Freebies: The Final Word

This January, I set out to read the free ebooks that I’d been collecting on my Kindle but never got the chance to read. It’s been an interesting ride, in turns energizing, frustrating, eye-opening and confusing. Apart from a desire to clean up my back-log, I originally wanted to use this to learn a bit about what it might take to hook a reader, be it a customer reading the free sample, or a slush-pile reader. Hopefully I could then apply these lessons in my own writing, or at least share it on the blog.

A summary of what I’ve read is at the bottom, and individual mini-reviews are in the four (five) updates. These were all books that passed the first hurdle of getting me intrigued enough to download them, but often that was a very low hurdle; after all, they were free. I very rarely buy books completely “on spec” anymore, but as there was no risk here, I gorged myself a bit on freebies, whether advertised deals or perma-free. Obviously, the stash grew much faster than I could read it, which is the danger with free giveaways, as many acknowledge.

After that it became much as I would expect slush-pile reading is: picking up a random book and giving it a read until I didn’t want to keep going. Sometimes this was a few pages, sometimes a few chapters, and, in a few cases, the whole thing; I’m sure a lot of experienced slush readers read even less than I did.

Did I expect to find my new favourite book this way? No, whi13279676ch is why I usually use a far more scientific approach, with all the tools now available. Did I expect some not-very-good books? Yes, and even moreso because I realise I’m picky, with particular predilections about settings and sexism. But really, I was looking for a few pleasant surprises, and to perhaps find some distinguishing features between the more successful ones and the more obscure.

Conclusions

1. Generic Fantasy is alive and well in the indie world

So, if you’ve read the updates, you know I’m not great fan of what I term “generic” worldbuilding. To me, this means the sort of shallow, stereotypical fantasy world you see in video games and Disney movies, disconnected from historical realism (not “accuracy”), a jumble of tropes and anachronisms that only Discworld is allowed to get away with. (For 17408269example, the books expound on cities, princes and soldiers, but it’s never clear how all these people grow ingredients for their ubiquitous stews, because the land is a lonely wilderness not a teeming agrarian base.)

You still get a bit of this in modern published fantasy, but it absolutely abounds in the indie press. Obviously, a lot of readers are less picky about this than I am – or than agents and editors are – because a lot of this stuff sells. Fantasy has always made space for the comfortable and familiar, so it makes sense that as the mainstream turns away from tropes, the indie world fills the void. And why not?

2. I think I know what “voice” means now

An agent I follow on Twitter (and I’m sure he’s not alone) always says that “voice” is the number one thing he looks for in a submission – before plot, setting, character – and, having read through a slush pile of my own, I’m getting more of an idea what he means. The writing in certain books stood out through a mix of style and authority, a confidence in what they were doing and how they were unfolding the tale.

These books read like books by published authors, but this is not to say they all sounded the same. Rather, it was the way they used the language effectively (and often, efficiently),11946131 the way they paced, the way they introduced characters and scenes. Some of this is obviously the product of critical editing, which leads me on to point 3.

3. Editing is not optional

I don’t mean spell-checking, which should be automatic – most of these were, in fact, decently proofed – but the critical eye that helps hone “voice”, as above. There was a lot of bland, wordy prose that took forever to get anywhere, and made you struggle along the way. Also a few of the books were written, not only in generic fantasy land, but “generic fantasy voice” – full of old-fashioned flourishes that don’t quite work (with one notable exception).

Other common issues were things like using passive voice, telling rather than showing, including extraneous details and full-on info-dumping. These are all things you can find in almost any advice book or blog post, but some writers apparently either don’t want to know, or can’t see it. Of course, you can break these rules as you like, but not without risk.

4. You’ve got to have a hook

I focused on the hook in Update 1, but it’s absolutely vital, and doubly so in an exercise like this. The hook can be an intriguing mystery, an interesting character, an ominous threat or an inciting event – but there has to be something to get the reader engaged in the story. As mentioned, I’m more likely  to be hooked by certain things than others, and there are plenty of things that will still turn me off, but a book that doesn’t draw you in and give you some idea what it’s about is easy to put down. For me, some element also has to be immediate – not something that will arrive at the end of the book, or (!) the series.

