Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Comments On They Move Below

I recently ran a Hidden Gems promo for my creepy story collection They Move Below. At the end of it Hidden Gems passed on the comments they'd received from their readers. It was all good, but here were my favourites:

"The stories and the way they were written reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe. Very good, will recommend it to my friends and family."

"Loved this book!!!"

"Short, Scary, Snacks...With Bite"

"This is a book of short stories, each seemingly so short that it's hard to account for how disturbing they are. The title story really got me, but they all left me with deliciously dreadful images that will be hard to forget. I loved it!"

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Things To Think About While Rewriting A Novel

Here's a checklist of useful things for authors to consider when it's time to do some editing and rewriting. No, it's not exhaustive: it will still be useful though. It's just a few of the things I look out for as I read work for clients.
  • Factual errors; breaks in continuity.
  • Showing not telling.
  • Dialogue: is it natural/believable?
  • Descriptions: are all the senses engaged?
  • Cliches.
  • Repetition of words, phrases, gestures, settings etc.
  • Unnecessary words.
  • Do subplots break up the main plot and improve the story?
  • Are all the characters needed? Can any be merged? Are they three-dimensional?
  • Does the end tie in to the beginning? Does the climax have enough impact and emotional payoff?
  • Are there surprises/reversals/turning points? (Escalating gaps between expectation and result.)
  • Do the stakes get higher throughout the novel?
  • Is every scene necessary? If one is removed, will it destroy the plot? If it only serves one purpose, such as characterisation, then is it really earning its keep? Does it end with a reason to keep reading? Does every scene propel the main characters deeper into the story?
Good luck!

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Not All Sci-fi Authors Like Spaceships

Even though one of the genres I write in is sci-fi (hello Lost Solace), and part of my educational background at university was science (astronomy and geology), it sometimes surprises people to find out that I am not really in support of space exploration and the idea of colonising other planets.

It becomes less surprising if you know me well. I feel like humans should first learn to live in peace and within their means on this wonderful planet we have. At present, if we expanded to other places, we'd just keep up our current culture of massive consumption, over-expansion, waste, and perceiving everything we encounter (sentient or not) as belonging to us. We would miss the opportunity to change for the better.

Poetry can gain creative strength from the restrictions placed on the form, so that every word (or even letter) counts. Without the restrictions a lot of writing becomes flabby and filled with unnecessary words and digressions, because there isn't a demand for discipline.

We have everything we need on this planet, but haven't found any way to live within our means, or to look beyond our species' self interest. That's where I think most of our research should be going, to counter the unsustainable growth-is-good mantra that drives most of our economies.

We already exist in the best of all worlds, and many people don't even see it. It doesn't take much imagination to identify what we're doing wrong, and to picture better ways of being.

Some further reading:

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Amazon Is Not Customercentric, Amazon Companies Don't Work Together Well, And Amazon Is Poor At Communication

From the Working At Amazon pages

Amazon claims it is customercentric.

Like many claims, it is hard to live up to the hype.

Partly this is because Amazon is so big, it encompasses a bewildering array of services (also here). And, although you'd expect them to work together, that often doesn't seem to be the case. It appears that each sub-company has its own agenda, and there doesn't seem to be anyone at a level above the sub-companies that makes them work together effectively. As a result each sub-company can make decisions that are incompatible with other parts of the company, or with customer-focus. This is revealed by the cracks between the services.

So, the three things that keep occurring to me based on recent communications with Amazon are that:

  • Amazon is not customercentric
  • Amazon companies don't work together well
  • Amazon is poor at communication
I'll list a few recent personal examples of Amazon companies that hammered those points home for me.


I decided to try out the Amazon's Audible service for listening to audiobooks. Audiobooks have a tab on my Kindle Fire (HD), so it seemed like it would be fully integrated. I bought the Alien: Out Of The Shadows audiobook. There was an easy-to-miss note on that page that "when you add Alien: Out of the Shadows to your library, you'll get all 10 episodes, each with a runtime of about 30 minutes" - that shouldn't be a problem. Sure, it is much more fiddly having ten separate files, rather than merging it into one audiobook of five hours as just about every other audiobook in Audible does (even the ones Audible produces itself), but hey ho, we can't expect sensible decisions from big companies.

