I took my son downtown to see a movie and we missed the start. So, to kill some time, we wandered into the Barnes & Noble to browse around and pick up some books. This is what we came back with:
EX-HEROES was for my kid; I’ve been pretty upfront about my distaste for zombies in all forms. The others were for me. You know what I didn’t realize until later that night when I took them out of the bag? They were all books by dudes.
It’s just too easy to stay in a comfort zone. It’s easy to stick with habits that we don’t even recognize as habits. I don’t talk about it much, but some time ago I decided that I was going to be more mindful about my book purchases; it’s super-easy to just buy books by all men. It’s pretty much the path of least resistance. Oops.
So I’m going to pull Dark Places off the shelf next. And I’m not doing it because it’s the right thing to do (although it is) or that it’s what other people think I should do (they don’t actually care). I’m doing it because carelessly limiting myself will weaken me when I need to make my writing stronger.
If you’re someone who only reads one type of writer, you should try new things, too.
For folks who don’t know who Harriet Klausner is, a brief introduction. Here’s the full text of her review of my debut novel, CHILD OF FIRE:
In Hammer Bay, Washington, the ecomony is booming due to the toy factory; however, residents even those who work at the prime employer fail to realzie that some of their offspring can use magic.
Twenty Palace Society field agent Annalise Powliss hunts and kills rogue magic practitioners. Convicted felon Ray Lilly is her chauffeur, but they share a not so kind past as he betrayed her so he knows she plans to kill him at the most opportune time. The Society learns of the goings-on in Hammer Bay and led by take no prisoners Annalise plan to destroy the factory and kill anyone of any age who uses magic. However, the execution fails and Annalise is hurt; Ray must finish the assignment against a much more powerful sorcerer who sacrifices humans especially children to gain incredible amounts of power.
The key to this small town fantasy is the use of magic as collateral damage is not only acceptable it is preferable if needed to complete a mission. That premise ties the rogue and the Society together as innocent bystanders die in high numerical waves, which in turn brings a sense of realism to the exciting story line. The dysfunctional relationship between the driver and his boss enhances the tension of an exhilarating High Noon paranormal thriller.
All spelling infelicities in the original; this is just a cut and paste.
As Klausner’s reviews go, this one is better than average. Yes, it appears to have been written as quickly as possible with little regard for spelling or how it reads. Yes, some details are wrong; Ray isn’t anyone’s chauffeur, although he is driving the beater van at the start of the book. However, most of the plot details are correct, which isn’t always a given in Ms. Klausner’s reviews. However, she did give my book her lowest review: only 4 stars. For her, that’s practically a slam.
So, yeah. Her reviews are not insightful and some this year she will post her 30,000th on Amazon.com. That’s, er, a lot. I’ve heard that some times she posts as many as six reviews a day; how many books could you speed read in a day?
But whatever, right? No harm done… unless you’re the sort of person who’s Bothered By Things. See this 2012 “investigation” into Klausner’s reviews, which discovered that she received free ARCs from publishers, gives them positive reviews, then hands them off to her son to sell for COLD HARD CASH.
Nevermind that The Strand bookstore is floor to rafters with resold ARCs from other book reviewers. Nevermind that there’s no difference in what Klausner does and what other reviewers do besides scale. Apparently, she’s a woman reviewing badly for nefarious purposes and a group of people have begun to follow her around and badmouth her reviews. That link takes you to Sharon Lee’s new book Carousel Sun; how pleased would you be to discover that, on the week your book comes out, Internet Melodrama is breaking out on the book’s Amazon page that has nothing to do with the author. (Buy her book, folks, to help soothe that pain.)
[Edited to add: There are, as of this writing, 46 comments under Klausner's review, many justifying the decision to follow Klausner from page to page to taunt and mock her including one comparing her to Timothy McVeigh(!). Ugh.]
You might think I would be upset about what Harriet does–write universally positive reviews so she can continue to churn out incomprehensible reviews on books she’s barely skimmed for a few thin bucks, but once again you’d be wrong. My take is this: It’s a hard hard world. If she can make a few bucks (nobody is getting rich selling ARCs on fucking half.com) for herself and her family, and if publishers want to keep sending review copies to her, let them. As sins go, this isn’t half so terrible as the moving flame war hitting the Amazon pages of author after author.
