Thursday, September 24, 2009

Online reviewers

I like to browse writers’ discussion boards. On one of these recently, I saw a topic where a new writer (printed through a vanity press) mentioned she had received a “Professional Review”. Capital letters and all. I was curious and checked this out, wondering if it was perhaps Kirkus Discoveries.

Unfortunately it wasn’t. That made me decide to write a little about some online reviewers who may provide praise for free but who are unlikely to do much else.

1. Ghostwriter Literary Reviews

Ghostwriter Literary Reviews has a webpage with a dark background that makes it difficult to read reviews, some of which are in a small pale font. There also flashy pixels that continually stream across the screen and are distracting. Their mission statement also doesn’t contribute to a professional appearance.

GhostWriters Literary Reviews, is mostly a group authors who are committed to helping other authors, others are avid readers who enjoy a good book, and though some may have literary credentials, most of us are just trying to help the less seasoned authors.

What’s odd is that they offer paid editing services. I wouldn’t pay anyone who constructed sentences such as the above.

We have criteria for book ratings, and very often will explain the problems found in the read to the author- before posting it. Some may not find this fair to potential buyers; however, if the review is not posted on our site, we can not recommend it.

What’s the difference between a review that is not posted on the website because Ghostwriter Literary Reviews cannot recommend it, and a review that is not posted on the website because no one has read the book (or has read it but not written a review)? How can readers tell the difference?

Anyway, a review site that refrains from posting negative reviews is not serving the needs of readers – at best. At worst, it’s an ego-stroking site for authors. And the vast majority of reviews on this site are four- and five-star reads which tend to be short and are unlikely to do the books justice.

2. Allbooks Review International

Allbooks Review International (is it just me or are the names of these sites a bit on the long and flowery side?) has a website that wasn’t easy to navigate when I was trying to get to the reviews. And in their “Review Showcase”, Fiction is a separate category from Mystery.

I’m also a bit leery of any review site which declares that it is “helping Authors” or calls itself a “your professional review and author promo source” – professional by whose standards?

On the plus side, though, these reviews do include the publisher’s name and cost of the book, which is more than the Ghostwriter reviews do. But I read a few reviews on each site to see how well they were written, and here's what Allbooks had to say about A Crucible of Innocence.

The author, Mr. Forsythe, has used his poetic gifts to create a special experience here. Reading this book is not something that can be done in an evening or on a weekend. It must be done with no timeframe of completion in mind.

So it’s the poetry version of The Never Ending Story?

It is written in a style where time must be taken for re-reading, contemplating, and savoring. Only a poet can do this.

Not the best way to attract readers who aren’t poets.

This book is recommended to any reader who wants for something more in a book. It is definitely not ‘popular’ fiction. It is not a ‘good read.’ It does make for great and worthwhile reading and that is what this reviewer seeks.

It’s possible that this book is highbrow and rarefied to the point where regular readers like me can’t understand it (the review also describes the genre as “poetic fiction”, whatever that is).

3. Million Dollar Books Reviews

I couldn’t even find a webpage for this one, so I looked them up on Amazon, where they have a profile and award books either four or five diamonds : <> <> <> <> <>

All the reviews except one are by Leandus Poe, described as “CEO/Author/Critic”. A couple of the reviews start out with gushing tributes from the reviewer about how wonderful it was to meet the author on MySpace, where the author went to college or about how fantastic a person they are. One ends with the prophesy that the author “is destine to make her mark on the world if she continues to write with this quality!”

After reading comments like “I could actually sense the emotion as being a true emotion and not a made up emotion”, I wouldn’t recommend this reviewer.

There are online reviewers who offer honest and meaningful reviews (All About Romance, SF Book Review, etc); there are others who offer empty flattery. And readers can tell the difference.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

From Peanuts to the Pressbox

"If he wasn’t certifiably insane, then he was waiting for the certificate to arrive any day."

I freely admit to not knowing anything about sports (except figure skating). I still requested the autobiography of a sports broadcaster for review from Thomas Nelson, for one reason – the author, Eli Gold, started out selling peanuts in the stadiums and eventually became “the Voice of the Crimson Tide”, one of the most well-known broadcasters in the country.

Talk about the American Dream.

