A Revelation in Reading: the Kobo Arc Experience

When I bought my first Kobo in December 2011, I was wary. Would my eyes get tired reading on a screen? Would it be weird to not have to turn physical pages? What about the weight of the device vs the familiarity of a book balanced in your hand?

The experience on the Kobo Touch was by no means perfect, but my hesitation was allayed immediately. It was a revolution for me–the ability to hold hundreds of books at my fingertips alone was worth the investment. And my concerns were unfounded; my only real gripes with e-reading were that the response on my Touch was sometimes laggy (or crashed completely–eventually causing me to replace the device) and some books are just way too overpriced (pricing a “traditionally published” book at full jacket price is ridiculous compared to $1 Indie books that are just as good–or better).

But some of the same questions came to light when I had to replace my device this weekend. I had a choice between getting another Touch–a device I was overall very pleased with–going with their new Kobo Glo (which seemed much like a Touch with a ‘night light’ feature), and going all for broke with the pseudo-tablet Arc. Which is what I did.
I did an amount of research on all three devices before coming to this decision, and it was only after playing with the Arc after purchase was my choice validated. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the reviews and comments on the Arc are about the tablet features, not the reading experience–but it is, first and foremost, an e-reader. So I thought I’d explore my experience with that today.

If the Kobo Touch was a revelation for me, the Arc is a revelation. It took no more than half an hour for me to decide this was an excellent reader. And yes, a lot of the reason behind that are the tablet features, which I talked about on Monday. But I’m very pleased with using eBooks on the device too, and this is what I’ll be using the Arc for most, voracious reader that I am.

The first–and potentially biggest–plus of this device is that you can access more than just the Kobo Store. Yes, the Touch and other Kobos allow you to sideload books, and even .pdf files–but because the Arc has access to Google Play, you can also download the Kindle and Nook apps. There are a number of Indie authors who use Amazon almost exclusively, including a favourite of mine, Ryan Casey. I used to have to read his books on my computer, which wasn’t as convenient–now I’ve got his books in my library, alongside all the others.
Another great app is Overdrive Media Console, which allows access to many public library systems. I have this on my desktop; with the Touch, I’d have to download a borrowed eBook to my computer and sideload it. With the Arc, I can do everything on the device–and I have access to audiobooks as well. It’s a truly amazing feature, which only gets better as my public library expands its eBook collection.

Reading on a backlit screen was one of my major concerns. The Touch used e-ink technology, and looks about as close to a real book as an electronic gadget can get. The Arc is definitely a computer screen, and this can cause eye strain. But in practice, I haven’t found this to be an issue. I’ve logged more than a dozen hours of use over the last several days, and haven’t had a problem. Part of the solution was the option to change the page colour to sepia–this is a bit easier on the eyes than black text on white. You also have a “night mode,” which is white text on black, but I think this would just be worse. The screen is just fine for reading.

The Touch was compatible with ePub files, and could also read /mobi and a few others. You could read .pdfs, but it was cumbersome; you had to drag the image across the screen to zoom/pan and change the page, and the responsiveness of that screen wasn’t too hot. And of course, it was all in greyscale.
The Arc, being a colour device, has a definate advantage. Pdfs look just like they would on a computer screen, and the Arc’s screen in particular is very sharp. Images and colours really pop. Kobo says the Arc can’t read pdf’s natively, but I don’t remember downloading a pdf reader, and I’ve been reading them since I got it. This is a feature I can see myself using a lot.

On top of pdfs, the Arc has access to Comic readers in the Google Play Store. I’m not a huge comic fan, but I like certain titles–Conan and Star Trek among them. The Touch would read these if prodded, but again, it wasn’t a great experience–the Arc on the other hand was made for this kind of thing. Images are crisp and vibrant, and scrolling is a breeze. Many different apps have different features too, so the mileage you get from this will depend on what you use.

Now the downside.

My absolute favourite feature on the Touch was the option to create a “Shortlist” of titles. I used this to line up all the books I wanted to read next, and I got into the habit of reading two or sometimes three books at a time, depending on the mood I was in. The Shortlist made it easy to switch form my “tired and want to escape” fantasy titles to the more “I wanna learn something” non-fiction choices.
The Arc doesn’t have this feature, and to be honest, that almost made me considering the Glo. If not for the Arc’s other features, I would have gone that way for this feature alone. But, although there’s no Shortlist, the Arc has a similar feature: Tapestries. Check out Monday’s post for a discussion about that; in short, it’s essentially an interactive folder. I made a new one, called it Shortlist, and filled it with my next read books. Problem solved. What’s better is that I can add as many Tapestries as I want–I have another in which I’ve collected all my Indie books for quick reference.

