writing

Authors reviewing authors

Is it an “ethics alert” or “just business”?

I was never really a committed book reviewer. Sure, I’ve got a shelf on Goodreads, albeit rather sparse compared to some folks on that site (just keep forgetting to add all of my books), and I have in the past given out stars and comments on some of the books there. Just had too much fun reading books, lots of them, and not writing about them after I’d done so. But since joining the ranks of published novelists, I’ve begun feeling somewhat queasy about the idea of authors reviewing authors. And I’m not sure why.scratch

All authors started out as readers you might say, so why can’t they continue to write as readers and review the works of others? Well, they can and do. Some rather well. But with the rise of the internet, there are now channels other than the Sunday papers and book sections with which to post book reviews from both professional literary critics and the proverbial man-in-the-street. Reviews are an important fact of publishing life now that Amazon rules the roost. Some authors are even developing a whole new form of OCD in which they incessantly Google their work daily to check their reviews (what! moi?). This leads to “coping behaviours” in psych parlance—like writing your own reviews of your novel under clever pseudonyms. Or how about “reviewing circles” where author A promises to review author B’s book in return for similar treatment?

I think part of the reason I’m uneasy about this is because for people reading my reviews, it might call into question my motives for writing them. If I pen a good one, some might say I was looking to curry favour, like fishing for that next cover blurb from Stephen King. Slam a fellow scribe’s lifework and I’m just a jealous hack settling scores. Scratch my back I’ll scratch yours is a powerful driver, especially for authors who are insecure and fretting at the best of times. Wanting to be liked and having one’s work liked is also a basic emotion. Would writing a review—good or bad—affect how my novel is reviewed in future?

I don’t have a definitive view on this, rather a vague sense of disquiet. Like that unidentified noise in the cellar. At night. When you’re all alone. I suppose there are exceptions to everything but how often do you see artists writing as art critics? Or chefs blogging as restaurant reviewers? Perhaps something to be considered (and I might try it if I can get motivated enough to start writing reviews again) is for authors not to review in their own genres. That would at least remove most of the suspicion from readers’ minds. I first published non-fiction history before moving over to historical fiction and fantasy. I’d feel more confident reviewing non-fiction if I was no longer writing it for publication myself. Just a thought. What are your views on authors reviewing authors? I’d be happy to post some responses to this blog once I get a chance after checking my Amazon rankings. Again.

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51 Shades of Grey: Has traditional good vs. evil had its day?

Over at Mythic Scribes, Codey Amprim has posted a thoughtful blog about the trend imagestowards “grey” fantasy in the last few years and how traditional black hats vs. white hats storylines seemed to have waned in genre fiction. http://mythicscribes.com/miscellaneous/is-black-and-white-fantasy-dead/

A lot of this trend is down to RR Martin of course, but there are others as well that are creating characters that embody both good and bad qualities—just like a lot of real life people. Westeros isn’t the only place where it’s difficult to tell who’s your friend and who’s not. I remember reading the Thomas Covenant books back in the 70s and being shocked by Donaldson’s handling of his “hero”. Many of Michael Moorcock’s characters such as Elric also come in shades of grey bordering on black. Even my own hapless protagonist in Gideon’s Angel has done quite a few things that are nothing to be proud of. As Codey points out in his post, grey can really help by throwing unpredictability into the plot and spicing things up.

It’s a bit of a red herring to debate whether this reflects a hardening of the society we live in today as some have done. People have been writing characters like this since—well, since they started writing stories. And I don’t think that writers will ever abandon good vs. evil storylines. The power of archetypes appeals to all of us in an almost unconscious way as both Jung and Campbell expounded years ago.

Injecting moral ambiguity into characters can be a great writer’s tool but Codey also notes there are significant drawbacks as well. Unpredictability can lead to a plot becoming directionless with  too many twists, dead ends, and dead characters. The result can be, as he puts it,  “endless repetitive soap opera” and waning reader loyalty and interest. Words of wisdom there and a warning to those who think grey is the new white.

Summoning Gideon’s Angel

I recently wrote a guest blog for Upcoming4.me which they’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce here. But wander on over to their website as they will shortly be running a giveaway with a copy of Gideon’s Angel to the lucky winner. http://upcoming4.me/demon trumpet

I’ve been living in the past for some time—the 17th century to be exact. I had immersed myself in the period for a number of years, first for historical re-enactment (armoured combat on foot and rapier fighting), and later, for researching a non-fiction book called “Quelch’s Gold” that was published in 2007.

I even did a fair amount of digging into family history, taking me to dusty stacks at the Public Records Office at Kew in London and the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston, further deepening my interest in the day-to-day life of the 17th and 18th centuries. But I had for some time been yearning to get back to writing fiction, something that had gone out the window with the arrival of kids and the demands of being a journalist. And I had many years before started a novel with a protagonist I really believed in, a novel that was somewhat flawed because I had tried writing it in an archaic tone, sprinkled with seventeenth century lingo. Accurate, yes. Readable? Well, maybe if you were from 1650.

And so, a couple of years ago, it was time to start fresh. Gideon’s Angel was the result. I resurrected my main character, Richard Treadwell, a conflicted middle-aged war veteran who has a knack for choosing the losing side. When the story opens it’s 1653 and Treadwell is living the life of an exile in France, working as a mercenary and agent for hire. He might still be a competent swordsman but he’s getting on a bit and old wounds have taken their toll. He has a mistress in Paris, a wife left in England, stacks of money, but an even bigger stash of bitterness and regret. It’s time for perhaps one last “big job”—a plot to kill the man he considers the chief architect of his misfortunes, Oliver Cromwell.

I could have written the work as straight down-the-line historical fiction. And I almost did. However, my imagination got in the way. The first short stories I had written in high school and university were fantasy and horror. And though long dormant, those seeds were still there when I started plotting the novel in my head. A few conversations with a good friend encouraged me to take a sharp left-hand turn and venture down that road once again.

So, why inject the supernatural into a political thriller set in Cromwellian England? I suppose because I knew it would ratchet up the tension and the thrills. But also, because I knew that what I had in mind for the horror elements would work rather nicely alongside everything else. The time period lends itself to fantasy and the supernatural. The mid-17th century was the twilight of the medieval mindset but old beliefs and superstitions die hard. It was also a time of incredible religious ferment and “end of days” mutterings. Bizarre religious sects had sprung up, predicting the imminent Second Coming but not before a time of evil incarnate and great strife. Turning Gideon’s Angel into a horror adventure was not a big stretch when you read the actual history!

imagesThe macabre elements, including my demons, are if anything, classical in nature. I was influenced by medieval manuscripts, paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, and the drawings of William Blake. Those and a little made-for-TV gem from 1972 called “Gargoyles” starring Cornel Wilde. Many years before the wonders of CGI special effects, Stan Winston’s monsters may have been only stunt men in green latex suits, but they scared me witless as a kid. All these images, ancient and modern, get mixed and described in the pages of the novel, successfully I’d like to think.GargoylesFilm

Taking the fantasy road allowed me to have Treadwell see things that others cannot, to build tension as he tries to convince others that these things are real and not imagined, and to raise the dramatic stakes from a mundane assassination plot to the very realm of England under mortal threat by the opening of the gates of hell. What fun.