I was curious about how he worked his way from one part of the stadium to another. As it turns out, you don’t need to be too familiar with football, baseball, hockey or NASCAR to enjoy the journey, the insider stories and the humor in From Peanuts to the Pressbox: Insider Sports Stories from a Life Behind the Mic. Eli Gold barely completed even a high school education – he skipped classes so he could attend ball games and study what the commentators did. But he had immense enthusiasm for the sports and for describing them. And he had persistence. Anyone with a similar passion can appreciate that.

It was also interesting to read about how people listened to sports in his time (through heavy portable radios) and how editing was done (with a pair of scissors, as opposed to with a computer and a wav file). And the stories are funny too. You don’t need to know the rules of sports to enjoy the description of how a hockey team called the Ducks borrowed new, bright lights for a game, only to find that the heat from the lights melted the ice. I imagined a lot of swimming Ducks here.

There’s also the tale of the hockey match where a player was spat on by a fan. This was back in the day when arenas were surrounded by meshes, so the player shoved the butt end of his stick through a hole in the mesh, and it knocked the fan’s teeth out. Well, even I knew hockey was kind of a violent sport.

There was one error – the author mentions going to Toronto and having dinner on Young Street. I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be Yonge Street. Other than that, though, I’d give this book as a gift to anyone who likes sports.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Strangers in strange lands

I read an article about these kinds of characters, and wondered for a moment why I hadn’t written about this before. Just for a moment, though, because then I realized that I’ve been an expatriate (and sort of exile) myself. More than once, too. No surprise that I’m so close to the topic that it never occurred to me to write about it.

Also, I haven’t read too many speculative fiction novels where the main character has been exiled from his homeland or has left it voluntarily. The first examples which came to mind were R. A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy and Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn. I’d like to find more (or write more), because now that I come to think about this, there’s a lot of potential in this setup.

1. Different customs

Characters in a very different society and culture are fish out of water. They have strange ways of thinking, alien habits and beliefs, all of which can cause problems. One of the disappointing aspects of Jean Auel’s The Shelters of Stone is how easily the heroine fits in with the Cro-Magnons despite being raised by Neanderthals.

When I went to Sri Lanka for a visit, my extended family told me not to eat cucumbers while I had a cold (I ate them anyway). We won’t get into all the things I should or should not have done three days out of the month.

2. Assimilation and adaptation

How do exiles and expatriates feel about this? Do they cling to what they once knew, or do they embrace all or most aspects of their new land? I fall into the latter category, which of course means that I don’t fit in with my original culture. Can’t have it both ways.

On the other hand, in speculative fiction, it may not be so easy to fit in. The biological or social differences may be too great to bridge. What if the refugees or expatriates were not fertile with any of the people of their new land? The two races would always be distinct – and there would be no sub-class of half-breeds – but what would happen to people who fell in love with a member of another race anyway?

3. An equal and opposite reaction

I love seeing how people securely established in another land react to foreigners who are there to stay – and how the governments of those lands respond as well.

There’s no need for them to value diversity; they’re not twenty-first century First World countries. Maybe they place much more of an emphasis on absorbing these new people, and so they make exiles and expatriates change their names to sound more native. These could be major changes or small adaptations. For instance, my first name is Marian, but perhaps if I moved to France it would be Marie and if I went to ancient Rome it would be Maria.

Maybe they insist that fugitives convert to the state religion, or at least pay lip service to it. I have an idea for a future story where a character moves to another land that has a powerful and controlling state religion; he refuses to convert to it even though he knows that will ensure a lifetime of menial work for him. But there’s a certain secret order of guards that is always comprised of twelve of the Faithful and one atheist…

4. A place in society

Exiles and expatriates might have a much-needed place in a new land. When I lived in the Middle East, for instance, most of the blue-collar work was done by people from the Subcontinent. And it probably still is.

These people might not be given the kinds of rights or privileges that one would expect in a First World country – for instance, no matter how long or hard they work, they’ll never get citizenship in those countries – and they’re sometimes treated badly. But they earn better money than they’ll get in their native countries. My parents could never have afforded to send me to college in the States if they hadn’t worked for years in Dubai.