Klausner-stalkers, find something useful to do. Advocate. Make something. In fact, Instead of reviewing Klausner’s work (fish -> barrel) write your own, and make them good. If your lives are so comfortable that a minor transgression like this annoys you so much, give thanks to whatever deity you worship and go volunteer at a food bank.
Because this thing where you follow a woman from page to page to insult her? That’s just sad.
You know how it is: you write things, you put them out into the world. Sometimes people like them, sometimes not. Worst of all, sometimes people just don’t seem to care.
But let’s imagine you’re a book reviewer who is becoming frustrated by the fact that you aren’t becoming as prominent as you used to be: What’s the next step? How do you give yourself the boost to prominence you’re hoping for?
If you answered: “Write better, more insightful book reviews and dare to be honestly controversial in a way that gets people talking,” you clearly need to be more entitled. Try this instead:
I operate on a Quid Pro Quo system. I will continue to promote authors that do the same for me. Not only that, but the more times promoted, the more buzz you will see. Tweet to your followers, post on Facebook, etc.
See, getting a review is a service provided to the author. If you mark her Amazon reviews as “helpful”, sign up for her newsletter, like her Facebook page, circle her on G+ and… oh christ time to start skimming this ridiculous list.
Anyway, “Bookiemonster” is frustrated that authors just aren’t meeting HER needs.
What I would (gently) suggest in response is that reviews are for the benefit of readers, not writers. Sure, it’s publicity, and yeah, it sells a few copies, but not many. Not many at all. I can see my own sales, and I know what the bump from a review looks like (spoiler: not large). Reviews are not for writers. In fact, a great many writers never ever look at their reviews. Not ever.
If you doubt that reviews are for readers, not writers, consider reviews in other fields: are film reviews just unpaid publicity? Nope, they exist to drive filmgoers to a newspaper (or whatever) so they can decide what to watch. Same for theater. What about critiques of art galleries? Nope. they’re an attempt to say something worthwhile about art, and to engage the aficionado on the subject.
It’s the same for books. Reviews are there to share an enthusiasm for the written word with other enthusiasts; in fact, a decent reviewer should excite readers with their expertise. This is about an exchange of ideas, not moving product.
You write reviews because you think there’s something worth saying to other readers. Maybe you think a book is wonderful. Maybe you think it’s toxic sludge. Maybe you think it’s emblematic of the sort of toxic sludge we see all too much of lately. Maybe it’s part of a movement that no one other than you has noticed. Maybe it reflects a certain kind of cultural change. Maybe you could talk about those things.
Or you could just write stuff like this:
The novel is witty, intense and keeps your interest from start to finish. It reads fast, I mean super fast and not that the book is short, it just reads that well. Nothing stumbled me. And that rarely happens. While some Zombie snobs may not like this book, I certainly did.
I also felt that prior to Mary becoming a prisoner in a walking dead corpse, her conflict with Azrael the Angel of Death was vague and undefined. More details on how Mary discovers Azrael’s scheme to take over the spirit realm would justify him sentencing her to an undead dungeon as well as her rage toward him.
Dead Boys was a welcome departure from what I find myself usually reading. Would I have picked it up had it not been submitted? Probably not. Why? Because short stories aren’t my normal thing. Simply because I enjoy investing the time to get to know the characters and follow a story through it’s arc. Penkas succeeded by giving me the appetizer, but I still wanted the main course. Thankfully, his concepts were intriguing and thought provoking enough to make the read satisfying.
You say your book review site is not as prominent as you’d like? Inexplicable.
I’m a writer. I put non-fiction on the blog and fiction in my books, and when they don’t sell or languish in obscurity, it’s not because someone didn’t hold up their end of the quid fucking pro quo. It’s because the thing I wrote didn’t earn it.
The same goes for reviewers. Your words will bring you the attention you deserve. If you feel you deserve better, do better. Be more thoughtful and original. Write with care and style (advice I could certainly bear to take myself). If some of your reviewers can’t manage that, let them go and put less (but better) content on your site.
But don’t come around with some quid pro quo, because ugh.
Christmas was pretty great. Everyone was surprised and delighted by their presents to one degree or another, we got to spend a whole lot of time together, and the fact that we got new computers (and had terrible issues with Migration Assistant–come on, Apple, wtf) none of us had our noses pressed against glowing screens, which I guess goes back to spending time together. Nothing better than that.
However! The day after Christmas is my son’s birthday (the answer to the obvious question: 12). Since my wife has to work today, he blew out his candles and opened his presents first thing.
