Monday, September 27, 2010

Indie Book Review: Songs From the Other Side of The Wall

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t get paid to do this.  I select books by going through Amazon, Smashwords, and Lulu and find things that look interesting to me.  I don’t have the time to spend whiling away reading books I don’t like.  I was, until I finished Songs From the Other Side of The Wall, fairly sure I’d never give anything less than a three star rating, because I wouldn't bother to finish anything with a lower rating.  And then I finished it.  I’ll keep it at three stars, because it’s very well written, but I’ve got some serious concerns about this as a story.

Let me start with the good things: Holloway can really write.  He’s handy with his words.  The book is detail and image rich, and they are in the service of the plot, rather than the other way around.  He’s done a remarkably good job of creating a teen-age lesbian, which since he’s a middle aged man, I’m fairly certain that’s something he’s never been.  Sandrine is, for a teen girl, engaging, and for a coming of age story, has some stuff to actually be angsty about.  This is not just whining for the sake of whining.  I tend to think part of the reason coming of age stories are so frequently Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Historical is because those conventions make it easy to manufacture crucibles in which to create adults.  This very real world, very now, set book did a good job of creating a situation to push Sandrine out of childhood towards adulthood, which is hard to do without falling into the whine whine whine of traditional adolescent angst. 

The book is simultaneously very European, while being very true to the humanity of anyone who reads it.  What I know about Hungary, the cutting edge of radical art/politics, music, and wine can pretty much fill a good sized thimble.  Yet the book is well enough written to deal with all of these things without leaving me behind.

The bad:  The plot twist.  In an effort to create suspense Holloway gives us a mystery, several actually, but only one belongs here.  After the death of her… lover…crush…object of desire…obsession, one thing that is never actually clear is what precise level of relationship Sandrine and Claire have, Sandrine begins to get bits and pieces of Claire’s diary.  Why?  We don’t know and the one thing that might potentially be called a hint is so tenuous as to be only useful in retrospect, and only barely.  By whom?  Same as why.  Does it help us understand Claire better?  Sure.  Do we learn more about Sandrine’s mom because of this?  Yes.  Is it vital for the plot?  Probably.  Did he do a good job of setting up why Sandrine is getting this?  No.  Honestly, magical fairies riding on black unicorns prancing about with vampires would have been just as believable as the set up he came up with. 

To take this a step further, this overarching mystery is what sets the ending in motion.  And, because this mystery is so far beyond the level of mad coincidence, the ending is deeply unsatisfying as a result.  Within two pages you go from thinking, ‘Everything is wrapping up nicely’ to ‘What?!?’ 

The in-between:  This would be the stuff that didn’t really float my boat, but I also think is intentional and if you like this sort of thing, would be a boat floater for you.

The genre.  If I had to make a category for it I’d call it Young Adult Literary Fiction.  There’s something to wrap your mind around.  It’s a coming of age story.  It focuses mainly on growing up and the human condition.  It dwells on a group of emotionally stunted perpetual adolescents paralyzed by their fear of…  Joy maybe.  Hard to tell precisely what they’re afraid of.  But there is precisely one adult in this story, by which I do not mean a character over the age of twenty-one, but a character who owns his life and is living it fully.  Sandrine can be forgiven for being adrift and unsure of herself and her place in the world, she’s seventeen-eighteen.  The rest of the cast of characters cannot. 

Sandrine’s credibility.  Throughout the story we are given little hints that Sandrine may not be all there.  She loses time.  She loses conversations.  But by the end of the story we’re left with the possibility that she may have fully hallucinated one of the characters, and there’s no telling how real any of her interactions with the others are.       

The other characters:  Most of the supporting characters in this story are deeply unsympathetic.  From what I can tell this is an intentional plot point of the author, and it works for the story, but at the same time, it’s annoying.  I find myself wanting to smack Claire.  A seventeen-year-old can be forgiven for falling in love with an image of a person.  A thirty-seven-year-old cannot. 

