How much is an honest review worth?

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There’s been some discussion recently about the fact that Publishers Weekly is now offering paid reviews to self-published authors – for $399 a pop.

No, I haven’t mislaid a decimal place. Four hundred – as near as damn it – American dollars.

As I remarked on Twitter, for that sort of money I’d expect wing walkers, and a solo extolling the merits of my book at the Last Night of the Proms.

Now, there are various schools of thought around paid-for reviews. I don’t buy reviews myself (except that one time when it was a friend trying to get a service off the ground), and, from the other side of the counter, I’ve recently resolved only to review books that I’ve bought with my own money. (Because a refusal often offends, but not nearly so much as the bad review that you would otherwise be posting.)

Actually, I do believe that most book bloggers are basically honest, and tend to say nothing at all if they can’t say anything nice. I’d recommend this pair of posts from Jo Linsdell and Lovely Audiobooks which debunks the myth that book bloggers are all rolling in free money. Which is hardly surprising, when most of them don’t charge.

And that’s the thing: whichever way you slice it, $399 is a lot of money. Do I believe that I’d get an honest review for $399? Perhaps. Do I believe that anyone else would believe it was an honest review? Perhaps not. To be blunt, the more an author spends on a review, the more flattering everyone else (and perhaps the author too) expects it to be.

But I think that what’s going on here is slightly more than paying for a book review (you can get them a lot cheaper on Reedsy or Fiverr or all sorts of other places, or so I understand) or even plain old advertising.

They’re selling credibility – or trying to. They’re offering you the chance to say, ‘This is my book, and a review of it has appeared in a Publishers’ Weekly supplement, therefore it must be good, right?’

The thing about credibility is that you can’t just rock up and buy it.  Sooner or later the reader is going to catch on to the fact that a Publishers’ Weekly review can be bought. Even if your book actually is as good as all that, the reader will look at some of the others (which, to be frank, are already looking a bit amateurish) and start to wonder… The lowest grade on offer is a C: that means that some truly terrible stuff is going to come out marked ‘average’.

You have to earn your credibility. And the way you earn it is by making your book good. As good as it possibly can be. Oh, it does appear that the review may include suggestions for things you could do better in the future. But you could spend your money on making your book good now, before you put it out into the world.

(The other thing about credibility is that it doesn’t, in itself, make any money. It takes credibility plus hard work. Actually, it’s mostly hard work.)

Here are some other things that a self-published author might – note, I don’t say should – do with $399:

  • get a really good cover… for the next few books
  • get a really good editor… for the next few books
  • get a really good typesetter, proofreader, publicist… oh, you get the idea
  • get really nice gin for the people who do those things for you but refuse actual payment
  • buy Facebook ads from here to kingdom come
  • buy a couple of dozen copies of the book from Amazon to push it up the sales rankings
  • buy a couple of dozen copies of the book and leave them on honesty bookshelves and railway station bookswaps (I have long wanted to do this, just for the hell of it)
  • go on a research trip for the next book
  • any other ideas?

I mean, don’t take financial advice from me. I’ve just spent a chunk of my most recent writing income on a rainbow skirt, but I think I’ll get a good deal more joy out of that. It cost me $35.00.

And yes, that decimal point is in the right place.

 

 

Q & A Tag: The Debut Novel

Good luck to everyone attempting NaNoWriMo!  I haven’t been able to make NaNoWriMo work for me since I started working full-time, and also I’m in the middle of a non-writing fortnight, so I’m not taking part. I’m reading instead.

And what I have been reading, among other things (Ankaret WellsAnna Chronistic and the Scarab of Destiny came out yesterday, just saying…) is Speak Its Name. This is partly in search of details I’ve got wrong in The Real World (Rory never went to St Mark’s! Gabe has always had a surname, and it isn’t Murtagh!) but mostly because I happened to pick it up and start flicking through, and then decided I might as well keep reading…

Then I remembered that an early draft had an epic ecumenical argument about Hallowe’en, which might have made a good deleted scene. I couldn’t find it. I did find that all the early drafts meandered all over the place (which I had remembered) were quite unbelievably camp (which I hadn’t).

So all in all this seemed like a good moment to answer a Q & A that I’ve been meaning to do for a while: Niamh Murphy‘s ‘The Debut Novel’ Q & A tag.

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What is the title and genre of your debut novel?

Speak Its Name is a contemporary f/f novel about a Christian student finding her way out of the closet against a backdrop of student politics.

What gave you the idea to start writing it?

Originally I wanted to tell the story of an episode of the great Christian Union wars of the early 2000s. If you weren’t at university in the early 2000s, or didn’t get involved in student politics if you were, then you may well have missed these entirely, but they still crop up from time to time. There’s almost always more going on than makes the press. This was certainly the case in the kerfuffle that I got involved in, and I wanted to tell what really happened.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately!) ‘what really happened’ was actually quite boring. Looking back, I feel like Lord Palmerston:

“Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

How long did it take you to finish?

