All right! I feel like I’ve been really neglecting my self-promotional activities lately. Mostly due to not being able to think of anything new to do. So I got the thought that maybe I should study ‘the masters’ to see what makes them great. To that end, I’m going to download and read the samples of one of J.A. Konrath’s books and one of Amanda Hocking’s books, and see if there’s anything they’re doing that I could maybe learn from. It’s long shot, I admit, but worth a go.
I’m going to start with Amanda Hocking’s Hollowland, chosen because I have more interest in zombies than vampires or … whatever her other books are about, to be honest I saw ‘zombie’ and lost all interest in everything else. Everyone. Loves. Zombies. Without further ‘ado’, let’s get into it! I’m kind of excited about this, to be honest.
Hm. Maybe I need to do a review thing here. I think I need to separate my thoughts.
Amanda Hocking’s “Hollowland”
Cover: Fine. I don’t personally like photo covers but at least the colours are nice and it’s been competently put together–although the title blends into the background too much.
Title: Good. It’s a little generic but that doesn’t matter, it’s evocative and has good series potential. It also rolls off the tongue nicely, Hollowland, you’ve got that double L-flick which is always fun.
Formatting: Oh dear. Not good, I’m afraid. I was expecting a lot better. No page breaks–not even between the legal notice and the actual story–indented first paragraphs, no table of contents, bizarre chapter breaks (kind of a writing thing but we’ll get to that in a minute), generally sloppy. It doesn’t take much to fix these problems, so really this is inexcusable for someone with Hocking’s resources.
Editing: Oh, DEAR. By the time I’d reached the end of the sample–and I was really forcing myself by that point–I was far more focused on spotting errors than on anything else. Missing letters, missing words, incorrect capitalisation–simple things that any decent editor should have caught. I expected much better from Amanda Hocking–her work is, after all, the ‘first contact’ with indie authors for a lot of people. No wonder indie books have such a reputation for being typo- and mistake-ridden if this is our most triumphant example. Disappointing.
Writing: Poor. Flat characters, cliched dialogue, multiple examples of telling when showing would be better, instances of telling when we’ve ALREADY been shown, similes that simply didn’t make sense, ‘gaggle of zombies’ instantly removes all sense of menace (not that there was much to begin with) as well as being flat-out wrong (unless I missed something and the zombies are all geese), sentences that simply made no sense, jarring use of ‘head-hopping’, parts felt like I was reading an outline rather than a story, ‘hella gross’, general feeling of being talked down to by someone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. I’m not even going to go into the lion. I could go on but I’m actually starting to feel mean now. I expected the writing to be better.
Zombies: Ugh. Again this ‘mutated rabies virus’ thing. Let it go, it’s not interesting. Is there a campaign against fast zombies? If not there really, really should be. WALKING dead, people, WALKING. Also, apparently Hocking’s zombies eat each other, which begs the question, why would you ever see more than one really fat zombie at a time?
Conclusion: Mediocre. Not terrible, but not good. I love zombies, I love zombie stories, but I was truly forcing myself to get to the end of even the sample. Mostly it was the characters who kept me at a distance–if they’d been engaging and interesting I would’ve been able to forgive dull zombies and poor writing and bad editing and shoddy formatting. But they weren’t engaging or interesting, and I felt no attachment to them whatsoever. I didn’t care what happened to them, and so I didn’t care about the book.
What Can I Learn From This? Um. Possibly that you don’t have to be a particularly good writer to succeed? I already knew that, though. Write to your audience, maybe? A five year-old will seem impressive to a three year-old, I guess if Amanda Hocking’s audience is used to this level of writing–or worse–then this could seem okay.
Just to be clear about this, I went into the book with an open mind and no expectations–no, actually, that’s not true, my expectations were that I’d enjoy it. That I’d find something to like. I don’t begrudge Amanda Hocking her success nor do I want her to fail. But she really needs an editor and a formatter. She can certainly afford them.
Right! Onto the next. Let me cleanse my palette with a little Zane Grey, and then I’ll take a look at J.A. Konrath’s The List. My expectation going in is that I’ll find competent-to-good writing but a story that doesn’t engage me–nothing to do with Mr Konrath, thrillers just aren’t my thing. I chose The List because, well, honestly it was the first book of his I found that seemed ‘standalone’. Also ‘technothriller’ seemed marginally more interesting than just a straight ‘thriller’.
