As a librarian, I am constantly thinking about book reviews. I use them to select books for my library’s collection, as well as to decide which titles to hand-sell to my patrons. I review for Booklist and read reviews critically. I see a review as a tool – something to help people make decisions about a book before reading it. And it’s cool to give back to the reading community by creating those tools after I’ve enjoyed a book.
In my writer-life, it’s different. Reviews of my own work make me cringe. I cannot open the Goodreads pages for anything I’ve written. Better to remain in la-la land.
Because here’s the thing – reviews are for readers.
And every reader will have a subjective opinion. Whether you’re indie-published, trad-published, or in some little hybrid land like I am, your reviews are not all going to be five stars. Even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the highest-rated book on Goodreads, has 4.62 stars.
In library terms, we call that 1. Every book its reader and 2. Every reader their book. These are two of S.R. Ranganathan’s five laws of librarianship. Some readers will resonate with your work, and others will loathe it. That truth cannot be avoided, and it means that as writers, we must become comfortable with reviews that we don’t like.
OK. Now that you’ve sat with it for a while, we can get back to the task and art of writing reviews of other people’s work.
Some writers will give the advice that you shouldn’t review other people’s work at all. That’s a perfectly valid choice, and it’s your boundary to set as a writer. For me, it’s not feasible. First, because I’m a librarian, and second, because I just can’t stop reading books. Seriously. It’s an addiction.
So I have some Very Particular Rules for how I review and blurb. I generally do not rate anything lower than four stars. I figure, if the book was worth my time to read and I enjoyed it, it’s worth four or five stars. If I am sent a book for Booklist that I cannot review under this criteria, I decline to review it. But, like the decision to review or not review, your star-code is yours to set. Readers vary widely over this – some readers will give one star even if they read the entire book! This is another reason why the stars are so subjective.
A few other general tips:
Don’t use the review as a platform.
Remember – the review is for readers. Now, if you have some connection to the book, you may certainly state that. But the reader is not interested in what you have to say about your own work. They are trying to figure out if the book is worth their time investment. Also, this is not the time to be using writerly jargon, being overly critical, or give feedback the way you would in a writer’s workshop. The book is published. That time is over.
Do comment on the very specific strengths of the book.
What sets this book apart? I like to think of myself as writing a query letter for someone else’s book every time I write a review. I’m helping the author sell the book by pointing out its strengths.
Do focus on the appeal factors.
If you are not familiar with appeal factors – brush up! We librarians use them to help match readers with books. These are the juicy characteristics of books which entice readers: plot, character, language, setting, and so forth. Here is a fabulous crash course which I use in my readers’ advisory classes for librarians (thanks, Molly At the Library!)
Do be mindful of the star rating.
“But, Cari, you just said the stars don’t matter!” Yes, I did. But the overall star rating will impact how readers receive your review. I’m not saying you should change anything based on it – stick to your star-code. Just know that the star rating is there and it’s part of the package.
Do acknowledge the author’s hard work.
A thoughtful review helps the author know that it was worth it for them to put that work out into the world. Help keep the good karma wheel spinning.
Well, I’m a sucker for new toys, particularly when it comes to my writing craft. Anything that can help me wrangle the herd of cats within my wild imagination is a plus, especially when it comes to story structure. That is why when I came across the trail of Fictionary, I was instantly curious. I got an email with a package deal for another year license for ProWriting Aid, which I recommend to all writers, and with it was a new developmental editing software called Fictionary.
I signed up for a free trial and was blown away by the level of detail the creator and fellow author, Kristina Stanley and her team had created. Fictionary allows you to upload your manuscript from Word or Google Docs directly into their user interface so that you can take a bird’s eye or 30,000ft view of your story and its structure. What I was most amazed by was the simplicity of the surface of the program as well as how deep you could go.
Fictionary breaks your manuscript down for you!
There be a number of bells and whistles under the hood of Fictionary and I don’t profess to know how they work in full, but after inputting my old manuscript for Nemeton: The Trial of Calas, I was instantly presented with a visual element that tracked my story’s narrative arc against that of prototypical or common story lines. This was a super cool feature right off the bat that let me see just how far off my original vision really was. This was helpful in many ways as, I am currently in a revision or rewriting phase with my previously published work.
But, where Fictionary really shines is in the scene by scene evaluation. The Visual components allow you to track the primary story arc as well as different character arcs and subplots across your manuscript, and that can be super helpful if you’ve got multiple arcs.
The three core functions of Fictionary.
Fictionary breaks it down to three key pieces, visualizing your arcs, evaluating your scene by scene story structure, and then exporting the monster once you are done with it. You can make edits on the fly, or edit your work 100% within the Fictionary software, kind of like Scrivener, but with a simpler interface.
Visualizing your story’s arc.
When Visualizing your manuscript you can check the full story arc, the amount of words per scene to aid you in nailing down your pacing, and also track how many times characters are showing up on a scene by scene basis. Though these three features seem potentially slight, they are remarkably powerful, not to mention I’ve got it on good authority that soon they will be rolling out even more powerful features.
Evaluating your manuscript scene by scene.
