30 September 2015 - 7:19 pm

New edition, old habits

Book 0's new cover!

Book 0’s new cover!

I have been talking about re-issuing the Apocalypse Blog ebooks for some time now. I received a few comments on the first book that proved it needed attention (much to my own chagrin, but we live and learn). In an effort to address the issues identified, I had an editor go through the whole series and give me feedback. After the sales started to flag, I also had new covers  created.

And then life got in the way and the project fell by the wayside. Sadly, it hasn’t been at the top of my list. Until now.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been going through the first book(s) (Book 1: End of the Old and the short prequel Book 0: Before the End), editing pretty heavily, and updating things like links and covers.

It has been an interesting process so far. Going back over writing I did in 2009, I’ve been noticing patterns and habits, some of which I have since made an effort to rid myself of.

For example, I use the word ‘that’ a lot in unnecessary places. ‘He said that’, ‘the reason that’… the list goes on. During this edit, I’m challenging every instance of the word ‘that’ and removing probably 80% of them. (‘Just’ is similarly challenged, but there are much fewer of those because it has been a bugbear of mine for much longer.)

I also have too many commas. It’s something I habitually try to edit out of my work (my first drafts are always riddled with unnecessary commas). The Apocalypse Blog isn’t too bad in this regard, but there are still too many and it reads better now I’m taking some of them out.

I used dashes between clauses instead of proper punctuation. I think I noticed this habit sometime during writing the Apocalypse Blog and stopped doing it, but apparently that wasn’t during the span of the first book. Now, it’s not something I would ever do (on purpose); I’ve become something of a fan of the semi-colon for the type of pause in a sentence that a dash used to stand for.

As I’m going through this edit, where a sentence has only one dash in it – that is, it’s not used for an aside like this – I am replacing it with a colon, semi-colon, or just breaking the sentence off. I’m much happier with the sentences after they’re challenged this way.

The new look for Book 1

The new look for Book 1

Something I’m noticing for the first time is: I hyphenate often. Usually this is for double-barrelled descriptors, which is fine, but sometimes it joins two words together to make something new. Faith’s voice played around with language a lot and some of what she was describing gave me scope to do this.

Reading it over again now, I notice that there are a lot of instances of this and I’m changing many of them. Some I’m removing the hyphen from; others I’m rewording to remove the phrase entirely and creating something that’s a little more easily understood. In places, I was ambitious with what I was trying to do with the language and imagery; sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I figure that if any of the images don’t flow for me now, my readers probably have the same issue, so they can be improved by being changed.

Writing is a process of changing and learning and changing some more, and I think this retrospective has been a valuable opportunity for me. Some of it is in how far my writing has come since I first penned the Apocalypse Blog. Some of it is seeing my work through an editor’s eyes as I go through the feedback, and some is picking out other things that I can improve upon (like the hyphenation).

It’s also taking me a lot longer to work through this edit than I had anticipated. I’m glad I started it when I had some time to play with; this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be rushed.

I’m excited to get these new editions tidied up and releasable. While I’m updating and refining things, I’m going to be taking a look at the layout and general appearance of the ebooks, and making improvements there if they need it. Pricing will also be reviewed and most likely changed.

I’m looking forward to relaunching these books, sending a fresh version of this beloved story out into the world. For those who have bought it already, you should get the changes for free. Watch this space. Hopefully it’ll entice new readers to try the series, too!

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23 September 2015 - 6:09 pm

Review: I Stopped Time by Jane Davis

I Stopped Time by Jane Davis

I Stopped Time
by Jane Davis

I got this book as a gift from my parents, who met the author in a bookstore and got her to sign it for me. I love books, so it was a great gift, even though I don’t usually read this sort of thing. My go-to genres for fiction are usually scifi, fantasy, or paranormal, while this is more ‘straight’ fiction, with a realistic historical element. I have been trying to read wider than my usual go-tos lately, so I thought I’d give I Stopped Time a go.

I was pleasantly surprised, enough that I was moved to write a review about it. So here you go! Enjoy.

In a nutshell

I Stopped Time is the story of Lottie and her son James. As a young woman, Lottie left her husband and baby son, and James never knew his mother. After Lottie dies at the ripe old age of 108, she leaves James her photography collection, which documents her life. Through these photographs, James has the chance to find out who his mother really was and why she left him.

Star rating: 4/5


I’m not going to give too much away here, except to say that the book is nicely paced and carries you along right to the end. It moves between the early years of Lottie’s life in turn-of-the-century Brighton and WWI London, and the elderly years of James’s life in 2008. It has some ups and downs, and it’s more about the characters discovering themselves than it is a romance or about falling in love with someone else.

The book manages to hold a few surprises and unknowns, despite the time disparity. We may already know that Lottie lives to 108, but how she gets there is still a discovery for the reader. I suppose it helps that it’s a discovery for her son, too.

On a logistical note, the chapters are all clearly marked so you know who is talking and where and when you are. I’ve seen so many questions from writers about how to handle multiple first-person POVs: this is an example of how to do it well. It’s easy for readers to follow, which is really the key when doing this sort of thing.