J.A. Konrath’s “The List”
Title: Does nothing for me. The List. Generic and dull. But then most thrillers have titles like this, so I guess he’s playing to the genre.
Cover: Adequate. The composition is nice. Not sure what’s going on with the teeny-tiny ‘the’ over the enormous ‘list’. “History Is About To Repeat Itself…” does nothing for me. I think if you wanted a cover that could blend skillfully with other covers, this would be a good choice.
Formatting: Ah, now THIS is more like it. We’ve got a custom title page, custom chapter headings (ugly and a little blurry but oh well), proper page breaks, (mostly) good indentation, a pleasure to read. One thing, though; the first line is dialogue, so it should be indented even though it’s the first paragraph. Tiny little mistake there that we’ll overlook; I award The List a “Well Done!” for formatting.
Editing: I only read the first three chapters (to be honest I was fairly burnt-out after forcing my way to the end of Hollowland’s sample), but the things I caught were minor. I thought there was one, but apparently ‘Dumpster’ is an actual brand! So it wasn’t a mistake at all. Still kind of distracting, though. From what I read, this is fine.
Writing: Has ‘show, don’t tell’ gone out of fashion? If I was trying this for real–that is, if I’d downloaded the sample because I was actually interested in the book–I would’ve stopped at “Ugly way to die”. Putting that aside, none of the characters engaged me, nothing about the prose sparked anything in me, dialogue was cliched, secondary characters might as well have been cardboard cutouts with tape recorders sellotaped to them, branding seemed out of place and distracting (do I really need to know it was a Maglite flashlight or that the coffee wasn’t from Starbucks?) (putting brands in italics (inconsistently) I also found odd). “His breath was garlic and peppers”, no. To sum up, I’d say the writing was mediocre. Not bad but not great.
What Can I Learn From This? Again, ‘um’. To be honest this is pretty much what I’ve seen in other thrillers I’ve tried–mediocre-competent writing, unengaging characters, mysteries and threats I can’t quite bring myself to care about. So in short, I have learnt nothing.
But that’s okay! To quote Seinfeld, “No hugs, no learning”. And I kind of feel good now. These aren’t some kind of super-writers who are achieving these successes. It’s partly down to luck, I know. It’s partly down to writing in a genre people actually read. But I’m not looking for Hocking/Konrath levels of success, to be perfectly honest the thought of that gives me the willies. So what do I want? Good question! I’m glad I asked it! I’m coming on up to the end of my second month as an indie author, my first full month, and it seems as good a time as any to think about what I’d ideally like to achieve with all of this.
You know what I’d really like? I’d like a hundred fans. I’d like a hundred people who enjoy my books, who understand my books, a hundred people to whom my books speak. I’d like them to speculate on what’s going to happen next in the series, to discuss the little hints and scraps of foreshadowing I’ve scattered about, to talk about their favourite characters and moments, to say “Wasn’t it AWESOME when …”, to do a happy dance when I announce a new book or a new series. To talk about how a Miya Black videogame might work, about who they’d cast in a movie version. I’d like to read the ‘popular highlights’ and go “Oh yay, I love that line too” or “Why is this so popular?”. I’d like them to complain about the changes I’ve made, the directions I’ve gone in, about my choices. I’d like them to come storming onto the Internet after they read books six and seven of Miya Black or pretty much any Resonance book screaming “YOU IRREDEEMABLE BASTARD!”. That’s what I’d like.
And so back to work. Editing! I should finish today, only seventy pages to go, phew. Home stretch. Editing isn’t strenuous but it does get a little, I don’t know–when I’m not actually creating anything I get a bit twitchy. Still enjoying reading and I’m almost up to the climax, which I’m just … I’m so happy with how it came out. I think it’s one of the best climaxes I’ve written, everything comes together just so. It’s very satisfying. Still have the warm little hopeful feeling that Imogen Shroud could be my ‘break’, that Everyone Loves Zombies and so maybe, just maybe, this could be the gateway through which more people find me.