When Evaluating your scene by scene, Fictionary aids you by dialing in your character, plot, and setting down to the real nuts and bolts. Each scene or chapter has an interface to the right that highlights a number of tabs under which there are a list of critical questions that you should have asked in your first draft, but most likely didn’t if you are anything like me. Beyond the questions, each field is complimented by an infographic tip that educates you on the precise reason for each question or field. This is where the real power of the Fictionary software resides.
The Character tab features a range of questions like what character appear in the scene, who has the POV, what are the internal and external goals, what are the stakes and consequences, and the impact on the protagonist as well as other characters. The list goes on including an entire array of illuminating questions that, at least I often forget to include in my first draft. Plot, setting, and additional notes further aid you in dialing in your edit.
Fictionary, is it the next big thing?
I can’t speak to that yet, as Fictionary is a relatively new tool and I know that many writers are super comfortable with Scrivener. But overall, I think the interface is much more user-friendly. The primary draw is for writers who have already finished a rough or first draft of their work and want to import that manuscript in order to take it to the next level. I found the detailed list of questions and fields aided me in further cementing my story’s structure, theme and message.
Fictionary offers a free trial so that you can take it for a test drive, but I personally recommend that after you do so you take the dive. A year-long license won’t break the bank and I know that they are working hard at rolling out some key features like multiple manuscripts and an autosave feature to prevent losing precious progress. Overall I think Fictionary is a killer tool for novel based writers to explore.
Writing Bloc has your back!
We have partnered with Fictionary to provide all of our members with a killer discount on your first three months or on your first yearly license!
Fictionary is offering Writing Bloc writers and readers a 50% discount on the first three months ($10 per month, regularly $20 per month) or 50% off Annual subscription ( $100 per year, regularly $200 per year)
July is Camp NaNoWriMo, and here at Writing Bloc we’re using the month of June to pack for camp, and we invite you to join us!
Even if you are familiar with National Novel Writing Month, you might not know that the organization also hosts two ‘camps’ throughout the year – one during the month of April and one during the month of July.
While National Novel Writing Month in November challenges writers to whip out a 50,000 word novel in just thirty days, the camps are lighter and breezier. Participants, or ‘campers,’ set their own goals and can track their progress through an online dashboard(much like they do in November).
I will be working on adding 20,000 words to the novel I started in November, but many authors choose to work on short stories, or other projects during this time – even skipping around from project to project with the goal of writing every day.
The second Camp NaNoWriMo of 2019 takes place less than a month away, and Writing Bloc wants to make sure you are ready! So, let’s dive into a few action steps you can take to prepare for camp.
Set Your Goals
Whether you are aiming for 1,000 words or 50,000 words, set your overall goal before the month begins. Look at your calendar for April and set aside time to write each day. If you have something that can be checked off your to-do list before the month begins to make more time for writing, do it now.
Next, you will want to set smaller daily and weekly goals. These can vary depending on your schedule. Maybe you want to hit a goal of 5,000 words a week, but you know you have the most time to write on Thursdays. You could set a goal to write 2,000 words on Thursdays, and 500 words the other six days of the week. Setting attainable goals will help with forward momentum!
Let your family and close friends know what you are working to accomplish, and accept their support!
Join a Cabin
Cabins exist within the Camp NaNoWriMo website and encourage groups of writers to support each other and also hold each other accountable. Writing Bloc will be hosting a cabin for Camp NaNoWriMo, and you can request to join us here(will add link here as soon as Cabin Registration opens up).
Prepare to Sprint
NaNoWriMo holds word sprints on their twitter account around the clock during November, April, and July. Sprints are timed writing challenges in which participating writers across the globe take off writing for a specified amount of time, and then report back with their progress. They are great fun, and a wonderful way to keep each other motivated.
If you are sprinting to the finish line trying to hit 50K before that clock strikes 12, the fine people at @NaNoWordSprints have got you covered with non-stop sprints for the next 7 hours as we close out all the time zones!
If you are a plotter, outlining ahead of time will get those words out faster.
If you are a pantser, then even jotting down a few plot points or scene ideas will come in handy.
While it is always a good idea to save the research and fact checking for the editing stage, sometimes we just need to “check one thing real quick.” If this sounds like you, you might consider having a bookmarked list of related websites prepared for speedier referencing during your writing time.
Have your Tool Box Ready
Do you have a list of tools that help you when the words aren’t flowing? For some writers, it’s a music playlist organized according to mood. For others, it’s having writing craft books handy to inspire creativity.
Whatever it is that helps you keep writer’s block at bay, make sure you have your tools within arms reach when you sit down to write. If you need a few ideas, you can check out this article we wrote last year on 6 Techniques for Busting Through Writer’s Block.
Check out our Handy Prep Week Calendars
As a gift to all of you Camp NaNoWriMo participants, we have these handy calendars from April’s camp for you to download, set as your desktop background, or print and gleefully cross out each item as you complete it. Basically, use it in whatever way will help you the most. Check back throughout the month as we add content each week!
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads April 2019 Edition. Welcome to our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of April, we hear from Michael, Jacqui, Becca, and Robert.