The only thing I would note about the plot is that Lottie’s story is heavily weighted towards the start of her life. We don’t get much of what happened to her after she left James and his father, and I definitely wanted to know more about it. We do get the most important parts shown to us; I guess I just wanted more!


This is a very character-driven piece, and Davis writes them well. Lottie is a realistic girl and becomes a realistic woman: flawed, immature, maturing, headstrong, uncertain, ignorant, smart, and learning. She feels like a person who might have existed in the world, rather than an idealised version of a woman, or a flat caricature.

She has some of the deep-seated misperceptions about herself that many women have but that you seldom see in fiction: for example, how she has no idea about how to judge her own appearance in terms of beauty, the idle rich confuse her, and she has complicated feelings about sex that evolve in an understandable way through the story. She also has a curious attitude towards duty and happiness: it forces her to leave her family and makes sure she stays gone, but not, perhaps, in the way you would expect. Her love of photography, and in particular how she photographs nude women, is interesting and nuanced.

Her story has an authentic feel to it that I love.

Likewise, James feels like a whole person, though he’s less accessible than Lottie. He starts the book very closed off, and as the story progresses, he slowly opens up: first, with the young woman who is helping him to analyse and understand his mother’s photographs, and through her and her own struggles with family, he opens up towards his now-deceased mother.

His story is more subtle than Lottie’s. He has to work past his resentment and bewilderment towards a mother who abandoned him; in that way, this 80-something man is still a little boy, wanting to know why his mother didn’t love him enough. This creeps out through the narrative in understated ways; some of James’s story is in what he avoids saying or admitting.

His journey is one of my favourite things about the book, especially the note that it ends on. I won’t say what it is, except that the final image of the book is perfectly crafted and entirely appropriate for the story being told. Beautifully done.

Other than the two main characters, there are plenty of rich people populating the story, from lovable Alfie to photography student Jenny. It’s hard not to fall in love with each of them. (Alfie still breaks my heart.)


It’s hard to know what to say about the writing: it was very clean and fairly invisible. I mean this in a good way: the writing didn’t get in the way of the story; it simply carried me along on a smooth ride. The language was lovely and the descriptions were evocative. Lottie’s story felt authentic for its period, and James’s felt like it was in a contemporary English village (which it was).

I don’t have anything particular to point out about the writing here except for the ending: as I mentioned above, the book ends on a wonderful image. It doesn’t bother to flourish or trail off into the distance; it just ends at a good and appropriate stopping-place, and leaves you with a good taste in your mind.

Would I recommend it?

Absolutely. It’s nicely written, a touching story, and a pleasant way to spend a few hours. I will warn that those with softer shells will likely cry in a couple of places. It’s worth it, so give it a go.

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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19 September 2015 - 1:51 pm

Imagination Open

This is the sort of thing I'm talking about! (Picture of the Open Book store by Trint Williams)

This is the sort of thing I’m talking about!
(Picture of the Open Book store by Trint Williams)

Quite often, I think about what my perfect writing situation would be. Because we all like to dream, right? Dreaming is easy and free.

I love to write. I love to share my writing. I love books: reading, sorting, shelving. I love to talk about books and writing. I love to curl up on my own with a book or a laptop and let my imagination run. I love to read and write with company.

So what would be perfect is my own little dream bookstore. It would stock fiction of all kinds, from regular fiction to science fiction to horror to mystery to erotica to graphic novels. There might be a small non-fiction section, stocked with books about writing and with a selection of choice research materials that changes on a regular basis. There’d be as many indie books as I could get my hands on, as well as traditionally-published offerings.

It would be a store of nooks and corners, with armchairs and beanbags scattered among the stacks for reading and writing purposes, along with little tables with chairs and powerpoints. Each nook could be themed according to the genre it is located in or near, for extra fun (horror beanbag, steampunk armchair, romance love-seat, scifi desk!). There’d be a selection of random stationery available – pens, post-its, notecards, journals and stickers (writers love stickers) – so writers can brainstorm and plan stories if they wish.

There would be a little cafe in the back serving copious amounts of coffee, cookies, and cupcakes. Next to it would be an open space with tables, chairs, and sofas, easily pulled into groups for: book clubs, writing group discussions, brainstorming sessions, write-ins, or workshopping stories. The chairs would be squishy and comfortable for hours of occupation at a time, because writers can be sedentary creatures. In the corner, there’d be a little stage, for readings and maybe the occasional visiting musician.

The tables and chairs would spill out onto a deck at the back, looking out over a back yard with a half-wild, barely-contained garden. The garden would be trees and bushes and those flowers brave enough to survive (and it would probably come with a ‘don’t pet the wildlife; this is Australia’ warning). It would extend back from the deck some way, the foliage thick enough to hide its boundaries so it feels like an entrance to a jungle wilderness.

