Some thoughts on reviewing books

The way I read has changed since I started writing. I notice the craft more, for better or worse. A well-foreshadowed turn, a deft descriptive example, or an artful bit of dialogue can delight me, as can a scene that neatly advances plot and illuminates the character. But I’m also quicker to spot a cliché. An editor once talked me out of, “she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding,” and now I see it everywhere.

I am not a patient reader. I used to give a book a hundred pages or so, and if I didn’t care about the characters by then, I’d reluctantly put it down. Now it’s more like forty pages, and it’s not only the characters. If I can get it down to ten pages, can I become an acquisition editor? Seriously, I’m starting to understand them. I have so many books I want to read, and only so much time. Purple Prose? Nope. Repetition? Nope. Info-dumps? Nope. The proportion of books I do not finish is getting dangerously close to half.

At Goodreads, a Did Not Finish is supposed to be grounds for a one-star rating. I did that once, with a sequel I felt had diverged badly from the opening book. I wasn’t interested in the romantic sub-plot and the save the world stuff wasn’t enough to keep me going. So I quit, and gave it a one-star review. I felt guilty about it though.

Recently, I got thinking. Should I be firing off one-star reviews for every book I don’t finish? My Goodreads page would look like a fireworks show that fizzled in the rain. I don’t think that’s what they had in mind. I think when they said did not finish, they really meant could not finish. If I’d read that whole book, I’d have likely given it two or three stars. But I’m not gonna. So I withdrew that review.

From now on, all the books I set down will get the silent treatment. That’s going to bias my reviews towards books I enjoyed and therefore rated highly. I’m happy with that. I want my reviews to be a guide to fun reading, not a platform for me to be dismissive.

So here’s a partial list of things that discourage me from reading a book:  psychotic bad guys, graphic violence, graphic sex, heroes with limitless superpowers, macho men with guns. And, more regretfully, dense literary prose. You won’t find a lot of reviews by me of books with these features.

On the bright side, here’s a short list of things that make me want to read a book: complex characters, strong females, original world-building, underdogs with grit. I have a special fondness for alternative aviation. Check out my reviews if you share these tastes. Or maybe take a look at Avians.

 

Prose & Cons: Can-Con 2017 Complete

Every time I go to a conference or convention, I get something different out of it. At first, I was desperate for writing advice, then I needed help with query letters, pitches and submissions. Later, I wanted to know about contracts and marketing. Can-Con has filled all those needs, and has grown with me. This year set an attendance record.

Can-Con 2017 was a low-pressure event for me, because my first novel is on sale and my second is unfinished. I had a light schedule, with one reading and one panel, so that gave me time to take a workshop on Friday afternoon. Nailing Your Beginning, with James Alan Gardner, was in the form of a critique group, with James speaking last. The other writers showcased some fascinating story openings, and I hope to see many of their novels come to fruition. My own effort was a proposed start to Bandits, the sequel to Avians. I got the same general feedback as my critique group in Winnipeg offered: the reader feels a bit lost. The story needs to start more clearly with setting and situation. I’ll have to invest in more description to make the action and the conflict comprehensible. This will be about my fifth version of the opening, but with the story laid out, I really want to work on the starting scenes before I go too far with revising the body of the story, because it’s important to have that connection between the beginning and the end.

The reading was fun. I shared a time-slot with Su Sokol, who turned out to be a fascinating writer: her Cycling to Asylum takes an uncomfortable look at the direction things are going in the United States and the need for Canada to follow a different path. She chose troubling, disturbing scenes to read for us, revealing a cruel and creepy America. I’m still thinking about them. My own reading focused on two scenes from Avians from Corby’s point of view. This made sense for the adult audience, and I guess I reached someone, because one person went straight to the dealer room and bought a copy.

My panel on Leveling Up Your Writing with Formal Courses went okay. The other authors were much more educated, and, I confess, much harder working. Still, I hope I was able to speak to the audience members who aren’t quite ready for a six week boot camp. Odyssey’s online courses are a great way to learn without throwing yourself in the deep end.