Yes, I know, it sounds strange to recommend a popular series that sold over 23 million copies and was turned into four high-grossing movies, but hear me out. I first read The Hunger Games when the first wave of buzz crested, and when I read it, I lumped it in with the Twilight series (which I don’t personally care for). I think I did this because their popularity and their target audiences seemed to overlap, so I was curious as to what all the buzz was about. The buzz was probably part of what put me off. I think I was expecting a perfect novel the first time—my head wasn’t in the right place. I was ready to criticize the book at every page, and most of my criticism was undeserved, although, I still stand by my opinion that a lot of the names in these books are ridiculous. (I mean, “Peeta?” I keep hearing Lois Griffin’s voice from Family Guy saying this when she’s saying “Peter” in her accent.)
This time around, I picked up the novel because one of the stories I’m writing has a young female protagonist, and I was looking for recommendations for comparison novels. Enough people recommended The Hunger Gamesfor me to give it another chance. And I’m glad I did.
Is it perfect writing? What is perfect writing, really? It’s told in first person present tense from the perspective of a teenage girl in the midst of a cruel dystopia on the brink of an uprising, so it’s written in an appropriate tone. I appreciated the writing this time around, enough to get over the horrible names. (Plutarch Heavensbee…for real?)
All in all, I fell into the story. It’s well-paced, gripping, and, once I finished the second book I realized that it’s also carefully planned out. The Hunger Games series has impressed me like no other story in that I’ll admit that I got it wrong the first time. I wasn’t in the right headspace to appreciate these books, and now I am, which is a much better and happier place to be. I’d much rather be a person enjoying stories instead of criticizing them. Suzanne Collins helped convert me from a critic to a fan. I’m happy to say I was wrong.
“Why is it every time a madman’s prayers are answered, a witch burns?”
I’ll start with full disclosure: J. Danielle Dorn is a fellow Inkshares author, so I may be a bit biased. That said, Devil’s Call is sinister, satisfying, genre-bending read unlike anything I have ever picked up and I highly recommend it.
Billed as “The Revenant with witches,” Devil’s Call is part horror, part western, part feminist revenge soul candy that, if you are anything like me, will have you fully enthralled.
Written as a raw, first person confessional to her infant daughter, Devil’s Call follows protagonist Li Lian, as she avenges the death of the child’s father. I devoured Li Lian’s journey in just a few days, and can’t recommend enough this tale by a truly original voice.
This tiny book is a quick, inspirational read, which started as a zine and sticks to its roots. I purchased this book after hearing Grace speak on the WMFA Podcast on finding balance in one’s life as a creative person. If you read this thinking it will be an end-all, be-all guide, you will be disappointed. If you read this like it’s a conversation with a kind, reflective friend, you will be thrilled.
The book includes some short exercises to help readers reflect on what in their life is work and what is relaxation, as well as the gray areas where those overlap. I found it helpful just to think about, which is Grace’s point– she’s all about the noticing. In line with its origins as a zine, the book includes some things that might seem random to those not familiar with the genre– a section on herbal infusions, an appendix with relevant poetry. I enjoyed all of it, though, as well as the feelings of nostalgia tat the format inspired.
This is a nice read for folks whose work and pleasure are overlapping, as many authors’ are. Come to it prepared to walk away without any conrete “answers” but wth a renewed commitment to self-care and self-compassionate productivity.
Kate Harker and August Flynn’s families rule opposite ends of Verity, a grisly metropolis where violent acts summon real monsters: bloodsucking Malchai; clawing Corsai; and soul-stealing Sunai. The truce that keeps the families at peace is crumbling, and August is sent to spy on Kate. But when Harker’s men try to kill her and pin it on the Flynns, August and Kate find themselves running from both sides, in a city where monsters are real…
This Savage Song is another powerhouse from Schwab and I loved every second of it. Prior to this book, I’d read her Shades of Magic series, which is a stunning urban fantasy trilogy, and I was excited to dive into a different Schwab world. This Savage Song did not disappoint.
Set in a grim world of the future, where the US has separated into independent territories, the story takes place mostly within V-City; a territory divided in two by a shaky truce. It is a city where violent acts give birth to literal monsters. Where some monsters dream of being human. And some humans are… well, monstrous. In the middle of this we meet two youngsters on opposite sides of the divide, who despite everything, forge a connection and must learn to trust each other. The characterizations are deep and wonderful, the world gloriously dark and unique, and the plot sucks you inexorably toward the epic ending.
Today’s guest post comes from Kimberly Hunt, freelance developmental editor with Revision Division.
Let’s set expectations from the start. I am NOT a writer. Through extensive reading, professional training, and my experience as a developmental editor, I’ve learned the essentials of genres. A novel can contain elements from multiple genres but three components distinguish mystery, horror, and suspense.
They are: Timing, Revealed clues,and the Appeal, of the story to the reader’s emotions.
Any novel needs structural
elements with tension provided by formidable conflict and character growth, but
when you’re ready to pass your manuscript to a beta-reader, knowing your genre
will help you know how best to describe it. Use the following key components to
quickly identify if you’ve written a mystery, horror, or suspense novel.
It’s all about the chase. Drop the reader in after the crime and
let the story unravel – revealing the why and who at a moderate pace.
The hook in the beginning should establish a question that must be
answered by the end.
Solve the mystery in the end or there is no story. Even if the
criminal gets away, you’re expected to solve the crime.
Along the way, your style of writing characters and plot should
make demands of the reader’s brain to figure out the puzzle. To help them, leave
subtle clues so that it all falls into place in the end.
No cheating – waiting until the end to present a tidy wrap up is
not satisfying for readers.