Little paths would wind through the garden, daytime dimness and night-time darkness alleviated by strings of colourful lights, leading to little half-grown-over fountains and mossy parts of someone’s spaceship and a statue of a wingspread griffon rising out of the weeds. Here are there, along the paths, would be areas to stop and settle with a story to read or write: outdoor tables under canopies, with lights and power points for writing ; a hammock cradling cushions; and a little grassy bit for blankets and sprawling.

Roaming through all of these areas would, of course, be a cat or two. At least one would have ‘free hugs’ on his/her collar (it’s worth a try, right?).

The store would be open 24/7, so night-owls can come in and write, and restless readers can come find something to read when sleep eludes them. After-hours, the lighting would be dim and cozy, gathering in pockets around the store and garden. It would grow quiet with a goal of peacefulness.

The store would run on an honour system, particularly at night: people can scan and pay for their books themselves, and leave an appropriate donation when helping themselves to coffee/cupcakes. There would be somewhere for them to leave notes and requests for us, and there’d be a place for us to leave the book they were looking for, for them to pick up when they’re in next. We’d probably only have staff on during the day, to keep the place tidy, help customers, and restock books.

I’d live over the store, with a shady balcony above the deck for alonetime, but I’d probably spend most of my time downstairs.

I think I’d call it something like Imagination Open.

What do you think? Would you enjoy a place like this? Would you come hang out, spend time, dream here? What do you love about it, and what would you change?

What would be your perfect place to read and write?

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16 September 2015 - 5:51 pm

An erotic experiment

Cover by the wonderful Willsin Rowe

Cover by the wonderful Willsin Rowe

(Tip: the title might suggest a more lascivious experiment than actually happened. Adult material ahead!)

It’s a common thing for writers, particularly those of us who have not been traditionally published, to both despair and take heart from the trash that sells really well. Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, etc: they’re not great books or good writing, but they are very good sellers.

When I came across comedy erotica books (for example, those by the inimitable Chuck Tingle), I had another such moment. Chuck Tingle writes erotic shorts around 5,000-7,000 words, involving sex between (human) men and dinosaurs, unicorns, and ghosts (and combinations thereof), and with inspiring titles like: Space Raptor Butt Invasion.

I wish I was making this up.

They’re hilarious. They’re crappy. They sell for around $3-$4 each, and they sell well.

So I decided: fuck it, I’m going to have a go. I want to know if I can write satirical erotica and sell it to people.

Thus, The Adventures of the Detachable Penis was born.

Once I had the title, I knew I had to write it. It’s ridiculous, and fun, and features the silliest protagonist who is constantly bewildered by the predicaments he finds himself in. First he shoots his own penis off, then he gets himself into debt to replace it. After that, he manages to get himself into more hot water and winds up chained to a wall, and that’s when he discovers that his cybernetic prosthetic can detach and wander off on its own.

(There may be a reference to an 80s robot movie in there, too. Bonus points to the first person who picks it up.)

Thanks to Willsin Rowe, who does glorious romance/erotica covers, I now have a cover with an expression that perfectly matches poor Jake Asunder, the ‘owner’ of the wayward detachable penis.

I thought long and hard (he he) about whether to do this under my own name, and decided that it probably wasn’t a good idea. Those who read the erotica are probably going to be bewildered by my other works, so best to keep them separate. This led to the birth of a new pseudonym: Slip Rhee.

This led me to a curious predicament. How do I promote it if I am not writing as ‘me’? How do I make this thing work? Why is it so hard?

So I’ve decided to be shameless, admit that this is me, and go all out. Obviously, those readers who pick up my other work can take or leave this particular piece; it is ever your choice. It’s silly, it’s filthy, and it’s definitely NSFW (not safe for work, or small children, or those who don’t want to read smut). I completely understand that it’s not everyone’s thing.

The Adventures of the Detachable Penis: Part 1: Penis Free is complete and now available to buy! So go get a copy and enjoy (if you’re tempted, that is). Tell all your friends! Share links like candy! Let’s see if we can make the detachable penis a phenomenon. Everyone will want one!

Handy links to the ebooks, so you can pick up the copy you prefer:

Watch this space for more news as the adventures swell and grow bigger and better.

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11 September 2015 - 5:47 pm

Interview: Horror-master Hellscream

As regular blog-visitors are probably aware, I’m fairly heavily involved in my local writing scene. I wanted to start sharing that with you all, so here’s the first of what I hope will be many interviews with published authors of all types, starting with those local to me.

I would like you all to meet Matthew J Hellscream: a Brisbane-based horror writer on the cusp of releasing his second novel.  I talked to him (picked his brain; it was dark and squishy) about his experiences with Kickstarter, writing, and publishing.


Carnifex, the upcoming novel by Matthew

Carnifex, the upcoming novel by Matthew

Melanie Edmonds: Metro 7 was the first Australian novel to be funded through Kickstarter (congrats!), and your campaign for Carnifex is going well. It has already met its target and all its original stretch goals! Congratulations.

Why do you think Kickstarter works so well for you?

