Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: Liane Merciel's The River King's Road

This is  exactly the kind of fantasy I love: a potentially epic setting but with "low fantasy" focus on the actual people within it. Peasants have the chance to determine fate for a change. Like Saladin Ahmed, I also want "fewer kings and starship captains, more coach drivers and space waitresses" in my spec fic.

Beyond class diversity, the spec fic genre also needs progress in racial diversity. It's something I try to do in my own writing and also something I consciously keep an eye out for in my reading. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the paladin in The River Kings' Road, Sir Kelland, is from the African-analogue of this fictional universe. Although an orphan raised by Sun Knights, he connects with his heritage by braiding his hair in the fashion of its warriors, and the common folk view his dark skin as a manifestation of the Sun Goddess' favor, making him the "Burnt Knight." He's also the subject of a wants-to-be-but-bound-to-celibacy romantic subplot with his assistant, a woman warrior, and I was happy to see that these two will have a bigger part in the sequel.

I hasten to add that the story itself is less of an essay on class and racial diversity than the paragraphs I've written here--I was just impressed at how, while not groundbreaking, this story is able to quietly model that sort of diversity with a cast of well-rounded characters, albeit in a fairly standard fantasy setting.

Although there are some unique and flavorful additions--the sadomasochistic Thorn witches (and that's sadomasochism in the not fun, safe, sane, and consensual manner), Sir Kelland and his background, and even the River Kings' gleaming Road itself--ultimately the setting is a medieval world, complete with analogues to the Vikings. One nice thing is that it's a medieval world written by an author who clearly did historical research: there's a throwaway line about a family losing its milk cow when their house is burned down, because during winter they keep the livestock indoors with them. Again, there's these down-to-earth details of daily lives and what it's like to be an average person in this world. I hasten to add that these are throwaway lines; the main plot isn't bogged down by trivia.

Which isn't exactly to say doesn't get bogged down.

The plot starts with a bang--technically, with fire and Bloodmist, which is exactly what it sounds like--and the story moves forward steadily, without any wasted scenes. Yet, in the middle particularly, there are a lot of flashbacks to provide background information that rarely rises above standard fantasy fare. Wars, evil wizards, hard-bitten mercenaries, strange curses, and those Viking analogues I mention call the undead they fight Skraelings, which is an actual Viking term (meaning "wretch," and applied by them to Native Americans. Specifically the Native Americans who drove them out of Newfoundland. I highly doubt Merciel intends anything racially loaded by the term; that's just interesting trivia I want to bog my review down with).

In contrast to my parenthetical comment above, the characters' flashbacks are generally germane, and frequently help to develop the backstory and personality of individuals. Sometimes I wonder whether the background information could be more gracefully presented, but on the whole it is a fast-paced story as the worldbuilding gets fleshed out. All the same, aspects of the world still feel a bit thrown together--the Thorn Witches, despite some genuinely creepy body modifications, are in many ways a generic evil sorcerers empire to the east with exotic naming conventions, while the Western European main setting has a mixture of names that feel English and French--which makes parts of it feel more constructed than inhabited. Ang'arta especially--I do not know how that country works, and it does not feel like a real place. To be fair, none of the characters have actually been there yet, mostly because in true evil empire fashion it's a place few people go to and survive.

Even if the evil empire which never appears onscreen could be better realized (and when you put it like that, it's obvious), the villainous characters themselves are as well-rounded as the good guys. There does seem to be more character development on their part, with redemptive arcs or at least tragic ones. In fact, I wound up feeling more sympathy for the most decent of the villains than the most antiheroic of the heroes--and I think that's a feature, not a bug. There are enough genuinely kind people for me to care about and root for, like the peasant mother Odosse and Sir Kelland, who are respectively trying to survive and keep two babes in arms alive while fleeing a Thorn Witch through border territory that might at any moment erupt into war, and launching an investigation into a massacre that might wind up triggering said war. Unlike the typical epic fantasy where we're supposed to be cheered at the prospect of a nice war to get the heart pounding and the lungs inflated, here war is shown as terrible as it generally is when you're, say, one of the people who might drop dead when the Bloodmist is unleashed.

Of a fairly large cast, one of the least interesting characters happens to be the one we start off with--Brys Tarnell, the brilliantly green-eyed swordsman featured on the cover, and pretty much a standard antihero. I actually expected more character development from him than I got. He's a perfectly well-rounded standard antihero, with the street smarts to get Odosse and two babies across enemy territory and the occasional sarcastic barb, but he hasn't hit the full swing of his redemptive arc yet (some might find this refreshing). Odosse, though, is instantly sympathetic without being nothing but a victim, despite being a peasant, a young unmarried mother, and unattractive in more than the "Hollywood Homely" sense. She has to make her own choices in this novel, some of them surprising.

The Thorn Witch and her magic, which relies largely on mutilation, is genuinely terrifying, and while I wish we learned more about her motives, it looks like those will come up in the sequel.  All of the backstory dropping and the slow character arcs appear to be in preparation for a much larger story arc--and this book is clearly the first in the series, with much tantalizingly unresolved at the end. I've already ordered the next, Heaven's Needle.

Barnes and Noble
The Sun Knights would probably approve of you buying a used copy from Better World Books to raise money for literacy programs.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review: "Blood of Kings" by Billy Wong

I received a free ebook copy through a LibraryThing giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

I signed up for the giveaway because I've followed Wong's short fiction casually for years (not least because we've frequently wound up in the same places, such as Firefly in Amber etc etc). While his style is fine for short fiction, where it's of the essence to be concise, I struggled through this novel.

