Review – Luna, Ian MacDonald and The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan
As ever, my reading is eclectic – as are my reviews, some on Amazon and
Goodreads, some, the more detailed and personal, here – and I don’t think I could have decided to put two more diverse books in one review.
To Luna, first. A vast family epic, set on a newly-colonised moon. A huge array of characters and loyalties, so vast that at first the sheer number of names and allegiances threatened to stop me reading. This, though, is a personal reaction – I struggle with long character casts. In fact, if I can get past it, anyone can.
As the story settles down, it is the Corta family we come to focus on. Proud, unscrupulous and multi dimensional, their position in the lunar hierarchy is threatened by the other ruling families, in particular the chilling, and stark, Mackenzies (who repay three times.) A full range of character attributes is shown, with fun and interesting tech and lots to challenge our perceptions of sf worlds.
Deftly pulling us into the family dynamics, whilst still allowing individual characters to be drawn out, Luna is pacy and pulls to its shocking climax inexorably. When the end does come, it leaves enough questions for the reader to want the next book out as soon as possible.
Where Luna didn’t quite hit it for me was in the field of the wider picture. Only two of the dynasties are fully fleshed out, with two in particular not known to the reader. To expand further would, however, have made the book even wider in scope with more characters. Nonetheless without knowledge of them, I struggled to fully grasp the politics in place and, crucially, felt that to unravel the ending was difficult given the limited knowledge.
That, though, is a tiny gripe in an otherwise excellent book, and one I’d recommend to others.
The Gracekeepers, then, is a debut book by Kirsty Logan, and a very nice debut it is. I stumbled across it in the library, location of books I take a gamble on and was intrigued by a world where the sea has encroached on the land, with a floating circus inhabiting that world.
With shades of Life of Pi in the set up of a girl (North) on a boat with a wild animal – in this case, a bear – it developed its own path quickly. In contrast, Callanish, lives alone, tending bodies given to the sea for burial and hiding her own secrets in solitude.
Lovely writing, memorable characters and a nice set up, I enjoyed The Gracekeepers very much. I felt it got bogged down at one point, and an injection of pace would have been nice, but the end delivered well and satisfied with only one real loose end for me.
It doesn’t feel like a world that will be returned to (although I might, of course, be wrong) but that’s fine – sometimes we just want the briefest snapshot of somewhere to frame our memories of it. The Gracekeepers is a book that will stay with me for some time, and Logan a writer to keep an eye on.
I’ve been getting a lot of messages on forums, twitter and facebook from authors who want to know how to build a platform to sell their book from.
It’s all very gratifying to be asked – it means I must have some sort of platform myself. But I really don’t have an easy answer, and I wish I did.
Here, though, are some of my thoughts, for what they’re worth.
It takes time to build any kind of platform. So often, the people asking me have their book out, or just about to be released.
Take this blog for instance. If you’re reading it, you’re one of hundreds who now read my entries. I have no idea how you’ve come across it but, judging from my referrers lists, you’re either from facebook or twitter, or you know me from a forum.
I’ve been writing this blog for 6 years and had two previous to it. I didn’t start it to build a platform, or to blog on a specific day of the week, or to do anything other than have somewhere to pop down my rants and muses. For the first 4 years, hardly anyone read the blog, but I still posted on it regularly and enjoyed posting. Blog writing is some of the best fun writing I do.
Suddenly, about a year ago, the traffic increased until, now, I get four figure hits every month.
There was no magic button. I don’t, actually, promote it much – one single tweet and facebook post, and a notification on some forum sites. I don’t have a mailing list (but should – if anyone knows a simple step-by-step process an illiterate computer user can do, let me know). I don’t have a fancy twitter-feed thing that retweets this every hour or two. It’s just that, over time, people – you, unknown person – have started to visit it.
So, to a new writer who asks me is it worth having a blog, I say, well, yes. If you have six years to spare.
So what of those other platforms? I’ve been on twitter a good number of years – probably about six. About three months ago I reached the heady heights of having more followers than followed. It’s a small account, still – about 800 followers, all told – but with few spammy-types. It is, actually, easy to build a lot of followers on Twitter – it’s hard to build real followers. (What an awful word. Twitter-mates? Twitt-zers? Something realer?)
