Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Wise Man's Fear - my thoughts on his genius

It has taken me a little time to finish Patrick Rothfuss's mammoth second installment in the life story of Kvothe.  I must confess to a certain trepidation. 1000 pages carried us through just one year of his hero's eventful life. I am unsure as to how Rothfuss will close the circle between the precocious teenager on the threshold of some great infamy and the enigmatic innkeeper haunted by some unknown intervening tragedy.  He has only left himself one volume to do it and has promised to bring it in within a shorter span of pages.  As I frantically weave together the threads for the final volume of my own trilogy, I have to say I think Rothfuss has set himself a very tall order.

But first let us be clear.  I liked the book.

I think the quality of a piece of artwork is defined by the response it inspires in the observer and  I think a similar rule also holds true for books whose individual worth is defined by the response they inspire in the reader   This is a good book because it made me think, it set me mysteries that I wanted answered, and told me stories that amused and entertained me.  But that definition of quality means different people can quite honestly and legitimately judge the same book as being great or awful.  That dichotomy is evident in the range of reviews Rothfuss has on Goodreads and the way that the less complimentary one star reviews have been propelled towards the top of the lists by copious likes.

The structure of the books reminds me of Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Trilogy.  That alternates its protagonist's bitter crippled present as a monk enslaved by a bishop with the glorious past when he was   King Arthur's sworn swordsmen Derfel.  There is again that question, by what tragic pathway did the young man become the old one.  That central question is the thread that holds me in thrall to Rothfuss's story telling.  It is those scenes in the Wayfarer Inn that most leave me wanting more, where the extent of Kvothe's fall is exposed, yet where he still retains so much of the man he must have become.

However, my doubts remain.  Rothfuss is a world builder of extraordinary skill who writes lovingly in great detail.  There are two huge chunks of the story,   a trial and a sea journey which are dismissed in a few paragraphs as the older Kvothe tells his chronicler that he can't be bothered to go into the detail.  My suspicion is that Rothfuss did go into the detail, that he did describe all those events in exquisite loving prose but that some editor suggested that 1000 pages was enough and cuts must be made, and rather than streamline any excesses in his writing, Rothfuss simply amputated a couple of narrative limbs.

This is not to say that his writing is flabby, it is carefully considered and structured prose.  However, it savours the detail of the story, painting a picture with many fine brushstrokes.  It may have been in consequence of this that my own reading of it was a drawn out affair, a repast to be sipped and nibbled at rather than devoured in a single sitting.

Rothfuss creates and describes two new and intricate societies.  The Maer Alevron's world of  patronage with its rigid barriers of class, service and protocol all denoted by the exchange of rings, and the Adem. These last a fascinating society in a land without any natural resources whose economy is dependent on exporting the most feared mercenaries in the world.  It reminds me a bit of Las Vegas where a place with no resources thrived through an analogous market in service industries, though in the case of Las Vegas it is gambling and sex.  There is an irony in that parallel since the Adem have a somewhat open attitude towards sexual encounters which appear to be given far more freely than a smile.  One does just wonder what might happen if the Adem where hired by both sides in a conflict  Possibly it would be like the medieval mercenary swiss pikeman who would agree not to fight each other too seriously in such circumstances.

As in the first book, Denna drifts in and out of the story, while Kvothe struggles vainly in the "just good friendship" trap.   It is when I read those passages that I wonder how far Mr Rothfuss might have himself endured some stubbornly unignited teenage romance.  The kind where the young man worships some enigmatic paragon whom he has set upon a pedestal and decides that he was especially favoured because she chose to practice her virtue on him and no-one else  (or is it me I am thinking of?)

Rothfuss loves to build worlds and detailed worlds at that.  From the intricate operation of his magic system, to the political intrigues of court and university, from the perils and wonders of the faerie realm, to the strange high town-low town structures of  Severen where the discontinuities of society are mimicked by geography. All through Mr Rothfuss takes us on a travelogue through his capacious imagination and it is an entertaining journey.

