Monday, May 20, 2019

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As with all my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman is one I ration out for fear of finishing all he has to offer. It is lamentable that The Graveyard Book sat on my TBR pile for so long, but since I've started with Neil's master class, it's part of the set reading, so I've dusted it off and finished it. Now, to backtrack somewhat, I have read Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book – the novel that Neil tips his hat to in The Graveyard Book. Instead of wild animals, a boy child named Nobody Owens – Bod for short – is raised by the dead. In a graveyard. And his guardian is a vampire named Silas. While a man named Jack aims to finish what he started the night he murdered Bod's family. What's not to love?

I'm not going to go into great depth in terms of the plot, except to say that this is a coming-of-age novel but it also touches on more existential subjects. It's not so much a book about the dead and their regrets, but rather a story that reminds us about what makes living important. And not just living, but exploring. And being prepared to make mistakes.

The Graveyard Book oozes a gothic atmosphere, and as always Neil's characters seem like real people you might've met already. I also find myself with a yen to explore old cemeteries soon. Make of that what you will. What Neil Gaiman does, with the same ease with which we breathe and our hearts beat, is to tell a story – one that satisfies yet tantalises with mysteries. If you, like me, are a fan of Neil's The Sandman comics, you'll be right at home with The Graveyard Book, which carries similar weight and resonance.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Blades of the Old Empire: Book I of the Majat Code by Anna Kashina

Someone told me to pick up a copy of Blades of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina, and for the life of me I can't remember who. So, thank you to that individual. Granted, this novel is published by one of my favourite publishers, Angry Robot, so I know almost without opening the to the first page that I'm going to get high-quality fantasy that will tick all the right boxes. And, as a measure of how well I connected with the characters and the setting, I immediately went out and purchased book two series once I was done with book 1.

This is adventure-filled, combat-orientated fantasy at its best, with just enough intrigue to keep me engaged. We follow the story mainly from the viewpoint of Prince Kythar, who is thrust into a situation where his magical power is the only thing that stands between his world and rise of an authoritarian dark empire. And by the time he and his companions figure out that there's something amiss, the enemy has already infiltrated one of their major religious organisations, and is moving quickly to cement its hold on major players.

Added to the mix are the Majat – an order of elite warriors for hire and Prince Kythar's only hope to get ahead of a well entrenched enemy playing a game they can only guess at. An enemy that is also adept at manipulating events to their own best interests.

I can't find much fault with this story other than the divisions between good/evil were a little too clear. I did at times feel that the world building could have a bit more depth in terms of immersing me in the setting, but the story itself swept me along so that this wasn't a deal breaker for me. I loved some of the support characters, such as the Lady of the Forest and her ghastly dress of venomous spiders. And I'm more than fond of characters such as the Majat warrior Kara, who is both strong but incredibly fragile.

Blades of the Old Empire is a coming-of-age story that should appeal to a broad range of fantasy readers, and delivers a memorable adventure that kept this GRRM fan happy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A short word on stock photography

If there's one thing (of many) that grates my last tit, it's when I see folks using watermarked stock images in their final artwork. This tells me one of two things about said individual – a) You are an idiot who doesn't know better than to steal images for commercial use* or b) You are a cheap-ass twunt.

Photo by sarandy westfall on Unsplash
I understand that you like free stuff. I mean, who doesn't. But with the low cost of some image libraries, especially sites like Deposit Photos (that often run specials, by the way), you can pay as little as $4.90 for an image (or even less, I'm sure). That's the price of two super awesome coffees at some larny coffee joint.

Goshdarnit, and there are sites like Unsplash and Pixabay, where you can find some truly STUNNING visuals absolutely free (for personal and commercial use). All you need to do is sign up and start downloading. Easy peasy. Some sites may ask that you credit the artist. And really, that's not that difficult, is it? Or they may ask you to leave a tip via PayPal. You tip your waiter when you're eating out, don't you?

And there's Freepik too. The majority of their vectors and photos are free, but you can subscribe as a premium user on a month-to-month basis for the princely sum of $9.99 so you can access all the good stuff too. Believe me, it's well worth it, especially if you design piles of social media posts like I do.