An in media res opening perplexed me, especially because the characters were introduced with so much telling (rather than showing) that I wondered if this was a sequel. Perhaps I should already be familiar with these characters and the curt introductions were only to refresh my memory. Lady Mildred, a knight and rumored daughter of King Arthur, and her Greek squire Ares, were both novel and interesting characters. I found myself liking them despite the awkward introduction, but they're so novel and interesting that it seems a shame to present them so blandly.

Furthermore, the prose remains lax and the tone uneven. Without evocative language, it's hard to feel sense of wonder at the faeries and magic, awe at Mildy's feats of strength, or grief or horror at the many deaths, including some of characters I really hoped would survive. There's plenty going on in this story, including lots of refreshing twists on the original Authurian legends, but it reads more like the detailed outline of a story instead of a finished product.

The voice and dialogue can also get jarringly modern. Surely this is the first time Morgan le Fay has ever been anybody's "Mom." This despite the fact that she has been distant enough from both her children, Mildred and Gawain, that I could buy her being called "Mother" anyway. Overall, a lot of the dialogue just wasn't working for me:
"I'm afraid, Arthur." He sounded it. "I think the fey are out to get me. I've been having these dreams lately..."
This does not sound convincing even as someone just pretending to be Merlin (which it happens to be--and it's awfully modern and casual language even for the impostor's true identity).

It's not that Wong can't do subtler description. Take this bit from Lancelot's introduction:

A bit over forty, golden-haired Lance looked no less than ten years younger, and his dashing persona and immaculate appearance made him the object of many a noble lady's affections. Somewhat oddly, he never responded in more than a courteous way. Though they were best friends, Mildy couldn't help suspecting there might be something queer about his attitude towards women—suspicions heightened after hearing Ares' tales of certain behaviors among the nobility of his land.

Although I want to mentally rewrite the first sentence to Golden-haired Lancelot appeared at least a decade younger than his forty years...that's just nitpicking. More importantly, I see what he did there ("queer" attitude towards women and the Greeks!) without it needing to be spelled out. It shows, in an amusingly coy manner, rather than telling.

Happy as I was to see some LGBT representation (although this isn't the first time Lance had played for the other team--Mordred, Bastard Son comes to mind at once), it actually turns out that Lancelot is sleeping with Queen Guenivere, in one of the few aspects of Arthurian legend that isn't somehow subverted.

I was glad to see some new twists, since a faithful retelling of Arthurian legend seems superfluous at this late date. We've had more than five centuries of that. The first plot twist, of course, is that Mordred has become Mildred. I don't think switching the gender of the protagonist impacted the plot as much as it could have: Mildred faces some derision, overcomes some prejudice, and juggles contrasting visions of proper behavior for a woman, but this is more flavor text than thematic (my distinction is that a theme guides the writer's choices in plot events, characterization, and even setting--it's not just a paragraph or two of characters wondering aloud). She's a warrior first and a woman third. This is fine, too--not every story about a woman needs to be about *being a woman*--but given this story is billed as being about a warrior woman, I wouldn't have minded a little more development of that idea. And there is one line about Mildy refusing to wear a helmet because of "feminine vanity" which made me shake my head.

The plotting is very tight from the beginning, although things get complicated when Nimue appears with her dubious plans, and Mildred briefly gets sidetracked from her Grail quest and growing conflict with her father by falling for Galahad. It doesn't last--and the sudden, brutal, and completely unexpected way that relationship ends makes Mildred's feud with her father completely believable. Moreso because this is Morgan le Fay in one of the most sympathetic representations I've ever seen of her, a victim of rape by her brother. The best we can say for King Arthur is that he didn't know it was his sister at the time. But by being the sort of man who violates a vanquished enemy just because she's female (I'm grateful that, unlike some would-be "grittier" writers, Wong chooses to show this as an exception among the knights, who may be jerks and may be violent but are not all rapists), he's, first, veered very far from the classic ideal of King Arthur, and second, sealed his fate. Mildred's power is rising, and the son of a bitch is going down.

Some people might be disappointed to see Arthur as a bad guy, but it's not like there aren't enough heroic Arthurs out there. Heroic Mordreds are rarer, heroic Mildreds completely unprecedented. So I was eager to watch her confrontation with her father. Unfortunately, it barely lasts a chapter of this 88,000 word book. The actual war is about 2-3 paragraphs, with a little more for the actual confrontation scene. Then the last forth of the story or so documents Mildred's efforts to consolidate her kingdom. Realistic, and potentially gripping, but not in this particular narration. I did like how Ares, the squire, becomes Mildy's loyal and supportive right hand man--not necessarily a love interest, either. I'm sure it could go that way in the future, but they are first and foremost friends.

As I said, this is an 88,000 word novel (hardly short, if not epically long) largely told in summary. This makes it dense and honestly a bit exhausting to read. I'm sure the style itself could be improved without making the story much longer, just by making descriptions more active, action more vivid, and using more period and tone-appropriate word choice. I say "period appropriate" because, although fantasy, this story is in a medieval sort of world, with allusions to Christianity (one of the villains is a religious fanatic who believes the faeries are unholy) and a pretty solid description of siege warfare.