One of the audiobooks I bought on Audible

However, when I went to listen to my Amazon Audible book on my Amazon Kindle Fire HD, it only listed three episodes (8-10 - now it shows 1-3 after a frustrating call to Amazon's Customer Service, but the point is that it only lets me listen to three of the ten episodes Audible sold):

Only three episodes of the audiobook's ten show up
on my account - Website screenshot

 And only three show up - and can therefore
be listened to - on my Amazon Kindle Fire HD

So one Amazon company is making and selling Audiobooks that don't work on hardware designed and sold by another Amazon company. Even worse, there is no note about this on the sales page - you only find out that you're wasting your money after you have bought it. That's stupid. At the very least there should be a big warning plastered on the page, repeated before you actually buy the audiobook. Even better, Amazon shouldn't be creating (this is an Audible Original) and selling audiobooks that are designed not to work on Amazon audiobook players. It seems to be something to do with the fact that the book has been split into ten files, rather than the standard single file, but of course it's impossible to get anyone at Amazon to explain why that's the case. The nearest I got was an Amazon customer service rep telling me (on 14th Feb) that some of the Audible audiobooks "are currently only available on the iOS app, the Android app, and the Desktop site". That's right - Amazon Audible make and sell audiobooks that only work on devices made by non-Amazon companies.

Here's a bit more of the chat transcript, to show how much of a pain it is to deal with Amazon customer services, who seem to have no idea how Amazon hardware works.
05:28 PM GMT Shahab: Karl, I would like to inform you that Audio Shows are premium, commercial-free podcasts that can be purchased on Audible! Audio Shows are currently only available on the iOS app, the Android app, and the Desktop site.

05:30 PM GMT Karl Drinkwater: But it appears as "Book 3" on Audible: https://www.audible.co.uk/series?asin=B071YHYVLG
It has a normal price and description like all the others.

05:30 PM GMT Shahab: At the moment Audio shows are not compatible with Kindle devices.

05:31 PM GMT Karl Drinkwater: Then why has it downloaded three episodes to my Kindle?
And why doesn't it say that in the description?

05:33 PM GMT Shahab: Are you using Kindle Fire HD?

05:34 PM GMT Karl Drinkwater: Yes.

05:34 PM GMT Shahab: Please sign out from the app and so not sign in until I say.

05:35 PM GMT Karl Drinkwater: It isn't an app, it is the "Audiobooks" option at the top, and is items on the carousel. I can't sign out of it.

05:35 PM GMT Shahab: Okay, please refresh the library.

05:36 PM GMT Karl Drinkwater: How? There isn't an option that says "refresh".
Just a toggle between Cloud/Device; sort by Author, Recent, Title or Length.
05:37 PM GMT Karl Drinkwater: And a toggle between list view and grid view.
The rep was obviously using a different device from me, and had no idea what the settings on my Kindle Fire HD looked like.

Evidence for:
  • Amazon is not customercentric: it makes and sells things to customers without warning that it has made them purposefully incompatible with other things Amazon made and sold.
  • Amazon companies don't work together well: shouldn't the Kindle Fire staff and the Audible staff make sure their two services are compatible?
  • Amazon is poor at communication: Amazon doesn't warn you of any of this, or even seem to understand it.
I obviously won't be renewing my Audible subscription, and I'd advise people to think twice before subscribing until they stop making some of their audiobooks incompatible with their own devices.

Update on Audible [4th March 2019]: I've had various messages from Audible staff, often repeating the same cut-and-pasted text which isn't relevant to my questions, or repeating instructions to do something which I could already do and is irrelevant to my query and refusing to escalate it to someone who knows why the decisions were made, and can do something about it.

1. Why doesn’t the store page warn that the episodes won’t even work on some devices?
2. Why are these multi-episode shows made? They offer no benefit, only problems (such as not working, and requiring more fiddly files and downloads, and requiring ten catchups and ten lots of credits, all just wasting time). The logical conclusion (backed up by my next Amazon Apps heading) is that Amazon keeps changing things as a form of inbuilt obsolescence, trying to force people to throw away Amazon devices to buy newer ones. What a wasteful approach. Also, the newer Kindle Fires are worse than the old - the new ones don't have micro-HDMI for easy connection to TVs and projectors.
3. Why isn’t it just reformatted as a single file like all the other standard audiobooks? That would work for everyone. I can recombine audio files in a matter of minutes with free software, so I’m sure Audible could do this with no problem. So that could be done today. There’s no advantage to multiple files, just disadvantages.