In my world of Eden, Iternans are never expatriates, since their native land does not permit any of its citizens to leave its borders unless they are tracking fugitives. However, because Iternans have powerful magic, other lands hire them as sorcerers (until of course they’re hunted down and dragged back to their homeland to face trial for leaving it).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

White Tiger

When Emma Donohue becomes the nanny for the little daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman, she soon realizes why her charge needs a bodyguard as well. Mr Chen’s enemies are an entire army of demons, most of whom can take human form. His house is sealed, his guards have sworn their lives to his service, and his four-year-old daughter knows who’s knocking at the door before it opens.

Not one to be easily intimidated, Emma takes up training in the martial arts and meets the gods of Chinese mythology – from the seductive White Tiger to the compelling Mr Chen – who have united against the demons.

The setup of Kylie Chan's White Tiger (Dark Heavens Trilogy) is fascinating. Chinese mythology is still underused in fantasy, and I enjoyed the setting, especially all the details about behavior, customs, jewelry… and triad members being armed with cleavers. The abilities of Mr Chen and little Simone were revealed gradually and seen realistically through newcomer Emma’s eyes.

On the other hand, this book could have done much better when it came to characterization. The demons are numerous, which would up the stakes if not for the fact that Emma, after some training, can take out five or six of the nameless cannon fodder simultaneously. One punch and the demons disperse into “black streamers” and “demon stuff”. Plus, they’re usually classified by levels, which made me think of a video game.

I faced the office girls: they were smaller, only about level ten. Leo faced the others… They were about level twenty.

As for the other characters, Emma starts off as a blunt, curious contrast to the reticent Mr Chen, but I got tired of the change she undergoes in the course of the novel. Her growing command of martial arts makes her lose weight, she’s revealed to have a genius-level IQ and she learns to use magic. The good characters love her, the bad characters want to have sex with her and the White Tiger does both. It’s too much of a wish-fulfilment fantasy.

It was also difficult to feel the romance (which is described in much more detail than the demon battles) when the narrative referred to the hero as “Mr Chen” for 455 pages. After that he became “John”, but it was a bit late.

And although the first-person point of view worked well for establishing Emma’s life and character, it also meant that potentially explosive scenes such as the demonic assault on the Mountain Palace were relayed third-hand. Emma also overhears far too many informative but private conversations. Frankly, I’d like to read a scene where the feisty heroine eavesdrops on someone, only to hear them discussing their favorite brand of peanut butter.

White Tiger is the first in a four-book series, each named after one of the principal gods. If there was more characterization and suspense in later books, I’d try them, but the first one was lost potential. A heroine who was a Mary Poppins/Beatrix Kiddo combination would have been fascinating to read about.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Five tales from the slush pile

Interesting things or practices found in the slush pile…

1. Beer

Funny objects? glitter, chocolate, and our favorite, a six pack of beer.

2. A picture of the writer with a gun

You… get distracted by prisoners who think it a good idea to include a picture of themselves with a gun pointed at the viewer (true story).

3. Paper salvage

The bottom two-thirds of the last page cut off with scissors because that’s where the submission ended.

4. Viruses

Michele sent a polite rejection note via e-mail to someone... He sent it back to her with a computer virus attached.

5. False claims

I received a story with a polite cover letter asking me to respond as soon as possible because of the special circumstances involved: the writer was a prisoner and to be executed in less than a week.

Turns out he was a prisoner, but when the editor wrote back quickly to say that she would have liked something different (to be published posthumously of course), the prisoner had a miraculous stay of execution.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts

I’ve always been fascinated by private investigators, so I was interesting in reading an ARC that described the life and experiences of a female detective. Cici McNair’s memoir Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts: True Adventures of a Female P.I.was much like its author – vivid and rambling and unusual. A distaff Remington Steele this is not.

Originally a Southern belle, McNair turned globetrotter and lived through adventures in other countries before she moved to New York and decided to become a private investigator. Her lack of a background in law enforcement put her at a disadvantage, since she had no experience and no permit to carry a gun. And more than one PI was suspicious of her rootless past.

“There are various rumors to the effect that you are with the Central Intelligence Agency. That you are a plant.”

“What?” I exploded. If I’m a plant, then I want to be a geranium, went absurdly through my mind.

Eventually, though, she started working for a firm from which even other investigators warned her away. And from then on it was stakeouts and taped conversations, recording the numbers of license plates while pretending to search for a lost dog, showing up at court in a bright orange wig so no one would recognize and attack her.