It’s all about fear.
Often, a horror story includes themes of bad people or actions (or
both) and usually leans toward the morbid.
Shocking plot twists are great, but it should be believable. In
fact, that’s what makes it so scary.
Character motivations are still important even if horror is
usually more plot-driven than character-driven. In order to evoke a strong
emotional response, the reader must strongly like or hate the character.
The sought after emotional response is intense whether it be from fear
or shock. Readers should be screaming at the book as they see the evil plot
Many authors embrace disgust head-on without flinching, unafraid
to turn your stomach with graphic depiction, but use grossness sparingly as
this can be perceived as a lazy trick, much like leaning on coincidence to
solve a mystery or fate to wrap up a romance.
It’s all about tense uncertainty. Suspense involves a main
character trying to prevent something from occurring.
A reader of suspense novels should feel tightly wound and worried
about what may happen.
Some authors leverage time limits to increase tension and speed up
If Mystery is about what already happened, and horror is happening
now, then suspense is danger about to happen.
Similar to Horror, the reader is aware of the danger, perhaps even
more aware than the main character.
Use your biggest fears against your
characters slowly and subtly, leaving a little to the reader’s imagination.
New authors often struggle to categorize their work, but these guidelines should help. A blend of genres is great as strict rules are nonexistent. However, it’s beneficial to know early in the publishing process what your target audience hopes you’re about to deliver. And it’s absolutely mandatory later for marketing effectively when you’re querying or self-publishing.
Kimberly Hunt is a freelance
developmental editor with Revision Division, specializing in fiction for
self-publishing authors. She’s happy to answer questions about writing and
editing but beware as she can go on at length about her passions: reading,
running, and volunteering.
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads February 2019 Edition. Welcome to the seventh post in our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of February, we hear from Becca, Jacqui, Cari, and Michael.
In Lipstick Brigade: The Untold True Story of Washington’s World War II Government Girls, historian Cindy Gueli brings to life this important part of World War II history. I have a professional interest in these 100,000 women who moved to Washington D.C. to fill important clerical positions: my novel, Rock of Ages, follows a Government Girl. My interest is also personal. My beloved grandmother was one of them, classifying fingerprints for the FBI.I picked up Gueli’s book as research, hoping to make my own book as historically accurate as possible, but ended up feeling more deeply connected to my grandma, who passed away two months ago.
Gueli explains the political and personal forces which drew the women to the nation’s capital, an important government and military hub. She describes in detail their often monotonous jobs, the crowded and expensive living conditions in the bustling wartime city, the sexual and social traditions the women challenged, and the media portrayal of Government Girls that the real women contended with. She does it all with an eye to the influence of gender and race. Gueli is an excellent historian and an engaging writer.As I read about beauty seminars hosted for Government Girls, I began to understand my grandma’s fascination with Avon products and saw the time she took me for a makeover in a new light. She brought with her the experience of being a 19-year-old woman from rural West Virginia, on her own in a big city for the first time, learning beauty standards.
Reading about the cost of various amenities in D.C. at the time, I was able to make more sense of the letter my grandma kept detailing her raise and of her story about her $25 a month room. My grandma’s independence, patriotism, resourcefulness, and fashion sense all make more sense to me after having read this book. At a time when feeling close to my grandma is especially meaningful, I am grateful. My novel, too, will no doubt benefit from Gueli’s extensive knowledge.Readers interested in 1940s history, labor history, and feminism will certainly enjoy this thorough, readable book.
Jacqui’s Recommendation – Beartownby Fredrik Backman
“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil.” ― Fredrik Backman
Ever since reading A Man Called Ove years ago and absolutely loving Backman’s style, I’ve had several of his books on my to-read list, but they kept getting pushed to the back-burner for some reason. I think because deep down I knew that when I chose to enter another Backman book, I wouldn’t come out unscathed. There are certain authors that you know can wreck you, leave you reeling for days. Fredrik Backman is apparently one of them for me, and he is quickly becomming one of my favorite authors.
It’s hard to explain what exactly it is about Beartown that resonated so deeply. On its surface it’s a story about a hockey team and a devastating event that rocks a small town, but it is so much more than that. It is a story about the many, often contradictory, layers we have as humans. It is a story about the sometimes-toxic world of sports and tribalism. It is a story about snap judgements and self reflection. Highly recommend.
Author Abby Ellin almost married a con man – she tells her story in this part-memoir, part-fascinating fact book about liars. While there are other books out there about liars and their motivations, this one stands out because of its strong storytelling and clear, engaging style. Highly recommended for writers – if you’re looking for a reasoning behind your deceptive character’s motivation, you’ll be able to find it here.
I recently found Octavia Butler’s work thanks to friend recommendation. She was a powerhouse in science fiction, and all of her works are worth praise. Most of her stories feature complicated characters exploring issues that mirror current events, and her characters are rich and diverse, unlike the campy science fiction stories she fought to counterbalance. This recommendation is truly for Octavia Butler’s entire catalogue. From Kindred (1979) to Fledgling (2005), you can’t go wrong with any of her stories.