It's not that all epic fantasy needs to be written at R. Scott Bakker (or Seamus Henley, or E.R. Eddison) level diction--I greatly enjoyed Sam Sykes Aeon's Gate, which is written in a manner best described as "nervously chatty." It's modern in attitude--emphasis on attitude--without being jarringly casual about events. Although mentioning Sykes reminds me: in this story, as in The Skybound Sea, some characters have a habit of just not dying. Wong does kill enough people to give the heartstrings a jerk and up the stakes, but other characters are capable of shrugging off some major wounds, even when they aren't being helped by the Holy Grail and/or the healing unicorn Mildred acquires. This frustrated me, as the magical healing almost became superfluous if Mildred did as well without them.

Then again, frustration was a pervading sentiment as I finished this book. I wish I liked Wong's style better, because the concept of his stories such as Iron Bloom look like something I'd enjoy a lot (warrior women, warfare/pacifism conflicts, and a side of romance for leavening). There is an excerpt of Iron Bloom at the back of Blood of Kings, though, enough to confirm that it also contains awkward writing, and it also opens on an attempted rape, which is a perfectly valid conflict but one I had a surfeit of with the Sword and Sorceress anthologies written in the '80s.  If you like to see Arthurian legend creatively remixed, and don't mind some rough pacing and prose, this may be worth checking out.

Barnes & Noble

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Book Review: Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker (Aspect-Emperor trilogy)

I mentioned this one in my review of The Skybound Sea--where I hoped for the sake of Aeon's Gate fans Skyes goes on to write a sequel trilogy like this.

I cannot remember enjoying a sequel so much in years!

Although the worldbuilding behind what Bakker is now calling The Second Apocalypse is beyond complex, and a lot has happened in the 20 years since the close of the Prince of Nothing trilogy, I still felt able to dive right back into this world. I hadn't realized how much I remembered of this meticulously crafted setting--even though "Sweet Sejenus!" has been my go-to cussword for years. Bakker doesn't waste the reader's time with a long introduction. Instead, we're brought up to speed with key developments in a 2-page letter and then off to the races. Although I should note there is some back-of-the-book matter, some of which should should have been brought to the front, like the Map of the Three Seas I didn't know was there and would have really helped my geographic understanding. Better yet, there is an excellent synopsis of the first series (that doesn't spoil for The Judging Eye itself). This helped me refresh my understanding and also gave added background.

This is still a slower, and in some ways more introspective trilogy than the first--the chapters with the captive prince Sorweel came dangerously near navel gazing. All the same, they offered a view of Aspect-Emperor Kellhus that provided a contrast to the other chapters--to Sorweel, captured as part of the emperor's holy Crusade called the Great Ordeal, Kellhus is an enemy but also near-divine, while the Wizard Achamian knows Kellhus is mortal but trained to be super-humanly intelligent and manipulative. Achamian's goal is to discover the source of that training, so he has a more standard quest fantasy plotline. This is not to say it is dull or even that it's anything like quest fantasies done before. People have objected to the climactic scenes as being a Mines of Moria ripoff, but the Mines of Moria were never so terrifying as the Nonman city ominously vast and all but lost in deep time, where every detail of its craftsmanship reveals an inhuman culture and the suffering of previous generations has caused the very fabric of reality to decay into a Hellmouth (Bakker's word is topos, but I refreshed my Greek and learned that translates to something like "trope." Bakker's characters do not speak Greek, but the relation to TV Tropes almost--if not quite--ruined the scariness for me).

The last plotline follows Kellhus's wife (and Achaimian's ex) Esmenet and the children she's had with the Aspect-Emperor. I would not suggest pregnant women, nor for that matter anyone planning to become pregnant nor anyone who is nursing nor anyone who has feelings on children in general, read these chapters. Since I have no current plans vis-a-vis fertility, I devoured them. Kellhus's kids are possibly even more terrifying than the topos, because they're horror in a human shape--well, the living ones are in a human shape--well, if anything was going to make me doubt Kellhus's human origins it's the children he's conceived that were drowned at birth because they came out wrong. But the fact is, all the kids have come out a bit wrong, and we get to follow evil little Kelmomas as he causes havoc and destruction because...I'm not actually clear on his motivations. The synopsis in the following book, The White-Luck Warrior, tells me he's trying to draw closer to his mother. Poor Esmenet.

Esme is one of the more sympathetic characters, along with Achaimian (and to a lesser extent Sorweel, but it's hard to get a good grip on someone in the depths of an identity crisis), and they're what keeps this story  from devolving into a grimdark bloodfest. The style is grim, but thoughtful. There's a fair bit of flashy prose, some of it purple, but this is done deliberately to achieve an effect a bit like reading epic poetry. I wouldn't suggest anyone set out to mimic Bakker's style--it's a don't try this at home, kids kind of feat--but it was pleasant to read for a change of pace. The magic and supernatural forces in this story are less subtle than in the original trilogy--the sorcerers wield some nice pyrotechnics, divine or posing-as-divine forces begin manifesting in opposition to Kellhus, and the manifestations of the topos are vivid--but continue to raise more questions than they answers.

The Judging Eye of the title, a wild talent of Achaimian and Esmenet's traumatized daughter Mimara, seems to suggest an ultimate hierarchy of good and evil--one at odds with Kellhus' teachings, at that. But I'm personally not convinced morality in this universe isn't relative. My first tip-off was that Mimara's Judging Eye views "good men" as "brighter" and "good women"--now, maybe Bakker has the balls (no pun intended) to weave misogyny into his fiction's very foundations, but I prefer to imagine something more interesting is going on. Perhaps Mimara's vision has been affected by her upbringing, or manipulated by one of the higher powers beginning to make an appearance in the trilogy. Achamian has a moment of feminist realization when he hands off power to Mimara, who's convinced him to offer her some training in sorcery, near the climax-- although the Judging Eye also thinks he's damned as a magician. And on the other side, we have the cult of Yatwer, dark yonic power at its delectably creepiest. This is almost enough for me to stop being disappointed, now that it's been pointed out to me, that Bakker has several parallels with Frank Herbert's Dune Messiah and that means the (also pretty yonic) Bene Gessert have been replaced with the rather male Dunyain. This is a series that would already benefit from having a few more female characters who aren't prostitutes or ex-prostitutes. Again, though, the cult of the goddess Yatwer and her White-Luck warrior promises to develop into something ghastly but fascinating--much like everything else in this series.