Even easier would be if Audible made the audiobooks available as mp3s, as music stores do.

I've been advised that there is only one way to listen to these bizarre multi-episode Amazon Audible formats on my Amazon Kindle Fire: play the episode on my desktop PC, set free recording software to record the soundcard output, turn off the speakers, save the file as an mp3 that can be played on a Kindle Fire. It also shows the pointlessness of any DRM - it only causes problems for legitimate customers, and does nothing to deter piracy. If anything, it pushes people towards it!

Amazon Apps

Amazon's Kindle App Store isn't selling apps, it is loaning them, and they can be removed at any time, even though you paid for them.

Amazon's Kindle Fire appstore (as are those by other companies)
is dominated by free apps - it's as if even professionals don't trust
spending money there. Why could that be?

This is as anti-consumer as the issue with e-books too, which can also be taken away. Don't believe me?
My own experience of this is related to an app called Songsterr that I bought on my Kindle Fire HD. It displays guitar tabs (plain text files) and I used it to learn new guitar songs. I'd bought it from Amazon when I got my Kindle Fire HD.

Then when I tried to use it a few months ago it had stopped working, giving a network error.

After spending a long time trying to resolve it, I contacted the developers of the app, At first they discounted what I said and told me "it looks like a local Internet problem", but eventually they admitted that they had made changes to their app which stopped it working with some Kindle Fires. It's frustrating, since Songsterr is mainly just a UI which makes calls to a database and pulls off tiny files (tabs). In those cases there are simple ways to do it that work with all devices, as happens with another guitar tab app I have since bought, which works with all Kindle Fires (at least, at present).

I also contacted Amazon multiple times (I won't repeat all the dates here). Many of my messages were just ignored; one got a partial answer, but then became a black hole again, ignoring all the follow-ups. It took a stack of messages to even get partial answers from Amazon, and the app still doesn't work.

So, the app developers changed it so it wouldn’t work with the Kindles it had originally been written for. They said it is down to Amazon’s changes and request, not theirs; whereas Amazon implied it is down to the app developers. Obviously one of the sides is wrong, and they don’t seem to talk to each other. In my opinion, if an app is sold for a particular model of Kindle Fire, that compatibility shouldn’t be taken away later on, especially when it was a paid-for app.

The issue with app stores (presumably the same with Google Play and iTunes etc) is that, as far as I know, you never get a DRM-free downloadable file that you can keep and reinstall if ever the main app is changed to be incompatible. I think it's one of the reasons why many people won't pay for apps, hence appstores being filled with spammy, privacy-invading ad-funded crud.Without any guarantees, who'd pay money for things they can't control or keep?

Amazon could offer that guarantee if they wanted, but it obviously isn't something they care about, otherwise they'd do it. Other solutions would be preventing developers from changing apps to be incompatible with devices the app had been sold for. Or Amazon could set up a procedure to activate in those cases e.g. the customer gets a copy of the final compatible version that can be manually installed; customer gets an automatic refund; the old version goes into a separate app entry which they can still use, while the new version becomes a new app for sale. There are many solutions that could be found if a company wanted to be customer-centric. And when the apps the users paid for stop working, the only recourse shouldn't be to have to spend months and multiple avenues and a lot of luck trying to get a response about it. (Most users just give up.) But Amazon doesn't have any such policy to protect customers. They just ignore it if apps are changed so as to break on the devices the app had been bought for. And as far as I am aware, Amazon has no plans to change that policy (I did ask).

The ability to back up versions of software for the future is why I now buy all my PC games on GOG, because I get DRM-free download files I can keep and install forever. I won't buy any more apps from services that don't put the customer first or protect their rights to use what they paid for, and I'll keep campaigning against consumer-hostile DRM.