I mentioned earlier that my involvement with conventions has changed over the years. At first, I rarely went to readings. I needed factual information so much more than fun. This time around, I took in a lot more author readings, and I met a guy who goes almost exclusively to the reading sessions. He’s attends because he’s a reader, and he likes to see the authors give voice to their work. I think he’s on to something. I bought at least three books because I attended the Renaissance Press reading session: Eric Desmarais’s Parasomnia, John Haas’s The Reluctant Barbarian and Lust and Lemonade, by Jamieson Wolf.

I arrived late at the Bundoran Press party, so I missed the readings, but at their table in the dealer room, I bought Brent Nichol’s books because I had read the free Prix Aurora Awards voter’s version of Stars Like Cold Fire and felt the author earned my money. They had the sequel, Light of a Distant Sun, so I bought that too, and it’s next on my To Be Read list. Also, 49th Parallels, because I’ve found Bundoran anthologies to be a sure bet.

I enjoyed some of the other readings, too, but our suitcases were growing heavier book by book, so I steered away from thick volumes. I can always download the e-books later.

I had one unexpected source of fun. Diane Walton, the editor of On Spec magazine, was on the same plane as us from Winnipeg to Ottawa, so having met her, I stopped by the her table in the dealer room. She had dozens of back issues featuring stories by authors at this year’s Can-Con. It was an impressive list, but better still, she had a contest: if you took a sheet listing the stories and got signatures from the writers wearing an On Spec flag on their name tags, you could strive to win a handful of issues and a year’s subscription. I recognized quite a lot of the names, so I set off to track them down in the dealer room and the hallways. In the end, I encountered over half, and won the contest. I’m looking forward to reading issues old and new.

When I got home, I checked my spreadsheet, and as On Spec‘s submission window opens infrequently and not for very long, I have never actually sent a story to them. I should try harder. I’d be in good company.

Speaking of company, one thing about conventions has remained constant: I always meet fascinating people and make wonderful connections. This year I met authors, agents, editors and publishers. But best of all, I had great conversations.

 

Musings on Magical Girls

I’ll confess to being old enough that I didn’t grow up on Magical Girl anime. My first exposure to Japanese animation would have been Astro Boy, primordial source of robots with a heart of gold, mad scientists, and boots that deny ankles.

In the nineties, though, Sailor Moon came along. I enjoyed the focus on female characters and how they were empowered. I’m not talking about their ability to use magical attacks, I’m thinking of their ability to make decisions. Agency, in other words. Serena, the title character, is not brave. She has to drag herself into conflict, and she usually has to make the decision to go without much help. Serena isn’t strong, or fierce, or smart, or even hardworking. Yet she is the leader of the Sailor Scouts. Why? I wondered. Her willingness to suffer for what is right, and her compassion for others, are the qualities that make her outstanding. The moral, and I sense a Japanese mindset here, is that leadership should be based on character, not skill. I’m on board for that.

The series explores personal relationships and talks about the importance of things like friendship, honesty and loyalty. Middle grade stuff that imparts worthwhile values. So far, so good.

What gives me a lingering feeling of dismay, though, is the linking of female power to sexuality. When the girls transform, (by speaking the magic phrase, “Sailor Moon Make-Up,” no less), they acquire sparkly lipstick, their school uniform blouses tighten to body-shirts, and their hemlines rise drastically. While these abbreviated outfits are perhaps a little more suited to fighting, they are far from ideal. I would write it off as fan service if the series were being marketed to boys. When aimed at girls, though, the message seems to be that power comes with makeup and sexy outfits.

