at times. Diana seems to spend an inordinate amount of time denying the fact that she is a witch given the fact that she has been shooting sparks out of her fingers, reading people minds, and calling on torrents of wind and water every time she has an emotional breakdown. It felt a little bit like Diana’s acceptance of her situation was being dragged out so that the rest of the plot could catch up.

Also, Matthew is annoying. And his bleeding heart routine kinda made me want to stake him. In real life people lose friends, lovers, children, family, to any number of things: war, illness, car accidents, vengeful lovers, wild animal attacks, whatever. Death happens. For the most part, we expect a person to move on from loss within a reasonable amount of time. Of course you won’t forget the people you love, but if you lose your partner in your twenties and are still emotionally crippled by the loss when you’re eighty, there’s probably something wrong with you. Now, imagine you’re a two thousand year old vampire. Imagine that you lost your wife and child to some epidemic in the year 535BC. Shitty, right? Sure. But I’m pretty sure you’ve gotten over it by the time 2012 rolls around. Just sayin’.

Anyways, I prefer my vampires to be bloodthirsty assholes, I guess. And although Matthew spends a decent amount of time being an asshole it’s usually because he’s trying to hide his tender soul from the rest of the world. It’s all a little too cutesy.

All in all, I’m giving A Discovery of Witches 3 stars. The world building on its own deserves at least 4.5, but the characters fall a little flat for me. Or the dynamic between the two MC’s did. I realize that a lot of this has to do with personal expectations and tastes, so I’m not going to weigh characterization as heavily as I would if the plot and setting had been mediocre. I’m going to give Harkness the benefit of the doubt and assume Diana and Matthew’s relationship will gain a little more depth in the next book. Or at least hope their hormones get as much play time as their hearts did in book one.

YA Fantasy Review: Glimmerglass by Jenna Black

1/5 Stars

Glimmerglass is the kind of YA book that makes me wonder why I ever read YA books. I mean, I have my guns and usually I stick to them. But Glimmerglass… I was the victim of cover-lust in the worst way. I was so disillusioned by the experience that I just tried to forget about the book rather than writing the review I said I would write. I hid it on the back of my shamereads bookshelf and pretended that it hadn’t happened. I usually don’t like to add my two cents when a book just isn’t for me. I prefer to use Goodreads to tout the books I love. And when I don’t like a book, there are usually tons of people out there who do like it (as there are for Glimmerglass) and a healthy smattering of those who didn’t and aren’t afraid to let loose a real rant.

So, let me start by saying that there are things I liked about this book. I’ve already mentioned the cover. I like the title, too, and the idea that it represents (although we really only get an inkling of what Black intends to do with the Glimmerglass concept). But that’s about it. Jenna Black had a good idea, but she let me down. I just don’t understand why an apparently intelligent and educated woman would choose to write so simplistically and transparently. Kids aren’t dumb; you don’t have to spell every little detail out to them a hundred times for them to understand you. It’s not like training a puppy. As a kid, nothing infuriated me more than being talked down to by condescending adults. I never would have finished this book were I still in the intended age bracket. In my more visceral years I would have hucked the thing across the room and picked up an Anne Rice.

Young adults are exactly that, young adults. Black insults young readers everywhere with her vapid, boy-crazy idiot of a protagonist, Dana Hathaway. Dana ditches her alcoholic mom to meet her biological father—whom she has never met, but has been told her whole life is a dangerous, power hungry jerk—in the gateway city of Avalon, which resides in England and marks the border between the human and faerie worlds. (I would have thought that this gateway between our world and that of the Tuatha Dé Danann , if it existed, would be more likely to show up in Ireland than England. But that’s beside the point).

This move, as foolhardy as it is, is actually the only decision Dana makes for herself that moves the plot forward in any way. After this, it’s all Dana being dragged from one catastrophe to the next by her menacing Aunt Grace, the too-good-to-be-true-lover-boy (or is he?) Ethan, her insta-best-friend Kimber, her father, and basically anyone who bats his eyelashes at her. Dana is a textbook passive character (not good, especially for a protagonist).

None of the characters have well-rounded personalities or believable motivations. The closest we get is Kimber, who has a complicated relationship with her brother Ethan (who remains seemingly unaware of their issues), but we are not given to understand why she finds herself so attached to Dana. The only character I felt like I actually understood was Dana’s mom.

If I had to live with Dana for sixteen years, I’d be driven to drink too.

The ending is sadly predictable. Here’s a hint, Jenna Black, if your protagonist is suspicious of everyone it will never be surprising when the true bad guy is revealed. The only surprising aspect of Glimmerglass’s ending was the fact that Black was able to pick one antagonist and stick to it. I almost expected a giant conspiracy where everyone was working against Dana just like she thought all along, because that’s how transparent the rest of the plot was.

I likely won’t be reading the next installment in the series.

Unless it has an even prettier cover…

Fantasy Book Review: White is for Witching

4/5 Stars

Do you know what I love?

I love picking up a book and thinking “What the hell is going on?” But in a good way. I love when a book is so out there and unexpected that it actually surprises me. And I read a lot of weird shit, so this is not easy to accomplish. Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is one such book. It is eerie, and strange, and unexpected in so many ways that I wish I could give it 5 stars just for that.

This book is about family, and friendship, and race, and class, and education. And then it’s not about any of these things. It is just a piece of a life being torn apart by psychological illness. I think a lot of people read this book and found it pretentious. I think they came at it, expecting it to be difficult because it’s strange. But it’s not difficult. I think it’s actually quite straight-forward, and readers do themselves a disservice by trying to read more into it than Oyeyemi is giving us.