Facebook I’m newer to, but it’s probably a couple of years now. I’m in quite a few groups, for the craic. There are a couple I’m fairly active in – Grimdark Readers and Writers (who are, really, kittens with soft paws but don’t them that) and Space Opera. And my family and friends are there, too, which is nice as they see something of my writing life (but I don’t envy them getting all my writing posts. Sorry. I love you all.)
So, again, when a new writer turns up hoping to find the magic Social Media platform I have to say it takes time – or, at least, it did for me.
Which takes me to my other big platform. Forums. Full of sff fans. Surely they’re the best place to turn up and announce your new book.
Well, no. Forums hate that, with a passion you wouldn’t believe. Most ban it. Others allocate a specific thread to it.
So, let’s see. I’ve been a member of the sffchronicles for around five years. My first internet home, I have a lot of posts there. I was critiqued there, enter their writing challenges, cut my query teeth and had some great craic. When my book came out, they were the first to call out, the first to read it. They gave interviews and shares. Yep, they did everything a new author wants their forum to do. It only took five years….
Since release, I’ve joined other forums. I don’t do much promo (although I do link to my blog – but that’s mostly because I hope the blog is useful to other writers. It’s one of the big reasons I started it.) I post occasionally, I try to help other writers, I mostly try to be a unfortunately time-limited member of the forums.
So, um, again, it took time.
Which brings me to the one single message I have. By thw time your book comes out, it’s too late to build a platform for that book. You can start, of course, and it might be good for futtur books. But, if you have some time spare as an aspiring writer (because, believe me, you won’t once you’re published) build your website, start your SM platforms, make contacts and be ready to hit the ground running when you need to.
This week, I found myself gatecrashing a conversation on Twitter between two big genre writers (as you do.) One of the themes that came up was that it’s not enough to write a good book if you want a career at writing. Simultaneously, on a forum I’ve recently joined, the question was raised about how to manage multiple projects. The blog-wheels started to turn.
I know there are one-hit wonders out there. I can name some famous single-novels that made it: Emily Bronte, Harper Lee (yes, yes, I know there’s a prequel out now, but for decades Mocking Bird was a single book), Margaret Mitchell all spring to mind (it’s worth looking into their background – all of them wrote throughout their lives, in various guises).
They are the rarity. For most of us, if we want to make a career out of writing, we’re going to have to learn to write more than one thing, more than one format and, possibly, for more than one related market (I write sf, fantasy and the odd bit of horror; that’s a pretty common mix.)
I write flash fiction (just coming out of a nice 300 word competition, in the silver medal position), short stories and novels. Plus blogs and guest posts. I write them when I have a notion of an idea, when there’s a prompt and when I’m asked to submit to places. I don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, I say yes and then write something.
Those short stories have taken me far in terms of my name getting out there. They also brought in a small amount of money before the novels ever did. They gave hope in the long journey to publication that something might break.
But – how to balance it all? At the moment, on the go, I have a final edit for publication, a first publisher’s edit, a book to review before editorial, a book a first revision stage that I hope to get onto sub soon, two shorts waiting to be completed, a new idea buzzing and fizzing and wanting some attention, and a sequel begging to be written. To make it harder, two of these books (and one of the shorts) are space opera, one is real-world fantasy, one mainstream fantasy, and one straight SF-thriller. Two are in the Northern Irish voice, but in different genres.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and dizzy. Here, then, is how I manage it:
1. One thing at a time. I only have one main WIP open at any given time. I might have ideas for others, I might even write out a long hand scene if it’s begging me and keeping me awake. But only one piece open and being worked at on the pc at any one time.
2. Shorts are a great refresher between projects. Shifting from one novel’s voice to another’s is hard. It usually takes me a week or so to shake off what I was doing and move onto the next. I find working at shorts between the switch works well for me. It removes the original voice, inserts one which isn’t so fixed, and gives me space to move back to the new work.
3. Mix it up. I’d go mad if I had to do three first drafts in a row. But, also, much as I like editing (I know, I know…) it takes concentration and less creativitiy, so doing three tight edits in a row would also tax me. I tend to have, on the go: a final project being polished, a mid-way project being revised and something new and shiny for me to go to play on. That’s my reward, almost.