Barnes & Noble
Better World Books

Thursday, September 19, 2013

WisCon Rapidfire Book Reviews #4: Aeon's Gate: The Skybound Sea by Sam Sykes

I have a confession to make: I already took one review copy (Edge of Oblivion), but I couldn't resist snagging this one, too. I picked it up and meant to page through it to pass the time before the auction, but then I could not put it down. The opening lines beat out a hypnotic rhythm. Gliding past them, I found myself in an oceanside slum near the home of an eldritch abomination. My inner Cthulhu fan's tentacles twitched pleasantly. I found I liked the characters at once. Unfortunately, the opening was more of a teaser and I didn't see a lot of them afterwards.

There will be some spoilers in this review, but spoilers don't actually decrease your enjoyment of the story. I'll keep them vague, anyway, with just enough detail to articulate what I liked and what nagged me.

Although this was the last book in the trilogy, I felt I was able to keep up with the action easily enough. After all, this book is mostly action--people killing people, narrowly evading being killed by people, people summoning giant monsters, fighting giant monsters, fighting each other over how exactly to go about fighting giant monsters. The background mythology isn't one-dimensional, but the parts that are immediately relevant to the action are presented without slowing the pacing down and without being confusing (anyway, an air of not-fully-explained mystery is a perk in mythology building, especially mythologies including ineffable eldritch abominations).

Where I did start getting lost was the character's motivations. There's some sort of scheme-within-a-scheme going on with at least one of the villain factions--yes, there's more than one. Many more. They're usually able to be distinguished by the color of their skin. Whether it's green or purple, I mean. Actual PoC do appear among the heroes and sympathetic side characters, and Sykes also writes women perfectly well, which is refreshing in this testosterone laden subgenre. They're at least as complex as the male characters, and equally or more kickass, without being at all fanservicey. When fighting they can get downright unsexy. This does not mean they aren't kickass. Bless you, Sykes, for knowing the difference.

Back to that complexity, though--some confusion among the villains, I understand, is a feature rather than a bug, and Sykes seems to intend it that way. Maybe I really am not supposed to know what's going on, or if I'd read the previous 2 books I'd know. I appreciate that Sykes doesn't slow the plot down to spoon-feed these things to us (he has one teaser of a scene where 2 villains discuss their plans in front of a hiding character--the character, though, can't speak their language and missses out on such a great spying opportunity), but at times I wasn't sure whether I was meant to sit back and watch the blood splatter or piece together a puzzle. Maybe I should have done both at the same time?

This confusion reigns despite the villains discussing their plans, the heroes arguing about their plans, and a constant rich stream of inner monologue--which pops up even during action scenes. However, I think in this case seeing the character's thoughts helps. Without knowing who a character is and what they want, even the bloodthirstiest reader can't get that invested in them spearing, hacking, chopping, exploding, and otherwise demolishing other feeling, thinking beings. The main protagonist, Lenk, might genuinely be mentally ill--he brings the possibility up and it isn't dismissed. Although this raises interesting questions like, how does this world define mental illness? Is introducing "schizophrenia" into what is, eldrich abominations and sorcerers aside, a largely medieval fantasy world an anachronism?

This being the last book of the trilogy, I was privileged to see its end...such as it was. Because it wasn't much of an ending--instead we get a bigger revelation, the heroes' troubles are clearly not over, and the world may be in even greater danger no than it ever was. Anyone who had read through the entire series might be disappointed at the lack of resolution, and for all this story was pretty fun (not lighthearted in tone by any means, but clearly meant to be the literary equivalent of a popcorn-noshing action movie), it ends on a depressing note. Not because of character death, either--this is spoilery, but as I read I started to get distracted by how rarely anyone's death or apparent death proved permanent. Instead, there's just this feeling that all the heroes' work was for nothing, they are pawns in a cosmic game they cannot comprehend, and lots of other nihilistic musings.  I'm tempted to draw a comparison with R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series, which also ends on an obvious hook for its sequel trilogy (which I'm currently reading). However, Prince of Nothing exhibits vast worldbuilding, on such an epic scale that multiple series within it seem inevitable. Sykes has some awesome images in his created world, including the titular Skybound Sea, but on the whole it's a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in writing. Then again, I'd expect plenty of DMs like to end each session with a hook for the next, so maybe that's what he's doing here.

Knowing how this trilogy ends, I'm not sure I'm interested in reading the beginning, but I'll definitely check out what else Sykes has written. And I'll probably wind up snagged again.

Barnes and Noble 
Buy a used copy, protect trees & fund literacy programs through Better World Books

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Print-on-Demand Formatting for Better Royalties

CreateSpace is one of the most popular POD (print-on-demand) choices for self-publishing authors and small presses. Each time a book is ordered through Amazon or another retailer, CreateSpace prints the book and ships it. Each month, CreateSpace sends the author accrued royalties, after it takes its printing and distribution costs. The author doesn't need to worry about managing an inventory of unsold books-all one needs to do is write the book and upload it with proper formatting.