Sandrine’s mum left me with the desire to grab her by the shoulders and start yelling, “YOU ARE AN IDIOT!”  I think that’s the response I’m supposed to have.

I feel a deep sympathy for Sandrine at the end of the story, crying for her father, the only adult in the entire story, who has died and left her adrift among these insane perpetual adolescents trying to forever remain in just one moment in time. 

If the idea is to explore the human condition, the reader is left with the conclusion that the human condition is paralysis mired in misery with occasional fleeting glimpses of something better, but those glimpses are just a mirage, and misery will win.  This is not a light or uplifting read.  However, judging by the fact literary fiction exists, and is rarely an exploration of the nuances of joy, there appears to be a market for it.

Finally, the love story.  It’s not a love story.  At least not love in the way most of us would recognize.  It’s an obsession story.  And this is an area where I cannot tell if the effect is intentional or not.  No one in this story actually develops a romantic interest in anyone slowly over time while getting to know each other.  It’s all about immediate attraction, deep passion, and amazingly enough, it always falls apart.  Now, is this supposed to illustrate the futility of thinking with your libido and not your brain when it comes to sex?  I don’t know.  Sandrine is seventeen/eighteen in the story, and she’s the one telling it.  She falls in “love” twice at first sight.  Neither time works for her.  But at no point do we get the sense that the problem is not bothering to learn anything about the objects of her desire, as opposed to the problem being ‘love’ and the expectations that come with it.  In the end we find her face to face with the adult responsibilities of love and running away from them.  Another perpetual adolescent?  Or, having realized those responsibilities are also based on a whim of desire from someone obsessive on the verge of stalkerhood, and not much more, is she being sane and cutting away from a person who fell in love with a dream shaped like her?  With where the story ends you just can’t tell. 

Songs From the Other Side of the Wall is available on for the Kindle.  You can get it at if you want it in physical form.   Do you want to read it?  Good question, it’s about 220 pages long, and 218 of them were really interesting.  It’s very well written.  If you get other people to read it it’s got good discussion potential.  But it’s not light, it’s not fun, and the ending hinges on the least satisfying collection of coincidences I’ve read in a long, long time.  Some mysteries don’t need to be solved, and this book would have been much stronger if Dan Holloway had left us wondering who sent the diary entries. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Self Publishing: Are You Insane?

Well, in all likelihood, yes, but you already knew that.  Let's put that aside and talk self publishing.

So, why would anyone want to do this?  I mean, beyond getting to skip the agent hunt part?

To start with it's easier now to self publish than it ever has been, and more and more writers who can actually write are taking this route.  Secondly, if you self publish you maintain complete control over your book.  Thirdly, you maintain complete rights (assuming you do a good job picking your self publishing route) to your work.  Fourthly, the royalties are much, much better.

Sounds great, right?  I mean who doesn't want complete control, complete rights, and better royalties?

So here's the downside:  You have to design the whole book.  You have to hire an editor.  You have to produce your own website, your own cover art, you own marketing plan.  You have to do all the things the publishing company would do for you, without the deep pockets and contacts of a publishing company, and often with the deck stacked against you because most people won't review, let alone stock, books that weren't published by a traditional publisher. 

So, once again, why do it this way?  I don't know what your rationale is, but I can tell you mine.  I'm in this for the long game.  This is book one of many books to come, at least two sequels are planned and being worked on, as well as a fourth unrelated novella.  The average traditionally published book has six weeks to make a splash before it hits the remainder shelf.  (Note for those of you going the traditional route: make sure your agent has your contract set up so that if your book goes out of print the rights go back to you.  You do not want that six weeks to end, have your book go out of print, and be left with nothing.)  I want the time to let my books build an audience.  It'd be lovely if it goes out and catches fire, but it's not likely.  Even with a publishing company behind you, you're looking at an average of 3000 sales.  I think, given enough time, I can do better than that, and I want the time.