Boy was he disappointed. Here’s why:
It’s been our family tradition that he gets toys on Christmas and books on his birthday; I always thought that was better than “half your gifts one day, other half the next” but let’s just say he feels differently.
Did I say he was “disappointed?” Because I meant that he asked us never to buy books for him again, and he told us books are only for when he’s bored, and he thinks I’m trying to force him to read books that he “ought” to read (the Myke Cole novel prompted that, because wut), that books are “okay, but…”, and why didn’t we get him something he would actually *like*, too. Of course most of those were chosen by me because I thought they’d suit his tastes so I’m the guy who ruined his birthday.
A couple nights sleeping in the yard should change his attitude, though.
For the record, the only books he was excited about were: The Minecraft history, The Oatmeal, Hyperbole and a Half, the Bacigalupi. The rest he views as work. I don’t even.
King Khan making books reading: King Khan the boy words
by Harry Connolly
The day when everyone, supposedly, starts their holiday shopping online. Try not to be surprised by what I write next:
The short version is that it’s the pulp adventure game tie-in I wrote. If you’re reading this on my blog, the cover is just to your right at the top of the sidebar. If not, click through that link: it’s full of pulp adventure nonsense like shrinking beams, infra-purple light, Aztec mummies, and a certain giant ape movie from 1933. Fun!
If you already have that one, don’t forget that I have a page full of books for kids recommended by my own son. Nothing in that list is there because I thought it should go there; everyone got the thumbs up from the incredibly fussy kid who sleeps down the hall from me. As they used to say: Kid-tested, kid-approved.
What’s more, there are new entries on the list. Check it out.
making books reading: beautiful moi? publishing words
by Harry Connolly
Are you a reader who writes reviews on your blog? Or maybe Goodreads? Or somewhere else?
Well, you can get an early copy of KING KHAN just for the asking, and when you do, you’ll also get a copy of Stephen Blackmoore’s KHAN OF MARS, the prequel to mine. That’s two books about the adventures of a fussy Oxford professor who’s also a gorilla.
All you have to do is sign up at the publisher’s site before September 30th. They’ll pick 15 names from the people who contact them, and send out both books.
You guys know Stephen Blackmoore’s work, right? His debut novel was one of Kirkus’s “Best of 2012.”
Free books, you guys. Check it out.
I know I keep promising to talk about the stretch goals for this, but I just need a little more time to nail things down.
You know how some parents are always talking about what prodigious readers their are? “My little eight year old just loved 100 Years Of Solitude! Now she’s moved on to Russian poetry, but that’s fine. She’s entitled to her beach reads.” What books their kids read and how many they consume are like ornaments for their parents.
My kid, he’s not like that.
He’s fussy, easily-bored, and emits a high, uncanny keening when forced to read something against his will. That noise isn’t a whine; it goes beyond whining into a kind of shared pain that only parents truly understand. He doesn’t impress people with his books. He just enjoys them.
So we often have people ask us what he reads. I’m guessing they think that, being the son of a writer, he will walk away from a Minecraft session of his own volition for his love of books.
Nope. He wants books that are fun, funny, and fast-paced. So when people ask what sorts of books we recommend for their own reluctant readers, those are the books we recommend.
Anyway, to make things easier on us, I’ve put together a page called “Kid Reads” which contains lists of books he really enjoyed.
Check it out.
The Public Insight Network has posted a comic called Moral Injury, Beyond PTSD (well, they’re calling it an “illustrated story” but so what). It’s incredibly powerful stuff and I recommend everyone read it. I’d originally planned to drop it into a Randomness post, but it felt too big for that.
Seriously, you’ll want to read that.
I’ve seen this sort of thing addressed in fantasy before, but not in a way that satisfies me. Not in a way that breaks out of the hero/villain paradigm.
Part of it, I think, is the incredibly powerful appeal of the dehumanized enemy and the heroic capable figure. Is Aragorn supposed to have nightmares about all the orcs he’s killed? Is he supposed to change his most basic self-concept after all that killing? Frodo returns from his adventure a ruined man who can no longer live in his own community, but that’s due to the proximity to and temptation of the power of evil. It’s not because he recognizes that he did evil to an enemy that was very like him.
I’m also revisiting Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (by watching the dvds). The whole thing plays like a parody of the superhero genre written by someone who wants to call out its most fascist aspects. And yet, even while I’m disgusted by, for example, Miller’s contempt for peaceful protest, I’m also feeling the powerful pull of the narrative of justified violence.