4. Celebrate finalising something! It’s so easy, when you’re working between things, to never see the end of your work (and writing, once you get to the stage of deadlines and expectations is real work. It’s real hard work, actually.)
If you were in the workplace, you’d pat yourself on the back at the end of a project. You’d take time to plan the next (or rather, you should.) You’d also have others celebrating the end of a project with you.
In writing, the end can be strangely down-beat. The WIP goes from you to a copyeditor. It might be another month, or six months, until it comes out and you can ra-ra about what you’ve written. That vacuum is a hard one, so it’s up to you to fill it.
Take a day off, or a week. Go out for a meal. Do something you enjoy. Do anything that actually says that yes, you’ve achieved something. And then start writing the next thing.
5. Get to the end! It’s easy to gad about. I have a book I was happily revising, eight hard chapters in, and then I had to break off to work on something else. It’s still the next project I’ll return to. That discipline isn’t easy when new, fun ideas are exploding (and the planning I’m doing for Inish Carraig 2 is a lot of fun), but it’s needed. Without it, you’ll never get anywhere.
6. Don’t be a production line. Start to pick and choose your projects. At the start, exposure is everything. But, later, exposure can be at the expense of a paid gig. Start to weigh up projects, to ask if it’s the right one for you. And don’t be afraid to say no. Everyone else does.
7. Lastly, try to enjoy the process. You started writing because it was something you wanted to do, right? (At least, that’s what most writers tell me.) You didn’t start to make a squillion. (I really, really hope not. If you did, I have bad news for you…) If you’re at the point of multiple projects, it’s going well. Savour it.
A list of things that I have worked on can be found here: http://jozebedee.com/campbell-award/.
AND WHY EVERY WRITER NEEDS TO BE A BIT HAN SOLO ABOUT THINGS.
I did some research for my blog today. Excitement abounds. (Normally I just wake up with a rant on and shove it on the page.) I typed the question ‘What are the odds…?’ and added some writing parameters.
Since I wouldn’t want to take this research palaver too far I opened the first of links. Let’s see:
Odds of being published – fewer than 1%
Odds of getting a literary agent – anywhere between 1 (2/2000 mss) and 10% (3% is pretty well known. Essentially 97% of submissions either don’t follow the guidance, aren’t in the agent’s field, or are just too riddled with errors to be salvageable)
Odds of your agent getting you a good publishing deal (all right, all right, it still stings :D) – 1-10%.
I could go on, through pages and pages and pages of these responses, and they’d all tell me the same thing. Chances of selling a million, of making money, of giving up the day job…. I’m facing impossible odds. I may as well spend my writing time Spreadbetting.
None of this is helpful. None of this aids creativity.
More importantly – none of it reflects the reality that I’ve seen.
I started writing 5 years ago. In that time, I’ve had many, many writing friends, some of whom I’ve met after they’re published, some before. But, going back those five years, I had 6 writing friends who were all at a similar part of the path as me (some had been writing longer, but all were at the we’d-like-to-make-a-go-of-it-stage.) Of those 6, I was by far the most inexperienced and the one still being giving masterclasses on such matters as Point of view and conflict.
Of those 6 writers, 1 is published, 2 have offers, 1 is agented and two have had/have interest from agents. (I’ve been agented, and I’m published, so there’s the odds blasted a bit more.)
That’s right. 6 writers. All breaking the odds. Why?
Here’s where I’m going to irk some people. Sorry. (Well, I’m not really, but it’s good to be polite. Even in ranting blogs.) They worked. Damn hard. Without that, a writer is relying only on luck and, with the sort of odds above, you might want a little more in your pocket.
Here, then, is my guide on how to beat the odds. (With the proviso, as ever, that this is my opinion, I know nothing etc etc.)
1. Get the right sort of feedback – post for critique. Take on board the guidance given. Seek knowledgeable beta readers and listen. Hang around writing sites and absorb what’s relevant. Writing groups, critique circles, forums – all have their place.
2. Give feedback – critique and beta read. Because, here’s the thing – what you can’t see in your own work stands out in other’s. Things like how to show not tell is so much easier to grasp in someone else’s excerpt. Pacing and what works, point of view and what pulls a reader from the story. A writer who critiques learns the self-editing skills they’ll be expected to have when they do beat the odds.