Also, I want my rights.  Especially in the fantasy world, the author can come up with something lovely, and then TSR (to name a now defunct example) goes and hires a bunch of other people to write further adventures featuring the same characters. The publisher can do this because they own your characters, you don't.  And, while I will personally be exquisitely pleased if I ever see Sylvianna on the list of books at, I do not want to see my publisher decide he can make good money by selling off my characters to other writers.   

Lastly, check out what successful writers actually do.  Most of them are doing a ton of marketing on their own.  They have a blog, a twitter feed, they do readings, signings, conferences, etc...  They are already constantly building their own brand.  I can do a lot of that on my own.  I don't need a publishing house to blog, or twitter, or network.  And, lucky for me, the bits I do need a publishing house for is becoming less and less important.

What I mean by that is that in the next ten to fifteen years paper books are going to continue to make up less and less of the actual book trade.  Eventually there will be a point where paper books located in a physical store will make up a very small percentage of the literary market.  Going to physical book store will be much less about shopping for books, and more about hooking up your Nook while getting a coffee and flirting with the other customers.  The truth of the matter is that the likelihood of you getting your self published book into Barnes and Noble is pretty much zero.  The need to have the book in Barnes and Noble is what is becoming less and less of an issue.

The second issue of the value of a publisher is something I'm personally working on trying to defeat, and I hope more and more of you will join me as well.  People learn about books from book reviewers.  Many book reviewers will not take self published books.  Amazon's ranking system, Goodreads, Facebook, the blogverse, are also making this less important, but for the time being a New York Times review is worth quite a bit more than all of your buddies writing a review for you on Amazon and putting you on their Goodreads list.  However, the time being is not eternal, and I can envision a future where buying books is much less centralized.  I hope to take advantage of it.

But, beyond everything else, you own your rights when you self publish, which means, if at some future point, you decide you want to go the traditional route, you still can.  Trying to do it the other way around is a much messier process.

So, for me self publishing is a no lose proposition.  If my book lingers on Amazon selling seven copies, I can then go and take it off of Amazon, and start on the agent hunt.  If my marketing takes off, and everyone buys copies, then I've got complete control and a better royalty at the end of the day.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Agent Hunt: Farewell

So, here is where the active phase will end for many of you.  You've found the agents you want, you've perfected your letter, you've sent it out.  Now it's time to wait.

And wait.  And wait.  The generally accepted conventions of polite behavior hold that if you haven't heard back in three months, that it's okay to give the agent a little nudge just to see if your letter got there.  (Side note:  Like with everything else, if the agent's website says something different, go with what the website says.) And by polite nudge, I mean a short email along the lines of, 'I just wanted to make sure my query letter got to you.  Thanks, Your Name'  You do not at any time want to come off as Stan from the Eminem song.

What to do while waiting?  Find more agents to add to your potential agent list.  Start on your next story.  Take a break from writing for a little while and let your creativity recharge.  Work on building your brand (write fan fic, short stories, blog, anything to get your name out there and people interested in seeing what you come up with next.  More on this in future blogs.)  Knit.  Cook.  Anything but spend every minute looking at the clock waiting for the time when the post man shows up with today's mail.  You will go bonkers if you do that.  As writers we're already a tad more delicately balanced on the edge of sane than most people, stalking your mail man or potential agents will only make that worse.  

Now, for some of you, and for me personally, reading and researching the whole agent thing may have put you off of it.  For some of us, this moment of deciding that we aren't going to go that way means it's actually the start of a new direction.  And that's the direction this blog is going to take.  It's time to start talking self publishing.

If you're going the traditional route, keep reading, lots of good stuff on marketing your book (useful for everyone) and self publishing (say that collection of poems or short stories you just can't get moved, even though every agent and their grandma have told you it's brilliant) will be forthcoming.  As well as more Indie Book Reviews.  (If you have done the self published route, and are interested in being reviewed, drop me a line.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Query Letter: The Paragraph of Doom

No one in their right mind looks forward to doing this.  But, unless you're going to self publish, (and we'll get to that soon) you've got to do it.