The reason for specifically pointing out Parable of the Talentsis that it shows some of the author’s uncanny ability to predict future events by exploring her world at the time of her writing. Parable is actually a sequel to Parable of the Sower, and it was written in 1998. Part of the story features a dystopian take on a future America featuring a presidential candidate hellbent on controlling the population by use of virtual reality and shock collars. This power hungry candidate also used an interesting slogan to push his agenda: “Make America Great Again.” Yes, she wrote this in 1998. Now go read her work. Unfortunately, we lost this literary giant in 2006, but thankfully she left a lot of work behind for us all to marvel at and enjoy.
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads January 2019 Edition. Welcome to the sixth post in our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of January, we hear from Michael, Becca, and Jacqui. Still not sure what to read next? Check out Writing Bloc’s 2019 Writers as Readers Challenge.
Michael’s Recommendation – Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
I love weird stuff, I’ll admit it. And this book sounded weird from out of the gate, which made me surprised that it had become popular enough to not only become a bestseller, but to be produced into a Tim Burton film. There is something to the presentation of this book alone that piques the curiosity, and though the old adage of “don’t judge a book by its cover” should apply, I still knew I’d be reading this book as soon as I laid my eyes on it. It’s filled with odd and creepy old pictures that the author collected over time and strung together to make a story. I thought that was a cool and unique approach to writing a book, and I must say, it paid off.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children pulls off a haunted vibe without the story being horror. After his grandfather dies in a gruesome manner, Jacob, the sixteen year-old protagonist, is set on following clues his grandfather left behind to discover an old orphanage in Wales. At first, all Jacob finds is the bombed out ruins of the orphanage, yet there are indications that the children may somehow still be alive nearby. After hunting for clues and searching the small island, Jacob soon finds himself in an entirely new world confirming all the stories his grandfather told him – stories he was sure were nothing more than fairy tales.
The story is mysterious, creepy, unique, and downright strange. It has its own brand of thrills I’ve never encountered in another book. I’m not saying this book is the peak of every aspect in its story, but it is definitely effective in its choice of storytelling elements. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing the series. The fourth book, AMap of Days, was just released.
Becca’s Recommendation – How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer
George and Irene’s mothers created them to be soul mates– but are they? This is the central question of How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, the second novel from the author of Shine, Shine, Shine.
The book explores the ideas of fate and compatibility through George and Irene’s story, from before their births until they meet again as adults, when they are both astrophysicists. What results is an enjoyable, smart romance novel, though Netzer’s approach is a twist on the genre.
Unlike other books which on their surface appear pulpy and end up having a deeper meaning (I’m thinking Laney Wylde’s After Twelve series–legal dramas that surprise readers with a deeper theme of racially motivated police violence), How to Tell does the opposite. On its surface a deep artsy book, at its core, Netzer gives readers a satisfying love story.
Jacqui’s Recommendation – Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
“We have an obligation to read for pleasure. If others see us reading, we show that reading is a good thing. We have an obligation to support libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not support libraries you are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”
– Neil Gaiman
When this little number arrived in my mailbox, and I promptly curled up on the couch and read it in about thirty minutes. Neil Gaiman has held onto his place as one of my favorite authors for over fifteen years (so much so that my son is named after one of his characters in Stardust). Art Matters is a collection of Neil Gaiman quotes and longer passages, accompanied by illustrations from artist Chris Riddell.
It is enchanting from start to finish, and a must-read for all writers and artists out there who have ever struggled with imposter syndrome and how to define success. A wonderful book to keep on the side table for those times when you just need a few words of encouragement to put you back on the right path and to remember that what you are doing matters.
It’s that time of the year when reading challenges are popping up on lots of blogs. There are so many great ones and I especially love the emphasis I’m seeing on underrepresented voices. As someone who’s gotten more serious about my writing in the last year, I’ve realized that this means getting more serious about reading.
As a kid, I’d sometimes go through a book a day– Goosebumps or Babysitter’s Club. In high school, I devoured my English class reading lists, always reading ahead of the class in 1984 or 100 Years of Solitude. Though I continued to read after graduation, the demands of college, then grad school, then parenthood slowed my pace waaaay down. Now I’ve been intetionally kicking it back into gear. If you’re a writer who, like me, wants to read to improve their writing, I’ve created this challenge for YOU– I hope it encourages you to push your limits with reading in a way that maximizes your efforts and deepens your involvement in the writing community!
Beta read for another writer This will be more than worth the effort when you have a beta reader for your own book. It’s also incredibly helpful to see books in their unpolished form. Plus, won’t it be cool to be on someone’s acknowledgments page?
Rachael Sparks is the author of the hard science fiction novel Resistant, which Publishers Weekly called “a scientifically accurate apocalypse.” Resistant takes place in a near future in which drug-resistant bacteria are winning the battle over humanity. Rachael was kind enough to chat with me about science, character development, and writing habits.
In the final battle with drug-resistant bacteria, one woman’s blood holds a secret weapon.
Rory and her father have survived the antibiotic crisis that has killed millions, including Rory’s mother—but ingenuity and perseverance aren’t their only advantages. When a stoic and scarred young military veteran enters their quiet life, Rory is drawn to him against her better judgment . . . until he exposes the secrets her mother and father kept from her, including the fact that her own blood may hold the cure the world needs, and she is the target of groups fighting to reach it first.
When the government comes after Rory, aiming to use her for a cure it can sell to the highest bidder, she’s forced to flee with her father and their new protector. But can she find the new path of human evolution before the government finds her?
