The Brave Free Books -- August 2013

Being an occasional/monthly review of books and ebooks I've read for free, either through author/publisher promotions, giveaways or sweepstakes, or just because the authors value readers over income.

Some General Thoughts About Self-Publishing/Indie Publishing

I've been reading some of the free indie-published books available for a few months now.  Some of the books have been worthwhile, and wouldn't have been a surprise to see traditionally published.  Others... have problems.

There's a lot of advice, and a lot of "advice", out there about self-publishing.  A lot of it deals with marketing strategies, but that's putting the cart before the horse.

The first priority, the major priority, indeed the only priority until it's accomplished is this: Write a good story.

I take a lot of the conventional wisdom about learning to write that good story with a large grain of salt.  You don't have to "write a million words first".   You don't have to "write every day".  Et bloody cetera.

To write a good story, you have to read.  You have to read a lot.  You have to read widely.  You have to read critically, with an awareness beyond just the action of the narrative, an awareness and perception of how a story or book is plotted and presented and ordered.   You have to learn, even if that learning is largely self-taught.

(I may expand on some of these thoughts in a separate post.)

What I see in some of the self-published works out there are writers who haven't learned those lessons yet, or aren't diligent in applying those lessons to their own work.

For example:

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DIESELPUNK ePULP SHOWCASE, stories by John Picha, Grant Gardiner, Bard Constantine and Jack Philpott

Editing.  It's kind of important. 

The copyright on this ebook is in John Picha's name, so I assume he was the nominal editor.  I say "nominal" because the book seems more assembled than edited.  I say this particularly because the worst story in the book is John Picha's own "Pandora Driver".

The narrative in "Pandora Driver" switches from present tense to past tense.  And back.  And back again.  And again.  And again.  Not just between sections of the story, but between paragraph, and between sentences in those paragraphs.  And even sometimes in the same sentence.

One of the reviews on Amazon mentions how this story "switches from past to present"; it seemed to be mentioning this as a feature, not a bug.  No, it's just bad writing.  It's writing that's horribly, desperately, in need of revision and rewriting.  As the tense-changes continued, and continued, and continued, I eventually felt like I was being slapped across the face with every change.

I don't generally feel angry over bad writing.  This is an exception, because the excess of this story shows disrespect.  It shows disrespect not only to me as a reader, but it shows Picha's own disrespect for himself by allowing this to go out in public.  I don't know what Mr. Picha's experience is, or what access he has to writers' workshops or reliable beta readers who might have given him a heads-up about the story's problems,but this story was not ready for prime-time or even for the self-publishing market.

(I had other problems with how "Pandora Driver" was written, but the constant changes between past and present tense was the overwhelming problem.)

It was also disrespectful to the other contributors to this anthology.  Because the other stories in here were reasonably good pulp adventures set in somewhat-alternate universes.  But, for me, the problems with "Pandora Driver" were so overwhelming that it cast a pall on any enjoyment of the rest of the book.

Current Kindle price: Free.

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P.O. BOX ON THE MOON by Camilla Marks

Here's another example where the editing process broke down or was insufficient in the writing of a book.

It started out promisingly.  High-school student Persephone Miller is already trying to deal with the breakup of her parents' marriage, plus problems at school, when she finds a letter in the mailbox from someone purporting to be not only 1) the first astronaut sent to the moon in an alternate non-Neil-Armstrong timeline, but 2) trapped and forced to do the bidding of the evil Master of the Moon in that and numerous other timelines.  Eventually she's able to meet with the stranded astronaut, Andrew, in the brief periods he's physically present on Persephone's timeline.

There were some things in the earlier parts of the book that irked me.  For one, Andrew seemed to be something of a jerk, repeatedly telling Persephone there's so much about his situation she doesn't know... but he's not going to tell her.  For another, Persephone feels an almost-instant Bella-and-Edward Twilight-style attraction towards Andrew.  (Can we please bury that noxious trope once and for all?)

But Persephone was interesting enough to keep reading (though I thought her best friend Padme was actually more interesting).  I got the occasional impression that story elements and complications were being introduced without a clear idea of how they would be resolved.  But I was curious to see if everything could pull together at the end.

Ehhh... not so much.  The last section, where Persephone herself ends up on the Moon, doesn't work well.  Events and actions and resolutions feel rushed and improvised.  And when we finally meet the Moon Master himself, he is such a stiff caricature of a megalomaniac villain, with excruciatingly wooden dialogue, that one almost expects to see him twiddling the tips of a narrow black moustache and proclaiming "BWA-HA-HA-HA!!!"  After at least moderate attempts to imbue earlier characters with actual personalities, the final section reads almost as if written by a completely different writer.

The conclusion was... acceptable.  It felt rushed and forced, but the villain was defeated, disasters were averted or reversed, and if the ending was bittersweet, at least it looked like Persephone's life was back on track.