So much of a private investigator’s work seems to be done on the phone and on the fly, making up stories at each turn and keeping them all straight somehow. McNair has an unstoppable determination, an enjoyment of acting and the ability to notice and memorize a lot of details. Those carried her through dealings with counterfeiters, sweatshop owners and a gang called “Born to Kill”, all set against the gritty and flamboyant backdrop of New York.

My favorite such story is the one where, when dealing with a group of Middle Easterners believed to be stealing jewelry designs, she bluffs her way into a meeting. Carrying a tape recorder but no ID for her new persona (and of course no gun), she wonders what will happen if the suspects see through her. She figures she can hold a tampon before her and tell them “Unclean woman making an exit!”

Some of the stories of her past, which are interwoven with what’s happening in the here-and-now, are just as funny. Especially the one where she playfully twirls a diplomat’s walking-stick, only to be told that it’s a concealed gun which contains a bullet.

Towards the end, though, these stories became a bit too colorful. By the time I got to the end and read about the Welshman who was secretly engaged to an Irish lunatic while he wooed McNair in Cyprus, I was a little tired of the parade of exotic but weird boyfriends – gunrunners, barons, drug lords, etc.

Other than that, though, this book was an entertaining read that nevertheless taught me more about private investigations than a lot of TV shows did. I think in the future I’ll see that particular profession with a little more realism than glamour.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mazes and labyrinths

Watching Pan’s Labyrinth made me realize that I hadn’t written anything about these fascinating constructions.

One reason could be that although mazes are inherently fantastic, I haven’t seen much of them outside horror and role-playing games. They suit the latter very well, of course. In an RPG, you can draw a map, spend time deciding whether to go left or right, retrace your steps and so on. When reading a fantasy, you’d probably just want the character to get to the center of the maze already.

The horror comes from what’s possibly the best-known maze in fiction, the Labyrinth of Minos. Built as a prison for the bull-headed Minotaur, it was also a place of human sacrifice, since youths and maidens had to be regularly sent inside to be killed by the Minotaur. Theseus slew the Minotaur and found his way back out with a string given to him by Minos’s daughter, Ariadne.

Stephen King’s Rose Madder uses this myth when the heroine, Rosie, enters the world of a strange painting she has bought and is given a task (that’s another classical theme). She has to enter a maze called the Temple of the Bull and rescue an infant at its center, but the maze is guarded by the titular bull. She doesn’t have a string; instead, she uses seeds placed at the correct pathways, like Hansel and Gretel dropping crumbs, to find her way out.

In fantasy, one of my favorite mazes is the one in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 2). This is probably the most realistic, unnerving maze I’ve ever read about. It doesn’t need magic to be frightening, not when it has the claustrophobia of rock walls closing about you, the darkness, the knowledge that if you forget the way and take one wrong turn, you’ll be lost, the hunger and thirst of empty walls and bare floors and rooms filled with nothing but bones and chains…

There is a map of the maze at the start of this book, and I’ve spent time tracing the ways with a fingertip. I’ve read that there’s also a maze in Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, but I haven’t read any of those yet, so I can’t comment on it.

The House of the Undying, in George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2), is a brilliant example of a magical labyrinth. The heroine is told to always choose the door on the right (and without magic she would simply go around in circles). I love the moment when she realizes that the first door on the right is the last door on the left.

Mazes symbolize both choices and secrets, such as whatever’s hidden at the heart of the labyrinth. I have a maze in one of my manuscripts, but it’s a construct of magic rather than something real, so it guides the heroine through its twists and turns by producing white arrows chalked on the walls to show her which way to go. Until she turns a corner and sees the words “The End” smeared on a dead-end wall.

That was fun to write.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How not to respond to criticism

Let’s say you’ve written a novella and are offering it as a free read on your website, along with a comment form. Someone – not me, by the way – comments that the novella reads like an unedited first draft, and points out an especially egregious typo. What is a professional and gracious response to this?

___ Thank you. I’ll be sure to correct the typo.

___ Well, you can’t please everyone.

___ That’s funny. Another person who commented on that typo offered a different way to spell that word.

___ My story has received five-star ratings twelve times. Still, negative comments are always hurtful when they come from other authors.

___ This is a comment I recently received : “i cant waitu ntil i read the next one!!” So you see, criticism from competing authors doesn’t mean as much as praise from avid readers.