When I see someone posting an advert for their product or service, or even a book cover with the watermark badly photoshopped out, I really want to take a pap snoek and slap you upside the head. You have NO excuse. Absolutely NO excuse whatsoever.

I'm not going to get all high and mighty by telling you it's wrong to steal. You're an adult. You should know that by now. If not, then you're part of the reason why the human race is doomed. By using watermarked images as final assets for your campaign or whatever, you're making yourself look like an epic cockwomble. That is all. 

*You are excused if you're using stock images ironically in a meme – my opinion.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Runebinder (The Runebinder Chronicles #1) by Alex R Kahler

I picked up a copy of Runebinder by Alex R Kahler on the say-so of a friend, and I will happily agree with him that the book packs a lot of punch. Not once did Alex allow me to get too comfortable – so there was always that tension of 'oh goodness, it can't get worse, can it?'

In Tenn's world, the magic came back, and there are those who are gifted with control of the different spheres of earth, air, fire and water, and there are those who're normal. And everything would have been fine in the world (or relatively so) if the ominously entitled Dark Lady hadn't risen with her minions, to destroy everything and reshape it to suit their needs, warping humans into howls, bloodlings and Kin. (So, think, basically if you're unlucky to run across Kin, you'll be turned into a mindless zombie or vampire.)

Tenn and his friends are tasked with protecting the remaining human communities from the unrelenting onslaught, and it's clear their side is losing ground rapidly. To add to Tenn's woes, his chosen sphere of water has a mind of its own, to devastating effect, which has drawn interest from exactly the kind of people he's fighting.

First off, kudos to Alex for realising a compelling setting. The divisions were a little too clear-cut light/dark for my tastes, but hey, that's me. I have a thing for morally ambiguous characters. His post-apocalyptic USA makes you realise exactly how dismal things can become should society's wheels come off. (Think The Walking Dead, but with necromancers and more.) He sets a pace that keeps characters on their feet, and lends a sense of urgency as Tenn and his companions forge ahead.

That being said, I did feel that the characters could have been been a little more fleshed out, and Tenn's head-over-heels falling for Jarrett came across incredibly fast and intense. However, with such an uncertain world in which Tenn lives, I can't blame him for giving into the attraction as rapidly as he did. Occasionally some of the transitions in sequences were jarring—the writing too fast—but this wasn't a dealbreaker. What Alex does do well is his action sequences, which kept me pretty much on the edge of my seat. Tenn spends much of his time at the start of the book crippled by self-doubt, which at times was laid on a bit thickly, but it's good to see Tenn come into his own once he realises that the only option he has is to push forward and master his powers before others master him.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Guest Post: Five embarrassing mistakes authors make on social media (and how to avoid them) by Tallulah Lucy

Tallulah Lucy has shared five tips for authors who're not hundreds about the pitfalls in social media these days. Tallulah has taken over my blog today to share the top five mistakes authors can avoid when navigating social media.

You hear it over and over again: you should be on social media, you should be marketing yourself, you won’t sell a single book if you don’t put yourself out there. All of this is true, but the social media world is full of pitfalls just lying in wait for the unsuspecting author.

To make matters even worse, there’s a whole clamouring mass of Millennials (that’s me) and Gen-Zers (that’s the teenagers, please stop mixing us up) who use this newfangled marketing tech as if they were born with a finger on the like button and a selfie stick in the hand. And we’re all competing for space on people’s feeds and interactions on our posts.

So what’s an author to do?

First of all, take a deep breath.

If you can avoid these mistakes, you’ll already be doing this whole social media thing way better than most people!

Mistake one: Typos and bad grammar

It should go without saying, but unfortunately it cannot. I’ve seen way too many authors who repeatedly publish posts to social media with typos, errors and clunky sentences. Every single post you write is a sample of your writing. Before you publish a novel, you have an editor who will catch these things for you. You know that. I know that.

But your average social media user will not immediately think, “Oh this update is a load of poopoo, but I bet her books are actually well written because she has editors.”

No, the average social media user will think, “Wow if a sentence is so bad, I don’t even want to see a whole book of sentences.” Put a lot of care into your posts, and then read them and re-read them and then read them again after you’ve posted them just to be sure.