And formatting matters!

When calculating royalties, CreateSpace deducts from the author's share on a per-page basis. Thus, books with a lower pagecount get a considerably more in royalties, and can even charge a much lower cover price. This is a win for both self-publishing authors and for readers, not to mention saving a few more trees from early death.

While I always encourage writers, self-published or not, to write concisely, even a book without wasted words may run long. All the better, if you have an epic story that's full of nothing but the good stuff! Still, you don't want to overcharge readers no matter how good the stuff is, and after all your hard work, you'd probably like to earn a reasonable royalty per copy sold. Luckily, you can make this happen with a few simple adjustments to your formatting.

Less fortunately, a good number of self-published writers, and even some small presses, fail to make wise formatting adjustments. After encountering one novel too many with tragically wasted pages, wasted space, and a cover price way too low for the author to make much with (especially if it's distributed outside of the CreateSpace store, where royalties start shrinking rapidly), I've decided to share my modest wisdom. While hardly an expert, in the example that follows I do manage to cut a book's pagecount by more than half without trimming a word. Then I go on to trim a few words, because I can always do better.

I figure a good starting point is a complete novel of around 100,000 words. Happily, I just so happen to have one of those lying around. One Hundred Days is still undergoing revisions, but the first draft is 98,448 words long and 208 pages--as a Microsoft Word document, at least.

Some people might be willing to print their book in 8.5" x 11", but I am not one of them. I want my book to look like a book--in fact, grasping a model at random off my shelf, I find a nice, solid mass market paperback of 5 by 8 inches. And CreateSpace has an option for books in just that dimension! Excellent!

Under the "Page Layout" tab, just to the right of margin settings in MS Word 2010, you'll find the "Size" option. Select "More Paper Sizes" and set your preferences in the window for custom settings.

Width, five inches, and Height, eight inches, and--


My slim 208-page baby is now a whopping opus at 634 pages. I feel like Tad Williams. That's good, though, right? Everybody loves long fantasy novels! Look at George R.R. Martin!

Now, my loyal readers deserve a good price, so I'm going to charge $9.99. Plugging this into the CreateSpace royalty calculator (through the link under the Royalties tab), I see that with each sale I will make:

Negative two and a half bucks for each sale on Amazon (on the bright side, it's just less than negative fifty cents through CreateSpace). Clearly if I'm not going to lose money, I'll have to ask more. $11.99... still negative...$12.99 doesn't do it either...skipping over unlucky number 13, I find a cover price of $14.99 will net me a full 50 cents on Amazon. But I'd have to charge $21.99 to make anything off expanded distribution. This is, remember, is for a mass market-style paperback, the kind that retails at the drugstore for $6.99.

It looks ugly, too:

Here's the first fix, and it's relatively painless: increase the page size from 5x8 to 5.5x8.5. This makes it "trade" paperback sized, while not weirdly large (in fact some trade paperbacks are 6" x 9", and this may be a good option if you really want to slim down). Furthermore, increasing your page size does not affect price. This makes CreateSpace a weird inverse of the offset printing world, where mass market paperbacks are cheaper than trade. If you've got your heart set on a mass market paperback size, you can keep it, just use the other tips here, and realize it'll still come out more expensive than other books of the same size.

By making our pages bigger we've cut the number of them down to 517.
And now, at $9.99 cover price, we're able to make a profit of just under one dollar in the CreateSpace store! But we're still losing a dollar a sale on Amazon.

My next suggestion is to drop the font size. I wrote One Hundred Days in Times New Roman, size 12, which is the easiest for me to read onscreen. Not everyone finds Times New Roman optimal for POD printing, but I suggest you stick with a similar serif font such as Garamond. 12 point font is actually rather large, though, and you're better off dropping it to 11 points or even 10. If you're unsure whether you're going too small, try a 'print test'--format a page, print it out, and see if it's readable. 11 point font is 11 point font; if it's readable on a sheet of printed paper it'll be readable on the page of a printed book.

As an aside, if you want your books marketed as Large Print, they need to be in at least 16 point font. I'd suggest you format a complete separate edition, likely with a higher cover price, if you're really dedicated to ease-of-use for your nearsighted fans (even as this nearsighted fan thanks you).

At 444 pages, you're able to make nearly $2 in royalties through the CreateSpace Store. But still no revenue from Amazon, and the pages still look slightly off:

This is because I wasn't careful when I switched from manuscript formatting to publication formatting. Line spacing is at 1.15, and there are 6 extra points between paragraphs. Although some experts suggest having line spacing slightly greater than 1, there's no need for any extra space between paragraphs, especially given how I'm using first-line indents.

Some experts who want greater-than-one spacing suggest setting a point width exactly, and making it several points greater than the size of your font. If you're confused right now because you don't know what a point is, don't be: I don't know what a point is either, except it's some sort of measurement of the height of letters and/or lines. 12 point font is bigger than 11 point font, and setting spaces of 'exactly' 13 points between rows of 11 point font should give me enough space to satisfy anyone, without leaving unsightly gaps:

This all goes on in the 'paragraph' window, as you can see. Spacing before and after should be zero. Note the "Special" indentation but don't worry about it just yet.

My file for One Hundred Days is now 352 pages long. That's considerably shorter than it started out as, and would net me 92 cents royalty on each Amazon sale. I'm very nearly satisfied.

Some self-publishers are satisfied at this point. But be wary. It's a trap. This is the mistake which drove me to write this post in the first place.