A long time! I wrote the first word of the first draft in November 2007, having spent much of the summer planning. By the summer of 2014, I thought it was more or less done. I eventually published it in February 2016.

What was the biggest challenge you had when writing it?

The moment when I realised that actually the whole thing needed to be written in the point of view of a character who at that juncture had absolutely nothing. And who wouldn’t come out even to herself until half way through the book.

This development had its advantages, though: for one thing, it made it much easier to incorporate the political storyline. And it made the book much better overall, much tighter, and less susceptible to in-jokes and digressions.

How did you get it published, indie or trad?

After spending a summer trying to interest agents in the book, I gave up and decided to self-publish – a decision I’ve never regretted. Speak Its Name was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize in 2017, after which I did get some more interest from the traditional publishing world, but we decided pretty much simultaneously that it wasn’t an avenue that any of us wanted to pursue.

What was the most important thing you learnt from the process?

How to write a novel. That might sound flippant, but I’m serious. I started with a string of real life events and a handful of characters. Over the years I learned: to let my characters make their own mistakes; how to harness my own emotions to make my characters’ reactions convincing; how to get characters to drive plot; what to leave out; what to take out; how much I really enjoy editing.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on the sequel. It’s called The Real World and it picks up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name. As the title suggests, the characters are having to adjust to life after graduation, and none of them have picked a particularly easy path (if such a thing even exists). There are difficult decisions to be made and challenging situations to work through.

But I’ve actually got to the stage where I put it away for a few months and try to ignore it, so that I can return to it with fresh eyes.

In the meantime I’m writing some shorter pieces, a couple of which are also set in Stancester. One is a prequel to Speak Its Name – Becky’s first term at university – which I’ll be offering as an incentive to sign up to my email newsletter, when I actually get around to setting that up. The other is more of a standalone, and I’m aiming to submit it to the Reconciling the Rainbow anthology.

 

Q & A Tag: The Debut

#indiechallenge – The Duke Is Dead (Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley)

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The blurb

It is seven years since the Cousins’ War ended.

King Roald has brought peace to the Three Kingdoms and driven the last heirs of the king he deposed into exile. His brother Thomas, Duke of Wharram, is a man for whom loyalty is the greatest virtue and family the highest cause. So when his sister Josiane, Duchess of Bergomance, finds herself widowed, her beloved stepdaughter Ambrosia beleaguered by suitors and her late husband’s coffers mysteriously empty, who better to send than Thomas?

But the ghosts of old wars are waiting in Bergomance, and new threats are rising. Some see heresy everywhere, and others look to an Empire in the east that has suddenly begun seeking allies. And into it all, a ship driven off course by storms brings a young man fleeing King Roald’s mercenaries and throws him into Thomas’s path. Nicolas ás Ithel, a man with dark eyes and a love of numbers, and an inheritance in his veins that could reignite the Cousins’ War.

Kingsblood.

The authors

Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley are friends of mine, and they talked about how they came to write this book on this blog a little while ago.

The bookshop

I bought the ebook version from Lulu; then, on discovering that there were family trees and maps to flip back and look at, bought the print version too.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’; ‘Book from a series’ (at least, it will be soon); ‘Book that defies genre’; or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

In recent years, holidays with my partner have tended to be ‘somewhere in the Low Countries’ (Leiden; Ghent; most recently, Lille, which is pretty sure it’s in Flanders) and ‘some time when the wind is very cold’. Don’t ask me why we keep doing this, especially since we live in Cambridge and therefore this isn’t much different from being at home.

I mention this because The Duke Is Dead is set in a fantasy Flanders in the middle of winter, but is very much concerned with a fantasy version of British history. Specifically, the Wars of the Roses. If royal heritage on all sides was marked by some kind of magical power – which might or might not be useful. If the men we now think of as Richard III and Henry VII found each other inconveniently attractive.

But The Duke is Dead is not just about the slash. In fact, the uneasy liaison between Thomas of Wharram and Nicolas ás Ithel is one single example of the tension between personal inclinations and private loyalties and public politics and the way that plays out for many of the characters when there are kingdoms at stake. Thomas’s sister Josiane is a major player, and her daughter is much more than a pawn, no matter what her suitors seem to think. Religion in this universe is fascinating: there’s a béguinage and a St Mary the Evangelist, and the doctrine of the Trinity is heretical. The weather might be horrible, and the humans certainly have their moments, but this novel is, apart from anything else, fun. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of the series plays out.

 

Degrees of stuckness

The Real World is currently sitting at 83,000 words. This ought to be enough words, but of course not all of them will end up in the final version.