Your novel draws from real-world science. Tell us a little bit about your background and what the research process was like for you.
I’m a microbiologist by training, a transplant expert, and now I work in hospital infection prevention with a medical device startup. So my education and career has centered around public health and that experience was half a lifetime of research for several books! For this novel, the research I needed to do was easy in that it was mostly mining my own brain and then confirming my filed-away facts were not yet discredited. Knowing that several friends who are legit scientists would be reading, I wanted badly for them to be convinced.
When did the idea for Resistant first strike you?
I’d wanted to write a sci-fi novel that explored this problem[antibiotic resistance], but a dream of a scene in the climax really inspired the characters. A handsome guy with swaths of discolored skin. . . readers will know his disfigurement plays into the plot but I honestly couldn’t say whether that was already in my mind or came after the dream!
Tell us about your protagonist? Are they inspired by someone you know in real life?
Rory is an amalgam of a lot of wonderful people I’ve known. She’s smart and a little unfiltered at times, with a bravery that can get her into trouble. I wanted her to be flawed, to make mistakes and be mature enough to solve them on her own.
Do you have a favorite character out of all the ones you’ve created?
Yes, I like Navy. He’s not an open book, not easy to read, so he was a challenge to write. I wanted him to be reserved but not aloof, to have integrity despite having made massively bad judgement calls in his past. He’s fun to get to know as I write more about him.
How important is research to you when writing a book?
It’s critical, in my genre. In retrospect I would’ve loved for Resistant to be longer, with more science background explained — an excuse for even more research! So aside from enjoying the process, translating the useful bits into my writing in order to create an absorbing, believable premise is important to me. Science can be unwieldy for some, but the best sci-fi makes it palatable and fascinating to any reader.
Do your novels carry a primary message?
I hope so. My goal is to entertain while also imparting a bit of knowledge that arms the reader, even if only for an interesting fact to drop into cocktail hour.
If given the opportunity to start over, would you change anything in your books?
Ugh. Who wouldn’t? I’d just do more backstory for everything and everyone.
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you keep a hold of the reigns?
When I’m writing, it feels like it! Even the end of Resistant surprised me, so I credit Rory for that. But more often I feel like I’m a director talking to an actor: “How do you think your character would react?”
Do you often project your own habits onto your characters?
Sure! Our habits are our expertise, too, right? Rory and her father brew beer, for example, and I sorely wanted an excuse to explain how they might have harvested and cultured their own yeast and scavenged ingredients. Alas, it had no plot value.
I love a good mystery fiction with a bit of adventure, action romance — couples in peril saving each other is catnip for vacation reading. Magical realism genre is delicious when the authors ground it in theoretical science. I’m still in awe of Deb Harkness’ use of genetics to plausibly structure a tree of life that could explain a vampire!
Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?
Oh hell no. When I sit down to write, I’ve usually been thinking about scenes for a while, and I first refresh myself on where I left off. But often I’ll also pick a random spot in my MS to re-read, as it helps me keep a consistent mood. And I turn on my playlist for each work in progress, and pretend it’s the soundtrack to the future movie. I don’t judge my progress on words — if it’s something I want to keep reading, I feel successful. Some writers create a bubble around themselves until they finish a project – how true is that for you? Gosh, that sounds lovely. I have a 4 year old, a husband I love to spend time with, dogs, career, and other relationships to nurture. Maybe one day I could do that! The closest I get to a bubble is a closed office door on an early morning.
If you were given the opportunity to join a book club with your favorite authors, dead or alive, who would you want to become a part of the club?
Michael Crichton. Emily Dickinson. David Walton. Nora Roberts. Katherine Howe. Jacqui Castle. Deborah Harkness. Celeste Ng. Emily and Anne Bronte. And I’d invite Andrew Mayne, if he promised to entertain us with magic tricks.
Anne and the Emilys would likely clique off, but maybe we could ply them with sherry and put them at ease.
Awww shucks. I would love to be in a book club with you!
What do you do to market your own books yourself? Any advice on that front?
I doubt I have some magical insight here, but I try to promote myself on all the normal channels: website, social media, Goodreads and other places an author profile can be added. Talking about yourself is the pits, so I just try not to take myself very seriously. I think being fun, informative, genuine and engaged is the best marketing.
For advice, specifically to new authors, I say: to make the most of social media as an author, I think you have to abandon rules about friends on platforms. When launching a new book, everyone is your friend. I also suggest they ask themselves before spending dollars in marketing (a website, for example) – how can I measure its return, so I’ll know whether to continue investing there. Analytics and data are your friend!
What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with or follow you (website, blog, Facebook, Goodreads, etc.) and links?
Today we have author Susan K. Hamilton with us to discuss her upcoming novel Shadow King, releasing on October 2nd. Susan’s manuscript for Shadow King finished in the top 10 for the 2016 LaunchPad Manuscript Competition, which received over 1,000 entries from over 24 countries.
Welcome, Susan! Your book Shadow King is currently in production and set to release on October 2nd. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about Shadow King and what inspired the story?
Thank you! In Shadow King, the world of Faerie has been destroyed by a corrupt, dark spell and all the Faerie races are forced to live in our world. Aohdan Collins is the Fae patriarch of Boston’s criminal underworld, and has worked relentlessly from the shadows to expand his empire. Everything changes, however, when he shares a shot of whiskey with Seireadan Moore. But Seireadan has her own secrets, and she’s looking for revenge against the person responsible for killing her family—and to get it, she may end up betraying the one she loves.