___ I’m not trying to sell these stories unless a publisher asks me for them. They are a pleasure to write. And they’re free!

The writer showed me the original feedback, which was critical but polite and honest, since the novella really does need work. Her response included the last five points in my checklist – the praise from the avid reader is a direct quote.

I don’t know if the critiquer will ever read this writer’s work again, but I’m certain I won’t. The passive-aggressive reaction may be less dramatic than the Hoffman/Rice-type meltdown, but they're both unacceptable.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


In a world of doubts and uncertainties, Max Lucado’s book Fearless draws on the Bible to offer Christians support – and more importantly, freedom from their fears. I requested this book from Thomas Nelson as part of the Book Review Bloggers program.

Fearless focuses on the Bible’s message of trusting in God, relying on the promises in Scripture and dealing with problems through prayer rather than trying to do too much oneself. But it never comes off as simply a collection of Bible verses – or, for that matter, a sermon. Instead its message is conveyed in a storytelling style, and a good example of this is the chapter on Worry. That word is capitalized because that’s how it appears in the text – and in the brief stories of people with different reasons to worry about what’s happening to them.

Worry sits on the back row of the English as a Second Language class. He’d prefer the front row, but by the time he caught the city bus and endured the evening traffic, the best seats were taken. His hands still smell of diner dishwater where Worry worked since six this morning. Within twelve hours he’ll be at the sink again, but for now he does his best to make sense of verbs, adverbs, nouns. Everyone else seems to get it. He doesn’t.

That’s memorable. It makes the book an easy as well as a compelling read.

Fearless is divided into chapters based on different kinds of fears – concerns for children’s safety, the fear of death, of poverty and so on. There’s also an extensive discussion guide. On the other hand, it’s definitely a book by a Christian for Christians, and I was personally turned off by the depiction of atheists as discontented people without real hope or joy.

For what it is, though, Fearless works, and I think this book’s target readership will be benefited by it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Changing Lanes

I’ve always liked stories which start out by throwing normal, ordinary people into rough situations… and then letting them spiral down as a result of their own flaws and bad decisions. Changing Lanes is a great example of that.

Gavin Banek is an ambitious young lawyer with a good life. He works for his father-in-law’s firm and has a mistress on the side. And on the day it all starts (the entire film takes place in a day) he has to take an important file to court, to counter the granddaughter of a millionaire coerced into signing his wealth over to Banek’s firm. So he’s driving, already a little late.

Doyle Gipson is quite different. A recovering alcoholic, he’s trying to turn his life around, and has taken out a loan on a house to try to persuade his ex-wife not to move away with their sons. Now he’s on his way to the courthouse to meet her. One thing that really touched me was when he’s in his car, earnestly repeating aloud the things he has to say to the judge about boys needing their fathers.

One fender strikes another. The story begins.

At first it’s all very civilized – the two men check that neither of them is hurt – but then Banek remembers how late he is and offers Gipson a blank check rather than wasting time with the insurance information. Gipson refuses. He wants to do everything correctly. He’s kind of an idealist, poor guy. Banek is sorry but no, he can’t hang around or offer Gipson a ride. “Better luck next time,” he says and drives off, leaving Gipson with his now non-functional car.

And beside a file that has fallen, unnoticed, by the side of the road.

I love this kind of setup because it could happen to anyone. And that’s the premise of the story – that here are two regular guys who under routine circumstances would never have met each other but would never have harmed each other if they did. But they changed lanes, they did meet each other and now they’re going to do things that would appall them.

Banek arrives at the courthouse and realizes he’s lost the file. The dialogue that follows is wince-inducing in an empathic way. Left empty-handed before the judge, Banek launches into an explanation of how, as he was exchanging insurance information with the other guy, he accidentally handed him the file.

Judge : Did you get his name?
Banek : Did I get his name? Yes. Of course I got his name.
Judge : Just call him.
Banek : As I – as I – uh, if memory serves, Your Honor, I believe he’s not in.
(The opposing attorney covers his mouth to hide a grin)
Judge : How do you know?
Banek : He made some reference to the fact that he was, uh, feeling hurried because, uh, he had to be at an appointment of some sort.
Judge (in an I-can’t-believe-I-have-to-spell-this-out tone) : Call his number and leave a message.
Banek : Yes, of course, Your Honor.