You're whole book.  In one paragraph.  One paragraph small enough to fit onto a one page letter with at least three other paragraphs, two address blocks, a formal salutation, and closing.  And no, you can't fudge the margins or use an eight point font.  Call it less than one hundred words, possibly seventy-five.  Eeep!

Now, I mentioned earlier that this paragraph is not the back of the book copy.  But why not?  After all, you are trying to sell your book to the agent, and the back of the book copy is trying to sell the book to everyone who picks it up.

And that's precisely why not.  You are selling your book to one person.  One person you can research.  You can find that person's likes and dislikes.  You know what books he's purchased before.  You know what kinds of people he's worked with before.

In the case of my own book, and yours probably, there are a lot of angles you can play up when it comes to convincing your agent-to-be that you've got the book of his dreams.  I can work on the fact that my main character is Jewish, the intense religious themes, and questions about theodicy and forgiveness if I aim at an agent who handles religious fiction.  I can paint a story of an Epic Fantasy trilogy that will span modern day Urban Fantasy to High Quest Fantasy while weaving a classic love story between worlds, if I was hunting a fantasy agent.  If I want I can minimize the fantasy aspect and show how it's dripping in erotic romance if I'm hunting an erotica agent.

So, as you sit there with your list of potential agents, take the time to write down what precisely they've sold, what it is they want in a book, and start to work on why your book is exactly what they want.  At the same time (because, after all this is never easy) you need to keep in mind what your book actually is.   In my case I may tone down the fantasy aspect, but if I leave it out completely and actually do get a manuscript request from an agent who handles erotic or religious fiction, I'll get a "no thanks" letter awfully fast, and be out the cost of a manuscript.

I'll once again borrow from the car shopping world.  If you've ever had someone try to sell you a car that wasn't quite right, say trying to get you into one that cost too much, or had a bunch of things you didn't need, or was in much worse shape than claimed, you know how frustrating and annoying that is.  You need to realistically assess you story.  You need to know if you've got a Rolls Royce, a Subaru, a Honda or a Dodge and sell it as the best possible version of whatever it is you've got.  Spending your hundred words talking about the aching beauty and immense clarity of human experience in your Literary Fiction story is great, assuming all of that is true.

So, how best to go about figuring out what your book is about?  I suggest having a few people you know and trust read it and tell you.  Seriously, what you think your book is about and what everyone else thinks it is about may be two very different things.  Better yet, people you know and trust who you haven't already told what the book is about.  (Because we all have talented reader buddies who we haven't talked the ears off of already...Yeah, I know exactly how realistic that proposition is.  But assuming you have some people like that in your life, now is the time to ply them with gifts and a copy of your manuscript.)

Once you know it's time to write.  And re-write.  And re-re-write.  And probably do it a few more times.  Because here's the crux of this issue: this is the paragraph that makes your chance of ever getting an agent.  There are a million ways of losing potential agents, and this is the one way to actually snag one.  If you know people who have agents, beg them to read your letter, ask for brutal feedback.  If you don't know anyone along those lines try to get people who will give you an honest answer to read your letter and answer this question: "Having read this, do you want to see my book?"

Lastly, good luck!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Interview with Julie Cox

Here is the interview with Julie Cox, author of Hearth and Harvest.

KR:  Why Smashwords?  Did you try traditional publishing as well, or did you go straight to DIY publishing?  Why did you opt for only an electronic version?  How did you get your cover design?

JC:  I chose Smashwords as an avenue to self-publishing for several key reasons. First, it would make my book available through the vendors my readers were most likely to use - Barnes and Noble, Apple and, eventually, Amazon, and did not require that readers have any particular piece of equipment to be able to read the file. Second, it was free. This was key! Third, they had a comprehensive style guide available that made it easy to format my manuscript for optimal presentation. Really, I couldn't have asked for anything else.

