Monday, 20 of October of 2014

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A new review

I’ve gotten a new review, over on the Imerse or Die section of the Creativity Hacker blog.

Fair warning: It’s not a great review. I don’t normally make it a habit of commenting on reviews, good or bad. I’ve gotten my share of both. Books are highly subjective, and what one person loves, another person might hate. So you just can’t sweat the bad reviews–well, unless they’re all bad. Then you might have a problem.

So, if it were a bad review, I’d have a momentary pang of angst, sure, but then I’d move on with my life. My problem with the Immerse or Die review is that I don’t think it’s very honest.

Jefferson Smith, the blog owner, is an author himself, among other things. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to submit your book to be reviewed by a fellow author. We just don’t see words the same way that a regular Joe might. We have a different set of experiences and backgrounds to bring to the table. I discovered the same phenomenon when I started learning to play the tinwhistle a couple of decades ago: I just can’t hear music in the same easy way that I used to. I find myself hearing all of the little nagging details, like when they punch up a pitchy singer with auto-tune, or when a bandmember is a fraction of a beat off. That kind of thing.

So, I don’t generally welcome fellow author reviews. We have a whole list of gripes and complaints that an average reader might not. However, I’ve enjoyed reading the reviews over on Immerse or Die, and I felt like my book had a shot at making the full 40 minutes. It didn’t.

With that in mind, let’s look at Mr. Smith’s review of my book.

 

WTF #1: The Morning Ritual.

I start the story with a controversial line: “Randall checked himself over with a critical eye.” This is controversial, because many creative writing classes and experts in the field will tell you that you should never, ever, ever, ever open your book by having a character describe himself while looking in the mirror.

“Jane looked into the mirror, her piercing blue eyes searching over her brilliantly colored ceremonial robes, looking for any imperfection. The shimmering runes embroidered in the velvety cloth made it clear that she was to be inducted into the Wizard’s Guild this evening, and she had to look her best. She took a moment to make sure that her raven-colored hair was set into the high bun that was all the rage right now in Prince Johan’s court. A touch of rouge on her cheeks was highlighted by her alabaster skin, and matched the robes marvelously.”

It’s a tired, info-dumping cliche. I bet you skimmed over the last of that paragraph. I know I did when I tried to re-read it after posting this. But, ultimately, that’s not what I do here. I turn the trope on its head, and use the opportunity to set up Randall’s visit to the job fair. I never even describe what he looks like as he’s checking himself.

Instead, I use it as an opportunity to flesh out the character. Randall is making sure he looks good, and that’s unusual. Normally he couldn’t care much about how he looks. But he’s a fourteen year old boy, just coming into puberty. Plus the job fair is today, so he is extra conscious of his looks. I give the hint that Randall lives in a rural farming community by commenting that even though his clothes haven’t been washed recently, and have been patched, he considers himself pretty clean. So, rather than using the trope as an opportunity to tell the reader what Randall Miller looks like, I subvert it and use it to tell you about why he even cares what he looks like. Rather than info-dumping a description of the main character on the reader, I’m setting up Randall’s whole motivation for the story that’s about to unfold.

I feel like I lost Mr. Smith at that opening line, and I never got him back. I have the sneaking suspicion that he cringed at the perceived mirror line, and simply skimmed along after that, looking for his mandated 3 WTF’s before closing my book.

I have a good reasons for that suspicion. First: Mr. Smith mentions (five times!) that Randall is shaving in the mirror while monologuing. Randall’s a fourteen year old boy! Nowhere in any of the three books (the third being in development) is there a mention of him shaving. Secondly: Randall wasn’t even looking in a mirror at all. The second line of the book says: “He sighed and wished again that his Pa could afford a mirror, so that he could see himself better.” The second line! So, how again was he looking into a mirror and shaving?

I imagine while he was skimming my first chapter, Mr. Smith was building up some cliched image in his mind of the scene unfolding, and not actually paying much attention to the story he was ostensibly reviewing.

 

WTF #2: the info dump

Here, Mr. Smith mentions the dreaded “info dump”, and how Randall has a terrible home life, dreams of adventure, and has a bad relationship with his father. None of these things are true either. Randall has a pretty standard home life: He has two brothers, and as brothers do, sometimes they squabble. He has a stern father, sure, but nowhere is it mentioned that their relationship is anything but normal. His mother isn’t “long suffering”. She’s a mom with three rambunctious boys. At minimum, she’s simply well-versed in the boys’ antics. She doesn’t sigh, complain, or otherwise give any indication she is anything but a strong woman wrangling three boys into adulthood.