Typos are a fact of life, but so is mould and you wouldn’t purchase a new kind of bread if the free sample at the store came with mould on it. Don’t post mouldy statuses on social media.

Mistake two: Cross-posting without tailoring per platform

This has to be the most common mistake I see. I get it. You’re busy. You want to type a status once, set it and forget it. Let some program like Hootsuite or Buffer share it for you and share it everywhere.

The problem is, the platforms all have different specifications for posts. On Instagram you’re supposed to use loads of hashtags, on Twitter it’s gross if you use more than three. On Facebook you can post links in your captions, on Instagram you can’t. Facebook loves square images, LinkedIn shows them really badly. Instagram encourages you to post jpegs, Facebook pretty much garbles them (you should always post pngs on Facebook). And this is just a few of the clashing specs.

Aside from the formatting problems, there’s different terminology. You can’t ask for a “retweet” on Facebook, or tell people to “check the link in bio” – what bio?

Now, if any of the above is confusing to you, it’s because you haven’t spent enough time on the platform you’re trying to post to. If you spend time on each platform, you’ll learn the lingo and the etiquette. You’ll also learn the best times of day to post and the best kinds of posts for each type of audience.

There’s no rule that says you have to be everywhere right now. Try them all out. See what works for you and, most importantly, what works for your particular audience.

There’s nothing wrong with scheduling posts ahead of time – in fact, I always encourage this. But try to make sure that the posts don’t all go out at the same time in the exact same words, in the exact same format. Rewording and formatting only takes a couple of extra minutes. Make your followers on each platform feel special. Chat to them, respond to their comments and try to tailor the content for them. If you don’t invest a little time in them, how can they be expected to invest money in you?

Mistake three: Too much self promo

You joined social media to promote yourself, so that’s what you’re going to do, right? You’re just going to tell everyone about your book. Boom. Done.

How dull.

Cold, hard, truth time: no one cares about your book as much as you do. Strangers won’t care about it at all if you don’t give them reason to. No one is going to follow you on social media just to hear that you have a book out. Not unless they’re already a fan (and that fan would buy your book anyway).

In order to get sales from social media, you have to show your audience that you care about things other than yourself. Show them you have depth. That’s not to say you mustn’t promote yourself at all. There’s a handy ratio!

Originally this ratio was 70/20/10: 70% curating (sharing other people’s content), 20% sharing stuff you’ve created yourself (your content), and 10% sales. Nowadays just sharing other people’s content for 70% of the time is going to get old quickly.

So here’s my ratio: 50/20/20/10: 50% – yes, half of the time you’re on social media – you should be interacting with and supporting other people. It’s not just about you, even if that’s the reason you’re there. Social media platforms are communities and if you’ve got a one-track mind that’s always thinking “what can I get out of this”, people will sense that and avoid letting you into that community. Be a productive member of society, not Sheryl who keeps stealing from the supply closet and uses up all the company milk.

Then 20% of the time you share interesting things you’ve found, 20% of the time you make things to share: write articles, paint pictures, design quizzes, sing songs, record YouTube videos, whatever floats your personal boat. The remaining time – only 10% of the time or 1 out of every 10 posts – is for marketing.

When you do market, don’t just tell people that you “have a thing” or “did a thing” or, really, anything involving the word thing. Tell them why they should care about, or will enjoy, what you’ve made. Offer them value. It’s the difference between saying, “I have a book out today, buy it here.” (So what? I have lots of books) and saying, “I can’t believe I can finally share this book with you. I’m sorry if it makes you cry. The main character is based on my great aunt and her story about surviving the Holocaust.” Which version sounds more worth your time as a reader?

In summary: be interesting. Interact a lot, share your interests, participate in the social media community and when you do promote your work, do it in an enticing way.

Mistake four: Being unpleasant

Have you ever met someone who works in public relations? In my previous life as a journalist I met quite a few. It was their job to represent a company, which on a good day could mean answering our questions and scheduling interviews, and on a bad day could mean standing outside a hotel in the rain calling a hungover member of the press to try coax him down from his room for said scheduled interview.

A good PR person, whether she’s chatting to you in an air-conditioned office or standing dripping on a doorstep in a strange city, is always polite and friendly. She understands that whatever she does, people see her actions as those of her company.