At present I’m wondering whether I’ve got to the point where I put it away for three months. I probably have. At the beginning of the year I told myself that I was aiming to have a first draft in October, and, apart from a few [insert science fact here] notes, I’ve filled in most of the gaps.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to compare it with its two predecessors – not in terms of word count (that wouldn’t take long) or in terms of what precisely I was panicking about, when (that’s a question for another post), but in terms of what you might call the emotional arc.

Thus far, I have always written about what one of my friends called ‘people sorting their heads out‘: characters who are stuck in their own assumptions, their own worldviews, and how they get unstuck.

What makes The Real World different is the fact that I show much more of the process of getting stuck.

Here’s a diagram:

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Speak Its Name chugs along for the first hundred pages or so with Lydia operating within the same narrow constraints that she’s known all her life. When she takes a long, hard, look at herself, everything suddenly opens out – and keeps opening.

What we can’t see, of course, is how the increased exposure to people outside her own social group is affecting her without her knowing it.

In fact, all three diagrams show only what’s going on in the protagonist’s head, and only what they’re conscious of (or would be, if they thought about it). They don’t show the external circumstances or other characters’ decisions that are working on them. Nor do they show all the little accumulations and releases of tension that drive a story. Just the perceived stuckness, if you like.

In A Spoke in the Wheel, the most stuck part is actually before the opening of the book. When we meet Ben, he’s not quite at his lowest point: he’s just coming out of it; he’s made a major change in his life. He still has a very long way to go, and the process isn’t quite as smooth as the diagram implies, but the only way is up. Or, to put it another way, it’s all uphill from here.

The Real World starts out in Colette’s head with a reasonably broad worldview, and then compresses and compresses things until it’s almost intolerable. But, as you see, it finds a bit of space right at the end.

I’m a bit apprehensive about what people will make of it. Will it all be hideously depressing (or, worse, boring) – or will the increasing stuckness drive the tension up?

The answer is, I honestly don’t know, yet. It’s difficult to tell when I’ve been buried in the text. That’s why I’m putting it away until the new year. I’ll let you know.

#indiechallenge – Keep Faith (ed. Gabriela Martins)

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I apologise for the quality of the picture. I took it on the train. Erm, at least you can just about see my jolly reusable coffee cup in the background? It’s in iridescent bi pride colours, not that you can really tell that. The cover looks much prettier in full colour.

The blurb

Keep faith, in the broad sense of the word. It doesn’t have to be a religion, unless you want it to be. It doesn’t have to speak about the universe, unless you want it to. It doesn’t have to be about anyone but yourself. Keep faith, in other planets and other houses; be it in the face of danger, grief, or while you spread your arms and laugh. Keep faith the same way you keep hope, bright and shiny, ever present. Keep faith in all your queer, beautiful self. Because you deserve it.

This is an anthology of 14 short stories, by 14 queer authors, where faith and queerness intersect. Incidental, purposeful, we-exist-and-that’s-why queerness. And faith meaning whatever you want it to mean.

The contributors

This anthology is edited by Gabriela Martins, with cover art by Kess Costales, and short stories by Adiba Jaigirdar, Bogi Takács, C.T. Callahan, Elly Ha, Gabriela Martins, Julia Rios, Kate Brauning, Kess Costales, Mary Fan, Mayara Barros, Megan Manzano, Shenwei Chang, Sofia Soter, and Vanshika Prusty.

The bookshop

This book is available on a ‘pay what you think is appropriate’ basis from Gumroad.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Marginalised people’; ‘An anthology’, or ‘LGBTQIA’. Also, arguably, ‘Rec’d by a friend’, since I only came across this book when I saw a friend irritably tweeting it at Tim Farron.

My thoughts

The premise of this anthology is of course right up my street: the intersection between queer identity and faith identity is one that fascinates me on my own behalf and more generally.

The stories approached this from all sorts of different angles. Some, inevitably, worked better for me than others did. My favourites included “And I Entreated” (Bogi Takács), in which the narrator is having to deal with being a houseplant while her child prepares for their bar mitzvah, and “On The Other Side” (Shenwei Chang), which was a really poignant exploration of loss and tradition. “How Not To Die (Again)” (Gabriela Martins) was a light-hearted piece of high school magical realism. And “Godzilla” (Kate Brauning) was a perceptive picture of a well-meaning church attempting to be inclusive.

I was less impressed by “Bigger Than Us” (Megan Manzano) and “Golden Hue” (Mayara Barros). These both featured the sloppy worldbuilding that’s been irritating me in YA literature recently, where a very familiar twenty-first century culture prevails despite the presence of major fantasy elements that ought to have made things develop in very different ways.