I have a hard time even calling the text he’s complaining about an “info dump”. It’s two paragraphs on the first page, and then Randall is back in the present, caught up in the action and down in the kitchen, interacting with his family and having breakfast. Here are the two paragraphs:

He had been so preoccupied about his appearance lately that his brothers had begun teasing him at every opportunity. Eric, the eldest, called him “Lord Priss”, an obvious play off of the name of King Priess, who was also known to be a vain man. Randall smiled a little when he thought about the whipping Eric had gotten when Pa had heard him making fun in the name of Tallia’s sovereign lord. Eric liked to think of himself as too old for a whipping, but his taunting was dangerously close to sedition, and John Miller was a loyal man. Joshua still got away with calling Randall “Your Hiney-ness,” though. He was only eight, after all.

Randall’s younger brother would be easier to tolerate if Pa ever got around to adding that other bedroom, like he promised to do every year. As it was, all three Miller boys had to squeeze into one shared room. During the coldest parts of the year, the boys spent much of their leisure time together in this room. Tensions often ran high as the winter wore on, and arguments were commonplace. Outright fistfights weren’t that rare either, though that kind of behavior often earned a hiding from Pa.

Hardly a long mess of unnecessary backstory. It’s a tiny smidge of internal monologue to set up Randall’s reason for seeking a different life: He’s a small town boy, and yearns for something more. It’s a common dream of small-town boys everywhere. And while I understand that some people may feel that any internal monologuing is too much, this hardly seems excessive, or an “info dump”–a term commonly used when an author spends pages and pages of text setting up the world, monetary system, politcal structure, magic system, etc.

I also have a hard time understanding Mr. Smith’s objection to these couple of paragraphs, when in his own book, Oath Keeper, he uses the exact same device on the first page, giving five back-to-back paragraphs of internal monologue and back story. Then he dips back into that well time and time again, using memory flashbacks and internal monologue to drive the entire first chapter.

 

WTF #3: The job fair problem

I have to scratch my head at this section of the review. I can only assume Mr. Smith was still skimming. Nowhere in my description of the job fair do I say that craftsmen were looking for short-term hands that were too awful to become apprentices. In fact, Randall goes on several apprentice interviews, and is turned down by some. He’s never offered a “short term job” that might later become an apprenticeship. In fact, he’s offered an apprenticeship by a baker, where he then fantasizes about learning the craft, becoming a journeyman, and opening a bakery of his own. That’s pretty standard, as far as historical apprenticeships go.

Then, Mr. Smith takes this strawman to task and beats it down, saying how unrealistic it is. “Money? Paid to a kid who wasn’t even good enough at the try-out to graduate into an unpaid apprentice? ” Well of course it’s unrealistic! That’s why it’s not in my story. This is, in fact, the paragraph I wrote describing the job fair:

The job fair was a tradition that started long before Pa was born. Geldorn, though it wasn’t truly a town or city, was the largest settlement within miles. So every couple of years, craftsmen and boys alike from all of the smaller villages would gather at Geldorn for the job fair, trying to match up eager boys with folks who could use a spare hand or two. It was a good way for farming boys to learn a little about a trade, and bring home some spare money to the family. And if a boy was lucky enough to be picked for apprenticeship, why then his fortune was made! After three or four years mastering his craft, a boy (though by then he’d be a man, Randall realized) would set up his own shop, or put on the journeyman’s cloak and strike out to earn his fortune! It was bound to be a much more exciting life than growing corn, milling wheat and butchering pigs, that’s for sure!

I thought it was pretty clear that craftsmen were looking for both apprentices and hired hands. Maybe it wasn’t. But If you were simply skimming the book to the point where you thought Randall was shaving in front of a mirror, I can understand why you wouldn’t pick up on it.

You see, like many authors, I cared about the facts I was putting into my book. I looked up when blackberry vines typically mature, for instance. I spent a lot of effort looking for accurate travel times and distances for people on foot and horseback, both on roads and overland. And I did research on apprenticeships. Hopefully, all of that research is transparent to the reader, because there’s nothing to jump out as out of place. The best research is invisible to the reader, because everything just works. But it’s hard to defend yourself against a criticism on words you never even wrote.

One of the sites I used for apprenticeship research was the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries page about the History of Apprenticeships. There you can see an actual apprenticeship oath taken by Thomas Millard in 1640. He binds himself for eight years, and will earn (in addition to room and board and the skills of his trade) a new set of clothes and forty shillings at the end of his term.