If this only happened in Sailor Moon, I’d shrug it off. However, it seems to be widespread. In Pretty Cure, the magical transformation also results in revealing costumes, to the point where some conservatives complained about Natalie’s bare midriff. In Mew Mew Power, all the girls get scanty outfits. In Digimon Frontier, Zoe, the token female, gets more than a costume makeover, her pre-adolescent body gets several years more mature so that she can fill out her bikini. (None of the boys show more skin; they get armor and stuff.) In Card Captor Sakura, the card-driven magic doesn’t endow Sakura with a change of clothes, but her sidekick is a costume designer who sews up a new outfit for every adventure. To be fair, not all the costumes she produces are revealing, but the message that clothing matters is there.

I like to joke that you can tell whether a cartoon is intended for boys or girls by the clothing. If everyone wears the same outfit week after week, it’s for boys. If there are constant wardrobe changes, it’s for girls. Okay, I’m not really joking. As a rule, it works quite well.

While we’re on the topic of sexuality, kudos to the makers of Sailor Moon for including a lesbian couple. Please note that if you only saw the American dub, you might be under the impression that Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus are close cousins who just happen to hold hands sometimes. In the subtitles for the original Japanese soundtrack the dialog is clearly romantic, and there’s no mention of them being related. Listening to the English soundtrack while watching the original subtitles is amusing, especially when an earnest line about spending the night together is replaced with inane chatter about eating treats. I give part points for making the outwardly feminine Neptune the one who takes charge of their relationship, rather than the androgynous Uranus. I’m prepared to believe that stems from a desire to break away from stereotypes and make them real and complex characters. I take points off for making the pair of them hostile outsiders to the rest of the scouts. The two of them are older than Sailor Moon and her friends, and they take a much harder line in their war on evil, being prepared to sacrifice innocents to achieve victory. So the lesbians are antithetical to the moral theme. Sigh.

Until recently, I thought I was alone in thinking about magical girls from a mature perspective. I was delighted to find out I was wrong. Thanks to a review by Derek Newman-Stille, I’ve become aware of Shattered Starlight, Nicole Chartrand’s webcomic about a magical girl who has grown up and tried to leave that life behind. It isn’t going well. She has adult issues and a lot of anger. Also, she’s a Montrealer, so her magical staff is a hockey stick. Check it out.

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Prose and Cons: Countdown to Launch

AVIANS has been officially released, meaning it’s now widely available online. I have some links at the right, if you like.

Oh, and I just found out that copies have arrived at my local bookstore: Elizabeth Campbell Books at 129 Main St. S. in Kenora has them in stock now, and my books aren’t just in the store, they’re in the window!

The launch will be at When Words Collide, in Calgary, on Saturday, August the 12th. WWC is a big convention that brings together writers from all genres.

So between now and then, I have some things to do.

I have some panels to prep for. On Friday afternoon, right at 5:00, I have one called Worldbuilding? where I hope to talk about some of my favourite aspects of this art: using key details, showing what isn’t there, and staying true to the character’s perception. A fictional world, no matter how strange, should feel immersive.

Saturday morning is Pantsers versus Plotters with some friends at 10:00 am. Ron Hore is a true pantser. He picks a title and starts writing. Another of the panelists is Robert Runté, my editor from Five Rivers. I don’t actually know which side of PvP he’s on. I hope we have at least one dedicated plotter, because I think both pantsers and plotters are amazing. For me, outlining comes late in the process; I tend to write the action scenes first, then expand outwards, developing character as I go and plot twists last.

Saturday afternoon I have the launch: Five Rivers Presents is set for 2:00 pm in the Fireside Room, with Senior Editor Robert Runté presiding. At other events, I’ve read whole scenes or half scenes, but for this one I’m thinking of short snippets. That way I can introduce two or three of the main characters and choose pages that show them in action, conflict or stress. C.P. Hoff is going to be there to read some highlights from her A Town Called Forget, and she’ll make everyone laugh, so for my reading, I may choose some of the parts of Avians that make me cry. Like when Raisa vents on how she feels about arranged marriage, or when Mel clings to an unrealistic hope that an accident hasn’t been fatal.