Another downer is the Discovery Bar. I was actually looking forward to this feature; the Touch had something similar, but because the internet was spotty at best, I didn’t use it much. On the Arc, it actually works.
The Discover Bar basically gives you reccomendations for new things to read or webpages to explore, based on what you use with your device. It’s a great idea, albeit one with an obvious commercial aim. But I love finding books I never otherwise would have, and this feature is great for that. Sadly, it’s not always accurate; I’ve marked several items as “not interested” multiple times, and they keep popping up–and for some reason, the Arc thinks I’m crazy about romance novels (clarification: I’m not. At all). Kobo says this feature needs to be used for a week or so to properly report your interests, so I’ll give it a chance–but so far, I’m not too impressed.

The final negative is the battery. My Touch could go on average three weeks without a charge–the Arc requires a full charge every day. If I time it well enough (i.e. overnight) it’s not a big deal–and with the colour screen and multiple uses, it’s not a surprise. It is, after all, almost as much a tablet as the Galaxy Tab or Nexus. Still, it’s a glaring change, and one that will take some time getting used to. Fortunately I’ve taken to using it as a calendar and music player at work, so I can plug it in all day as it sits on my desk. Problem solved.

As if it wasn’t apparent, I’m very much a fan of this device. I loved the Kobo Touch and because a dedicated Kobo customer over the past year, and this product only cements that further. If you’re in the market for an e-reader and are thinking about a tablet, you can’t go wrong with the Kobo Arc.

Next Monday, look for my first regular weekly review!

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A Different Tapestry: The Kobo Arc

A little over a year ago, I bought myself a Kobo Touch e-reader. I’ve been using it, on average, close to two hours a day since then–it’s easily one of the most useful electronic devices I’ve ever invested in. Which is why it was so disappointing when it crashed last week.

I was sending emails back and forth to Kobo Customer Care for the better part of the week, trying all sorts of tricks to get it working again–but sadly, it had run its course. With the amount of use it’s gotten, I can’t say I’m surprised! Kobo was very helpful, although in the end, nothing could be done–and unfortunately, I had just gone over warranty.

So on Saturday, I decided to bite the bullet and replace my Kobo. While I was at it, I took the opportunity to upgrade to the Kobo Arc. And I couldn’t be more pleased with the choice.

The Kobo Arc, while still primarily an e-reader, is really a tablet with a reading focus. It’s stock Android, but Kobo had given it a custom UI called Tapestries (the irony is not lost on me!). Essentially, these amount to folders in which you can organize your apps and media–in practise, it’s an excellent tool for the Indie Writer.

It works something like Pinterest. You can ‘pin’ almost anything to a Tapestry–apps, webpages, pictures, books, you name it. You can pin something to multiple Tapestries, and even nest them within one another. They appear on your home screen with an image of the last item you used–so for example, if I was just in the Kobo store and go back to the main screen, I’ll see the icon for the store at the front of my Reading Tapestry. The Kobo learns which apps you use most, and pushes them to the top, where they’re easy to find.

But it goes deeper than that. As with all Kobos, you can highlight passages in a book and make annotations. This is a feature I used often on my Touch, as it’s a great help to research. I often found myself comparing annotations; I’d make a note in one book, then open another and compare passages to get a more rounded view of whatever topic I was studying. But it was cumbersome. You needed to close the book you were working on, then open another and sift through the annotations until you found the one you wanted. A lot more convenient than paging through actual books, but still not exactly simple.
So the really awesome bit about the Kobo Arc is that you can pin these highlighted passages. I’ve created a Tapestry called Research which sits in my Reading folder; when I open it, I have all of my annotations in one spot. Each shows as a small snippet of text, and tapping on it opens the book to that page of the book. It couldn’t be easier.

Even better, you can still pin images and other items into that Tapestry–which means I can also pin images from my Pinterest boards. This makes Tapestries a robust feature for writers–I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of how useful this can be.