Matthew J Hellscream: Kickstarter works because it allows your readers to get involved from the ground up.  You make them a part of bringing your books to life.  It worked so well for Metro 7 because I felt like it was the only avenue available to me.  I didn’t feel like I had a chance in hell of being picked up by a traditional publisher.  So I gave it a shot, and it worked out for the best.

It’s also a really great way for you to gauge whether there is an audience for what you’re writing.

ME: What would be your top tips for a writer creating a Kickstarter campaign?

Matthew: I have two.  Write your book.  Do your homework.

When I say write your book, I’m not just talking about finishing your first draft.  I’m talking about all the hard stuff that comes after.  Rewriting, editing, sending it out to beta readers.  Get it to a point where you would be happy for it to be published before you even think about launching the campaign.

Your homework is to break down the finances involved.  Kickstarter is all about bringing a project to life, and as the project manager you must know in minute detail the costs involved.

These include, but are not limited to, printing costs, editing costs, cover art costs, any ancilliary merchandise like stickers or t-shirts, as well as the fluctuating dollar value which could change at any moment… You’ve got to be across it, otherwise you risk cutting yourself short and disappointing your backers.

ME: Do you think you’ll ever try a different publishing model? What would it take to make that happen?

Matthew: I would love to.  For my next project I am still deciding whether or not I want to go through Kickstarter.

There seems to be a couple of different ways for writers to be successful these days.

First, the no brainer.  Get picked up by a traditional publisher.  But that involves a perfect storm of talent, hard work, opportunity and just a smidgeon of luck.

Second, if you’re an indie writer, write so much content that you get people hooked.  Set all of your fiction up as series in an interconnected universe, and get involved in as many anthologies as humanly possible.  Write to sell yours books as a box set, and price things incredibly cheaply.  It’s the shotgun approach.  It requires a huge time commitment, a razor focus and a hefty support network of cover artists, editors and promoters.

I’m not sure where I want to fit into those two extremes at the moment.  I don’t have the time to write enough content to fill six books a year like some prolific self-published authors, and unless I’m super lucky and SciFi Horror has a renaissance I doubt I’ll be picked up by a traditional publisher any time soon.

ME: What other goals do you have for your writing? How will you be challenging yourself in the future?

Matthew: My goal for the next few years is to write enough to publish 2 books per year.  My focus is going to be on my Countdown series, which started with Metro 7.  I’m also going to be kicking off another series next year called Impact.  if you’re a fan of fiction that involves giant robots and even more gargantuan monsters, you’re going to love Impact.  It’s horror on an epic scale.

The biggest challenge is that I have a full-time day job.  The amount of writing I need to fit in and around my working day is a little daunting, but sacrifices must be made.

ME: You write primarily horror. Do you ever scare yourself with your writing?

Matthew: The actual writing isn’t what scares me, it’s the fact that these nightmare creatures and situations reside somewhere deep inside my subconscious, waiting to get out.

ME: Has one of your stories ever made you cry?

Matthew: Yes, and it made my wife cry too.  It hasn’t been published yet.  It was a very personal story.  I was in a really bad headspace after losing someone very close to me.  I honestly don’t know if I can ever go back to it.

ME: Have you ever written something outside of your comfort zone? If so, what was it and how did it go?

Matthew: I’m still so new to this that everything is still outside my comfort zone!  If I wanted to be comfortable, I’d still be playing World of Warcraft for 5 hours a night instead of writing.

Occasionally I go back to a fantasy series I began some time ago called Children of the Void.  It’s quite different from any of my horror fiction, and I would love to devote some time to it in the future.

Metro 7 by Matthew J Hellscream

Metro 7 by Matthew J Hellscream

ME: What drives you to write?

Matthew: A couple of years ago I would have said it was self-preservation.  If I didn’t write to scratch that creative itch, I’d be a damn sight crazier than I actually am.

But now the thing that drives me most is that people out there are actually enjoying my work.  I feel like I’m finally doing something that can bring a bit of excitement to people’s lives.  Something with meaning, that I can be proud of.

ME: What type of story or story element speaks to you most, in your or others’ writing?

Matthew: Compelling characters and consistent pace.  I need to care about characters to keep reading about them, and the story needs to follow a rhythm to keep me interested.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be a fast pace, just a consistent one that keeps moving.  Once a story stops dead in its tracks, so does my interest in it.

ME: What’s your favourite word?

Matthew: Fuck.  It’s so versatile.  And satisfying!

ME: What’s the single worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever seen or received?

Matthew: I think I’ve been lucky.  I haven’t received any bad writing advice yet that I’m aware of.  But writing advice is funny.  It pretty much all boils down to this:  “You should do it this way, except in situations where you shouldn’t.”  It’s all subjective.

As the architect of your own literary universe, you will know what’s best for your story.  If something is totally out of place or needs to be reworked, your beta readers will tell you.

The thing I will say is this – if you’re self-publishing and relying on beta readers to provide you with feedback, not all of it will be helpful.  Picking and choosing which pieces of feedback to act on is difficult, but important.

ME: What was the single most important thing you learned about writing or publishing in the last year?