Immediately after that, at 3:00, I have my solo presentation on Writing Aviation. I’m going to talk about some of the confused reporting I often see when the media covers aviation incidents and then move on to talk about using flying in fiction to advance plot in ways beyond mere transportation. Along the way, I hope to explain that pilots don’t really speak entirely in jargon, and that the lingo changes so fast that it’s probably a mistake to include much of it anyway. As an alternative, I’ll offer some ways to have fictional pilots communicate clearly to the reader.

I’ll be at the mass autograph signing on Saturday evening, but my book’s only been out for a little while, so I don’t think there will be any masses for me. I have author friends I can hang out with, though, and at least one is launching a book on the same day.

Last up for me is the Science Fiction session of Live Action Slush at 11:00 am Sunday. If you’re not acquainted, here’s how it works: brave writers shuffle up to the front of the room and hand over two or three pages from their manuscript to the reader. In this case, me. Maybe there’s a reason this gig was available: I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t get whole swaths of unpronounceable alien words. I read the pages without identifying the author, and then a panel of editors and pro writers quickly dissect the sample’s strong and weak points. The brave writers, sitting in the audience, get their skin thickened, which’ll come in handy later in the submission process.

Monday, I fly back to Winnipeg and drive home to Kenora. Tuesday, I have an event at the Kenora Public Library. A whole hour to talk about Avians and read some bits. What I like best is the chance to answer questions. There never seems to be enough time for that. I love talking about the stuff beneath the book – the stuff that isn’t spelled out in the text, but seeps up between the lines.

By the way, if you’re not going to be in Calgary or Kenora, but you’d like to hear a reading, check out the AVIANS Audio links on the right. (Try scrolling down if you’re using a mobile device.) I’ve recorded the blurb, and all the scenes from the first chapter.

Author Timothy Gwyn Three Random Questions Interview — Bonnie Ferrante – Books for Children

Timothy Gwyn writes science fiction stories and has recently finished his first novel, Avians. Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome Timothy. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your novel, Avians. It is quite apparent that you are extremely knowledgeable about flying and can discuss gliders and airships with great expertise. Can you tell us a little about your experience with […]

via Author Timothy Gwyn Three Random Questions Interview — Bonnie Ferrante – Books for Children

Upcoming events

I should have updated sooner, but I’ve had a rash of computer problems. I have recovered my data and my computer is running normally. For now. Fingers crossed.

Here’s a look at some things in the next few weeks.

Now

Back when Avians first became available for pre-order from the big booksellers, some of my friends informed me that Amazon was listing the book as available at the end of June, instead of the first of August. I wasn’t sure if that was right, but those people have received their Kindle copies, so there you go. If you can’t wait, Amazon has it available now.

Some reviews are up at Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads already. So far, things are looking encouraging, with four and five star reviews.

July

On the 18th of July, there will be a review of Avians on Bonnie Ferrante – Books for Children. Bonnie covers books for children for all ages, from ABC’s to Young Adult.  I also did a fun interview with her and that post will follow a day later. She always finishes her interviews with three random questions, and I think they reveal more about an author than the more logical questions do.

August

August 1st: the official release of Avians. It will be available from Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, Rakuten Kobo and Five Rivers, as well as Amazon.

When Words Collide is in Calgary on August 11, 12 & 13. Friday evening I’m on a panel on Worldbuilding. My particular focus is on how to show what isn’t there. On Saturday morning I’m on a panel on Pantsing versus Plotting, which should be fun, as I do neither. I’m a quilter: I write the exciting parts first, then stitch them together, outlining retroactively. Saturday afternoon I’ll be at Five Rivers Presents, for the Avians launch. Yay, finally! Then I have to dash across the road to do my presentation on Writing Aviation in the other building. Saturday evening I will put in an appearance at the mass Autograph Session. I’ll probably have plenty of time to chat with the other authors, as there won’t be very many copies of my book in the wild yet. Sunday will be a fun day, I’m the reader for the Science Fiction session of Live Action Slush. It will be my goal to confound the evil editors by making every story sound wonderful. Apart from all that, I had an offer to share a table with some friends in the dealer room. I’ll post further details on rooms, times and co-panelists when the schedule is finalized.