And then Camilla Marks decided to put in a twist-ending.  Which negated everything, and made the entire story an exercise in futility.  I'm not going to throw my smartphone across the room, but if I'd been reading a physical book, I might have.

The impression I got from POBOTM was that it was written "seat-of-the-pants" style, starting with the original idea of the mysterious letter appearing in the mailbox, but without a clear idea of how the story would develop or conclude.

I also noticed that about halfway through the book, more and more typos and editing errors began to appear.  This got to be bothersome.

Add in the rushed feeling of the final section, and I can't help making a guess that this novel probably started out as a NANOWRIMO project, with a last minute rush to complete the manuscript before that one-month deadline was crossed.  And that it received insufficient revision and editing afterwards, before being published.

I think NANOWRIMO is a great idea for a lot of people.  If nothing else, every November thousands of people don't hang out in bars or pool halls or on street corners.  But when you write an entire novel in a single month, you're probably not going to end up with a good novel.  You might end up with the possibility of a good novel.  But not without a lot more work.

When you finish a story, you need to  put it in a drawer for a while -- maybe a few days, maybe a few months -- and let it lie fallow long enough that you'll be able to go back to it eventually with a fresher eye and mind, better able to see what does and doesn't work, and what needs to be saved or discarded or rewritten.

Finding an honest group of beta readers, who'll give you their unvarnished opinions, is also a good idea.  (Don't ask your Mom to read your book.  You can ask your spouse or children, because if their response is just too damn mean, you can always divorce the spouse or disown the kids.  But if your Mom tells you your manuscript sucks, you're totally screwed.)

And edit, edit, edit.  The first half of POBOTM was pretty error-free, but the increasing numbers in the latter half tell me any editing was either done in an increasing rush, or that Marks started going into "my eyes glazed over" mode by that point and just didn't see the later typos and errors.  One recommendation I see over and over in self-publishing articles is to pay for a professional copyeditor to go over your manuscript.  I'm coming to agree with that advice more and more.

This was read free as part of author's promotion.  Current Amazon Kindle price $4.99.

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Before you succumb to despair, let me tell you there are self-published ebooks out there worth the reading:

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There's a sub-genre of fantasy I call "Fluffy Fantasy".  These are generally humorous takes on the various tropes and cliches of regular fantasy. (See many of Robert Asprin's or Simon Hawke's books for examples.) Sometimes they're affectionate twists, sometimes they're critical satires.  TWTFATVPP is one of the former.

Idwal the Farmer lives close by the most boring town on the map, and he likes it that way.  Things Happen, of course, despite Idwal's best efforts, and he finds himself sucked not only into adventures, but adventures in the company of an annoyingly self-centered Princess and endangered by the machinations of a disgruntled Wizard who's raised an army of the dead.  He's a reluctant -- very reluctant -- protagonist who eventually becomes an actual hero and Gets The Girl in spite of his most rational instincts.

This is not classic literature, but it's not meant to be.  It's an entertaining evening's reading by a writer skilled enough to keep the tone light and amusing throughout, but not pushing it so far as to drop into offputting silliness.  (I'm not sure if this is the same Daniel Fox who wrote the much more serious "Dragon In Chains" fantasy series, but it's certainly written to a professional standard.) 

E-book read free as author's promotion.  Current Amazon Kindle price $3.99.

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JUMP WHEN READY by David Pandolfe

There's a subgenre of fantasy dealing with "the Afterlife", of the world inhabited by dead people, either before or instead of going to the tradtional Heaven or Hell.  Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come, or Kevin Brockmiers's A Brief History of the Dead are some examples.

This is in a similar vein, for a Young Adult audience.  Teenager Henry has died in a drowning accident that looked like suicide to observers.  He comes to in the high branches of a fir tree, encountering the spirits of several other deceased teenagers.  In Pandolfe's version of the Afterlife, the spirits are able to create their own surroundings (similar to Matheson's book); there are limitations on how much they can interact with the real world, however.

Henry, besides dealing with his own death and the end of the normal life he expected to have, also has two goals: To let his family somehow know he did not commit suicide, and to protect his older sister Bethany from the online "friend" who turns out to be a predator.

David Pandolfe pulls this off nicely.  The narrative flows smoothly, the characters are well-presented and believable; it's a very professional, very entertaining and engaging story.  (Pandolfe's background includes teaching writing courses.  That probably explains a lot.)

The cover is also noteworthy, a simple but vivid image nicely representing the contents of the book.  It turns out to have been done by (I assume) Pandolfe's wife Samantha.  (Lucky fellow, to have another talented resource in the household.)

Read free as part of author's promotion.  Current Amazon Kindle price: $2.99.

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That's it for the latest installment of "Brave Free Books". 

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