Matthew: It’s possible to finish a first draft quite quickly.  It took me five years to finish the first draft of Metro 7. Carnifex took four months, while working a full-time job, without neglecting my wife, and without my other hobbies & interests suffering.

I also did not go insane.  So that’s a plus.

It just proves that it’s possible with all of the trappings of modern life.  In fact it’s easier now to write on the go – I use the Microsoft Word app on my phone & tablet to quickly note down scene or dialogue ideas while I’m on the bus, which I can then expand on when I get home.

ME: And now for some shameless promotion: when will Carnifex be released and how will we be able to get our hands on it?

Matthew: The actual release date will be pending the outcome of the Kickstarter campaign.  My cover artist will be putting together something very exciting, and if our third stretch goal is met, the book will need to go through copy editing by Blade Editing.  Pending those two things, I’d love to have it out by November.

The best way to get involved right now is by heading over to Kickstarter and backing the project.  This will give you some exclusive goodies like a t-shirt, copies of my first book Metro 7, and your name in the dedication page.  Your name will appear on every copy of the book I produce.

ME: What’s the next exciting project on your horizon?

Matthew: My next book will be Deep Six, the sequel to Metro 7.  It will be the second in the Countdown series, which will include eight planned novels, ending in a final entry where the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.


Thanks for taking part in the interview, Matthew!

If you’re curious about this shiny new book of his, here’s a teaser video and the lowdown:

Carnifex: Butcher. Torturer. Executioner.

A holiday in the Australian outback turns deadly as five tourists find themselves locked in a desperate struggle for survival after stumbling into the hunting grounds of a predator long thought extinct.

Metro 7 is available in most major ebook stores, and one lucky paper-book store in Brisbane.

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10 September 2015 - 7:49 pm


This says it all, really. (Picture: not mine)

This says it all, really.
(Picture: not mine)

R U OK? day is one of those things that gets me thinking. It’s the sort of thing I want to respond to, but I don’t always know how, or if I should. It so often seems like just another bandwagon, lip service to salve conscience about dealing with a real problem, without really dealing with it.

I balk at lip service. I don’t share chain letters, or their meme equivalents, to prove how much I support something or to save small fluffy animals or whatever click-bait they’re trying to get us to spread today. It’s bullshit and I don’t want to get any on me. These days, I only have energy to do the things I truly believe in.

I believe in what’s behind R U OK? day. It’s about reaching out. It’s about checking in with someone who might be having a hard time and letting them know you’re there. It’s about being there and hoping it helps, at least a little bit. It’s about opening doors and trying to shed a little light.

There are several people in my life who struggle with depression or other similar conditions. I’m familiar with their struggles, through proximity, research, giving a crap, talking with them, and generally making an effort to understand. I care deeply about these people, even if we haven’t talked in a while, even if they don’t feel like they deserve it. They do.

So this is me, reaching out. This is me, asking: how are you doing today? There’s no right or wrong answer; just what is. It’s okay if you’re not okay. It’s okay if you are. It’s okay to admit you’re having a bad day and share a bit of that load.

We’re trained not to, and I hate that. We’re trained to be liars. It’s a rare day that I say ‘I’m good, thanks’ and don’t feel like I’ve just worn a part of myself away with another lie and another fake smile. I seldom feel ‘good’. My problem isn’t depression (it’s fatigue and a number of other physical complaints), but that part, facing that question, smiling and lying because we don’t want to cause ripples, or trip up the person asking us, or hog the spotlight for that moment: that part is the same.

The older I get, the more worn down I am by the reality of how I feel day to day, and the less patience I have for lying. More often than not, I’ll say how I’m really feeling (to friends and family; strangers and those being polite get strange and polite answers). Or I’ll be evasive and say ‘yeah, same as always’ or ‘getting along’, because I don’t want to think about it that deeply.

Today’s not about me, but I wanted to show that I understand why we don’t tell the truth. Why we hide our feelings. It’s easier. It stops conversations from starting. It lets us carry on as if everything’s all right, in case that makes it so. It helps us not to think about the crappy stuff so much.

And I want you to know: it’s okay. It’s okay to be honest, to share how you’re really feeling. It’s okay to lean on me; we all have our problems but you’re no burden at all. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, and it’s okay if you do. Either way, I’m here, and I’ll listen. You’re worth my time.

I care about how you’re doing. I ask how you are because I honestly want to know. And I mean that every time I ask, not just today. (Today is just an excuse for a blog post.) I don’t always know the right things to say or do (I’m always learning!) – I need your help with that – but I’m trying.

I’ll help, if I can. Even if it’s just being an ear, someone you can talk to and not have to pretend. Or to talk about nothing, about movies and comics and books, or that stupid thing you saw earlier, or whatever plughole the world is circling today. If you need a sounding board, or help to make a change, or someone to go with you to that appointment you’re reluctant to go to, I’m here. Or maybe just a hug and a cookie.

The door is open. I am here. This is me, reaching out.

How are you doing today?