After I return from When Words Collide, on Tuesday, the 15th of August, I’m tentatively scheduled to do an event at the Kenora Public Library at 2:00 pm. I’ll read some short sections of the book and give one or two copies to the library, and then offer to sign some books. If you buy a copy at the event, Elizabeth Campbell Books will donate a portion of the proceeds to the library fund.

 

Keycon 34: Sunday

I agreed to three hours of programming on Sunday, and I ended up doing four. That’s kind of nuts, but it was actually okay. All of the rooms were within one floor of each other, so walking time was minimal. I had two back-to-back sessions, then a one-hour lunch break, then two more back-to-back sessions, and that took us to the closing ceremonies.

First up was an hour of readings. I joined Sherry Peters and Melinda Friesen for this, to try and improve the audience numbers. To be honest, it didn’t really work. Still, our tiny audience was nice, and there were questions. I read the first scene from Avians, Sherry read from Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf, (the first of her series) and Melinda read a suspenseful scene from Subversion, the sequel to Enslavement. We kept our readings short, in the five to seven minute range.

Right after that was a panel on Critique Group Survival with Lindsay and Daria. I was grafted onto this panel late in the game because the convention planners didn’t want to make my Sunday so hectic. But when Lindsay asked me, I jumped at the chance. Their critique group made a huge difference to my novel opening, and quite likely helped make it good enough to get a publishing contract. See this older post for more. So I talked about that, and we urged the writers present to seek out critique groups. Take your pages. Leave your ego at home. The harshest criticism will do the most good.  Try to find a group with at least some members in the same genre.

Lunch, and the three of us joined a group of other writers in the hotel’s restaurant: Gerald Brandt, Craig Russell, Sherry Peters, Melinda Friesen. Craig entertained us all with a devious thought experiment about the desirability of intelligence and honesty, and it gave me a chance to unwind for a bit.

Next up was Lindsay’s panel on Aviation & Airships. She had everyone fill out a five-question quiz. Not exactly True or False, the choices were more like Plausible and Improbable, or something similar. The idea was to look at some tropes and misconceptions, like, “If a pistol bullet is fired through the skin of an airliner at altitude, there will be an explosive decompression.” While the audience was scribbling, we talked about some aviation fiction scenes that missed the mark. Lindsay’s questions were devious enough that no-one got all five right, at least not by our definition. Two guys tied with four out of five, and we settled it with a run-off question. In the end, I gave both of them signed copies of Avians. I don’t think my book was the draw here. I think it was the chance to participate and compete that drew people to this panel. Lindsay gets all the credit on this one – I was dubious, but I now count this a lesson learned. I’m already scheming to do something a bit similar at my next convention.

Last was How Do Writers Read? This panel featured Author Guest of Honour Kelley Armstrong, DAW author Gerald Brandt, and Den Valdron, who is with Five Rivers, same as me. I originally planned to nod politely while the better-known authors did most of the talking. However, for personal reasons, Gerald asked to step out of the moderator role, and I was asked to fill in. Not quite at the last minute; I had four hours to prepare. But during those four hours, I had three hours of panels. The show must go on. I basically winged it from the program description. Luckily, all the panelists were in fine form, and it was a fun panel.

As you can see, I had no time on Sunday to attend anyone else’s stuff. Said some quick goodbyes in the Dealer Room, and then I had to run, because we had a drive home ahead of us, and a deadline to retrieve our dog from the kennel.

This was the most involvement I’ve had in any con, and it could have been grueling, especially with a schedule that put so much on one day. It could have been, but it wasn’t: I had a really good time at Keycon this year.