I have a number of works, short stories and novellas, that have been published in anthologies and magazines, so I have some experience with traditional publishers. Had I only had one or two stories, or a novel, I would have gone with a traditional publisher. With a collection of short stories, however, traditional publishing options are relatively few and far between. What I wanted with this ebook is a way for readers and editors to have easy, free or low-cost access to my work. So I did not publish with Smashwords as a way to make money on my own (though I have seen a little come my way, as a happy side benefit) but as a promotional tool for my work with traditional publishers.

I designed my own cover, using filters and fonts on Photobucket and a scan of one of my own drawings. What can I say, it's nice to have an art degree, even if I only use it for this kind of thing these days. I have seen a lot of great graphic artists on Etsy and Deviant Art who can produce high quality work for a very reasonable price. If I hadn't already known how to go about making my own graphic, I would have found someone on Etsy.

KR:  Who is the intended audience for the book?  How many copies have you sold?  What marketing has worked best for you?

JC:  The intended audience for this book is ... well, people like myself, not to put too fine a point on it. Literary, imaginative people, male and female, and I imagine young adults would enjoy it too. I have sold 46 copies, 7 paid through Barnes and Noble and the rest as free downloads. The best marketing I have found is, quite simply, word of mouth. I told everyone I know about it, sent them links, and in a few cases, held their hands through the download process. I contacted my alma mater and informed them of the publication. I am active on a number of writing and craft forums, and posted about it there. I talk about it on Twitter, Facebook and my blog. People need to be told about the book more than once, it seems, for it to stick, to prompt them to download it and read it, so I bring it up every few weeks.

KR:  Are you working on more stories/novel/etc.?  If so will you self publish again in the future?

JC:  I am always working on more stories and novels. I have a book coming out later this year with Circlet Press, though my work with them is erotica, so a slightly different audience from Hearth and Harvest! I intend to publish more books of short stories through Smashwords as I collect stories that go well together and need to be told. I find it more rewarding to publish myself, because I get more feedback, and it is exciting to watch the numbers go up. I feel a greater connection to my audience. After all, publishing is a long game; it can take a decade to be an overnight success!

If you want to get to know Julie and her writing better go check her our at

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

September Indie Book Review: Hearth and Harvest

This month's featured independently published book is a small compendium of short stories, Hearth and Harvest by Julie Cox.

All six of these stories have an eerie, almost Neil Gaimanish quality to the writing.  A very distinct voice coupled with a beautiful use of language to evoke images and feelings of place and time.  These stories feel like poems wrapped around plot to me, and in a few cases the plot appears secondary to the imagery.

I should probably make it clear that when reading, I'm looking for plot and dialogue.  These are my main treats in a story.  I'm generally not a huge fan of language so much as story.  These stories are excellent examples of beautiful use of language, but on the plot front some of them are a little weak.  As stories, as opposed to prose poems, they range from lovely (Leatherskin: A steampunk rift on Pygmalion, which you should all go out and download the book so you can read it.) to confusing (Written In Stone: Which is beautiful, but three reads through and I'm still not one hundred percent sure what is going on, or more importantly: why.) to abrupt (Reaping: A sweet little tale of a woman rescuing her god, that would have been quite a bit more satisfying at novella length).

Hearth and Harvest is available on Smashwords in electronic form.  I had some problems with the format for Adobe ePub.  I could download it just fine, but once I exited the book, it was gone when I returned to ePub.  I tried a few other Smashwords books as well, and had the same problem.  It's entirely possible this is a problem with Smashwords, or that I'm overlooking some technical component for making this work properly.  On the upside Smashwords offers ten formats, including .mobi for Kindle and PDF.  Or you can just read it online.  Finding one that works with your particular set up shouldn't be too much of an issue.