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9 September 2015 - 6:30 pm

A kick up my own…

Hiiiiii-YAH! Here's hoping I can carry it off more gracefully than this pair. (Picture via flickr, credit ColKorn1982)

Here’s hoping I can carry it off more gracefully than this pair.
(Picture via flickr, credit ColKorn1982)

After being stalled and burned out recently, I’m working hard to get some momentum back with my writing. This is both writing for this blog (this is a big motivator for me) and the creative side of things, as well as other side projects.

I’m currently trying to build up a bit of a backlog for this blog. That will help take the pressure off and smooth over any dry spots while I’m focussing on something else. Right now, I’m aiming for one post a week as a minimum, with more only if I just can’t help myself. (I currently have the next couple of weeks lined up already.)

I’m also going to be varying the types of posts that go up. There’ll still be a writing focus, and I’m sure publishing will still feature fairly highly because it’s something I’m involved in pretty regularly. Joining the usual advice/info posts will be some interviews with authors (starting with some indie authors that I know personally and possibly extending from there), and reviews. I’ve done a few reviews before, mostly for movies, and my aim is to extend the reviews to books and possibly some web serials.

First review coming up soon. I’d love to know what you think of it!

Now that the first round of editing for the Everyday Heroes anthology is done and back with the writers, I have a bit of time to revive my own creative efforts. My priorities right now are: progress the next part of an experiment I have been working on (more on this soon!); finish up any one-shots I have on my list; and get my Inkspired serials back up and posting.

My serials on Inkspired (VVSG and Boomflowers) stalled a few weeks ago when I started to get burned out. Now that there are some new features to play with on the portal (more on this soon!), my plan is to build up a backlog and get them all scheduled  up, so that they can post away happily while I work on something else.

Skipping focus didn’t seem to work, so maybe this will be better! Boomflowers was only intended to be fairly short anyway (~10,000 words or thereabouts), so I’m hoping to finish that off completely before it starts posting again.

That lot will probably take me up to the start of this year’s NaNoWriMo, at which point my goal is to switch to writing Starwalker Book 5. It won’t start posting until after NaNo finishes (and I’ve had some editing/tidying time), so don’t start looking for it too soon. My aim here is to build up a backlog and some momentum, and carry that through into the new year.

Now that I’ve laid it all out in text, it sounds somewhat ambitious. I think it’s doable, though. First step: get back into the habit of writing every day. It’s time to get tough with myself again.

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2 September 2015 - 6:29 pm

Amazon vs Authors: Review policing

Amazon, the behemoth that started out as an online bookstore.

Amazon, the behemoth that started out as an online bookstore.

Part of the Amazon is not your friend series.

Any author, whether traditionally or independently published, will tell you that reviews are important when it comes to exposure and sales. They directly influence our bottom line. It’s to be expected, then, that any threat to an author’s ability to get reviews – particularly positive ones  – will cause a stir.

When word started filtering through the internet about Amazon removing legitimate reviews from books, it’s not surprising that authors got upset and vocal about it.

Let’s take a walk through Amazon’s recent review saga.

How it started

Amazon actively encourages reviews from its customers, so that other customers can know how good (or not-good) a particular product is. In 2012, a debacle about unethical reviews and sock puppets occurred: authors were caught paying for reviews, and review providers were creating multiple accounts to leave multiple reviews for the same book. Some authors cut out the middleman and created the sock puppet accounts themselves to spoof good and bad reviews on books, depending on whether the author was a competitor.

As Writer Beware points out, late in 2012, Amazon changed its review policy (and started to enforce it more stringently) to try to stamp out unethical and paid-for reviews. The review criteria are pretty clear (if you know where to look, which is not clear) about reviews being disallowed from anyone who has a financial interest in the product’s success. It also excludes those with a familial or ‘close personal relationship’ with the author.  Amazon appeared to interpret these guidelines pretty broadly when winding up the ban-hammer and aiming it at reviews.

This led to a slew of criticism and complaint, because fans and fellow authors were finding that their reviews were being removed or rejected. Inquiries received a response that stated the review was a violation of the terms and conditions. Pushing the issue (which could mean just asking for more information) resulted in a threat to remove the book from Amazon entirely.

On top of this, there were obvious fakes who were not affected by the wildly swinging ban-hammer (that’s my name for it, and I’m sticking with it).

The situation today

After the end of 2012, the furor died down and it has been pretty quiet since then. Recently, the issue has reared its head again, as more fans and authors trip over this problem. It’s hard to tell if this is a resurgence of the same issue, or if Amazon are enjoying a fresh spree with the ban-hammer.

Some criticism has emerged about the original complaint that brought this issue back into the limelight. However, it’s not an isolated incident. I think there’s enough history and additional instances of the problem that it’s worth taking a look.

It seems that Amazon’s interpretation of ‘close personal relationship’ can mean anyone who has interacted online (it’s impossible to say for sure, because Amazon isn’t telling). Authors who have never met but have exchanged e-words online have had their reviews on each others’ work removed. Fans who chat with the author too much (or at all?) also suffer.