Overall, though, this anthology was a good deal of fun, and I’d recommend it to anybody who enjoys exploring the nuances of identity.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: M

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M is another of those built-up letters. Hardy gives us Marygreen, Melchester and Mellstock. Wikipedia tells me that there was a Maltovia in one of the Biggles books, but if I read it (and I read a lot of Biggles, back in the day) then I don’t remember it. Helena Fairfax gives us Montverrier, and a dedicated exploration of the Ruritania series takes us to Mittenheim. (Well, it doesn’t really; a Grand Duke comes from there, but we never really learn much about it.)

Then there’s Maycomb. Google supplies a wealth of maps (extrapolating them from To Kill A Mockingbird seems to be a popular school activity) but I’m going to quote this lovely train journey from Go Set A Watchman:

The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.

The station at Montgomery nestled in an elbow of the Alabama, and when she got off the train to stretch her legs, the returning familiar with its drabness, lights, and curious odors rose to meet her…

For no reason an ancient fear gnawed her. She had not been in this station for twenty years, but when she was a child and went to the capital with Atticus, she was terrified lest the swaying train plunge down the riverbank and drown them all. But when she boarded again for home, she forgot.

The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily painted bell-funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.

Although even this train doesn’t quite get us there, and the journey is completed by car:

No trains went there – Maycomb Junction, a courtesy title, was located in Abbott County, twenty miles away. Bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.

To reach Middlemarch these days you’d take a train out of London Euston and you’d be there in about an hour. But at the time that the action is set, the railway has not quite made it. In fact, we see it being built.

It’s not connections or landscape that make Middlemarch a place we can believe in. It’s the people. It’s the systems. It’s the systems in which the people live and move, and the people who make up the systems. There’s the class system, the minute gradations of commerce, the churches and the hospitals, the vain attempt to move up a rung, or at least keep oneself from moving down one, to escape it entirely, and the pettiness of the whole thing…

I know how to get to Middlemarch because I believe the introduction when it tells me it’s basically Coventry with the serial numbers filed off. (Which makes me wonder whether anyone’s written anything set in post-war Middlemarch. Or anything about the Middlemarch bicycle industry…) But I believe in Middlemarch because I believe in the people who live in it and around it.

 

Books mentioned in this post

Middlemarch, George Eliot

In the Mouth of the Wolf, Helena Fairfax

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope

Biggles Goes To War, Capt. W. E. Johns

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

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#indiechallenge – The Sleep Quilt (Tracy Chevalier and Fine Cell Work)

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The blurb

The Sleep Quilt is unlike any other quilt you will have seen. Commissioned by Tracy Chevalier, it is entirely stitched and quilted by prisoners in some of Britain’s toughest jails. Each of the 63 squares explores what sleep means in prison. A moment of escape for some, for others a dark return to all they most regret in life, sleep has a great significance in jail that is only strengthened by the difficulty of finding it in the relentlessly noisy, hot and cramped environment. By turns poignant, witty, lighthearted and tragic, The Sleep Quilt shines a light on lives that few outside can guess at.

The contributors

Tracy Chevalier is an American-British historical novelist, the author of books including Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Lady And The Unicorn.

Fine Cell Work is a charity which makes handmade textile products in British prisons:

Fine Cell Work enables prisoners to build fulfilling and crime-free lives by training them to do high-quality, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. They can also learn sewing machine and textile production skills in our prison based workshops. Our aim is to allow them to finish their sentences with work skills, money earned and saved, and the self-belief to not re-offend.

The publisher

Pallas Athene has been publishing books for 25 years, starting with travel guides and now mainly focussed on art. Rather endearingly, they say:

We also have some wine and food titles, and other books we publish simply because we like them and want to bring them to a wide audience. (Most recently, David Lack’s wonderful Life of the Robin). The aim is always to make books that are approachable and intelligent, and we are great believers in illustration.

Where I found this book

I’ve been staying with a friend and reading my way through as many of her books as I could in a week (while also managing to fit in a lot of standing at the side of the road cheering on cyclists, and playing Pandemic in between times). We’ve been comparing textile notes for years (she is a very good embroiderer; I am a slapdash quilter) and so she brought this one to my attention.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Rec’d by a friend’; ‘A crowdfunded book’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Marginalised people’; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, perhaps, ‘Anthology’.

My thoughts

This is a beautiful, moving, little book. It opens with an essay by Tracy Chevalier explaining how she came to commission the Sleep Quilt (for an exhibition of quilts entitled ‘Things We Do In Bed’) and one by Katy Emck describing the aims of Fine Cell Work. The majority of the pages, however, are devoted to pictures of blocks from the quilt accompanied by contributions from the prisoners who worked on it, explaining the thinking behind the designs or expanding on quotations included in them. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking: a small treasure.

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