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.

 

Prose & Cons: WWC 2017

This was my best convention ever, in several ways. Calgary’s When Words Collide is always well organized and fun, but with my book finally out, I felt more confident being among authors, and I think that let me open up and be myself more.

Here are the highlights:

WWC doesn’t generally designate moderators, so when no one else wanted to do it, I volunteered to moderate both of the panels I was on. With only gentle steering, conversation flowed and the time flew by. A well-published author shook my hand and thanked me, the convention volunteers said nice things, and there were positive mentions on Twitter.

At Five Rivers Presents, I launched Avians and moved people with short, powerful readings. Five Rivers Publishing gave some copies away, and for the first time, I got to sign books for complete strangers.

I did a solo presentation on Writing Aviation that engaged the audience. People asked relevant and insightful questions, and when our time was up, gathered around the table to talk and take my cards. I had to usher the last ones out to the anteroom so the next panel could set up. Again, tweets.

With the help of Myth Hawker, I sold a few copies of Avians in the dealer room. That means people picked up my book, looked it over, and decided they’d pay money to read it. Woot! At one point, I passed by the table just minutes after someone had bought a copy. I caught up to her further down the room and signed it for her.

I went to the mass book signing, where anyone (you don’t have to register for the con) can come to have books signed by the attending authors. There are long lines for the famous writers, but I expected to be lonelier than the Maytag repairman. Complete strangers came up to me and asked me to sign their copy of Avians. I saw someone holding my book and scanning the crowded room to look for me. I don’t know what that feeling is called, but it was an “oh!” moment.

As the mass signing wound down, I went over to say hi to C.P. Hoff to tell her that Caroline and I both loved her book. Caroline and I have very different reading tastes, but Connie’s zany A Town Called Forget made both of us laugh. Connie’s hotel room was near ours, and she ended up giving a signed copy to Caroline in person.

I served as reader for the science fiction session of Live Action Slush. Despite my best efforts to make each story opening sound strong and engaging, almost all the samples got shot down before I made it to the bottom of the page. The editors on the panel were polite and constructive, but they wanted it all: if there was action, they wanted character; if there was character, they wanted conflict; If there was conflict, they wanted a hook. Their advice was aimed at taking good writing and raising it to exceptional.

The conference was impressively organized and the staff of the Delta hotel were wonderful. I signed up for next year before the convention ended on Sunday afternoon.

P.S. For a more comprehensive look at When Words Collide, see this review of the convention by Robert Runté, who has been at it for many years.

 

 

 

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.

 

“The Emperor’s Dragon”

I’ve sold a short story, and it will appear in the next issue of NewMyths.com. I’m not sure it’s science fiction, because it introduces no extrapolated science or technology ideas. Instead, it looks at the development of aviation in the distant past.

When I was doing some reading on the history of aviation, something struck me: the Wright brothers were not ahead of their time. I say this because of the way aviation exploded across the globe in the years following their 1903 flight. It was as if they let the genie out of the bottle.

For thousands of years, humans had dreamed of flying, but progress was sporadic and slow. The Montgolfiers flew a hot-air balloon in 1783, but it went nowhere. Did we have transatlantic balloon flights in 1800? Nuh-uh. Dammit, they were French: they had Champagne. They could have been doing a thriving business in sight-seeing excursions. Pardon the pun, but it just didn’t take off.

Otto Lillienthal made over two thousand glider flights in the late 1800’s and any modern observer would recognize his aircraft as a hang-glider. But he remained a novelty, a curiosity. There could have been hang-gliding clubs taking railway excursions to fly the Alpine slopes in droves, but there were not. Where was our dream then?

But after the Wright brothers did their little hop at Kitty Hawk, progress was exponential. A mere sixteen years later, in 1919, Alcock and Brown flew across the Atlantic. By 1931, the Supermarine S.6B was flying at 400 mph (on floats!), and in 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in level flight. Let’s stop and think about that: we went from the first powered flight to the speed of sound in less than fifty years. Orville Wright was alive, aged 77, when Captain Yeager flew the X-1.

The speed of this progress suggests that aviation was waiting to happen, like a dam about to burst. The Wright brothers made not the first crack, but the critical, fateful one.

I omitted the role of war in my summary, but it is inescapable. The Vickers Vimy flown by Alcock and Brown was a modified WWI bomber. The S.6B was a forerunner of the Supermarine Spitfire. And Chuck Yeager’s flight was at least partly a military project.

Aviation is good for warfare, and vice versa.

But what if the dam had not burst in the twentieth century? What if the river had flowed much earlier?

China had silk and bamboo a long time ago, and they experimented with manned kites and developed a good understanding of some aspects of flight. To say that this was before the Wright brothers would be an understatement; it was around the time of Jesus Christ.

By a thousand years ago, the Chinese had gunpowder, and were close to developing rockets. I think they could have devised a form of powered flight, and could have used it to defend the Great Wall on their northern border.

The technology I imagine is plausible, but risky. You wouldn’t volunteer to pilot such a contraption.

You’d have to be conscripted.

“The Emperor’s Dragon” will appear in issue #39 of NewMyths.com on June 15th.