What makes a good story – Some people read books (Save the Cat gets recommended a lot, although I’m not a big book-learner. I did enjoy King’s On Writing, however). Some study books they read and work out where the conflict is. However they do it, they find out what makes a good story and they try to apply it. (Have I mentioned application? This blog is all about application.)
The business – Learn what openings to avoid*, what cliches make agents shout ‘Next!’, what markets are on trend, what word counts suit certain age groups. Figure out who’s writing stuff like you and look at how their’s works. Learn what a good cover looks like. Learn enough about contracts – or find out where to get them checked – to understand the business.
* Not-a-great-opening: (Daniel Cody ran, sure he was going to be killed by the ravening hordes, fell and found himself sitting up in bed. The rain was falling outside, a wind howling. Shaking, he got up and went to the mirror. His blond hair was plastered to his scalp, his blue eyes wide and fearful. He had a day-old beard in place.)
4. Seek editorial guidance. This point is controversial. As much as I say ‘get an editor’, others say ‘learn to do it yourself!’ I agree. Learn to do it yourself. But learn to do it properly and, to do that, a developmental editor can be gold, but only if you take what they suggest and apply it to that, and later, mss.
5. Learn to write queries. And a synopsis. Read Queryshark’s blog (the inimitable Janet Reid, no one submit without a readthrough). Perhaps visit Query Letter Hell on Absolute Write. (I did. It’s brutal. I can now write a draft query in around fifteen minutes. And finish it six months later… Joking! I’m joking! mostly…)
To get an agent or a publisher you have to make the book sound interesting and enticing. That’s not a black art you have to sell your soul to master. It’s another skill. It’s hard to learn, it’ll make you weep, but it has to be done. Get on with it.
6. They learn about ‘platforms’. How to interact with agents, and writers and publishers. (Note, this may not be a social media platform. Some writers – many, in fact – are pretty shy and retiring types.) They find out where to find information, how to submit, what etiquette to follow.
In short – but that makes for an unsatisfying blog, I find – people who beat the odds are professional. It’s not about shoving a book out. It’s not about rushing it. It’s about learning how to be a writer. About learning how to do so professionally. All writers I know who are successful – from published to self published, from household names to niche-but-chic – are professional. Some learn it as they go. Some learn it first. But all of them take it seriously.
So, there you go. What odds? Han was right – being told them doesn’t help. Having the knowledge to overcome them does.
More about Jo can be tracked down from her website: www.jozebedee.com.
And why it’s okay to take time out.
I don’t take much time off. To get 5 books out in 18 months, have another couple getting towards submission, run a consultancy and look after a family doesn’t leave much time over. The fact is, like so mamy writers (because, frankly, there is an Unbelievable pay-time connundrum in this game) I fit writing in around things.
I squeeze writing blogs into sitting in the car at the school gates. While my child canters around on a pony I clear critiques for my writing group. Considering I’ve two lots of publishers’ edits underway at the moment, a book launch (and Mancunicon!) 7 weeks away, and a reading event to run in 4 weeks, I’m even busier than usual.
Yesterday, though, a helpful thing happened. Half a page into my review of the previous day’s edits my computer decided to shut down (note – this will not be helpful if it then refuses to start up again…). At which point I decided the writing gods were telling me to take a day off, and I listened.
So, what did I do with my precious time? I made a hedgehog cake for my daughter’s 11th birthday. It wasn’t an especially good cake. In fact, my loving big brother informed me it was a roadkilled hedgehog cake. And its eyes were a tad demonic.
Nonetheless, it was a fun cake. I also blew up and decorated light-up butterfly balloons (honestly, there are some bizarre minds in kid’s party companies). I wrapped pressies, had a delivery of another yummy cake and tea with my aunt who I don’t catch up with enough. I drank more fizzy wine than I should on a weeknight.
Today, apart from this blog, I’m not doing much writing. I’m meeting someone for coffee – a writer, as it happens. I’m going to the shops.
It’s all to the good. Writing is so consuming, so obsessive and time-draining, we all need some time to recharge. At which point I nudge all my writing friends and ask what they’re planning to do this weekend and challenge them to top a roadkill cake.