5. Popular doesn’t always mean Good, but it does mean something

We all know that critical merit and popularity don’t always go hand-in-hand, and I’m especially aware that my tastes don’t always line up with the majority, so it’s hard to know what conclusion to draw here. I was a bit surprised that, while generally better crafted, I didn’t see anything ground-breaking in any of the bigger names. However, as I said above, there’s an audience out there for good, solid stories with all the tropes.8616554

Some popular authors will admit that a lot of it is down to luck – right place, right time, right story – and that once you make that breakthrough with a fanbase you’ve got the platform to build a lasting success. Some successful indie authors seem to have a knack for finding a niche and filling it with as many books as they can, including the sorts of classic stories mainstream publishing isn’t looking for but that readers still want. I occasionally think of this as the new ‘pulp fiction’ and I don’t mean that negatively.

I do wonder, however,  if the conclusion here is that self-publishing may not be for me. On evidence of my taste, I don’t expect to ever write a particularly popular – or, at least, populist – book, which clearly seems one important element of indie success. On the other hand, I don’t know if the money-men at traditional publishing would take a chance on my more esoteric work, either, and therefore maybe indie publishing does represent the only chance to get my work out there. Hopefully, one way or another, a few people will appreciate it, as I have done some of the “hidden gems” here.

Other questions…

Does giving books away for free help authors? Am I going to continue any of these series? I don’t know. I’m not really the type to get stuck into series anyway – more often I’m on to the next new thing – so I’m probably the wrong target audience. It certainly has got me to read books and authors I would not have, and I can now recommend a few more writers to people (as I’ll do in the next post). Having got a book for free, and seeing how many more free books are out there, however, clearly raises my threshold for actually paying for something. And when I can often snag a widely-praised traditionally-published book by a respected author for £1.99 as well, it’s a very tough market out there.23835707

Also, where are the women? I struggled through this whole thing to find books by women authors that were not YA, urban/paranormal/punk and/or clones of other popular series by women. I know this is a reflection of genres overall, but freed of the constraints of publishing bias, I hoped for a few more “traditional/adult” fantasies by women. The ones I did get were among the best (Patty Jansen and Elizabeth Baxter), but perhaps there’s some truth to the stereotypes about what men and women write?

Overall

There was definite quality here, and variety, even if I still think the range of both are a bit lower than you get from traditionally published books. That’s not a surprise, really, but indie books are clearly exploiting a few niches, finding plenty of fans, and I’ve found a few treasures in the “slush piles”. The main problem – for authors and readers – continues to be how to sift through all that slush. I can tell you, it takes some effort!

 

Read in Update 1 :

Twisted Fate – Jeremy Laszlo – 16%

City of Blaze – H O Charles – 13%

The Last King’s Amulet – Chris Northern – 19%

Shadowborn – Moira Katson – 8%

Fell Winter – A J Cooper – 4%

Song of the Fairy Queen – Valerie Douglas – 7%

Enchantment’s Reach – Martin Ash – Finished!

The Light of Theolan – Nick Marsden – 24%

Read in Update 2 :

Fire & Ice – Patty Jansen – Finished!

Red Axe, Black Sun – Michael Karner  – 51% (before this blog series)

The Dreamer and the Deceiver – Alex Villavasso – 21% (it’s short)

The Key – Jennifer Anne Davis – 5%

Chronicles of Den’dra: A Land Torn – Spencer Johnson – 6%

Magic of Thieves – C Greenwood – 23%

City of Rogues – Ty Johnston – 6%

The Last Priestess – Elizabeth Baxter – still reading!

Read in Update 3/4:

Glimmer Vale – Michael Kingswood – 10%

The Unwilling Adventurer – Heidi Willard – 5%

Sorcerer’s Code – Christopher Kellen – Finished! (novella)

The Seventh Horse: Shader Origins – D. P. Prior – 50% (novella)

The Warrior’s Path – Catherine M Wilson – 4%

New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel – Steven W White – still reading!