Evidence for:
  • Amazon is not customercentric: it doesn't guarantee access to the software it sells, and can remove them at any point without even informing you.
  • Amazon is poor at communication: no warning of this; most messages didn't even get a response.


Amazon's ACX is one of the places where publishers can upload audiobooks to sell via Amazon and elsewhere. So, in that case, the publisher is the customer.

Normally, the publisher controls the book description. This applies to the paperbacks and e-books sold on Amazon and elsewhere. But a frustrating thing I found out recently is that, for some bizarre reason, Amazon treats audiobooks differently. They have a team of staff at ACX who look at the book descriptions the publishers set for paperbacks and e-books, and then arbitrarily change them. I didn't even realise this until I was browsing my own audiobooks that ACX distributed. I discovered that ACX had changed the words and turned them into American English spellings, for no reason. This meant that Amazon UK, selling my UK books, was showing UK English for the paperbacks and e-books, but used US English for the linked audiobooks. Likewise, Audible UK had changed my book description into US English (even though they don't do that for other books). And they hadn't informed me.

I complained, and they changed it back to UK English. But this time they changed the paragraph breaks, merging and splitting them at different points for no reason.

I complained, and after multiple back-and-forths they changed it back to the correct paragraphs. But now they put one of the characters' names into italics (but not the other named character). I asked them to change it back, and was told they'd do it. Luckily I didn't trust them by this point, and checked a week or so later, only to find out the name was still in italics. I complained again, and was told by an ACX rep:

"The metadata specialist replied as to why that will not be changed:
The Audible style guide requires us to italicize the names of ships, so I italicized Clarissa. Because of the style guide, I'm going to reject this request.
I hope that clears it up!"
No, that doesn't clear it up. They shouldn't be changing things based on limited information and style guides that don't necessarily apply! A book description is a teaser - it doesn't tell the whole story (that would be a synopsis). In this case it is much more complicated than the blurb lets on, because it's not the point of the blurb to reveal all the spoilers and plot twists.

(Spoilers warning!): the ship isn’t really called Clarissa. Clarissa is the name for one of the onboard AIs (which changes its name during the novel). The ship doesn't actually have a name - the nearest is a designation of ViraUHX, though that is over-ridden before the novel begins. The novel reveals that Clarissa is something else entirely.

You can see why that has to be simplified for a blurb, where it isn't appropriate, yet ACX are actually comparing the blurbs of books to style guides and changing them based on misinterpretations. It makes no sense to italicise Clarissa any more than the other character’s name. This is the problem with misapplied style rules based on limited information.

Amazon must have a lot of spare money to employ "metadata" staff to make changes to the descriptions of books they've never read, while also employing other staff to act as intermediaries going back and forth, all wasting time. All they had to do was repeat the blurb exactly as the publisher uploaded it, so that it is the same for each edition of the book (paperback, e-book, audiobook).

Evidence for:
  • Amazon is not customercentric : it over-rides the customer's choices, and doesn't even warn them, instead making daft choices and changing things that make no sense.
  • Amazon is poor at communication: Amazon doesn't forewarn you of any of this, and then it requires back and forth with powerless intermediaries who can't make the change you request.

Seller Central

This is just a "what the fuck?" example. I got this email from Amazon:

What was this message about? I haven't the faintest, because instead of including the message in the email, they send me to a "Seller Central" page, but when I try to log in with my Amazon account:

Mmm, that's helpful. Amazon telling me I have a message but to read it I need to login, but it is an Amazon service where I don't have an account so cannot login. Was it about the Kindlestore App? A book order they'd screwed up? An incorrect metadata report from over a year ago? Who knows. Certainly not the customer.

I tried clicking "No" in the "Were you satisfied with the support provided?" bit of the email, to point out how daft it was to reply via a message the customer can't see, but instead of going to a survey it just pointed me to this dead end:

Evidence for:
  • Amazon is not customercentric: it even locks the feedback links behind login walls the customer can't use, making it impossible to provide the feedback Amazon asks for.
  • Amazon companies don't work together well: this might be related to a query to some other part of Amazon, who knows?
  • Amazon is poor at communication: self-explanatory.