It costs whatever you want to pay for it.  On the strength of Leatherskin alone, I'd suggest paying for it.  (I paid $2.00.)  Hearth and Harvest comes in at about 30 pages, so it's a very short little thing.  Call it lunch break or coffee break reading.  A very pleasant lunch break.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Great Agent Hunt: The Query Letter

The Great Agent Hunt is like any other hunt.  You must stalk your prey.  You must find it's territory, lay your traps, and bait them with what your prey likes.  This is the article where we talk about Agent bait, AKA The Query Letter.

Before we get into the tips, remember this: anything and everything in this list can be tossed aside if the blog/website of the agent says they want something different.  If the Agent wants your query letter in crayon on lavender paper scented with Chanel No. 5, it's off to the perfume counter with you!  But if they don't specify, here are some quick rules of thumb.

Quick Tips:

Unless specified otherwise, a query letter is an actual, on paper, physical letter.

Get the salutation correct. Make sure the name is spelled right and you have assigned the correct gender marker to the agent.

Learn what a real business letter looks like. Business email format, unless specifically requested tends to annoy Agents and their readers.  What you want is a real, old fashioned, indented paragraphs, properly formatted business letter with all the commas in the right place and the closing center justified.

Spell check, grammar check, do it again, and then have someone else do it for you as well.

Finally, make sure your contact information is in there and correct.

None of these seem like a big deal, but get any of them wrong and you can get booted before the reader has even gotten to your plot synopsis.

Less Quick Tips:

Be professional and polite. You are trying to sell your work to this person. Pretend you were going to buy a car. How would the ultimate, best-ever car salesman approach you? What would he do? My guess is he's treating you with a lot of respect, and not trying to make you think the Subaru you're looking at is a Rolls Royce. Unless you're rather atypical, he's not hard selling you. He's just gently, respectfully convincing you that he's got the car of your dreams.

The heart of sales is this:  Your job is to make the person you're selling to understand that he needs whatever it is you've got.  That means showing the Agent that your book is a great match to his area of specialty. It means showing the Agent that you know what that specialty is, and why your book compliments it. For example: if you were querying JABberwocky Literary Agency (Charlaine Harris' Agency) you would explain why your books are similar to (but not copies of) the Sookie Stackhouse books and how they would compliment the portfolio of books represented by JABberwocky. Side note: If you have written a book about a bunch of quirky vampires in the South, it might be a good plan to not query JABberwocky, they've already got the bit of their portfolio filled.

Not Quick At All Tips:

Develop a sharp and witty why you picked this Agent opening paragraph.  Do it without sounding like sycophant or a stalker.

Develop a one paragraph description of your book that is meaningful, engaging, sharply written, and makes the Agent want to see more. Description does not mean back of the book copy, and it doesn't necessarily mean synopsis. You need to get the idea of the book across, but anything from dwelling on the themes of the book to the plot to who the characters are may suffice. Pick whichever aspect of your story best matches the work of the Agent and play that up.

Explain who will buy your book, and no matter what, even if the book is Harry Potter and the Secret Promise of the DaVinici Code the correct answer is not "Everyone!" Take the time to actually research your audience. Now, here's the balancing act, this is not a marketing report. The Agent is not looking for something along the lines of: "According to our polling data this story line is especially popular with Caucasian females ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-one in upper middle class homes in the suburbs of moderate sized cities." You are looking for more along the lines of what Amazon does when it tells you that people who liked this, also bought that. So, for example, if everyone who liked your book liked Twilight, you might mention that your book should appeal to Twilight readers. If your readers liked something in specific about Twilight that you can home in on all the better.  For example, the readers who were quite entranced by the Werewolf/Vampire politics of Twilight adored the supernatural realpolitik that showed up in your book. Show the Agent that you have a market, and who that market is.

Finally, tell the Agent why you are the person to tell this story. If you've already got writer cred here is the place to put it. If you don't then talk (briefly) about why you can tell this story well.

Wrap up with a polite "Sincerely" and then send it off.

Don't forget the self addressed stamped envelope!  You want a response, right?

(Oh, and lastly, it should be one page long.)

Next up:  What the letter physically looks like and writing the 'What Your Book Is About Paragraph of Doom!'