Beta Readers. Hate my book? Thank you!

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It sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. For those of you following along on my fiction-writing journey, I’ve made quite a bit of progress since the last update. I did finish the book and even found (or more accurately, was found by) a fabulous beta-reading group, whose members just finished giving me feedback.

Side note, I was tempted to do a big “I finished the book!” blog post, that somehow seemed weird since…what is “finished” anyway? Sold? Edited? Printed? Abandoned?

At the risk of getting gushy, I’ll say that I could not be happier with these beta readers. They are all fellow-writers and they all know how to tell a story. But even better, they all know how to critique. I knew that these people would be helpful, but I had no idea just how helpful. Everyone had good things to say. Everyone had good ideas on what needed work. Except for…one person.

She hated it. She hated it with a passion that burned. In fact, she said that she got angrier and angrier as she read and could not bring herself to finish it. Wow. Shit. Ouch.

Now, this could have gone somewhere negative with hard feelings and harsh words. But luckily, our group is run by a clever lady who encouraged this reader to summarize her feelings on the book and relate them to me constructively. And so she did.

The fact is, this book has some awful people in it. Underneath the story about an assassination and coup attempt, it’s about a broken man who collects broken people. The subtext to the story is about clinging to the devil you know and about putting up with abuse in order to be safe. When my reader demanded to know, “he treats them like that and they’re supposed to thank him for it??” the answer is…well…ummm, yeah. That’s the society that they live in. It’s not a book about a great place we’d all like to live. It’s about a bloodthirsty society where you’ll let someone kick your ass and thank them for it if it means they won’t give you to someone who will eat you (figuratively in general, but for one character, kind of literally).

So my first instinct was to chalk it up to this reader not getting it. But as I spent a few days intermittently pacing around my house, staring off into space while her complaints tumbled around in my head, I realized that the things she had said were the solution to a plot problem I was having. My book has a traitor, and I’ve been having trouble filling out that traitor’s motivations with anything other than simple fear. I knew this character needed development, but my instinct was to give it to the beta group as it was to see what reactions came back to me. And it turned out that this one reader’s complaints were exactly the sort of thing that my traitor would feel. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the traitor has been missing. Ah hah! Eureka! Thanks, book hater!!

Mind you, she’ll still probably hate the book…but that’s okay. It’s still great practice for dealing with all the other people who will hate it. And I’ll thank her for that too.

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Book Review: Half Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older

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After seeing what felt like the 1,000th tweet about this book, I finally gave in and said, “Okay, okay, I’ll buy the fricking book!” Reinforcement of the lesson for all aspiring authors – promotion pays.
Anybody who reads this blog regularly (hi, you two!) knows what’s coming since I don’t review books that I think are bad. Yep, it’s a good one. Daniel Jose Older seems to be a fairly new author, and I am ever so excited about his books.

HRB is billed as being the first in the Bone Street Rumba series, which is great news because it means we’ll see more of Carlos Delacruz, an “inbetweener,” straddling the line between being alive and dead. Outwardly, this means he’s a little grey and has a very slow heartbeat, but he can walk down the street without anybody becoming alarmed. As for how he got that way, he doesn’t really know. He has no memory of how he died, he just knows that it was violent and that a ghost, his friend Riley, saved him and helped to bring him half way back.

Now Carlos works for The Council of the Dead, a bureaucratic group of ghosts who keep the supernatural community in line – sending Carlos out to hunt those who need to die the real death (i.e. be obliterated) for causing trouble in the living world. The Council sends Carlos to kill another inbetweener, the first he has ever seen besides himself. The job leads Carlos to discover a wider conspiracy to tear down the barrier between the dead and the living. Along the way, he becomes infatuated with beautiful and mysterious Sasha, but is she an innocent pawn or one of the players?

So obviously, totally cool plot, but that’s not the best thing here. Older’s writing is top notch, leaving me wondering how damned good he’s going to be a few years from now. The dialog between characters is fast and edgy. He has a way of seamlessly telling us what Carlos is thinking followed quickly by what he actually says (not at all the same thing, in many cases) that is just plain cool and enjoyable. His characters are slick and the relationships between them are as complicated and fraught as one might expect for a guy who is only half alive and kills for a living.