Meanwhile, Gipson arrives late to his own appointment and the judge dismisses his case.

Roger Ebert pointed out that a lesser film might have made Gipson the underdog good guy and Banek the evil one. It could also have gone the other way around. Gipson – who does have a bit of an anger problem – might have leaped to thoughts of revenge after he found the file. Instead, though, that never occurs to him until Banek, who’s driving around in a desperate haze, finally spots him and offers him ten thousand dollars for the file.

Gipson : You... you think I want money? What I want is my morning back. I need you to give my time back to me. Can you give me back my time?

But after Banek drives away in defeat, there’s a quiet moment where Gipson just stands there. The camera focuses on him and you can almost see the thoughts going through his head. It’s very well done.

So he faxes a page from the file to Banek with the words, “Better luck next time” scrawled on it. In retaliation, Banek goes to a man who “takes care of things that need… taken care of”. A few keystrokes later, Gipson is officially bankrupt. So he takes the revenge game to the next step, and what follows is a roadway scene that reflects how the story started out and is extremely tense into the bargain.

Gipson’s AA sponsor : Everything decent is held together by a covenant. An agreement not to go batshit. You broke the contract!

This film never paints its characters in shades of black and white (no pun intended with regard to the actors – Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck). They are people who are capable of decency as well as deceit. After sending the “Better luck next time” fax, Gipson calls for a courier and prepares to send the file back because that’s the right thing to do. The better part of his character has risen to the surface. He listens to his voice mail as he writes Banek’s name on the envelope.

And that’s when he hears Banek’s message telling him his credit has been turned off and he is bankrupt. So of course, he changes lanes once again. The title of the film is a perfect metaphor for what the two men do - not just physically, but in their moral walks through life, which are profoundly affected by coming into contact with each other.

I could think of a few mistakes (maybe more than few) in Changing Lanes. For instance, Gipson wrote his phone number on one of the scraps of paper that end up scattered over the ground; lucky for Banek that he found the correct scrap. I could think of more problems. But when I watch this film, I don’t want to.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Five more expensive ways to get into print

I once did a post on five expensive ways to be printed. No vanity press has yet managed to beat XLibris's Platinum Package, priced at thirteen thousand dollars, but one of them comes fairly close. We’ll start with the cheapest...

1., $250

$250 might not seem like much, but this is what offers for it. will offer the work for sale on its Internet site: AGoodBook.Com. will summarize and excerpt the book in order to motivate customers to purchase the book.

Sample summary (in its entirety):

With only his business skills and life-experiences to help him, a young and successful businessman finds himself fighting for his life, in the middle of love and international financial intrigue. Over his head, on three continents, he copes as best he can . . .and finds he likes it. Very fast paced and written in the first person, all the reader can think is, "This is could be happening to me!"

The majority of books in the e-store (in other words, eight out of the thirteen books offered for sale) were authored by the publisher, Steven Bassion. Thankfully, is no longer accepting submissions.

2. Pagefree Publishing, $399

However, this is if your book is less than 70,000 words. If it’s between 70,000 and 120,000 words, the price goes up to $459. Also, this is for the paperback – the minimum cost for a hardcover is $549. Still, you do get one (1) complimentary copy and your book produced within a month.

3. SP Press, $1350

That’s the minimum cost for the Designer Package. The Basic Package starts at $600 and the Custom Package at $850.

Somehow I doubt that good things come in any of these packages, given that at the cheapest level, authors get a “Generic front cover” and no ISBN. Those cost extra, as do editing, printing and press kits – “15 Kits for $200 - discounted 10% with any Publishing Package”.

The webpage also bears the usual vanity press claim that “You retain ALL rights”. No, you’ve lost both your rights of first publication and your six hundred dollars (minimum).

4. Diggory Press, > $3300

When I previously mentioned vanity presses which named their different packages after gemstones or precious metals, I asked if there was any metal beyond the take-out-a-second-mortgage platinum. Why, of course. That would be Diggory Press’s Rhodium Package.

This exclusive publishing package, we think is the best publishing deal in the world.

Better than the one J. K. Rowling got for her last book, I’m sure. Still, one thing your three grand buys you is an “unlimited number of author copies available for your purchase at the normal author print prices plus delivery.”