Another site I used was FamilySearch’s page about Apprenticeship in England. The site explains that in the early 1600s, parents sometimes paid the master craftsman, and sometimes, it was the other way around–especially if the labor was relatively unskilled. It also states that in some cases (especially common in the 1700′s) that apprentices earned wages, and those wages went to either the apprentice or the parents. If Mr. Smith is so confused and angry about how the economics would work (and actually did work, historically), to the point where he has to close my book and write an inaccurate review, well, maybe he should have read a little closer. Because I spell it out clearly:

John Miller nodded his head. He was familiar with the traditional arrangement. During very busy seasons, he’d hired boys before, and even taken on an apprentice once, before his own boys were big enough to help with the workload. The money paid to an apprentice was less than a regular hired laborer would earn, but in return the apprentice was clothed, fed, housed, and taught a craft that he could use to earn his own keep when he finished his apprenticeship. Everyone benefitted. The boy learned a valuable trade to take him into manhood, his family earned a few ringets on the side, and the apprentice’s master got the benefit of cheap labor.

Mr. Smith opines: “And then hopes that a knight or, I don’t know, maybe an itinerant hero looking for a comic relief sidekick, will come along and take him away from his life of tedious misery” Only, Randall never hopes anything of the sort. He’s a small-town boy with aspirations of being just a little bit more. He has the common complaint of every teenager everywhere: “My life sucks!” So he does do something about it: He tries to find a job that will get him off of his parent’s farm. In the process, he gets caught up in a story that is much larger than himself, and is forced to grow up along the way.

 

Summary:

If Mr. Smith had simply said “Gregory Mahan lost me at the first line, and then I couldn’t be bothered to really read the rest of this book,” I’d have been disappointed. But I’d have felt a lot better about it than what I got: an inaccurate, dishonest review that castigates my story for problems that I never even wrote.

It makes me a lot more suspect about the other reviews he’s written, that’s for sure.


I have been interviewed at Ten Minute Interviews!

I recently had a wonderful chat with Candace Broxton at Ten Minute Interviews.

When asked about what separated great fantasy from bad fantasy, I had this to say:

Great fantasy is immersive and character driven. When you can lose yourself in a story, that’s magic. If a story has too many cliches, purple prose, characters that are too flat, or the main character is so powerful that there’s no real conflict, it’s hard to invest in the story. I don’t want to read the story of an all-powerful assassin that always gets his man. I’d rather read the story of the ordinary Joe who the assassin is assigned to kill, and how that guy escapes his fate. Fantasy stories usually involve magic, extensive world building, and fantastical creatures, but all of the best fantasy stories are still character driven.

In the interview, we talk about my inspirations, the future of publishing, and my current projects. We even delve a little into my life outside of writing, such as my love for Celtic music.

See the full interview here!


Both books available now as hardback.

A Touch of Magic
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Magic Astray
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Both should also show up on Amazon as a hardback edition in the next few weeks. I’ve set up some pretty substantial discounts for Lulu purchases, though, so both books are under $20 if you buy them through Lulu. Only time will tell if Amazon will match those discounts on their site.

Work on the 3rd book, Magic Unleashed, is coming along!


Latest happenings

Here’s the latest news with the Llandra Saga:

First off, I have published the first novel, A Touch of Magic, in hardback format through Lulu. You can find it here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/gregory-mahan/a-touch-of-magic/hardcover/product-21268056.html. If there seems to be enough interest, I’ll work on getting the second and third books converted as well.

Secondly, the audiobook for Magic Astray is completed! You can find it on Amazon, Audible and iTunes. David Stifel was as wonderful narrating this book as he was the first. Thanks David!

Lastly, I’ve been working diligently on the 3rd installment of the Llandra Saga. I’m tentatively titling the book “Magic Unleashed”, and we’ll see an older Randall. He’s been through a lot in the first two novels, and we’ll see the effects of those tribulations in this book. I’ll keep you up to date as I get closer to the release date.


Magic Astray, Audiobook coming soon!

David Stifel is on board to do the next audiobook! I loved his work on the first one and look forward to hearing his take on this one. Look for it in the coming weeks!


Want a free e-book?

Amazon has a new program, Kindle Matchbook.

Basically, the way the program works is this: If you buy a paperback from amazon, you *might* be able to buy the e-book at a discounted rate (depending on if the publisher enrolls the book, and at what rate they choose to sell it at). The program appears to be slated to go live in October.

I’m pleased to announce that you’ll be able to get all of my Llandra series e-books for *free* (once this feature goes live) if you buy the paperback versions from Amazon. People who have already bought the paperback should still be eligible.

I’ve been looking for a good way to do this kind of thing for a while, and Amazon has come through. This is awesome news!


The paperback of Magic Astray now available on Amazon

Check it out here!

I should have a few copies in my hand for autographs in the next couple of weeks.


A Touch of Magic, on sale until 9/7/2013

To commemorate the release of the sequel, I’m running a sale..the first book is 99 cents until 9/7/2013!


Nook version live!

Took ‘em a little longer than Amazon, but the Nook version of Magic Astray is now live!