Don't those margins look a little off to you? They're so wide, the text is like a column across the middle of the page. And that pure, snow-white inch on each side--that's wasted space.

You correct margin formatting under "Page Layout".  Select Custom Margins, and then look down at the "Multiple Pages" options. You'll want Mirror Margins, differentiated by "inside" (the spine) and "outside" rather than Left/Right. Because of the book's binding, CreateSpace suggests having at least .75" of inside margins. But this is still a good quarter-inch less than the default one-inch margins give you.  And you certainly don't need, or want, one-inch margins everywhere around the page!

My favored setup is .8" for the inside (I'm cautious), and .5" or less for the top, bottom, and outside. This still gives readers a place to stick their thumbs--the purpose for an outside margin--if not to take notes (I figure they can use post-it notes if it's vital) and allows another inch of text on every page.

Making this change saves me nearly one hundred pages--from 352 to 258. At $9.99, the book now earns $2.05 in each Amazon sale, $4.05 from CreateSpace, and...wait for it...5 cents with each sale through expanded distribution.

Hey, at least it isn't losing money.

Reducing the margins is probably the single best thing you can do to save pages, and it makes your book look much more professional. Another change that should be made for professionalism, even if it doesn't save a lot of space, is adjusting your paragraph indents. That should be the First line indent option under the Paragraph screen--do not indent using tabs!

Instead of the default half-inch indent, which looks really deep and distracting (and even worse if you have wide margins), I would suggest 0.3". You might even try 0.2" for smaller pages or finer-grained fonts, but 3 is a nice round number.

This adjustment is primarily aesthetic, but it drops the page count from 258 to 254--and 4 fewer pages nets me an extra nickle per copy sold, with a royalty of $2.10 at Amazon and a whole $0.10 in expanded distribution. At this point I begin to realize there's not a lot of money in expanded distribution, and that only makes me sadder for writers who don't format in a way that lets them make the best of what they've got.

Now the formatting is mostly complete, but you may make a few more adjustments. Read through your book to see if anything more can be trimmed. Remember, wasted space is wasted money! Consider cutting your transition page and just write 10 years and a Musical Interlude Later above the next chapter. Your dedication will look fine on your copyright page, and you probably don't need 3 introductory pages of reviewer quotes however much the reviewers love you. I wouldn't make a blanket rule against page breaks for new chapters, but do watch around those page breaks, as well as final pages, for any dangling lines or paragraphs. See below:

This isn't bad, but I'm a skinflint and it galls me to see those two measly paragraphs adding an entire page. Watch out not just for dangling paragraphs (less than 4 or 5 lines on a page) but dangling lines at the end of paragraphs, where the last row contains only one or two words. Rephrase your paragraphs to make them more concise and trim those danglers. Even if you're not that worried about pagecount, this can be a good exercise if you're over a maximum number of words for an assignment or to meet submission guidelines. Plus, in a certain state of mind this trimming exercise is quite fun!

If you don't want to cut dangling lines or paragraphs, you can instead expand on them, adding enough vivid and juicy details to make them worth the space.

My final result: 98,00 words in 249 pages.
Royalty for 9.99 paperback:  $2.14 on Amazon, $4.14 in the CreateSpace store, and $0.14 through expanded distribution. I'm not so sure that last will pay off. Of course, a near-100,000 word novel might sell for more than $10, enough to make Expanded Distribution worth it.

As a gift to a friend, I once printed a book of slightly more than 100,000 words in 5.5"x8.5" dimensions, and it came out at 349 pages. This is because there were more chapter breaks, and since I was writing for fun I allowed more "dangling lines," and most crucially, I wasn't thinking and I left the font at 12 pts. But the fact is, based on your preferences your 100,000 page book might indeed come out closer to 350 pages than 250. It wouldn't bring in much at $9.99, but at $12.99--still quite reasonable now that most paperbacks go for $15-$16 at retail--it would bring in $2.74 at Amazon, $5.34 at the eStore, and $0.14 expanded distribution. The sense I'm getting is that expanded distribution is just difficult. But I could create a steep discount code for the CreateSpace store and still make a profit!

One last word of advice for slimmer books: CreateSpace has a fixed price for books 108 pages and lower. This is not the case with Lulu, which has no floor--if you can fit your story onto 60 pages it'll be cheaper than 65 pages, and so on. But if you're with CreateSpace, you won't get any better deal for cramming into 75 pages what would look better in 95. Cramped pages with tiny margins and tiny font are a pain, and look doubly ridiculous if the book itself is slender. Also, books need to be at least 100 pages before you can add a title and author's name onto the spine, because a certain width is needed to provide a margin of error for printing. CreateSpace suggests not adding spine text to books of less than 131 pages, and LighteningSource's minimum is 80 pages. You decide what risk you're comfortable with (I have seen 100-page POD books with perfect spine text). For very thin books, you might also consider printing on "cream" paper, which is a bit thicker than white and may round out a book that would otherwise appear anemic.

To conclude, my inner economist wants to crack a joke about proper formatting being all about the marginal difference--but I won't. Instead, I shall just wish you good luck with your next publishing endeavor, and I beseech you to remember the margins. Your bank account, your readers, and the trees will thank you!