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, here’s the point: When you’re an author on social media you’re your own PR person.

Sometimes people might judge the content of your books from what you do and say, but more often people will judge whether or not they want to give you money based on what you do and say. Your product – your wordy baby that you’ve spent years of your life on – may be spectacular, may be award-winning, may be the best piece of literature ever to grace their Kindle. But they will not know that if you put them off buying by being an annoying, moany, asshole.

Before you post anything publicly, always ask: How will this make me look to a complete stranger? If your disagreement with a person or company is serious, take it offline. You know that feeling when you’ve walked into a room when a couple’s in the middle of a fight? Not a great experience. Don’t force that on your readers. And whatever you do, do not get defensive over reviews.

Be the brave, smiling, PR person standing in the rain with her cold hair dripping down her neck, not the bleary-eyed journalist who smells of stale cigarettes and booze and rants all the way down the street.

By all means, be eccentric and interesting, show them what you’re passionate about, but try to make it enjoyable for all involved rather than awkward as hell and a little terrifying.

Mistake five: Bad Design

You know that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Noble sentiment. Completely false. Everyone judges books based on their covers, or we wouldn’t bother with covers at all. But what if I told you it’s not just about covers? [Insert wiggly eyebrows.]

Every single visual you share to do with your book represents your book, just like a cover. People will connect the quality of these visuals with the quality of your book. If your social media cover images are a riot of shape and colour, they’ll assume that your book is a riot of mismatched sentences. If your author picture is a dull, poorly-lit, pixelated mess, they’ll assume that your writing is just as amateur.

Professional companies set aside budget for professional designers. So we’re conditioned to associate good design with high-quality products. The people who have terrible design are usually the scammers trying to cut corners or the hobbyists who don’t know better.

Luckily, you don’t have to hire a designer in order to get professional graphics. You can use a site like Canva that has loads of free templates or... you can learn. That’s right. You, dear author, can learn about graphic design. Just because you’re a word person, doesn’t mean you have to remain ignorant. There are tons and tons of free resources on YouTube, many podcasts and a plethora of websites and newsletters. If you’re willing to invest even a little bit of cash, you can take comprehensive online courses in design on sites like Udemy and Skillshare. Respect your writing enough to invest the time in learning how to showcase it. Because if you don’t respect it, no one else will.

Bonus: context is KEY.

Remember that every post you make on social media can be shared out of context. It’s a good idea to avoid saying anything that you wouldn’t put on a billboard over the highway all on its own. If your point requires a long story, save it for a blog post. And if you don’t have anything nice to say? Just don’t say it.

When you first start out on social media, your problem will be that no one is watching. But eventually, the world will be watching, and you should make sure that you’re happy about that when it happens.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Road Brothers (Tales from the Broken Empire) by Mark Lawrence

Don't read this collection of short stories unless you've read Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire. Here be spoilers. Road Brothers does exactly what it says – short stories sketching in back story for Jorg's band of brothers, offering tasty little snippets of history, to colour in the details.

So I'm assuming that if you've read Mark's other books, you'll be no stranger his style, which offers astute observations on the darker side of human nature set in a world that's still picking up the pieces of a cataclysm that destroyed civilisation as we know it, throwing it back into a dark age that marries up ancient, malfunctioning technology with dark magic. This uneasy blend is not quite fantasy, nor is it SF, and I love that ambiguousness of the setting.

Perhaps my favourite story out of the lot is the Nubian's origin, giving readers a tantalising glimpse into a post-apocalyptic Africa. Okay, so I'm biased because I love stories set in my stomping ground, and the Nubian was one of my favourites from the trilogy. (He stood out the most for me out of all Jorg's companions.) In my mind, some stories were more vignettes than a structured short story, but because I'm invested in setting, this didn't bother me so much and I appreciated the filling-in of gaps.

Essentially, this is an exploration of brotherhood, and the bonds between the brothers brought to life in the trilogy. It is about found family, notions of loyalty and honour, and also the complicated relationships between blood-relatives. Mark's writing isn't for everyone, but this selection will be valuable to those of us who're already immersed in his world.