Firehurler – J S Morin– 1%

Skip – Perrin Briar – 14%

Read in Update 5:

The Weight of the Crown – Tavish Kaeden – 4%

Stormsinger – Stephanie A Cain – Finished! (novelette)

The Kinshield Legacy – K C May – 3%

A Dance of Dragons – Kaitlyn Davis – 31% (including all of prequel novella)

The Book of Deacon – Joseph Lallo – 5%

The White Tree – Edward W Robertson – 8%

Dawn of War – Tim Marquitz – 7%

Freebies, Update 5: Last but not Least

At last, we come to the last lot of free ebooks I originally marked to read back in January. It’s been an interesting ride, in turns energizing, frustrating, eye-opening and confusing, but I’ll save that for the Final Word.

The final lot, at last:

The Weight of the Crown – Tavish Kaeden – 4%

26154334Why I chose it: It came high up in Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO, and sounded Epic.

Verdict: It is Epic, clearly, and starts in the time honoured way of weaving disparate threads that will eventually come together (so I hear). It also promises to be quite dark. Unfortunately, neither of these things is really my current cup of tea, but I will keep it in mind. The character introductions were very internalised, however (see below), and the world needed more flavour to really entice me.

On the plus side: Well written, and will find plenty of fans. I liked that the chapters did not each go on too long – good if you have so many threads.

 

Stormsinger – Stephanie A Cain – Finished! (novelette)18397752

Why I picked it up: I like ships, and though it’s outside the range of a lot of the other Freebies (i.e. not medieval), I’ve included it because it’s not -punk.

Verdict: Well, it’s quite short, so I read all of it. It’s bright, bouncy and a bit…immature? Not in content, just in style. The story is intriguing, but serves more as a taster for something else. Notable that conflict is resolved without violence.

On the plus side: An intriguing set of diverse characters, nautical adventure and, well, it’s short!

 

The Kinshield Legacy – K C May – 3%

7040020Why I chose it: It was free, and the blurb sounded good.

Verdict: Starts too deep in the story for me, without giving the reader enough reason to care about the protagonist or what he’s doing (the only background is what’s in the blurb!). And then there was a tavern with buxom barmaids serving stew, so I bailed.

On the plus side: Didn’t start with a orphan boy in a village waiting for his destiny, and once I re-read the blurb I thought about giving it another chance.

 

A Dance of Dragons – Kaitlyn Davis – 31% (all of prequel novella)23835707

Why I picked it up: Popular series, and I was trying to explore and combat my preconceptions about this style of fantasy. (NB: This is two books in one.)

Verdict: When the novella started, it didn’t seem likely to get me past my princess prejudices, but I soon found myself wanting to know what happened almost in spite of myself. The main novel sounded more to my taste, but wasn’t as polished (I assume the prequel was written later). The writing is punchy, uneven, and a bit raw, but it has something compelling about it that kept me turning pages. In the end, though, two “special snowflake” characters in a somewhat simplistic world didn’t do it for me. Wasn’t convinced by the horse, either.

On the plus side: Clearly a market for this, even if it’s not me.

 

The Book of Deacon – Joseph Lallo – 5%

8616554Why I picked it up: It’s a pretty big seller, this one, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

Verdict: A somewhat vague, expository start and simplistic “eternal war” did not really whet my appetite, but the protagonist is more intriguing. The pace, however, is…methodical. You get the feeling this is going to be a long, slow burn, and I could have done with a bit more urgency.

On the plus side: Some people like long, slow burns, and it’s not badly written. Nice to meet a female lead character!

 

The White Tree – Edward W Robertson – 8%16201131

Why I picked it up: As with Deacon, it’s another popular, highly-rated indie series.

Verdict: Definitely well-written and therefore easy to read, the major problem for me was that a few chapters in, we still don’t know why the protagonist is trying to uncover these secrets. Who is he, how he can read, and why hasn’t the city any walls? These questions did not really constitute a hook, as they just seemed ignored rather than dangled.

On the plus side: Compelling nevertheless and easy to see why it’s well respected.

 

Dawn of War – Tim Marquitz – 7%

12396537Why I picked it up: Another big name, who is associated with Ragnarok Pub.

Verdict: As you’d expect, gritty and violent so far, with a compelling returning exile (ahem), but fell into the “generic fantasy game world” trap for me. I’m not a fan of the nation/race trope, and though these are at least not the traditional ones, it does make for a lot of exposition and info-dumping.

On the plus side: You can see why it has found fans; the tension is building immediately and the writing is clear and readable.