Because the Arc runs on Android, there are thousands of useful apps you can download, many of which are free. The Arc comes pre-loaded with Pinterest, which I’ve already found useful. It also has Twitter, which will make it easy to follow fellow Indie Writers–and much easier to follow the links they post than using my phone (and, incidentally, I can pin their blog posts or tweets to Tapestries as well). There’s a Goodreads app, and I’ve found a neat RSS reader called Pulse with which I can follow Indie blogs. There’s a score of Memo apps, some of which can be dictated to; Evernote is a popular choice for writers, though I’ve personally never found it useful. I found a few word processors too, though I can’t imagine they’d be useful for the Arc unless I were to get a separate keyboard–at which point I might as well use my computer.
There are also  WordPress and Wikipedia apps, though apparently they’re not compatible with the Arc.

The Arc is also great for browsing the internet. It comes with the stock Android browser and with Chrome–but Firefox is available too. And of course, any pages or images you bring up can be pinned to Tapestries as well. I’m very happy with this feature, as my phone–a Blackberry Torch–shows dismal performance when opening webpages, and I’m not always at a computer when I want to look something up. The Kobo Touch had a browser as well, but it was eternally stuck in Beta, and it was pretty slow. My focus for the Arc isn’t surfing the ‘net, but as a writer’s tool, bringing up webpages for research or shopping for books is going to be dead simple.

And that brings us to the reason I bought this device in the first place–the Reading Experience. We’ll get into details on Wednesday, so stay tuned for that!

And, as promised, I’ll be writing a weekly Indie Review starting next Monday with Lorne Oliver’s Red Island. He’s posted the first chapter on his website, so go give it a look!

Pinning Him Down–Pinterest and Character Development

Frankenstein’s Monster, by DerrickT c/o Flikr

Today I thought I’d continue my exploration of Pinterest with a post about Character Development. I’ve wanted to talk about characters in writing for a while, and eventually plan to do a series–so this seemed like a good place to start.

My first impression of Pinterest after a couple day’s use is that it’s best for…well, impressions. As writers, we’re in the business of creation, and that means we’re always keeping an eye out for inspiration which can come from anywhere. It’s tempting to use too much of something that inspires you–but that’s a topic for another post.

The way to get around this–in my opinion, anyway–is to cast a wider net, as it were. Use Pinterest to gather images from a large range; don’t collect a bunch of pictures and videos that are too alike, and don’t be afraid to spread out beyond the subject of the board. What you want is something like a Scatter Plot. You’ll have a certain number of images that relate to one another, but you’ll have enough on either side of the range that it can develop into your own unique idea.

Anyway, back to impressions. I think this sort of strategy is going to be most useful in two areas: developing a setting, and developing a character. Neither should have real-world counterparts (unless your story is set in a detailed real setting), so you want to have a wide-ranging impression. I think this can be most effective with characters, because the best characters are the ones that are multifaceted. You want to have a character that would look like a scatter plot if they were graphed out.

To that end, I’ve started two boards which I’ll use to develop two of my main characters: Alkut and Ahbinzur. Take a look.

Alkut

Alkut is the main villain in my Tapestry Project. He’s is a Page to the court of the Emperor Tauri, recently deceased. The Yziman Empire wishes to establish a trade agreement with their rivals, the Toral–an initiative planned by Tauri. The Emperor’s heir is no statesman, and so much of the negotiations fall to Alkut.

He’s a remarkably handsome man and very charismatic. His equivalent in the Tarot is the King of Wands; he knows how to take action, has a fierce temper and will, and tends to consume what he touches. I’ve included several different versions of the King of Wands, each with subtly different iconography that help me round out his character.
His defining characteristic is his yellow eyes. Most of the Ozym are pale and have little natural colour. There are a few Ozym who have yellow eyes, but they’re washed out or indicate sickness. Alkut’s eyes, on the other hand, shine with an otherworldly vibrancy. A lot of my board so far consists of different yellow eyes, and I’ve even deleted several pictures I thought didn’t work. I like one in particular: a picture of a young boy with bright yellow eyes. There’s an innocence and peace to the face that offsets his eyes nicely–he looks older and wiser than he is, and his gaze is hypnotic.
Because he’s a villain, I wanted some pictures that reflect his personality. He’s evil, through and through (though I’m brainstorming some redeeming qualities so he’s not flat). I chose a few pictures of frightening or spooky figures; these won’t be used to describe him, but they give me something to look at as I’m thinking of his mannerisms. In this sense, they truly are pictures of impression.
Finally, I included a picture of a spotted salamander. That creature is the Elemental of Fire, and in my story a mage working with a particular element will often have such a creature as a familiar. Alkut’s familiar, however, is a dragon, and I want it to have a slamander-esque form. So I’ve also found some neat pictures of Hypsognathus and Eryops, early dinosaurs with that kind of structure. The Hypsognathus Skull is particularly evocative.