The story is not without flaws.  For example, a man of the Maer's wealth hires a band scarcely less cohesive and coherent than Enid Blyton's famous five to root out a group of tax collector robbing bandits. Some critical reviews have mentioned Kvothe's impossible prowess in every field of human endeavour, including several bedrooms.  However, I am content to be shown the tale that Rothfuss wishes to tell and to experience and enjoy the skill of his storytelling.

It is, however, no surprise to hear that Rothfuss accidentally wrote a 20,000 word novella about one of the minor characters Auri.  Dare I suggest that Rothfuss's interest in the Worldbuilders charity may in some part stem from the realisation that turning our own world into a significantly better place could be a more manageable task than wrestling the tale of Kvothe to a satisfactory conclusion in under 1000 pages.

However, I still await the next instalment with interest, for above all else I want the answer to that central (seven word!) question.

What happened to the red headed innkeeper?

Sunday, 15 June 2014

A Cover for Master of the Planes and links to short stories

I took a bit of a break from writing Master of the Planes (I'm at the 120,000 word point, so I reckoned I might have earned a break).  Instead I worked with the wonderful designer Paganus, who I met through the 99designs website to come up with the cover for the book.  As you can see it is a splendid design, beautifully rendered and a great encouragement to me to get on apace with the writing of it

One thing I am conscious of in my books is I have explicitly tried to have several significant female leading characters.  In particular there are four female characters who top the tables in terms of "time on camera" and numbers of scenes written from their points of view.

I wanted that pre-eminence to be reflected in the covers of the books.

  • Niarmit, the eponymous Lady of the Helm, took pride of place on the cover of book one.
  • Dema strutted her stuff on the cover of Wrath of the Medusa.
  • That left two more women to share the limelight on the last book.

I know that some readers dislike seeing characters faces drawn on  book covers.  They feel it spoils their imagining of how the characters look when they see someone else's depiction of them.  However, I felt that the mysterious hooded man or hooded woman concept had been rather done to death and I have to say, Paganus has captured the latest two exactly as I imagined them.

I hope the cover will pique some people's curiosity.  I am straining to get book 3 finished by August, with probably editing and release date by October.  But it is already nearly as long as Lady of the Helm and I am still embroiled in part three of five.  

In the meantime I have continued to use the inspiring fantasy-faction short story competitions to come up with prequel short stories for the characters of the bloodline trilogy.  As set out below.

"The Battle of Bledrag Field," where Matteus and Niarmit stood against the invaders,

 "A New Start," where Kaylan met Niarmit

"Desperation,"  a pivotal moment in Chirard's kinslaying wars 

"The Little Wizard's Folly," Dema and Odestus meet some new exiles

"The Dark Lord Returns," There are other worlds that Maelgrum has enslaved

"It is Taboo,"  A Dema origins story

There are also a couple of other short stories that are not Bloodline Trilogy related

"The Road to Arrow," a fanfic homage to the moral free id that is Mark Lawrence's Jorg Honorius Ancrath (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, Emperor of Thorns)

"Witness Lynn" - a futuristic story featuring a woman called Lynn who cannot lie

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Happy Self-Publishing Birthday to Me

I started this self-publishing adventure on 11th June 2013 when Lady of the Helm took its place on the electronic shelves of Amazon's KDP select programme.  As that anniversary approaches, it seems like a good point at which to reflect on what I have learned and how.

But let's start with what you are all interested in.  What are the figures?


Well, Lady of the Helm was joined by book 2 of the trilogy Wrath of the Medusa on 13th December 2013.  Grand sales of both books currently come to 1205 units made up of 1019 Lady of the Helm and 186 Wrath of the Medusa.  In addition there were 264 Lady of the Helms downloaded for free as part of a KDP promotion and there have been about a dozen "borrows" of the books in total, which paradoxically earn me more than a sale does given where I have priced the books.

It will surprise few who know me well to discover that there is a spreadsheet of the sales figures on a monthly basis, with different lines on the graph for the different markets that Amazon operate in.