 

Conclusions

I’ll save my overall conclusions for next, and final, update, because I think they need reflecting on. The main thing about this round was coming across some pretty heavy hitters, and, in the main, it was easy to see why they were. Much more professionally and competently produced than a lot of the books I’ve sampled here, it’s harder to spot the differences between them and traditionally-published books. None of them were really for me, but I live on the fringes – mainstream fans will find plenty to like.

One thing I did notice with quite a few of this round of books (and others, too), is that they start with long passages of internal thoughts and observations from the character’s point of view, including a fair bit of exposition. I found this was not as compelling as watching them act or interact, revealing themselves and their world through action rather than thought.

In some of these Epics, I suppose you have the time to build up gradually – but then, maybe that’s an illusion. They didn’t give me a reason to care quick enough, though some at least gave me a reason to be curious. If I was more patient (i.e. not doing this blog project) I probably would have given them each more time, and may well return to them.

On last thing: the dreaded fantasy stew popped up more than once!

 

Already read in Update 1 :

Twisted Fate – Jeremy Laszlo – 16%

City of Blaze – H O Charles – 13%

The Last King’s Amulet – Chris Northern – 19%

Shadowborn – Moira Katson – 8%

Fell Winter – A J Cooper – 4%

Song of the Fairy Queen – Valerie Douglas – 7%

Enchantment’s Reach – Martin Ash – Finished!

The Light of Theolan – Nick Marsden – 24%

Already read in Update 2 :

Fire & Ice – Patty Jansen – Finished!

Red Axe, Black Sun – Michael Karner  – 51% (a while ago, before this blog series)

The Dreamer and the Deceiver – Alex Villavasso – 21% (it’s short)

The Key – Jennifer Anne Davis – 5%

Chronicles of Den’dra: A Land Torn – Spencer Johnson – 6%

Magic of Thieves – C Greenwood – 23%

City of Rogues – Ty Johnston – 6%

The Last Priestess – Elizabeth Baxter – still reading!

Already in Update 3/4:

Glimmer Vale – Michael Kingswood – 10%

The Unwilling Adventurer – Heidi Willard – 5%

Sorcerer’s Code – Christopher Kellen – FINISHED!

The Seventh Horse: Shader Origins – D. P. Prior – 50%

The Warrior’s Path – Catherine M Wilson – 4%

New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel – Steven W White – still reading!

Firehurler – J S Morin– 1%

Skip – Perrin Briar (or is it Pippa Babbage?) – 14%

 

Writing: Beta Readers

So, a few weeks back, I blogged about what I was thinking of doing next. As usual, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. I haven’t got as far along editing my old military space opera as I’d like (though I’m enjoying it), partially because I took two weeks of to write a cozy mystery novelette for my wife (Valentine’s present), and now due to the intervention of two wonderful examples of what is an amazing class of person: beta readers.

What would we do without beta readers, those lovely people who offer to read your unfinished manuscript and give you feedback on the experience? These are the unsung heroes of the writing world, the testers, the guinea pigs, the first hurdle – avoid them at your peril (I do wonder about some of the Freebies I’ve just read!). Even though many writers would say they write “for themselves”, every story clearly has to face readers at some point, and this quality of this first contact is important for its future.

It’s not just for indies, either. Look in any published book and I’m sure you’ll find lists of beta readers, even if they aren’t called that. It might be as part of a writing group, in may be friends and family, but beta readers are a vital part of writing, and if you aren’t taking advantage of them, you are probably doing it wrong.

What writers need

The basic question that writers want to know about a virgin story is, does it work? This may be about specific things, or overall, but the writer needs to know if this thing they’ve birthed actually functions in the way they intended. The best  answer you can hope for is probably an “almost”, and that’s what you want. A book can always get better, after all.wwcover

The beta reader needs to flag up anything that confused, annoyed, or frustrated them; but also what amused, delighted or surprised them. Obviously, personal taste will play a role here, so both beta and author have to take that into account. Choosing a beta reader is very important: someone you respect, someone you can trust, and someone who likes the sort of book that you think yours is.

The writer wants an indication of how readers will receive the book. This means honesty is important, harsh truths if necessary, but hopefully some positives and praise as well. Specific examples will be important, but the overall sense is usually what we’re after.