For more tips on formatting for people who are writers, not designers, see my post on Promotional Bookmarks through VistaPrint.  And for more advice on formatting, publishing, and writing in general...well, I've literally written the book on writing, editing, and publishing. And formatted it for CreateSpace, fitting 97,000 words onto an extremely readable 200 pages. Not to brag or anything.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Story up at Perihelion! "Equations in the Mirror"

My science fiction story "Equations in the Mirror" is up at Perihelion Science Fiction. This is one of the few stories that ever required me to whip out a calculator (another is Ayema's Fleet in the Battlespace Military Science Fiction anthology) and was based on a number of cool medical techniques I'd learned about. Being for a time a Paleolithic history/pre-history fan, I was delighted to learn that obsidian stone blades are still used by surgeons in the modern day. The idea of dark glass and dark reflections tied in with other, more unsettling medical advances in cosmetic surgery.

That math I did involved taking measurements of my own face (actually just one measurement: I think of the length of my lower eyelid) and then extrapolating the other numbers according to the supposed ratios of the Golden Equation as applied to the human face. You may roll your eyes (which are the perfect length, if I may say) or raise your eyebrows (wonderfully proportioned--not to be creepy), but for what it's worth, some cosmetic surgeons do claim their work has a basis in the Golden Ratio. Which is why I was more amused than stung my one of the rejection letters I've preciously received for "Equations," one that said The concept of basing cosmetic surgery on the Golden Ratio just didn't ring all.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Fair Trade Friday post at the Amani Blog!

From my posts this month, you might assume I had done nothing but read and review books.

You wouldn't be far wrong.

One of my internships has wrapped up, but I'm keeping up with the second--a part-time arrangement with the Fair Trade store Amani DC--for some outside the house occupation during my job search. The status of my job search can best be described as "pending." To be honest, after the crisis in July and the hard work that came with wrapping up my position in August, I'm grateful for a few weeks of relative quiet. I have made some progress in writing, and am currently looking to acquire more clients for my manuscript reviews. 

Anyway, if you want to read a blog post by me that isn't a book review, check out my latest at the Amani DC blog, on recent changes in the world of Fair Trade Jewelry. It was fun to research, even if I did get lost in the Novica galleries.

Monday, September 9, 2013

WisCon Rapidfire Book Reviews #3: Edge of Oblivion by J.T. Geissinger


Among the delights of WisCon was the cardboard box of free review copies in the lobby. Diving in among them, I read the back cover copy of this ARC and snagged it, always one to enjoy the occasional romance. I was expecting fantasy in a historical setting, only to find paranormal romance instead. Paranormals aren't usually my thing, but I figured I'd give it a shot.

I sat up late reading it and carried it around the next day to browse in between panels. I did set it down once the panels began, but that is more a testament to the quality of WisCon's panels than the book's inability to hold my attention. There's plenty of suspense, given it starts off with the heroine being sentenced to death for betraying her people--a sentence the hero is meant to carry out, if she isn't able to use the grace period she's been provided to uncover the secret enemy who intends to destroy them all.

This is a very sensuous book--not just in the obvious sense of its steaming sexuality, although there was that, too, but in the sumptuous descriptions of Rome--and it's food (I love it when heroines indulge themselves, and the scene where Morgan has a run for freedom that incorporates going for gelato won my heart over) as the characters explore the city in search for a hidden society that intends to destroy their hidden civilization of shapeshifers. Specifically, these are cat/panther shifters, not werewolves, although similar dynamics seem to prevail--by which I mean, Alpha Male syndrome rears its needy head. I'm not a fan of these particular sorts of dominance dynamics and likely I never will be. Especially when it's Alpha Male syndrome. The women in this story do stand up for themselves--sometimes.

SPOILER for the climax: there is a test for female characters, the "sexy lamp test," which poses the question: Would an attractive lamp have fulfilled the same purpose as the character in this scene? The climax strongly fails the sexy chained-up lamp test. While the heroine gets the chance to exert her genuinely cool shapeshifting and mind-control powers at other points in the story, at the climax she just dangles there. I kept waiting for her to break free and unleash holy hell and...she didn't. That was a strong strike against this book for me.

The hero of this story, for all he's got the dominant vibes, has a crushing backstory as a trained assassin that made me want to get him a warm blanket and hot soup. He has a support structure of sorts from his friends--and then terrible things happen to some of those friends. The heroine, Morgan, has a twisted past based in her rebellion against the genuinely oppressive 'shifter society, obsessed with its own safety to the point of crushing individual freedoms. Secondary characters are well-developed, at least one couple because they're being prepared for starring role in the concluding book of this trilogy. But, despite that and despite a moderately interesting revelation about the villain-behind-the-villain, I don't think I'll read on. Delicious as the description is, and sympathetic as the character's hopes and dreams (as they're caught up in) when it's gilding on some extremely tired gender dynamics I just can't be that engaged. If this was the historical I at first thought it was I might at least excuse it on grounds of time period accuracy. Might. But, no, I really wouldn't have; I'm picky like that, wanting female characters to have agency and male characters to not be domineering assholes (the hero of this story was both, but not at the same time, I'll give him that; and the assholedom is something he's been pushed into and is actively trying to change from. The villain was both at the same time and so gross because of it that I had trouble reading about him, and that makes me only more disappointed that Morgan wasn't able to whup his sorry ass to the curb during the climax).

I haven't yet been converted to paranormal romance. For those of you who are into it, and who don't mind the gender dynamics so much (given how much of this sells like hotcakes I'm clearly more sensitive to it than many), would probably enjoy the travelogue of Rome, the sizzling emotional and sexual tension between the protagonists, and the genuinely sympathetic side characters.