Other Examples From The Past

Poor customer focus, confusing communication, and disconnected services lead to a waste of hours or days - until most customers give up. That's bad. And it's not just my experience in the last few weeks that I've detailed above, there are examples from the past, such as:
  • (2013) Amazon support goes in circles: a past case of that game called "customer services runaround". It shows Amazon is not customercentric; Amazon companies don't work together well; Amazon is poor at communication.
  • (2013) The ratings game: Goodreads and Amazon are both Amazon companies, yet their 5* rating systems are incompatible, showing that Amazon companies don't work together well.
  • (2015) Amazon Can't Communicate: another past case of confusion and CS runaround, showing Amazon is not customercentric; Amazon companies don't work together well; Amazon is poor at communication.
  • (2017) Amazon. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. I'm an Amazon customer. Amazon falsely accused me of nefarious activities and threatened my account, without any explanation. In this case they eventually admitted their repeated threats were actually just a mistake ("you were sent incorrect correspondence"), but that wasn't much of an apology for all the stress and wasted time, and was even less of an explanation. Evidence for: Amazon is not customercentric; Amazon companies don't work together well; Amazon is poor at communication
  • (2017) Amazon's Confusing Automated Accusations: more weird accusations from Amazon, without any clarification. Evidence for: Amazon is not customercentric; Amazon is poor at communication (tip: if you are an author, watch out for Amazon's data tracking leading to false positives).


So the examples above and in this post all go to confirm my opinion that
  • Amazon is not customercentric
  • Amazon companies don't work together well
  • Amazon is poor at communication
Bear in mind this isn't a comprehensive list (I haven't even mentioned the distribution issues where two Amazon companies posted incorrect information about some book titles, and their customer service reps gave bizarre and untrue responses to my questions when I asked about them ...), and I am only one customer.

I wish it wasn't this way. If the Amazon services worked together better it would benefit the customer, the company, and the staff. Hopefully my examples point to what went wrong, and give ideas for how things could improve. But that requires someone high up in Amazon with the interest and ability to make those changes.

Update: 18th March 2019

In the month since I wrote this post none of the above got resolved, despite various Amazon staff contacting me. They always just repeated what had already been said, and refused to go into any detail about the problems or to respond to the suggestions and issues.

One email on 7th March said "My name is Arfa and I work within Amazon Executive Customer Relations. We received your recent e-mail and are investigating your comments. We will aim to update you within 24 hours." I never heard anything else from that person.

There is still no way to listen to some Amazon Audiobooks on Amazon devices. No answer to why Amazon Audible chose to make a new format for some audiobooks that is incompatible with Amazon’s own devices, and why they did that when the format doesn’t offer any advantage over a single book. No explanation as to why they don't change it so it works as a single book, or why they don't flag it up on the store page where the book is advertised.

There is still no way to use the apps they sold on Amazon, and Amazon isn't changing things to make sure customers get refunds in those cases, or to force devs to give a working version. Amazon said “this decision isn’t in the hands of Amazon, but solely in the hands of the respective app developers.” – but only because Amazon chooses to do it that way. It’s Amazon’s app store, Amazon sets the rules. If they required apps to work on all the devices, or the ones it was sold for, or to have legacy versions, or to inform and refund people when apps are later broken, or to provide a backup file that can be manually installed in those cases – any of those could be done. It’s up to Amazon to set the rules for anyone selling in the Amazon store. It’s a cop-out to ignore it and imply Amazon have no control over something that is fully in their control.

The lack of action is what I expected from Amazon, really, based on past experiences.

This was one of the final disappointing emails I received from Amazon (9th March):

"I appreciate this may not be the outcome you hoped for and apologise for any disappointment this has caused.
We'd appreciate your feedback. Please use the buttons below to vote about your experience today.
Did I restore your trust in Amazon?
Yes  No Your feedback is helping us build Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company.
Executive Customer Relations"

Were they taking the piss? You can guess which option I chose.

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Facebook's Automated Black Holes

An increasingly common sight on Facebook - informative answers 
being deleted and stuck in the black hole of perpetual review

I'm in a number of writing communities and organisations, and often help my fellow authors by answering questions about writing, publishing, promotion, and a range of other topics. It's nice to share what we know and give others a leg up.

Recently I've started getting messages deleted by Facebook, and have noticed other authors complaining about it too. It seems to have ramped up in the last few months.