What writers don’t want

Obviously, they don’t want to hear the story sucks – but if it does, they probably need to. What writers really don’t need is too many suggestions. “I would do it this way…” is not the point, though I know it’s hard to hold back sometimes, especially if you are a writer. They don’t want to be lectured on “how to write”, either, because there is no one way.

A beta reader isn’t an editor, as tempting as it is for an indie to use them like one. They don’t need to catch typos and grammatical errors, but if they notice some patterns they should probably let you know. Neither do they have to do an in-depth literary analysis or critique – that’s not how most readers are going to approach a book.

How writers should respond

First, you don’t need to change everything they say. The next beta reader or editor might want it all changed back, after all! But you do need to question why these things might have come up, and whether some adjustment is needed. If they say there are major issues, there’s probably a good reason for it – and hopefully the writer suspected as much before sending it out.

The worst response from a writer is, obviously, a refusal to listen. This can be either no response at all, or an argumentative one. A beta reader doesn’t want each of their points refuted, nor do they want radio silence. You asked them for help, after all, so give what they say a fair shake, even if you disagree.

How to find beta readers

This is often the hardest part, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Family and friends are often a starting point, but they may not read the right sort of book, or be removed enough to give you that critical feedback. Some people may know a local writing group that will help, but if not there are always online communities.

51fnvdgsc5l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Helpful internet communities may just be writing- or book-related, or actually set up around critiques. Posting work on-line is much easier with short work or scenes, and you can learn a lot from that – for a while. Critique groups may also introduce you people willing to read more of your work, and you can judge from your interactions whether they might be the sort of beta reader you need.

Otherwise, just keep making connections. Don’t try to foist your book on people at every opportunity, but make sure the invitation is out there. As I said, I got really lucky in the last few months that people I knew and respected offered to help me out – and it’s given a huge boost to my writing.

The payoff

I’d had a few beta readers before, but they just weren’t that responsive or insightful – though they were dealing with rougher drafts, as well – so I was not sure where next to go. I knew the book needed more feedback, and it’s a lot to ask of someone to read an 165,000-word unpolished manuscript when there are so many good books out there.

Then again, I’ve beta read a few times, and I got a huge kick out of it. There’s something exciting about reading a book that no-one has ever seen before. It may be a bit of a hot mess, but there’s often so much raw creativity and excitement there as well. Knowing you can be part of the evolution of the book, turning it into something better, is a great feeling. Experience with reading critically like that also helps a lot in your own writing.

If anyone out there wants to give it a try, I’ve got a couple books you’re welcome to read – and I’m always happy to beta read as well, when I have time.

Freebies, Update 4: Fantasy Fatigue

So, sorry I’ve let this slide a few weeks, but a bit has been going on:

  • I’ve been continuing books from the first two updates.
  • Editing of two of my WIPs has been pushed up the agenda due to circumstances.
  • I spent two weeks writing a non-fantasy novella as a Valentines gift, which was fun.

 

However, I’ve managed to have a peek around a few of these and now feel like I can cross them off the list and move on. Maybe it’s just a bit of fantasy fatigue, but with all the good books buzzing around me just now, I was looking for excuses to stop more than to keep going – though I did uncover a few surprises.

 

This week’s bunch, at last:

Glimmer Vale – Michael Kingswood – 10%20457947

Why I picked it up: Sharp cover, neat blurb with plot evocative of Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven. Sold – at least, for free!

Verdict: The start focused on geography, which became slightly tedious until rescued by an ambush. However, the whole second chapter was a fight, the description of which some people might find detailed but which ended up boring me. And then it was geography again! Just not enough spark to get me to push past the start.

On the plus side: The concept is still solid, and those who like their fights chronicled blow-by-blow (and thought-by-thought) might be more forgiving. Stopped just as they reached the village, which is probably where it gets going…

 

The Unwilling Adventurer – Heidi Willard – 5%

21940000Why I picked it up: Intriguing blurb promised something that didn’t take itself seriously while having a good time, tackling tropes with a knowing wink.

Verdict: Even taking into account its apparent intention to take tropes and (eventually?) play with them, it started slowly, not helped by somewhat stilted prose. It may improve, but it was just not gripping enough to overcome my trope-resistance.

On the plus side: Still a potentially interesting idea.