The peak in July and August came on the back of a 264 book giveaway - though it might be unwise to assume a causal relationship between the two.  Lady of the Helm is priced at 77pence.  The received wisdom on the KDP commuity is that I might get more sales and greater credibility by having the confidence to put it on at a higher price.  Certainly Wrath of the Medusa with fewer sales but a higher price pitched to capture the 70% royalty earnings has earned me more money than Lady of the Helm.  But for me the main thing is still getting the books out there and cultivating a readership.

The book was a slow burn in the states (the website) but now .com sales are consistently outstripping sales.

And the other question, how much have I made, can I retire yet?  The short answer is an obvious no.  The few hundred pounds I have raised just about take me to break even point with the cost of my covers and other expenses (courtesy of the wonderful Paganus).  It was salutary to discover that Mark Lawrence, for all the success of the Broken Empire series is still a part-time writer with a demanding day job.  It will be some time and many many sales before I can tweet like Joe Abercrombie does about dilemma of which flavour of poptart to choose before settling down to a gentle morning at the laptop.

However, I heard somewhere and (because it suits my ego) I am happy to believe it that the "average" book sells 3000 copies total.   For a self-published book launched with minimal fanfare and little more publicity than a few websites and word of mouth, I am quite pleased with how it has gone so far.

Read on if you want to hear more of the highs and lows of a year in the self-publishing business.

Or here is the TL:DR summary

Maintaining an internet presence to market your book is not hard, just dangerous.  It can be such fun that it draws you into endless procrastination when you should be writing.

Reviews maketh the book - I love the reviews I've got, I wish I could have more.

Interacting with readers who love your book is a great pay off for the long hard slog of writing.

High spot one: the first review - the man from Uncle

Amazon is very careful about authors self-reviewing and I have never understood how people seem to be able to generate what must surely be sock puppet reviews.  My first review came in on the 16th June.

What a beauty.  For a long time that gave me an average rating of 5 stars and a fairly high up position in the sorting of recently published epic fantasy.  I am sure that helped the July and August sales.  Having lived with only my daughter's approval and interest for so long there was nothing quite like finding out that someone I didn't know really liked my book.  It was a bit of a Sally Field moment for me.

High spot two: making it into a top 100 list

There was a day in July when as a family we went to see The Tempest at the Globe Theatre.  Assiduously checking my sales figures on my phone it seemed that every hour brought a new sale and, sure enough, when I got home, the amazon sales algorithm had got me into a top 100 category and a sales ranking of under 4000 out of over 2,000,000 titles.  That one sale an hour or so had catapulted me briefly into the top 0.2% of titles on Kindle.

After that the rankings hovered below #10,000 for a while and then below #20,000.  Now they tend to be somewhere under #100,000 and I have lost my OCD tendency to check the ranking all the time.  Sales and reader feedback are my current obsession.

High spot three: finding the first author community

The whole self-publishing experience through Amazon had been astonishingly easy.  Upload the cover, upload the word file, it had even done a spell check for me.  And on top of that KDP offered me access to a community of self-publishing authors.  In the early days of June, July and August that was where I went for all my publishing advice and support.  The people there were lovely and certainly helped when I got to my first low spot.
However, it is an authors' community and like many newbies there I struggled to see how or if I could market my book there.  It's a bit like going into the local Indian takeaway and offering to make them a chicken korma.  I did make one sale, my first on the Canadian site, mainly because one of the forum members was so entranced by the English cricketing idiom "breaking my duck"  (as in moving off a score of zero) that they kindly broke my Canadian duck for me.

What the forum did show was the huge range in self-published authors and also the slightly weary "it used to be so much better but the bubble has now burst" from the more established members.  It was a bit like the Monty Python four Yorkshiremen sketch.
"Aye, when I were a lad if you did a KDP free giveaway, you'd get 20,000 downloads in the first hour and 4000 of them would give you a review within the first day, and then your sales ranking would shoot up to #1."