This is the typical scenario where it occurs for me. An author asks a question in a Facebook group. I answer it and include a link to an article on that subject (e.g. if someone is having a distribution issue I might link to the relevant policy; if someone want to know about book sizes then I might give them some info and link to an article on trade trim sizes for a more in-depth answer).

But more and more Facebook's algorithms block these messages, saying "it looks like potential spam" (presumably purely on the basis that it has a URL in it). The only options are "accept decision" or "request a review". The latter never does anything - they all just stay open (none of mine have ever been reviewed, presumably because there's no-one at Facebook checking them).

So we end up with useful information that answers questions being deleted, with the knock-on effect that it puts people off helping each other out: they might spend time replying and sharing a useful resource, then find there's a 50% chance some automated system will just delete it!

It seemed to begin in the last month or two, so may be a new process, but (like other 100% automated systems) it creates false positives a lot of the time, and without a working feedback system it stays broken.

The incongruity is not lost on me: Facebook accusing me of spam, while plastering adverts within my feed to a degree that I can no longer use Facebook (or Twitter) on mobile devices, only on a PC with Ublock Origin installed (so that I never see adverts!)

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

Friday, 18 January 2019

Lost Solace - Audiobook Now Available

The tense sci-fi Lost Solace is now also available as an audiobook. Marisha Tapera did an amazing job as the producer and narrator, able to easily switch between scenes of suspense, scenes of action, and scenes of dialogue. I particularly loved the distinction between Opal and Clarissa's voices, since so much depends on it being right. In fact, I was smiling at the interplay between the characters. The laconic and warm-but-controlled tones of Opal were a wonderful contrast to Clarissa, with her childishly-enthusiastic-yet-also-slightly-inhuman cadences. Marisha's voice is really clear and has a rich quality that makes it pleasant to listen to, and her performance was so good that I laughed at parts which brought out the humour, and felt my neck hairs prickle at the emotional highpoints.

Bonus for my fans! I have a few US and UK codes that give a free audiobook copy of Lost Solace on Audible. If you have read and left reviews for my work and want a free audiobook copy on Audible, get in touch! I have codes for my previous audiobooks too (see below).

You can buy all my books here, but these are quick links for the audiobook versions:
Or go to the Audible options for individual books:
  • Lost Solace UK / US
  • Turner UK / US
  • They Move Below UK / US
  • Harvest Festival UK / US
Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

Friday, 11 January 2019

Cruce Roosters by Brent Michael Kelley

I have read almost 100 books this year. I've not had time to review many of them. I made an exception here because, just as I was getting fatigued by reading the same stories again and again with little invention, or coming across invention that wasn't backed up by good prose, I then started reading Cruce Roosters. I fell in love with this book almost immediately. At every level the first 60% absolutely gripped me and took me into the world.

So, the story. It does two things right. And these are the two things that all books need to get right, but few do. Firstly, it is wildly inventive. Almost every page there was an element that felt fresh: a turn of phrase, a world description, a new name (I loved the Longdongers team), a character, a bit of dialogue, or even a formal element (such as the adverts and inbuilt sponsorships). It was a delight. The second element is that we need a character we can identify with so that the stakes matter. We need a character that takes actions which are believable; and yet for the actions to lead to even greater stakes as the world reacts. We get this with Molly Most, whose arc goes from selfish success to loving disaster. Up to the 60% mark it just got better and better, because her successes lead her to garner attention from the horrendous all-powerful Prophit King (and even the purposeful misspelling ties in to the story and characters in a delightful way). Then we learn more about him and Molly's fate, and I reached a high of emotional investment. I was reading it on a train and arrived at my destination, yet wanted the journey to go on longer so I could carry on. This first 60% is some of the best and most inventive fiction I have read all year. I can't praise it enough. If the whole book had been like that then I'd have championed it to the hilt, forever.

(As an aside, I should also add that the third thing a book needs is good writing, to give the reader confidence in the author, and we also have that in Cruce Roosters. I loved sentences such as "Pretending to be sick all morning had really taken the energy out of her." There were a few typos, but here they didn't stop me because I was so invested in the story. Hopefully they'll disappear from later editions - I'll send the small list to the author).