 

Sorcerer’s Code – Christopher Kellen – FINISHED!13279676

Why I picked it up: I like a mistaken-identity fugitive mystery, though I’d probably prefer if it weren’t centered on a mage.

Verdict: Enthusiastic, bright voice, helped by the very personable first person narration, carried me past the more generic elements (it’s a very comfortable D&D/Ankh-Morporkian world) and my ambivalence towards sorcery. A fun read, if quite short, with a few neat twists.

On the down side: The only women mentioned are (off-stage) whores.

 

The Seventh Horse: Shader Origins – D. P. Prior – 50%

27777144Why I picked it up: Prequel novella (it turns out) to a popular series, wanted to see what the fuss was about.

Verdict: Barely a novella, the books sets up an interesting world with echoes of our own, but not echoes that particularly appealed to me (“rifles” and chainmail?). The end result was too generic for me, and the names didn’t jive – who’s going to be scared of a big bad whose name sounds like a WW1 Punch caricature? – but you can see why it’s popular.

On the plus side: Fans of Warhammer should be right at home.

 

 

The Warrior’s Path – Catherine M Wilson – 4% 5312123

Why I picked it up: Liked the brazen feminist outlook, had doubts about the production values.

Verdict: First, I’m pretty sure it’s not actually fantasy, but an alternate history of dark age Britain with even more matriarchal societies. Still an interesting potential read, but it gave me an excuse to put it down. I also found the memoir style somewhat wistful, not immediate enough. Might pick it up again sometime.

On the plus side: Lovely, gentle prose, if that’s your thing, and not a man in sight, so far!

 

New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel – Steven W White – still reading!

612qrmzemel-_sx331_bo1204203200_Why I picked it up: Novel new-world concept sounded interesting.

Verdict: It IS interesting, bringing some American frontier flavours to the genre (I know there’s a lot of Wild Western fantasy these days, but this is slightly different). There’s some dissonance there, for sure, especially as it’s hard to pin down exactly “when” this takes place. The bad guys have medieval armour and weapons, but the colonists have printing presses and firearms. The pace is pretty good, even with the flashbacks, and the language is handled expertly.

On the plus side: Bogg seems a very fun character, written well.

 

Firehurler – J S Morin– 1%17408269

Why I picked it up: Kept seeing it here and there, possibly via Twitter.

Verdict: I did not expect it to be so wordy, full of tells and extraneous detail that really bog it down – even 1% was a chore. The wasn’t much in the setting or action to set it apart, either, and the main character seemed quite smug – and why not, he’s a smart, strong, tall, warrior AND hidden mage…

On the plus side: Didn’t stick around long enough, to be honest, but I’m sure others will (and have) got more out of it.

 

Skip – Perrin Briar (or is it Pippa Babbage?) – 14%

24489318Why I picked it up: “Clockpunk” concept sounded interesting, though it’s a bit outside my normal genre boundaries (though it does say it’s Epic), and the cover was eye-catching. (Was a bit confused about the author’s identity, but apparently he used a female pseudonym at first for this series).

Verdict: Not really what I was looking for, as I expected. It started to flow more smoothly when there was dialogue and action, but the prologue and especially the first chapter seemed a disjointed sequence of sights (and sounds and smells) that tumble over each other too much to effectively set the scene. Uneven, but might yet press on – it’s short.

On the plus side: A few neat turns of phrase, the opening to Chapter One for example (and a few that fell flat, too). Had the feel of a Disney movie, if that’s what you’re after.

 

Conclusions

Well, maybe my enthusiasm is flagging, but until the very unique New World, nothing really grabbed me here. I realise that, for the sake of this exercise, I’m being harsh, especially on those that start slowly. But, in a lot of ways, this’s the game, folks. You aren’t going to get off a slush pile, and you will struggle to get a lot of readers hooked, if the book doesn’t start with some sort of bang.

Also, I realise that I’m looking for uniqueness a lot more than other readers. This one of my criteria – the overly-familiar does not excite me that much. On the other hand, I know a lot of popular series that I have avoided for this reason that many readers love. Clearly, originality is not the be-all-and-end-all for everyone, but it is one of the things that catches my eye.

Worth noting that quite a few of these were short, which is fine for free samples, but perhaps could have been made clearer beforehand. Even free, you feel slightly cheated.