The inspiration for this story really came from one of the main characters: Aohdan Collins. I’d been trying to think of an idea for NaNoWriMo a few years back, and while raking leaves in my yard, the idea for his character popped into my head. From there I started to think about who he was, what he’d do, how he would move through our own world, and everything else came from there.
Aohdan Collins rules Boston from the shadows, and nothing stands in his way… until he meets Fae Seer Seireadan Moore. A shared shot of whiskey changes everything, but Seireadan is bent on finding the man who destroyed her family. And revenge always demands a high price. #bookspic.twitter.com/vTnXXVOh1W
You describe Shadow King as Dark Fantasy. For those who many not know, can you explain some of the differences between Fantasy and Dark Fantasy?
That is actually a much harder question than it seems, and I have to confess, before Shadow King, I’d never written a dark/urban fantasy before. My work had mainly been more traditional fantasy.
But to answer your question, I would define dark fantasy as a story that takes elements of traditional fantasy and ties them to darker themes. In more traditional fantasy, you find mythically-inspired characters who occupy the moral high ground, and the story tends to have a very optimistic feel. Dark fantasy still has the fantasy themes but they’re often shown in a darker, grittier, more realistic light even if they happen in a fantasy world. If you change the setting of a dark fantasy to our real world, you also start adding the urban fantasy aspect to it.
Many people seem lump dark fantasy and horror together as well. I think the edges of both these genres bleed into one another but each also has very distinct and unique qualities, so I don’t think they’re the exact same thing.
Dark fantasy is also defined somewhat by the characters and their behaviors. In Shadow King, the heroes are dark heroes, and they do unsavory things. Aohdan is not a knight in shining armor—he’s a dark knight, but he has a very strong moral code that he lives by. He has a very strong sense of loyalty, responsibility, and of right and wrong—at least right and wrong as he views the concepts, which may be a little different than how readers perceive them.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day? In a perfect world, I try to do some writing every day, but things don’t always work out as planned. After finishing my manuscripts for Shadow King and The Devil Inside, I was “written out” and needed a break. I spent quite a bit of time catching up on my “to read” pile. However, recently I’ve been getting back to writing and working on some new projects.
What books by other writers have had the biggest influence on you? The first would be Patricia Kennealy-Morrison. I read her Keltiad series years ago. I’m not sure they’re even in print anymore, but there was something about those books that I loved. They blended fantasy, science fiction, and Celtic mythology in a way I’d never seen. I loved her characters, the plot, the world she built… all three books just delighted me, and made me want to write something that (fingers crossed) would make people feel the same way.
Next would be JK Rowling. I’m sure lots of people would list her but what I admire about her work is her ability to take themes and make them not only understandable for children but engaging for adults as well. Plus her ability to craft a character like Snape. For so long in the book he is part of the darkness, the villain, the character you love to hate, but in the end, when his motivations become clear, it adds such depth of character. I aspire to have my characters be that three-dimensional.
And lastly, I would say both Donna Grant and Karen Marie Moning. Both write in the romance genre, but they have very strong fantasy/dark fantasy elements in their stories. They’ve built magnificent worlds that, for me, transcend a single genre. I love how they’ve built their worlds and constructed their stories. And then there’s the sex. Personally, I struggle mightily with writing sex scenes… finding that balance where it is steamy without being overly graphic, but also not skirting around the subject either. I find both Moning and Grant have a keen eye for this balance and reading their work has helped me more clearly define what I want my voice to sound like in this area.
Okay, one more. I’d also include David Eddings in here. I devoured his Belgariad series, and while I appreciate the foundation that Tolkien laid for the entire fantasy genre, the characters in the Belgariad were, for me, so easy to relate to and care about. He also, in my opinion, does a wonderful job drawing his story out over several books without it feeling forced.
All books say that characters are fictional, but are they really all made up, or do you base them on people you have known in your own life?
To this point, I’ve never fully based a character on someone I know, although in The Devil Inside—which will come out after Shadow King—I had jokingly told an old high school acquaintance that I’d write him into the book. I used part of his name for a character, and the number of his football jersey is incorporated into an address that factors into the story. I did not, however, base the character on his actual personality.
A good villain is hard to write. How did you get in touch with your inner villain(s) to write this book. Was there a real-life inspiration for him/her/it? Because Shadow King is a dark fantasy, my primary characters have some traits that you usually ascribe to a villain. Aohdan is an underworld mob boss, and he didn’t get where he was by keeping his hands clean and following the rules. As someone notes in the story, “Bad things happen to people who cross Aohdan Collins.”
So it was important to me to find that balance between embracing Aohdan’s dark side but also the role he plays as a hero in the story. He’s not always a good guy but he’s got a very clear moral compass.
To create him I tried to keep in mind how characters were portrayed in TV series like The Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy. When you look at those characters on the surface, they are criminals. They do bad things. They hurt people. They also live by clear codes of loyalty and honor. So while you might not like the things they do, you become invested in them as characters and dive into what motivates them to behave the way they do. Hopefully that will come across to people when they read Shadow King.