So, why do I keep mentioning 60%? Well, at that point things reach a high. Molly's actions and the world's reactions have taken her to the point of realising all her options are terrible, yet she has to choose. She is in her hotel room, having had more of the world revealed in gruesome fashion, and she makes a decision. We know we're on a ride and there are many twists and turns to go.

But at this point things changed. The book was still good, but just a notch down from what had gone before, which was mildly disappointing because what went before was stellar stuff. I'll explain a bit more, because this book has earned my time.

Up until the 60% point, Molly has been active. All good characters need to be. They make choices to achieve goals, and the world reacts, and the goals may change, or the stakes go up. This is what makes compelling fiction. Let me give one example from Cruce Roosters. Molly has been "invited" (told) that she will be collected and taken to the repulsive Prophit King. Chances are that he'll molest her, yet to refuse is to invite retribution that's even worse. What a dilemma. But she doesn't give up. She decides to smoke a pile of cigarettes, hoping to put him off close contact. It's a great ploy, and it works (temporarily), keeping her safe even in the midst of multiple dangers. But he warns her not to smoke again and shows her some horrible things instead of molesting her - so her decision drives the plot, but also raises the stakes, and reduces her future options unless she adopts even more extreme measures. It's all great stuff.

At the 60% mark she makes a huge decision. This is the Winston Smith moment of rebellion, and the reader knows it could go either way, but probably badly for the protagonist. However, from the moment she chooses to get out, things change. There is some action, some world-building, but she becomes a mostly passive figure, with things done to her rather than her being the actor. All of the minutiae of her actions and the world fade away to a more passive kind of story. She stops being Molly. The new elements (aliens, Gwetch, parasites) are all still inventive, but not as much as the stuff that has gone before. In fact, in some cases they raise questions that threaten the story. But the biggest weakness is the protagonist's new passivity. She has no more meaningful choices to make. A metaphor could be when she is discovered by a potential danger in a Cruce arena at the end and she could lie still or struggle, but she openly admits the outcomes would be the same, "get her killed". She is saved by deus-ex-machina (not her own actions) as the danger is called away. And then it happens again, "and Molly was powerless", again needing saving by things beyond her control. But, to highlight the none-choice even further, we discover that the danger is actually a help, and whatever she did, she would have still been fine. The delicious action-reaction of earlier has been negated. Even at the end, she is controlled by parasitic bodily modifications which limit her choices to just repeating a message. And all that stems from the decision made at the 60% mark. Almost half the novel follows with limited actor plot-driving.

After the 60% mark we also mostly lose some of the elements that had been driving the novel. The horrendous Prophit King takes a backseat until the finale; the tense and revolting situations and interactions between him and Molly fade away; the fascinating game of Cruce and the Roosters also drops away until the finale. Instead we get new elements (aliens and Gwetch) that are still good, but just not as good as what we already had. They feel almost like a separate, but related, story as new characters, new settings, and new world elements are revealed in linear fashion.

I know it seems like I'm hammering on criticisms here, but it's also high praise. This novella is really, really good. That's a rarity. But it had the potential to be completely amazing. If the last 40% had been more of what had gone before, escalated in level and reaction, with new elements and inventiveness appearing, I feel like it could have been at that top level, and probably still had room for some of the new elements.

But that's just me.

Overall, this is a really exciting and inventive book that I highly recommend. Brent Michael Kelley's story has stood out amongst so many that I've read, and I really feel he is one to watch. If he can come up with further exciting and original plots and premises, then his next book will be an instabuy for me.


The author made this graphic after seeing my review:

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Monday, 7 January 2019

Book Genres - Some Thoughts

Genres Are Categories

They are simplified labels that attempt to describe content.

Genres Are Useful

Genres help bookshops to know which shelf to put a book on.

Genres may help readers to find books that they like.

Genres Are Not Useful

Genres can be problematic when books, authors, and reader interests don't neatly fit into the widely-used categories - and that's more common than you'd think.

Also, authors can get pigeonholed within genres - it's why some authors use pen names when they write in a different genre. Even Stephen King tried to break out with a different name.

