Saturday, May 28, 2011

If you can't say anything good...

Self publishing in the 15th  century.

Sometimes it's not easy writing reviews.* I believe in being honest about how I feel about the books I post here. I don't go out of my way to be mean. I don't believe in any kind of bullying whatsoever. Most people realize that I am just one person and don't give my criticism too much weight. No one is going to kill themselves over what I write here. I hope.

A while back I was contacted by an author (who will remain nameless) and asked if I would like to review the first two books of her four book series. In her email she told me a little about the story and it sounded really cool. I was looking forward to reading them.

When the books came they were published by “self publish” print-on-demand company called AuthorHouse. Self-publishing used to be called “vanity publishing” for a very good reason. Not that good books can't come out of this kind of publishing. I vaguely remember a story about a famous novel that was first published by the author and sold out of the back of his car.

Unfortunately a lot of garbage is also published this way. Not that these books are garbage. I think publication was a little premature.

I have to give the woman props for being brave enough to contact strangers and ask them to review her work. I just wish she had spent the $600 she gave AuthorHouse on hiring a professional editor. The writing in the first book (I didn't even open the second) is both too formal and awkward.

Let's start with the back cover blurb. You know I judge a book by it's blurb. You've got about 30 seconds to interest me before I move on to another book. The blurb on this book is wordy and complicated. It really needs editing.

Below the blurb is a bit about the author. Then what happens to the heroine at the end of the fourth book is there in print. Why bother reading the book now that I know how it ends?

There's also a dedication on the back cover. While it is a nice sentiment, I don't think it belongs on the back cover. Especially when it is already inside the book. Just my personal preference.

Things that bugged me in the first few pages:

The black darkness beyond the door looked like a step into infinity.”

Does “darkness” come in colors now? I must have missed the memo. Beyond the “infinity” clich√©, the first thing I thought of after reading that sentence was “To infinity and beyond” from Toy Story.

As her small, booted feet descended the narrow stairs...”

Just her feet? The rest of her stayed behind? It's a small thing but it took me out of the story.

No guards, she thought. Everyone must be downstairs, perhaps for an important event. Otherwise their monstrous guards greet and kill any intruder.” (author's italics)

Who thinks “perhaps” beside maybe, Yoda? It's just awkward.

The bottom of the stairs opened into an amphitheatre belowground.”

Nothing really wrong with that sentence except for the fact that a few paragraphs before the author already stated that most of the building is underground and her heroine (or her feet) descended from ground level. Oh and “belowground?”

The heroine “screamed in pain” more than once in the first 4 pages (two different fights). Not really wrong just kind of annoying. Pet peeve.

Then the story skips 200 years and we get this passage:

“Do you think this is the place?” W** asked two other young men as they walked toward a large wooden gate. Above the gate, two guard towers could be seen. The wall surrounding the city was about ten feet high and clearly damaged in many places. 
“It looks like home, but different,” said D**, pointing up. The stars in the clear-blue sky still lit the familiar age-old path to the once-great city of G*****. The time of year was early summer, so the air was slightly cool. Snowcapped mountains framed the city in the distance. Opposite the city gate, a large forest stood tall. 
“So this is G*****'s future after we died.” said G**, a small blonde-haired man wearing blue robes with silver trim. 
“This doesn't look very good,” said W**, a handsome man with black hair and a mustache who was wearing a rich red cloak with black clothing and boots underneath. 
“It's like the dragon said, I suppose. We have been asked to return to our home world long after our own deaths,” said D**, as his red hair glistened in the bright sun. He wore dull green clothing with his light boots and a green cloak, drab compared to his companions.
“Yes,” said G**, “He said the danger we left after peace was declared by our king following the Great War pales in comparison to the danger G***** is in now. 
“So,” said W**, “shall we knock on the door and see what our descendants are like or just stay out here?"
Oh, where to start. “stars in the clear-blue sky” Blue sky at night? It's a fantasy novel so... um.. no. Three paragraphs later we get “his red hair glistened in the bright sun.”

In screenwriting there is the adage “show don't tell.” I think in novels it should be “describe but don't make your characters vomit exposition.” And before you commit any dialogue to print you should read it into a tape recorder. Or have a friend read it to you. That's the best advice I ever got when it came to writing good dialogue. The characters in this book do not speak like real people. The dialogue is very stiff.

The Tale of Two Sentences
Her version: The wall surrounding the city was about ten feet high and clearly damaged in many places.
My version: The ten foot wall surrounding the city had suffered heavy damage.
Not really anything wrong with either sentence. One is just easier to read. Maybe that is also personal preference.

Some people might think that all this is just being picky. Maybe they're right. I just found these things distracting. All of the examples here are found in the first six pages. If you don't grab me by page six you'll never get me. If I'm noticing stylistic or technical problems I will stop reading. I think a lot of people are like that.

I think this story idea could work. I hope that the author will get professional editing help or find a, published by traditional (professional) means, writing mentor. I also hope she doesn't get cheated out of royalties by AuthorHouse. A quick search turned up dozen of writers who were told they only sold 3 books

Most of all the author should remember that this is only one person's opinion. To quote the late, great Ricky Nelson: “You can't please everyone.”

So what say you oh gentle (quiet) readers? Am I being to harsh or do you agree with me? Somewhere in between?

*Sorry this is a day late. I was really trying to put it off as long as I could.