It’s incredibly affecting and entirely artificial. Reading that comic I linked to above makes me a little ashamed of it. #SFWApro
In response to the Strange Horizons analysis of male/female review statistics (spoiler: books my men get more reviews than books by women) a number of folks on Twitter have been contributing to a #WomenToRead hashtag. It’s meant to be a way to get female authors’ names in front of readers who have a habit of only buying books written by dudes, but I’m not sure how effective it is.
Reading through, it seems more like an exercise in frustration than genuine recommendations. In the better tweets, someone will say, “If you like [male author x], try:” followed by a number of names, or else writers will be listed by genre.
Unfortunately, while it’s great to point out what sort of books these women have written, they don’t really tell readers why they would fall in love with any particular writer’s work. When I see a laundry list of authors’ names scroll past, my eyes glaze over very quickly, especially when so many of them are Twitter handles.
Still, I understand the frustration: I personally feel invisible within the genre; I continue to get very nice emails from people who love my books but only discovered them well after the series was cancelled. My sales were so shitty that I don’t deserve to call myself “midlist.” To most people, I’m barely a hanger-on.
And yet I still got reviews in a number of places, and nice critical attention, too. Imagine how it must feel to not even get that much. Imagine how it must feel to work like crazy on a book for a year knowing that no magazine anywhere is going to bother reading it, let alone devote column inches to it.
There’s also this (please imagine replacing the word “math” with “writing.”)
People (mostly guys) have this weird idea that fiction written by women are all one sort of thing, as if it can all be lumped in as one type. There’s also the idea that, if a subgenre has a lot of women writers and readers, it has a yellow “Caution” tape around it to warn guys away.
For instance, two years after it was posted I still get traffic from this Tor.com article: Urban Fantasy and the Elusive Male Protagonist (let us turn away from the issues around the blog post itself, which I tried to address in the comments) and the comment section can be instructive/cringe-inducing/hope-for-humanity-destroying. To quote (copy & paste, so sic):
its come to the point where i wont touch a book with a female on the cover unless its been recommended by some friends or an author i respect.
it seems as if its all about alpha werewolves and master vampires in a three way relationship with an independant ass kicking woman, the majority of it could also be classified as soft-core porn.
For a lot of people, men write books in a genre (or in a tradition) while women all write the same book over and over with a few proper nouns switched out. What’s more, That Same Book is usually considered Someone Else’s Thing.
Anyway, I’ve been pretty up-front in the past that I don’t think reviews have much of an effect on sales figures, but it’s not just sales we’re talking about here. We’re also talking about the critical conversation within the genre (such as it is): how it changes, what’s becoming old hat, what’s offensive or wrong-headed. When women are left out of that conversation, their contributions become ignored.
So, to wrap up I want to make two points: First, if you’re recommending female authors, a long list of names, even if you break them down to five or six in a genre, are just going to make people skim. Pick one or two, give a good reason why for each. Make a specific pitch. Yes, that means people you know will be left out, but this isn’t a one-time thing, right?
(To that end, I’ll recommend Sarah Monette’s The Bone Key. I bounced off Monette’s epic fantasy series, but this story collection blew my mind. Kyle Murchison Booth is nothing like Ray Lilly, but the setting and tone of these tales are a fantastic antidote to the tentacle monster stories that dominate so much of the dark fantasy genre. And this shows why I’m crap at giving recommendations, because I’m always reading years–or decades–behind, so I’m never up on the current stuff.)
Second, if you’re one of those readers who glances at their bookshelves, sees nothing but books by dudes, then shrugs it off, it’s time to break a bad habit. There’s a wide world of great books out there to be enjoyed and no reason to hide from it. If you like awards, start checking out books written by women that win or get nominated for them. If most of your reading is off the bestseller list, start trying some of the female writers there.
The truth is, your results will be mixed just as with anything. Some writers you’ll hate, some will be meh, some will be new gotta-read favorites. Of those books by “gotta-read” authors, some will also have “a female on the cover.” Take chances. Grab things from the library or try the sample chapters on your ereader. It may take a while before you start finding new favorites, but if you’re like me, the favorites you have now took a lifetime to collect. Don’t give up quickly. Keep stretching.
Added later: As pointed out on LJ by user martianmooncrab, RT has a review section for SF/F but their numbers are rarely included in these surveys.