I have no problem with a writer who only enjoys writing in one genre doing just that - it's sensible. At the same time, it shouldn't be a shackle. Most writers want to tell stories, and that might mean writing things that fit into different genres (or none at all). More strength to that. The walls should be broken down. No-one would complain if a sculptor known for human effigies switched to sculpting dogs.

I think about this a lot because I write in multiple genres. I find it fascinating when people categorise my books in ways that I hadn't thought of. For example, one review that began with "Cold Fusion 2000 is a novel of incredible genius" (ha, I love that quote!) categorised the book as "romance". I'd never thought of it that way. The mention of romance is spot-on, in that it has romantic love as one of the strands, but it probably breaks some of the expected rules relating to "romance" as a BISAC genre (e.g. needing a clear happy-ever-after). So there are all sorts of problems with many categorisations, and unfortunately no clear answers.

It's the old issue of how to pigeon-hole books to aid discovery, without pigeon-holing books in ways that reduce diversity and experimentation.

Perhaps it's why I sometimes sigh with relief when I write a book that can be easily categorised by combining terms (e.g. "feminist action sci-fi" [Lost Solace], or "rural suspense horror" [Harvest Festival]). It sidesteps the whole issue. But even then there are intricacies - for example, I've just pigeon-holed Harvest Festival, yet in reality it isn't really about surviving a home invasion, or surviving a night in the countryside - that's just the subject matter. The themes are really to do with reconnecting with those that you love, and learning to value what is really important, and making the most of every minute we get with those we care about. Which actually makes it sound less like action-packed horror, and closer to books like Cold Fusion 2000 (which is sometimes classed as women's fiction).

What Is The Women's Fiction Genre? Is There A Better Term?

Women's fiction is a common label applied to books, as if it is clear and unambiguous - but it's not. The "women" bit refers to the target audience, not the author's sex - but why shouldn't men read good books in this genre too? The terminology of "women's fiction" implies a smaller audience than really exists, and may put off some readers. And just because someone is a woman, doesn't mean they don't prefer more clearly-defined genres such as science fiction or horror. So women's fiction isn't read by all women, or exclusively by women, so it tells us little except perhaps the prejudices of the publishers and booksellers, in the same way that if I look at women's slippers in a shoe shop they all have pink hearts, bows or pompoms on (even though many women say they hate those things). So how should we classify these books?
Commercial fiction sidesteps the silly "these are books for only one sex" categorisation, though commercial fiction is a large umbrella that probably covers most of what gets published in various genres - crime, horror, thrillers and so on. It's all commercial because it is all popular, or at least the publishers intend it to sell well and count as mass-market fiction. But it's silly to categorise books by their estimated sales potential. How does that help readers? One commercial fiction title and another have nothing in common in terms of stories, settings or characters.

Some authors prefer the term contemporary fiction. Unfortunately it doesn't mean a lot except "fiction written fairly recently that doesn't fit into any other neat category". As such, all sorts of disparate books are also contemporary fiction, and liking one contemporary fiction title is again no guarantee that you'll like the next, because they have so little in common. The contemporary fiction categorisation also confuses things in other ways - what if the book is set in the past? It is contemporary in terms of when it is written (for now ...), but not when it is set.

There's also literary fiction, which some authors toy with as a term, though it can be a bit of a poisoned chalice, connected with boring books that win prizes and get applauded by critics but which make many normal readers fall asleep (don't ever get me started on Sophie's World, or Life Of Pi). Obviously that isn't true of all literary fiction, but it is the reputation it has (along with being "difficult" or "requiring work") among many readers. It can also appear elitist in other ways, implying books without the "literary fiction" tag don't have literary qualities such as clever structure or in-depth character portraits or innovative use of language. And, again, books in this category can be wildly different in terms of settings and quality and readability, so it isn't always much help to the bemused reader.

Alternatives To Genres?

At one point I played around with the idea of getting rid of fiction genres and instead describing all stories via three elements (which could be used for films as well as books):

1: Form (e.g. short story, novel, novella; musical, animation, mockumentary)
2: Subject (e.g. horror, politics, romance)
3: Setting (e.g. fantasy, historical, western)

Then I realised that is as flawed and stupid as the system I wanted to replace, and I gave up.

Please let me know what you think!

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