5. VMI, > $9000

Publishing with VMI: nearly ten grand.
Quotes from VMI: priceless.

There is considerable risk in publishing.

Indeed. For instance, there are a lot of vanity presses out there.

That risk increases with new authors.

Because they’re less likely to see through attempts to bleed their bank accounts dry?

The money we receive from author purchases helps pay for the initial editing, cover design, typesetting, printing, advertising, sales team costs, overhead, etc. That is why we tell our authors up-front that this is a "partnership" between publisher and author.

I’m trying to see how this is a partnership in any sense of the word. Do you go into partnership with a used-car dealer when you pay him for whatever you drive off his lot?

The costs to the author for his copies depend on the quantity ordered. The minimum order is 1000 copies.

When you order 1000 copies, you get 30% off the retail price. But using VMI’s own price of $12.99 for a 150-225 page trade paperback, you’d still be paying over nine thousand dollars before adding shipping and handling.

VMI is not a vanity publisher.

The best part is what VMI stands for: Virtue Ministries, Inc.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Falling into another world

This is a popular setup in fantasy. From Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to J. V. Jones’s The Barbed Coil to Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of her Dreams, there’s a lot of mileage to be obtained from a modern person being transported to a fantasy world.

Two things that make this plot perennially interesting are the conflict inherent in the fish-out-of-water start and the fact that the reader can discover the world along with the main character. There are some pitfalls in constructing such a story, though, which I discovered when I critiqued the sixth or seventh version of a query for such a novel…

1. Unfinished business

If the protagonist leaves duties or responsibilities or problematic relationships behind in the real world, readers will expect these to be resolved somehow – for instance, by the protagonist learning something in the fantasy world that helps him to deal with the situation when he returns to reality.

That was a problem with the query I critiqued – although the protagonist’s real life was terrible, there was no indication that he would return to improve it. Which makes it seem like unfinished business, and there’s a difference between an open-ended story and one which had loose ends.

Readers remember their first impressions vividly. If the first impression is of a girl running from her abusive boyfriend, they will expect that the abusive boyfriend situation be corrected or at least addressed in the novel, even if the rest of the story is how the girl falls through a portal and finds out that she’s really the Princess of Peliga (to use a really cliched example).

A solution is to give the protagonist a happy and normal life – a la Alice in Wonderland - but then it’ll be necessary to deal with their wanting to go home and missing their families or friends. Which leads me to my second point…

2. The realities of medieval worlds

I love medieval worlds. I love looking at paintings of them and writing about them. I would hate to live in one.

Hygiene, health, safety and convenience in a medieval land would probably not be up to the same standards as those a modern character would be used to. I spent a month in Sri Lanka a few years ago, and there were so many things my extended family there took for granted but which I was unused to – heat, mosquitoes, scorpions, the lack of a reliable Internet connection and so on. The same thing applies to a modern person in a medieval world, except more so. At least I knew I’d be leaving after a month.

And those are just the realities of medieval worlds. What about the dark side of their fantastic elements – predators and hostile magic, for instance? There are some wonderful and whimsical things and people in the Looking-Glass world and in Wonderland… but there are also some disturbing and dangerous aspects of those places.

3. A welcome with open arms

This will probably make me close such a book right away. I’ve read too many stories where the protagonist is the Chosen One, the princess sent away from her home for her own good, a la Moses on the Nile. It kills any conflict dead, since everyone likes her and is overjoyed to see her; the few people who don’t are invariably evil or at least misguided.

4. A wish-fulfillment fantasy.

The main problem with the query I critiqued was that the protagonist (once he entered the medieval world) was given respect and status and everything he had ever longed for. He didn’t have to fight for what he got, and he was more or less at the top of that world’s pecking order. Again, no conflict.

There are wish-fulfillment elements in a lot of stories, but when powerful magic operates to take a protagonist to a world where he is immediately recognized as special, it’s a bit more obvious. In Pan's Labyrinth, Ofelia had to work to gain recognition as the Princess, and when she made a mistake, she was chastised - hard.

Some things I’d like to see in such a plot…

A character enters a not-often-used world, something different from the usual medieval landing point. I’d love to see a modern-day person in one of Shakespeare’s plays, where the play is the reality. Or a character from a completely different reality (e.g. a steampunk or dark fantasy) is transported to a medieval world.