On to the last seven!

 

Already read in Update 1 :

Twisted Fate – Jeremy Laszlo – 16%

City of Blaze – H O Charles – 13%

The Last King’s Amulet – Chris Northern – 19%

Shadowborn – Moira Katson – 8%

Fell Winter – A J Cooper – 4%

Song of the Fairy Queen – Valerie Douglas – 7%

Enchantment’s Reach – Martin Ash – Finished!

The Light of Theolan – Nick Marsden – 24%

 

Already read in Update 2 :

Fire & Ice – Patty Jansen – Still reading!

Red Axe, Black Sun – Michael Karner  – 51% (a while ago, before this blog series)

The Dreamer and the Deceiver – Alex Villavasso – 21% (it’s short)

The Key – Jennifer Anne Davis – 5%

Chronicles of Den’dra: A Land Torn – Spencer Johnson – 6%

Magic of Thieves – C Greenwood – 23%

City of Rogues – Ty Johnston – 6%

The Last Priestess – Elizabeth Baxter – still reading!

 

Still to read:

The Weight of the Crown – Tavish Kaeden (also in the SPFBO)

Stormsinger – Stephanie A Cain – not medieval but not punk, so ok.

The Kinshield Legacy – K C May

A Dance of Dragons – Kaitlyn Davis

The Book of Deacon – Joseph Lallo – big seller, this one

The White Tree – Edward W Robertson – another bigger indie name

Dawn of War – Tim Marquitz – and another, associated with Ragnarok Pub.

Reinventing the Wheel

As a reader and writer of fantasy, I spend a lot of time thinking about the interplay between the two activities. I’ve blogged before on tropes, trends, habits, and outliers. My latest project has been a survey of free indie ebooks, trying to map the landscape a bit. I pay particular attention to what others say on the matter, too, and there are certainly lots of opinions out there. The latest, and one of the prompts for this, being:

He never did tell me what was top.

Combined with a few blogs recently which have admitted or revealed a very narrow reading of genre – and then drawn conclusions from it – and from my continuing love-hate relationship with communities like Fantasy Faction or r/Fantasy, this got me thinking about the relationship between originality and conformity, and what I see as the related continuum between ignorance and knowledge. (I know ignorance is a bit loaded, but it’ll have to do, so try to unload it.)

For kicks, I shall arrange them thus:

matrices

As you can see, I’ve laid them out orthogonally, as I’m not yet sure what influence they have on each other, and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. You often see advice to writers that they should read as much and as widely as possible, but there are plenty of (successful) writers who don’t seem to. I am continually stunned to find writers who aren’t as knowledgeable about the genre as I automatically expect. There’s no entrance exam, of course, but I’ve always assumed you had to be familiar with a certain cannon to have a chance at writing anything significant. (Especially books nearly identical to the one you are writing!)

But of course, the concept of a cannon is problematic, and impractical. The fantasy genre is so huge, broad and varied – with ill-defined edges to boot – that everybody will experience the essential differently. It’s not like it was fifty years ago, when Lord of the Rings defined the whole genre (well, Epic Fantasy, at least). A lot of fantasy fans these days won’t start with, or even ever read, Tolkien, and after that point the possibilities are endless.

15575

Ahem.

My own experience is coloured by my appreciation of older books, which I admit I did read out of an adolescent desire to root out the core texts. I like to have an opinion, at least, on the most popular stand-outs, but I’ve realised as time goes on that my favourites tend to be the more obscure works. Still, I believe as a writer that it is important to know about these other giants, not least so that you can have a stake in the conversations, however small. I also thought that reading all these would give me a better perspective as a writer, and this is where the confusion sets in.

But first, what about the other axis? I always figured that, as a writer or artist of any sort, originality would be one of the primary criteria. You have to be creative, at least somewhat unique, and come up with something new and interesting – right? Surely, the last thing you want is to get caught imitating that which has come before, “ripping off” ideas or perpetuating tropes.

Then again, thinking about what the astute Mr Abercrombie says above, maybe being entirely fresh, new and 100% original is not the be-all and end-all of successful art (be it writing, music, sculpture, painting, etc.). After all, how many great songs do we know that are just a the same three chords in a slightly different order? How many great films are simply homages to the director’s influences? Clearly, to be a successful artist you don’t have to go off in a direction nobody has gone before (though many people manage this as well), but just find a way to rearrange the bits you like best – artistically – into a something that is new as a whole, if not in its constituent parts. After all, there’s nothing new under the sun.