Ahbinzur

In Tapestry, the Toral are ruled by a Queen, who is in turn advised by the Hierophantic Caste. The Caste is ruled by the Stewards, four mages who each look after their element. Ahbinzur has been newly elected to be the Steward of the Aether, but immediately notices the decadence and hypocrisy latent in the Caste. She wants to strike a blow for True Faith, and though her actions may be devastating, they’re for the greater good. As such, she correlates nicely to the Queen of Swords, who looks out for Justice and Truth at all costs.
I’ve included several images of the Queen of Swords in her board, each with different iconography. I particularly like the Crowley version–this is a deck I work with often. That image is the Biblical Judith, who seduced Holofernes, then killed him in order to free her people. She went to great lengths and suffered much for the Greater Good–and so does Ahbinzur.
Her element being Air, I wanted to find images that have a flowing, sort of ethereal quality to them. The meditating maiden is particularly nice. I also included an image that evokes her namesake, Binah–the third Sephirot on the Tree of Life–which represents knowledge and understanding. She has a clarity of vision that most of her Order lack, which is exactly why she’s taken it upon herself to reform her Order. Yet there’s a certain innocence about her. She’s young and inexperienced, and there’s a hint of doubt in her. The image of a fairy by the pond evokes this; there’s mischief there, but more so, there is uncertainty.
The Elemental of Air is a Sylph. This is a creature normally appearing something like a fairy, which doesn’t really fit into my world–so I’ve been trying to find something analagous. In searching Pinterest for Sylphs, I came across several beautiful birds. The Long Tailed Sylph, fittingly, is a real hummingbird native to South America. While my world is a fantasy one, I’m not going crazy with imaginary creatures, so it was an epiphany to find an actual creature I could use here. Ahbinzur’s familiar is a retinue of Sylphs, which she can communicate with and who follow her instructions.
There’s a dragon for each element, and the Aether is no exception. When thinking of what form this creature should take, I looked at pictures of Chinese Dragons, and learned of the Azure Dragon, a Chinese contellation. This fits perfectly, as the dragon lives in the sky, flows with the currents of air, and has a sinuous appearance. I imagine the Aetherdrake being born of smoke, striking fast, and floating away on the breeze before it can be struck in kind.

So there we have it. These “character sketches” can help flesh out my characters in a grand way–and I’m learning new things about them as I browse. So far I think it’s a great way to build characters–you should give it a try!

Pinterest: A Worthy Writer’s Tool?

Pinterest_FaviconRecently I mentioned that adding too much too soon to your story can cause it to collapse–as mine is in danger of doing. If you see this happening, it’s a good opportunity to step back, take stock, and find out what you really need to write. Roz Morris excellent blog post on how to correct this problem was an eye-opener for me, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last week. One of the ideas she suggests is to use Pinterest…so I thought we’d look at that briefly today.

If you’re not aware of Pinterest–and admittedly, though I’ve heard of it I never really looked into it until now–here it is in a nutshell: you find pictures you like on the internet, and “pin” them to a virtual corkboard. Once pinned, others can find you and re-pin what you’ve pinned, and you can pin their pins. The result is a board filled with images that are shared and shared again. When I first heard of it, I thought it sounded like most social media–useless to anyone who didn’t know how to use it properly. Further, what good would it be to an artist who works in words, not pictures? I never really bothered to explore it further than that.

But Pinterest does have one very important thing to offer writers: inspiration.

This is why Roz recommended it. You can start a Pinterest board and fill it with images related to the story of book you’re writing. Then, when you get stuck or go off track, you can go back to your board to see what inspired you about the story in the first place. It’s like a visual notebook where you can jot down ideas, feelings, and themes. For those of us who are visual learners–that’s me–this can be a great boon. Imagining a book in your head is one thing, but I’ve already found that compiling images that reflect that imagery can be inspiring.