Low spot one: the first negative review

I was on holiday in a French campsite in August trying to write the second part of book two as well as fulfil family commitments to the pool and the slides.  A casual check on Amazon revealed a 2 star review by someone whose high expectations of the book had been disappointed, though she did admit it might work for others.  I was gutted.  I was paranoid that my sales, buoyant on an average 5 star rating, would now crumble.  That Sally Field moment of the first positive review had its precise opposite.  I went to bed and wrote nothing all day.   But then my second daughter told me exactly the same thing had happened to her in her fanfiction writing and the KDP forum told me everybody gets them and you just don't respond. And what the hell, the reader is entitled to their opinion.  So I moved on.

Low spot two: Black September

As you may be able to tell from the chart earlier, September 2013 continued a declining trend and remains my lowest month for total book sales.  61.  Was this the inevitable decline?  Had the little bubble burst?  The forum offered conflicting advice and experience.  Some authors reported buoyant sales, others had figures far worse than mine.  Still, it was a relief when October turned out to be better than September.

High spot four: the wider internet author communities

Around about this time I joined twitter and created a facebook presence for T.O.Munro and started pursuing the kind of internet presence that all the forums seemed to be talking about.  Marketing was difficult but essential they said, marketing was harder than writing, get out there and find your readers but don't appear on forums and immediately declare your authorship and spam your book at everyone.

I joined a variety of groups some of which, lamentably I have done nothing more than delete the daily update email they send me.  Others have been more inspirational and/or supportive.  The short story competitions at Fantasy-faction gave me a great excuse to fill in the backstory to Lady of the Helm in bite sized chunks.

I was particular struck by the ease and accessibility of authors in the internet age, none more so that Mark Lawrence - author of the Thorns trilogy and Prince of Fools.  Tweets, blogs and competitions seemed to be the way to go.  I entered one of Mark's competitions and this remains my favourite entry in one of his many competitions - all done with nothing more sophisticated than paint.

High Spot Five - joining Goodreads

I had avoided Goodreads for a while.  The feeling on the KDP forum seemed to be that it was populated by bullies who filed the books of self published authors on offensively titled shelves.  However a twitter follower lamenting that he could not find my book on Goodreads prompted me to join as a Goodreads author.  I promptly received a favourable review and a first fan from Goodreads and a great review which he copied over to give me my first review - and incidentally probably kick started the US sales that had been dawdling somewhat compared to the UK sales.

High spot six - Book two comes out, and I get an interview.

Wrath of the Medusa was launched in December and got some positive feedback.  The nature of the story is very much a three part epic so there were several readers anxious to see what happened next.  I joined a newly set up authors' network, the Self-publishers showcase and got to do an interview as well as an author's page.  They made a bit of a splash for the launch of Wrath of the Medusa.  I pitched the price higher and, in line with KDP forum advice, I avoided the free giveaways.  Sales were slower than Lady of the Helm, but income was higher.

High spot seven - competing, winning and judging

I won my first Mark Lawrence Competition which was to do a reading of his short story Select Mode  which could be posted on sound cloud. Fun as it was to read a short story in the voice of Jorg Ancrath, Mark also kindly suggested I read an excerpt from Lady of the Helm at the end of the story.  That netted me another reader whose curiosity about the story mastered his scepticism about self-published books and I got another great goodreads and review.  I also discovered reddit and got feedback from Michael J Sullivan, a stalwart in the close and supportive community of fantasy authors, traditionally published, self-published and hybrid.

Then, on top of this I was invited to be one of a panel of judges on a bloody cake news short story competition  in some very illustrious traditionally published company.

But am I happy? - Yes!

So, at the end of it all I am pleased with how my books have sold and how their internet presence and public awareness is gradually developing.  Virtual book shelves are infinite in length so, unlike a bricks and mortar bookshop there will never be a need to take my books down to make way for the next bigger better seller.  In the meantime I am content to get on with writing the concluding book of the trilogy, and hope that word of mouth and maintaining a modest marketing presence will enable my readership to continue to grow.

The greatest pleasure is in the comments from readers who want to know how Niarmit's story concludes.