Added later: The Revenge: The author who started the hashtag explains her reasons.
Yeah, I spent an inordinate amount of time this morning putting Comixology on my wife’s iPad and downloading as many of the free Marvel comics as I could snag. I tried for all 700-some, but there were issues with server overload, obviously, so I’m going to try again later.
The free comics (first issues of new and old books) are only available for a short time, so snap them up if you want them.
I have to say that I enjoy reading comics on the iPad. For novels I think paper is better, but the electronic format works nicely with panels and art. I just wish I could afford them.
Just came back (actually, I’m writing this at night and it’ll post in the morning) from the reading described above (author Marie Brennan can be found on LJ and Twitter as swan_lake) and you know what I came away with?
Voice. Voice, people. That was the big lesson I learned from reading all debut novels for a year. The one thing they all had in common was a strong voice.
The reading itself was fun. I actually talked to people. My wife was so happy when I told her about it later that she cheered and clapped me on the shoulder.
making books reading The outside world: internet publishing
by Harry Connolly
Not authors reviewing their own work, or authors reviewing work from the same publisher. They’re pulling down all reviews from authors.
And just in case you think they might be sorta cool about it, they’re back to their usual bot-speak:
Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website.
Note that they’re not talking about the reviewer’s book. It’s the book he’s writing the review for that they’re threatening to pull. So you guys out there who were thinking of paying back your writer enemies by reposting reviews to their work until Amazon yanks them, now’s your chance.
Best of all, once your enemies start to complain, the response they’ll get will be short and sweet and made of copypasta:
I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.
http://www.comcastmustdie.com is moribund now, isn’t it? Has anyone registered Amazonmustdie.com?
making books reading: a blessing of monsters everyone loves blue dog harvest of fire man bites world Twenty Palaces words
by Harry Connolly
Rachel Manija Brown posted something provocative about so-called “portal fantasy.” For those who didn’t click the link: essentially it’s a Narnia-style story, in which a person or persons from our mundane world is transported to a second-world fantasy setting. Apparently, agents reject those stories at the query stage without ever requesting a full manuscript, and the reasons described in the post (all frustratingly second-hand) strike me as extraordinarily bogus.
They’re talking about non-adult books: YA and MG, but I don’t remember seeing a lot of adult-oriented portal fantasies.
But it’s only after I read a post on Making Light that I realize I myself have been All Over Portals in my books.
Now, that Making Light post is talking about Fantasy With Portals In Them rather than Portal Fantasies, which is not exactly a subtle distinction. For one thing, modern person transported to fantasy world setting is a very specific thing. Still, Circle of Enemies and Twenty Palaces both contain literal portals in which Things Intrude Into Our World, and the other two books have implied portals.
What’s more, EPIC FANTASY WITH NO DULL PARTS is full of portals; the barely-Iron-Age society conducts trade through them and they are the center of the plot.
It’s not portal fantasy, per se, but… is this my subconscious calling to me? Has the online discussion finally made me look into my heart and realize that what I’ve really longed to do all this time was write a book about a mafia hitman transported to pseudo-Narnia? Or a pipe-fitter in Osgiliath?
Well, maybe not, but it’s fun to think about.
Something happened over the weekend that I found a little unnerving. As I mentioned on Twitter, I took my son and his buddy to Brickcon last Sunday and it was cool and all (until my camera battery died) but afterwards we stopped for a couple of slices.
On the way to the pizza place, we passed a used book store. “Ooo, books,” buddy said, and I suggested we stop off there after lunch.
We did, and my son was a complete pain about it.
The first thing I did, as always was look for a copy of my own book. Once I found it, I checked the title page; it had been inscribed to “Patty” and overall looked very lightly handled. We joked about apologizing to her and then my son was ready to go.
His buddy and I were interested in browsing the shelves, snapping up stuff by authors we had heard about, looking for books in series we hadn’t finished, all the usual stuff. But my son just wanted to joke about making messes in the valuable book section and complain about going home to play Minecraft.
It was a little disheartening.
My kid does read. Currently he’s on a tear through YA post-apocalyptic thrillers and obviously he reads for school. But his mom and I delight in books, while he doesn’t seem to care at all.
Maybe it’s a phase. Maybe he’s the cobbler’s barefoot son. Maybe it’s that I’ve been bringing him new library books every Saturday for years and he’s become blase.
But it’s pretty annoying.