There are a couple of things about this that deeply disturb me. First (and probably least), Amazon is gathering a lot of information about its authors and customers, in order to be able to identify these relationships. It’s unclear if this data-mining is done purely through Amazon’s site (and links from author pages to blogs, Twitter feeds, etc), or if it casts a wider net. Just how much is it watching us? (Though this is hardly surprising in light of what we know it can scrape off its customers’ Kindle devices.)

Secondly, this behaviour from Amazon means that the relationships that make being an author awesome are under fire. Indie authors, in particular, do well because of their interactions with their readers, with being accessible and visible. We enjoy great communication with our readers, and I think they enjoy being able to talk with us. (The same is true for traditionally-published authors, but usually to a lesser degree because they have more marketing options and support available than indie authors. However, it’s not my intention to under-value the impact on them; it affects all authors.)

Amazon is actively discouraging this. They’re punishing authors and readers alike for talking to each other by removing legitimate readers’ reviews. How is this good for sales? At the very least, Amazon is a business and should care about this. Fans who love a book or an author’s work are more likely to seek out contact with that author, so this could potentially remove an author’s most fervent support. Fans and readers don’t have a financial interest in the success of a book, so I don’t see how this violates the terms of service. Since when was it wrong to support something you love?

Similarly, this review ban-hammer affects authors who have had contact with each other. The author community is supportive and lacks the competitive viciousness of many industries. This is part of what I love about being a writer. We interact online. We swap notes and advice; we help promote each others’ work, because we know that a sale for other authors doesn’t mean less for me. And we know how important reviews are, so we like to leave them for the work we enjoy. Now being part of a community is wrong, too?

I’m not sure why Amazon thinks it’s a good idea to target these reviews. Direct review swaps between authors may be common, but does that mean that the reviews are any less honest? Of all the nefarious behaviour that has been identified around reviews, this has not been mentioned as being a problem, and it only covers a fraction of reviews by authors on another authors’ work.

Interestingly, the Amazon ban-hammer could lead to an unfortunate side effect: in order to be able to review books, reviewers are likely to create new (anonymous) accounts. So, instead of getting rid of anonymous sock-puppet accounts, Amazon is actually encouraging the practice, making it even harder to spot the ‘real fakes’ that caused the original problem. (This is an unverified prediction so far – has anyone seen this happening? Would you do it?)

Well done, Amazon, well done.

Thirdly (and possibly the saddest of all), they’re targetting the wrong reviews. There have been cases pointed out where obvious fakes are being left alone, while legitimate fan or fellow author reviews have been removed. On top of that, Amazon only seems to be targetting the positive reviews: viciously negative one-star reviews don’t seem to be affected. The revenge or false-negative review has been identified as being just as much of a problem as the false/fake-positives. So what’s being done about that? Nothing that we can see.

What this all means is that the quality of reviews isn’t being improved by the ban-hammer. It also means that the average star-count for books is being destabilised, because even if Amazon was removing the right (false-)positive reviews, it’s not removing the false-negatives.

So what does it all mean

It’s hard to know what to take away from all of this. Certainly, Amazon doesn’t understand the author-reader relationship, and it doesn’t understand the author community. It definitely doesn’t support these things. It’s one of those things that makes me very nervous about Amazon’s attempt to build a monopoly in the book industry, because if it succeeds, it won’t even have to pretend to care any more. It barely seems to give a crap now.

I don’t like that authors feel like they have to create anonymous accounts to leave reviews; that might be a natural reaction to the issue, but it’s a step in the wrong direction in my view. I hope this isn’t happening, or the sock puppet issue will only get harder to eradicate.

I think we should keep in mind that shoppers are pretty savvy these days, when it comes to reviews. They’ll ignore the obvious too-good and too-bad reviews, and look for the ‘honest’ ones. So why should Amazon headache about it like this? It feels like a badly-aimed reflex in response to the reported problems and abuse.

What do I think Amazon should do? Whatever algorithms it is currently using are clearly faulty. Stop it. There is a facility to report something that looks dodgy, so let people report dodgy reviews and investigate them properly when they’re identified. Identify the markers of actual fake reviews and step on them. Make the criteria clearer for what qualifies as a ‘close personal relationship’ (the mechanism they use to assess it might be intellectual property, but the basic criteria it has to meet should not be). Stop using lazy measures that annoys everyone involved (including our customers!).

One thing all of this has meant is that there is now a petition accepting signatures to appeal against the review ban-hammer at Amazon. As of this posting, it has over 15,000 signatures. Indie author Jas T Ward explained the petition’s intent in an email to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos just a few days ago.

If you feel strongly about this issue, I suggest you sign the petition. If you have had a review wrongly removed from Amazon, shout out about it! Affecting the direction of a behemoth like Amazon might be a difficult task, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

I am going to be writing up some reviews in the near future (less writing means more reading time for me!), so I’ll be curious to see if the ban-hammer swings in my direction. I’ll be posting the reviews in multiple places (including here), so they won’t be able to remove all of them!