Did you ever have a rough patch in writing, where nothing in the story seemed to fit or make sense? I have them. All. The. Time. I even had one time where I ripped up 250 pages worth of work and started over from scratch because I was so frustrated with the story.
In Shadow King in particular there was one point where I was trying to do more of the story from the perspective of Seireadan, my female lead, and it meant rewriting some scenes that had previously been in Aohdan’s POV. Sometimes getting things from her perspective, because she’s not part of his inner circle to start, was hard.
And during my development edit, I had a definite writer’s tantrum where I knew—based on the editor’s advice— that I had to push the story out further, but it didn’t come easy. I ended up sending my editor probably a two page email just ranting about my frustration and how this didn’t work and that wasn’t lining up and I hated the whole story – and so on and so forth. Definitely had my “drama queen” crown on that day!
But the act of just dumping all that emotion and frustration out there, solved the whole problem. Halfway through the rant I had that, “ohhhh, that’s what I need to do” moment. I gave myself the next day off from rewriting and when I went back to it, things worked out great.
Did you have any differences with your editors while you were still becoming used to getting your work edited? How did you work through those differences? Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot of major differences but we did have a few disagreements. It can be hard to get feedback on your book, especially about changing things. The important thing to remember is the editor is trying to be your ally, not your adversary. They want to take your already great book and make it an amazing book.
The big key to working through those things is communication. You need to be able to express why you made some of the choices you did, but you also need to really listen to—and understand—why the editor is questioning certain things in your story.
There were a few places in Shadow King where I looked at feedback and (I confess) I got a little defensive. When that happened. I put the manuscript away for a little while and then went back and looked at the comment again. Most of the time, after I’d allowed myself to noodle through what had been said, it made more sense. If it didn’t, I asked for clarification.
In a few cases, there were some things I held firm on because they were important–and because I was able to explain my reasoning, the editor also had a better understanding of the point I was trying to make and we were able to reach a point where I felt I stayed true to the story while finding a way to improve it.
My favorite question – If you were given the opportunity to join a book club with your favorite authors, dead or alive, who would you want to become a part of the club?
Some of these names will sound familiar, but I would say Lloyd Alexander, David Eddings, Kim Harrison, Donna Grant, JK Rowling, Karen Marie Moning, and Patricia Kennealy-Morrison because they’ve all written books or book series that have meant something special to me. I would love to hear their perspectives on other books and on writing.
Are you working on something new? And can you tell us a little bit about it? I am working on something new. A couple somethings, actually. The first is a short story that I’m planning to submit for consideration in an anthology. I’m having a lot of fun with that, especially since I’m writing in first-person which is something I normally don’t do. It’s got some dystopian aspects and probably leans a bit towards supernatural fantasy.
I’ve also started tinkering with two new manuscripts. One is another urban/dark fantasy involving witches—the title right now is The Cardinal Witch. Along with that, I’ve also started some work on a follow up to Shadow King. Both are pretty new so I don’t have a lot to share yet, so I apologize for not having more details!
Any advice you would like to give to your younger self?
Most definitely! From a writing perspective I would tell myself to start writing sooner than I did. I loved to write as a little kid and then got away from it. I didn’t really get reacquainted with writing until I was in college. The other advice would be to be braver. Easier said than done, I know, but I wish I’d been more comfortable being bold when I was younger.
What advice would you like to give writers who are working on their first novels?
First thing is be persistent. Things don’t happen overnight. There will be people who reject you and people who don’t like your work. Learn from those things and get better because there ARE people out there who do like your work and who will support you.
Second, make friends with other writers and authors. They understand what you’re going through as a writer. They’ll support you when you hit a rough patch but they’ll also call you out on BS as well, and that’s important.
Third, learn to love imperfection. No story is 100% perfect in every respect. Make your work the very best it can be, but when you get there, let it go and let it be what it is. It won’t be perfect, but it is yours so love it just the way it is. I learned this after self-publishing my very first novel many years ago. I couldn’t afford an editor or anything professional really other than the cover (and even that was a big favor from an artist friend). I know if I went back and read that story now, I’d be horrified because I’m a better writer now than I was back then – but that book was the absolute best I could do at that point in my life, and I love it for all the things it taught me.
What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with or follow you (website, blog, Facebook, Goodreads, etc.) and links?
Probably the best sites are Facebook or Twitter, and I’d love to hear from readers! You can find me all of these places:
Ambition. Betrayal. Revenge.
Centuries ago, the Faerie Realm was decimated by a vile and corrupt spell. To survive, the different faerie races―led by the Fae―escaped to the Human Realm where they’ve lived ever since.As the Fae Patriarch of Boston’s criminal underworld, Aohdan Collins enjoys his playboy lifestyle while he works from the shadows to expand his growing empire, until one night when he shares a shot of whiskey with the lovely Seireadan Moore…A Fae Seer, Seireadan is haunted by a vision of the Fae responsible for destroying Faerie and murdering her family. Common sense tells her to stay away from Aohdan, but his magnetism and charm are irresistible.As their passionate affair intensifies, Seireadan is pulled into the center of the underworld. And while her heart is bound to Aohdan, she cannot let go of her lifelong quest to hunt down the Fae who haunts her visions… especially when she realizes Aohdan might be the key to helping her find him.But is revenge worth betraying the one she loves?