554766

Don’t ask.

Going back to the axis above, you can see that there is no one answer. You could produce something wildly original by studying every that has come before and consciously excluding, inverting or subverting it; or by keeping your mind free of any contamination. Equally, you could might end up reproducing the past either because you are so widely read that you are unable to escape the influence of everything you have absorbed; or, through blissful ignorance, not realising that what you think you’ve just invented had actually been done many, many times before.

I know which path I’m more comfortable with, and I have come across quite a few writers and readers who I feel could have used a bit more education -but that’s just my opinion. Above a certain threshold, they way you go about it certainly doesn’t seem to have much impact on anyone’s potential success as a writer. There are readers out there looking for the next ripping yarn with all the old familiar tropes, and readers looking for the never-before-seen. Sometimes they are even the same person.

So go on, reinvent the wheel or invent the hoverboard – just, whatever you do, do it well.

Freebies, Update 3: Delayed

I’ve been delayed in my ambitions to get to the next tranche of free books cluttering up my Kindle. Partially, this is because I’m still reading a few of the books from the first two updates, and I don’t want to get even more confused. There’s another good reason as well, but it’s a secret for now, so you’ll have to bear with for a few weeks.

 

Might as well pick the candidates, though:

Glimmer Vale – Michael Kingswood – 20457947

Why I picked it up: Sharp cover, neat blurb with plot evocative of Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven. Sold – at least, for free!

 

The Unwilling Adventurer – Heidi Willard

Why I picked it up: Intriguing blurb promised something that didn’t take itself seriously while having a good time, tackling tropes with a knowing wink.

 

Sorcerer’s Code – Christopher Kellen13279676

Why I picked it up: I like a mistaken-identity fugitive mystery, though I’d probably prefer if it weren’t centred on a mage.

 

The Seventh Horse: Shader Origins – D. P. Prior

Why I picked it up: Prequel novella (it turns out) to a popular series, wanted to see what the fuss was about.

 

Skip – Perrin Briar (or is it Pippa Babbage?)24489318

Why I picked it up: “Clockpunk” concept sounded interesting, though it’s a bit outside my normal genre boundaries (though it does say it’s Epic). Cover was nice. Bit confused about the author’s identity…

 

The Warrior’s Path – Catherine M Wilson

Why I picked it up: Liked the brazen feminist outlook, had doubts about the production values.

 

New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel – Steven W White

Why I picked it up: Novel concept sounded interesting.17408269

 

Firehurler – J S Morin

Why I picked it up: Kept seeing it here and there, possibly via Twitter.

 

Already read in Update 1 :

Twisted Fate – Jeremy Laszlo – 16%

City of Blaze – H O Charles – 13%

The Last King’s Amulet – Chris Northern – 19%

Shadowborn – Moira Katson – 8%

Fell Winter – A J Cooper – 4%

Song of the Fairy Queen – Valerie Douglas – 7%

Enchantment’s Reach – Martin Ash – 20% so far

The Light of Theolan – Nick Marsden – 24%

 

Already read in Update 2 :

Fire & Ice – Patty Jansen – Still reading!

Red Axe, Black Sun – Michael Karner  – 51% (a while ago, before this blog series)

The Dreamer and the Deceiver – Alex Villavasso – 21% (it’s short)

The Key – Jennifer Anne Davis – 5%

Chronicles of Den’dra: A Land Torn – Spencer Johnson – 6%

Magic of Thieves – C Greenwood – 23%

City of Rogues – Ty Johnston – 6%

The Last Priestess – Elizabeth Baxter – still reading!

 

Still to read:

The Weight of the Crown – Tavish Kaeden (also in the SPFBO)

Stormsinger – Stephanie A Cain – not medieval but not punk, so ok.

The Kinshield Legacy – K C May

A Dance of Dragons – Kaitlyn Davis

The Book of Deacon – Joseph Lallo – big seller, this one

The White Tree – Edward W Robertson – another bigger indie name

Dawn of War – Tim Marquitz – and another, associated with Ragnarok Pub.