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26 August 2015 - 6:34 pm

Editing frenzy

Considerate dinosaurs are important (Picture by P. Byrnes for Reader's Digest)

Considerate dinosaurs are important
(Picture by P. Byrnes for Reader’s Digest)

‘Frenzy’ might be overselling this a little, but the creative work has restarted! After struggling with writing and life and everything, and an only partially useful attempt to get back on top of things, I have finally started working on a creative project again. Not writing this time, but editing the submissions for the Everyday Heroes anthology.

It has taken a while to get to this point, and some coordination with the rest of the anthology team. We recently managed to get together, compare some notes, and make a plan of attack. We have split up the submissions and will work with the writers to get them to a publishable state. This week, we are starting our initial edits of the pieces and are getting together the first set of feedback.

It’s exciting, and I’m enjoying the pieces. I can’t wait until they’re ready to share with everyone!

For a few weeks now, I have been feeling overwhelmed and burnt out when it comes to my writing, mostly due to the other stuff going on in my life. Creative energy is hard to summon up on demand, particularly with my energy-related issues. I have been reading a lot more than usual instead, and that has helped keep the embers glowing.

Thinking critically about fiction always inspires me in some way, and there’s always something new to learn: a particular technique, or turn of phrase, or an example of boldness in the writing that is refreshing.  It’s important to understand what you don’t like and shouldn’t do, as well as the opposite, too. My recent forays into my bookshelves have shown me lots of both sides of the coin, and some will turn up in reviews just as soon as I can coherently commit my thoughts into words.

Reviewing a piece and editing it are similar exercises, and the progression from passively reacting as a reader to proactively examining as an editor, has been a good one. I can feel the creative juices fermenting, ideas starting to nose out of the mirk, the itch to write fluttering just below the skin. It’s like old friend waving from down the street, not quite close enough to grab and hug yet, but getting closer.

So, right now, I am throwing myself and my focus into editing some of the wonderful pieces submitted to the anthology project. I am deeply grateful to my anthology team’s input, understanding, and energy. Despite being an introvert, I do love collaborative projects, and in this one I get to work alongside other editors and with writers. So much fun!

After the first round of editing is done, the next step is getting back into the swing of putting pen to paper (figuratively speaking). I’m looking forward to that so much, and getting my writing back on track.

Onwards and upwards, my friends. Onwards and upwards.

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19 August 2015 - 6:38 pm

Best laid plans

Here's how my plans ended up (Picture via Pixabay)

Here’s how my plans ended up
(Picture via Pixabay)

So, I wrote recently about how stressed I’ve been lately, and how I was taking a week off work to rest and get some things sorted out.

I’m back at work now, so I figured I should consider how my week off went.

It started out well enough. I made myself a to-do list. I made some inroads into the sorting and tidying I wanted to do at home (minor stuff, but I was also collecting visiting family from the airport, with the usual related hugging and chatting). I had appointments lined up to look into my health and get that ball rolling.

The appointments happened at the beginning of the week. An attempt at a root canal was aborted and I now have to spend a small fortune to go to a specialist, because the tooth in question is in a challenging location. As a result of the attempt, I spent a couple of days feeling like I’d been punched in the mouth, without anything like the progress I was hoping for and with another scary appointment to look forward to (this is now next week).

The visit to my doctor started with a problem I’ve been having with my knee, and stayed focussed on that. I was sent off to get tests done, including an ultrasound. Every time someone poked me in the knee, I was limping for a day; after the ultrasound, I was limping for the weekend. I get the results of those tests back in a few days. There’s definitely something wrong in there (the ultrasound showed up a Baker’s cyst); the question now is what’s causing it and what I need to do to deal with it.

If I wasn’t out having someone poke, prod, or otherwise pain me, I was getting my car serviced (it’s that time of year) or trying to spend time with visiting family (another time-limited opportunity!). One way and another, I wound up being out every day of my holiday, in pain to varying degrees and in varying locations. My well-meaning to-do list didn’t get much of a look-in – because when I was home, I had to rest – and pretty much all of it is still outstanding.

I’ve had better holidays.

It’s frustrating. I’ve got some busy weekends coming up and not that much time before this year’s NaNoWriMo rolls around. I don’t have any more vacation time I can take off work. My available time and energy to get stuff done is pretty limited for the foreseeable future.

But there is progress. I’m getting important stuff sorted out, and it’s crucial to remember that. I haven’t wasted the time – I was busy the whole week, and some of it was fun stuff! Being with family and catching up with friends were welcome distractions from the cost and discomfort of everything else that was happening. Now I need to reorganise myself, redo the old to-do list, and figure out how to get the most important stuff done with what time I have available.

The good news is that the work situation is settling down and the stress is lifting. I’m struggling with my health and the painful hangover of last week, but there’s progress being made there and I have to keep that in mind. Overall, I’m already feeling better and more positive. I’m getting into the groove of being a full-time technical writer again and I’m enjoying the shift of focus.

So, here’s to making progress and the long upward climb. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and plot a new path.

Still moving, though, still pushing onwards. I’m a long way from giving up.

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