As if what she gives us isn’t enough! White is for Witching is the story of Miranda Silver, and her struggle with an eating disorder called pica, which prompts her to eat inedible materials. Miri is wasting away, knowing that she is sick but trying to get better, as she watches her illness begin to break apart what is left of her family—a fraternal twin brother and a father—after the death of her mother.

Women of the Silver family (the twins have their mother’s surname because they were born with blue eyes, an agreement that their parents made before their births) are plagued by madness, a kind of curse. And as Miri and her brother Eliot become adults they are pulled apart by more than the inevitable changes of adulthood; Miri’s downward spiral into mental illness is destroying their relationship.

Miri remains a bit of a mystery. At the very outset of the novel, Miranda Silver has gone missing. She is never given a first person narrative voice as are her brother Eliot, her best-friend/lover Ore, and the house that she and her brother have grown up in. Yes, that’s right, the house narrates a portion of this novel. And it’s kind of a bastard. The suggestion is that the house has a large part to play in the madness of the Silver women, though just how large a part isn’t made clear until the end of the novel. And by then you’re wishing someone would just burn the thing down. Seriously creepy.
The only reason I haven’t given White is for Witching 5 stars is that I felt some things were left a little too open. I’m not big on having plot spelled out for me, I actually like to be able to bring a little of myself to story. But there were moments in this one that left me a little baffled. For example, why is the house racist?—it seems as if the house has taken on the prejudices of the original occupants in the Silver matri-lineage. But why did this one woman’s world-view stick and none of the other Silver women seem to be able to sway the house’s opinions?

Okay, if you haven’t read this book that sounds like a strange line of inquiry. If you have read it, maybe you can tell me… Did I miss something? And then there’s the sub-plot with Eliot’s girlfriend who seems to want to look like Miri, and uses her disguise to… get some immigrant boys stabbed to death? Riddle me that. I would have liked just a tad more than Oyeyemi’s given us here. I just couldn’t connect the dots in any kind of meaningful way.

In spite of these minor glitches I felt White is for Witching to be an exciting, original read. It’s a brief and poetically written. It’s a little dark, which I like, and has just a touch of magic realism without coming across as campy. Take an afternoon off and pick up this book! It’s a quick and rewarding read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Holy Crap! An Update!–Further adventures in editing…

Okay. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m sorry I haven’t been updating very frequently. The waiting game is tough, and it’s hard to keep thinking of positive things to tell myself (and my readers) when I’m wallowing in a pit of despair.

However–!

–I have news: I’ve just gotten back the results of my professional edit. And I’m posting here instead of hiding under my bed, so it must not have been too bad. Here’s the good news: 1) He said I’m “better than most new writers [he] works with” 2) He liked my characters, and thought I had a good story* 3) The edits were helpful in so many ways that I didn’t even expect and I’m thrilled that I decided to do this even though it cost me real money (thanks Dad!)

*a good story that is hiding inside a web of verbosity.

So, long story short: He liked my book, but it needs to go on a diet. I knew that already but I didn’t really know where to start. The trouble with editing your own work is that every word is already justified in  your mind. Even once you’ve set the thing aside for months, in the back of your little brain you know why you put stuff in there.You unconsciously justify scenes and images that should have been deleted long ago, because you’re stubborn. You are. Trust me.

My trouble is–one of them, anyways–that I often confuse details that are necessary to me when I’m writing the story, with details that are necessary to a person who is reading the story. World building is tricky business. Too often, potentially good tales (esp. in SF and Fantasy) fall flat because the world is inconsistent, or unbelievable, or just not “present” enough. I know that. I tried really hard not to be that writer. I succeeded… and then some. Which is not necessarily a good thing.

Building a rich, detailed environment for your SF novel to flourish in requires more than a little noggin scratching and weird doodles in the margins of your rough draft notebook. You should be able to answer any question about your world that someone might think to ask. Test yourself, have someone ask you random questions and see if you can answer them. It’s tough!

But… just because you know every nook, cranny and dirty secret of your world doesn’t mean you have to show it all to your reader. Right now, my novel is basically just wandering around in a trench coat waiting to expose itself to the first person who looks its way. Its a total perv. I kind of suspected this, but now that it’s be pointed out by someone who knows his stuff, I can actually see it for myself. It’s embarrassing, but kind of awesome too.

I’m much happier having to trim the fat than I would be if I’d been told that my characters were unsympathetic losers, or that my story was pointless, or that my world-building sucked. Those are much tougher challenges to overcome (and really, if that had been the feedback I would be seriously considering what I was doing trying to be a writer). But all of the elements of my story are there. My novel is there, it’s finished. I just need to carve away the excess and expose it in all its glory (back to the trench coat again).

Seriously, though. If you don’t have access to writing workshops in your area (there are some online, but this can be just as expensive as editing) I highly recommend taking the plunge and getting a professional to edit your novel. I used John Jarrold, an editor in the UK, whose website I stumbled upon purely by accident when I was researching SF agents. He’s great, and comes with my highest recommendations. He’s helped me to solve problems I knew about, but didn’t know how to fix, and how to fix problems I didn’t know I had. He made a suggestion about reordering my chapters that solves some major pacing issues I had at the beginning of my novel, as well as addressing issues I had with POV and time line confusion.

In one sentence, he’s helped me to rewrite the first six chapters of my book. I’ve always felt that the beginning was the weakest part of my novel, and now I think it’s got potential again. I’ve just finished editing the first 35 pages, and I’m pretty excited to finish the rest.

I’ll keep you updated with the rest of the editing process. But I think I’m off to a good start. I’m also going to post my new and improved chapter one, so you can tell me what you think…