Barnes & Noble
Buy a used copy, protect trees & fund literacy programs through Better World Books

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

WisCon Rapidfire Book Review #2: A Stranger on Olondria by Sofia Samatar


Another one of the books I discovered through WisCon--in fact, I discovered Stranger in Olondria through the little sampler pamphlets Small Beer Press handed out out at WisCon 2012. This was daring promotional tactic--because the first 50 pages of this story don't have much of the plot, though they gave a flavor for style. The style intrigued me enough that I was willing to wait for the plot, and wait I did: not only for a full year to see the book in the dealer's room, but then another month or so for my sister, who bought a copy, to finish reading it and bring it to DC when she visited this June.

And then I had the waiting period of rereading the first 50 pages.

Sofia Samatar's prose is lush. Very lush. As lush as the verdant forests of Jennat, where in the evenings spice-scented mists rose and are taken for ghosts by the taro farmers on the slopes above (not an actual quote, but my attempt to mirror the style). Some might say too lush.

I love rich description--I'm currently reading E.R. Eddison--but there comes a point where further detail is only detracting from the story rather than setting the scene. When Jevick is given a mystic book, it doesn't matter to me that the book comes wrapped in "old silks the color of a fallen tooth" (page 158). A small thing, and one that doesn't detract from the story as a whole, but still, let's just say that line exercised my eyebrows.

The lush description builds up a setting that is rather hodgepodge--at first, given the opening, I thought Olondria would be an alternative India or other South Asian setting, but in the end there's bits of everywhere, people wear monocles and skullcaps, sit in parlors and cafes bearing swaths of silk in un-Victorian profusion, eat pears poached in wine and drink chocolate (which to my mind either implies a Columbian Exchange in this alternate universe or just proves there is no North American analogue). This is actually the kind of creatively anachronistic, stylishly rich worldbuilding I love, and it excuses the level of description--when nothing can be taken for granted, a writer should tell the readers enough details to get by. One particular set of details I loved: Jevick frequently quotes other writers from the world of Olondria, which reminded me of more classic writers and their tradition of allusions. It's a great way to immediately add depth to the text, and I should note that Samatar takes a gamble by using actual excerpts from the fictional books, and successfully pulls them off (to show how hard this is generally recognized as being, in the words of Making Light on the Most Interesting Writer in the World: "18: (S)He once wrote a novel whose protagonist was a better writer than him./ 20: And included quotations proving it.")

As a ghost story, its mood is more melancholy than horrific. I want to compare it to The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, for the rich tour of the world with a quest at the heart of it (a quest that starts off personal and turns out to have stakes on a much greater scale). However, there is not a hint of H.P. Lovecraft's virulent racism (hopefully this is clear from both the cover and the fact that the book was at WisCon; it lands on the opposite end of the racefail-o-meter). And books are the emotional touchstone instead of cats. You can quote me on that.

Back to the opening: this is a story that begins with the narrator's childhood. Most of the characters introduced on the Spice Islands stay on the Spice Islands, and I don't feel this part ties in well to what happens when Jevick eventually reaches Olondria. They're called back to, but not as strongly integrated as I'd wished. Once you get past that, the story picks up pace and is in the end tightly told--individual descriptions may fail to add to the story (at least it could be argued so) but the actual events unroll with a subtle inevitability. There is little repetition--except for the part where we get a second narrative of a different character growing up in the Spice Islands. Perhaps Jevick's childhood is presented to parallel hers. I'll keep that theory in mind should I sit down to reread A Stranger in Olondria anytime soon. It is the sort of book--poetic, complex, soft-spoken--that benefits, I'm sure, for rereading.

And ultimately, it is a story about reading. Not in a pat moral sense--it's not The Reading Rainbow for grownups (not that anything is wrong with Reading Rainbow!). But with that theme in mind...well, as I said, I'm sure this story benefits from rereading. To do that, you need to read it the first time around. And you should.

Barnes and Noble
Buy a used copy, protect trees & fund literacy programs through Better World Books

Monday, September 2, 2013

September Publications: Scigentasy and Voluted Tales

Happy Labor Day to those of you celebrating it! I'm at this moment not quite employed enough to, but I do have some exciting writing announcements.

First, Silver Chests and Plain Sight has been reprinted at Voluted Tales. Half-detective story, it may have been influenced by Peter Tremayne's delightful medieval monastic mysteries--although my cleric happens to be female. 

I also have an original story publication: A Marriage, Pure and Good is at the new Intersectional Feminist webzine Scigentasy. I've been excited about Scigentasy ever since it opened its...doors? webpages?...anyway, point stands, I am thrilled beyond belief to actually be featured in it! A Marriage also sits pretty close to my heart, being one of the first stories I wrote featuring LGBTQA themes. Particularly G and A--the protagonist is an aromantic asexual woman. There really aren't enough aro ace characters out there, so I'm excited to add to their numbers, and grateful that Scigentasy is giving me the opportunity. 

I've been featured in a lot of feminist speculative fiction publications, both recently and in the past--Scigentasy, Daughters of Icarus, The Future Fire, Warrior Wisewoman and Sword and Sorceress, and I have two reprint stories forthcoming from the new anthology series Andromeda's Offspring. Each time I approach the themes of gender, sex, choice, pacifism (nonviolence is not always tied to feminism but it is intimately tied to my own stance), identity, and relationships from a different angle. I don't always agree with myself, either! Much less with every character--although allowing them freedom of choice and identity is what lets me write fiction in the first place. I have no all-encompassing summary statement, much less a great insightful truth, to close these musings with, so instead I'll just say--I hope you enjoy reading these stories and thinking about these questions as much as I enjoyed thinking about these questions and writing these stories!