The other thing I love about this story is that Carlos isn’t entirely a good guy. Not 100% antihero, but he does some shameful things. He doesn’t do them with malice, he feels bad about them later, but he does screw up in ways that cause damage. He’s a supernatural being who manages to be painfully human and relatable. It was one of those books that, faced with only 100 or so pages left, I wanted to read slower to draw it out.

I saw on Twitter that he’s already working on the next one…can’t wait!

Book Review: Downfall by Rob Thurman

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God damn, I am a sucker for these books!

I discovered the first of the Cal Leandros series a few years ago while wandering the oh-so-familiar Sci Fi/Fantasy section of a bookstore, just looking around for something new. I don’t know why I picked out Nightlife, the first book in the series. Eye-catching cover, maybe? But then I opened it up, read the first two pages, said a quiet “Oh hell yeah!” and I’ve been buying Rob Thurman books ever since.

The Leandros series is about two half-brothers – Niko, who is human and Cal, who is half-human-half-Auphe (the Auphe being your worst nightmare, bad acid trip version of elves). The series follows the harrowing adventures life brings to them in a world full of monsters, gods, angels, paien, and assholes…oh and a few true friends.

Each book (nine in the series so far) centers around Cal’s struggle not to allow his monster-DNA to take him over and Niko’s struggle to keep his brother alive and intact as they’re hunted, first by the Auphe, and later by creature after creature that the brothers stand against in an effort to do what’s right or at least to make ends meet by taking contract work from the supernatural community.

While the guns, swords, wisecracks, and mega-violent adventuring is a huge draw for me, it’s the relationship between the brothers that really hits the spot. Completely loyal to one another, either would tear apart the world to save the other. Thurman has a great way of capturing the savage toughness of both brothers and dovetailing it beautifully with the painful vulnerability that is their love and devotion for each other.

Downfall, the latest in the series, does not disappoint and may in fact be one of the best. So many, many spoilers…it’s hard to get too specific, but let’s just say that she (Thurman is a woman, in case you didn’t know) had me very worried for a while that this was going to be the last book in the series, or at least the last one in which either brother would be recognizable. I won’t tell you how it ends…but quite a lot changes. If you’re a reader of the series and find that some of the loose ends she left in other books are bugging you…read this one because many things are explained and wrapped up. If you’re not a reader of the series, what are you doing still sitting there?? Go buy the first book, or go to the library, or borrow it from a friend…but do yourself a favor and read it.

Reading What I Never Read

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Weird experience today…reading the kind of book I never read. Seriously — never.

I am very much a sci-fi, urban fantasy reader. I like it gritty. The grittier the better. I like it science-y. I like weapons and explosions and fighting. Neal Asher, Iain M. Banks, absolutely! Jack McDevitt, yep! Richard K. Morgan, yes please! Rob Thurman, Jim Butcher, Richard Kadrey…keep it comin’! But today I went with Pride and Prejudice meets Faerie Magic. I’m talking about Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey.

Confession time…this all started with porn. Okay, not really porn, but erotica. I started following Ms. Kowal on Twitter when she supplied John Scalzi with a dress to wear for a picture (yep, you read that right). She recently posted a link to some erotica she had written involving her characters from SoMaH. So, of course, I clicked on it. Oh shut up! Don’t judge me… I’m human!

Let me just say that her erotic vignette was quite well written –it was a scene from a wedding night. It was so well written with such engaging characters that I wanted to read more, so I called my local indie bookstore and ordered a copy of SoMaH. Me, the girl who avoids squishy, love-story crap like the plague I think it is.

I picked it up this afternoon…and I just finished it a few minutes ago. Yeah, she got me. It had enough fantasy and magic in it to keep it from being a mundane story and there was even a moment where I got to say “Hey, guns! Cool!” The book is a lot like Pride and Prejudice, but the world it’s set in has glamour and magic alongside country dances and proper English society in the Napoleonic era.  Weird…but good! And save any tsk tsks you’re tempted to send my way because there is no erotica of any kind in the actual book…so it wasn’t a sex thing. It was the characters. I liked them. I cared what happened to them.

Hmmm, where have I heard that before? Oh right, that’s the way to make people want to read what I write! Yeah, okay, not that I didn’t know this before…but it’s somewhat astonishing to find it to be so true that it can pry me out of my sci-fi/fantasy corner and make me read something entirely different. Maybe this means I can add an actual female writer to my list of Unwitting Author Mentors.

But the question now is…will the clerk at my bookstore laugh at me tomorrow when I call to order the next book in the series?