Another way I can imagine Pinterest being helpful is in World Building, especially for speculative fiction. In fantasy, you need to create a comprehensive setting that is exciting and makes sense, and it can be challenging to keep things straight. This is one issue I keep having: I lay down a “rule” for my world (such as that the Elements produce magic), but keep tweaking it until it loses the effect I meant it to have. Or I describe an area as being a desert wasteland without considering how the relatively close major river seems incongruous. Finding pictures of the setting you want to convey can give you real-world analogues to keep your setting believable.
One thing I want to develop in a more concrete way is the varying species of dragons in my world. As the Elements create magic, so too do they infer magical beings, so I want each species of dragon to not only correspond with, but represent their Element. This has already been beneficial for me; in searching for pictures of salamanders, I found one (pinned to my board) of a spotted salamander that, if it were the size of a man, would make a formidable dragon. A salamander is a creature of fire–thus, a fire dragon.

One thing to be aware of, I think, is the difference between Inspiration and plain Stealing an Idea. This can be a dangerous line to walk on Pinterest, where it’s easy to just click “pin” on anything that catches your fancy across the internet, without caring where it came from. If a certain picture serves too well as the basis of some creative idea in your story, it’s not really yours. If I take the picture of the spotted salamander and use it as my cover image, I’m stealing it. If someone draws a picture of a water dragon and I describe it too closely in my book, I’m stealing someone’s idea. I think you’d have to be careful about where you draw the line.

Using Pinterest is easy. You set up an account through Facebook or Twitter, then start new boards for whatever topics you like. My first board is four The Courts–the four stories that make up Phase One of my Tapestry Project. I may divide them into four separate boards, one for each story, but this serves for now.
Then just go searching. You can search Pinterest for whatever you like, and each picture that comes up has a Pin button on it. Pin it and it’s in your board, where others can see it as well. You can also pin images from anywhere on the Internet–there’s an option to add a “Pin It” button to your browser. I put it on the toolbar right below the address bar on Firefox, so it’s right there.Any time you pin an image, you can choose which board it goes to, and add a caption.

Like any social media service, people can also follow you, so they can see all your boards as they’re updated. For some baffling reason, I got 50 followers within an hour of setting up my account. I can’t say I know how this works, or how I can turn it back on my writing–but the point is that you can create a community. And that community can help build your author platform.

There are a lot of writers out there who swear by Pinterest. Here’s a few articles about it for further reading–and it’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, is Pinterest worth it for writers? Truth be told, I’m not sure yet. I’m still experimenting with it, but so far it’s been…interesting. I think the biggest challenge for a writer is, as Roz points out in her article, using it. It can be tempting to just browse for pictures–I got lost in this yesterday–and forget why you started this in the first place. But if you’re diligent and this kind of “imaging” is something you enjoy/get use out of, then by all means, check it out. You might be pleasantly surprised.

At the very least, you’ll gleefully waste an afternoon looking at pictures of food and crafts.

What do you think about Pinterest for Writers? Is it useful, or just a distraction? Do you have a Pinterest board? I want to hear your comments and see your links!

Reading, Writing, Reviewing

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m going to try a new focus with this blog. Up to now, I’ve had a two post a week schedule: something about publishing on Monday, and about Writing on Wednesday. Sprinkled in between every once in a while was a review of an Independently Published book or story. We’re going to shake things up.

Why the change? There are lots of reasons, but the first and foremost is that I love to read. I generally average a novel a week, and normally have a non-fiction book on the go as I’m reading something else. Many of the books I read now are from Indie writers, and there’s a lot of great stuff out there that just isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Authors like Ryan Casey, J. M. Ney-Grimm, David Alastair Hayden and Lindsey Buroker all deserve to be mainstream–and though I can’t claim to have a large footprint on the web, I hope my profiling of these authors and many more will help raise awareness of the great work that’s out there.

Starting in February, Mondays are going to be Review Day on the blog. I plan to go for three Indie Reviews a month, the fourth Monday being reserved for something about the publishing industry. Wednesdays will be for Writing, and on the occasional Friday I’ll offer an interview with the author of the book I reviewed that week.

So there’s the plan. Now, what’s in a review?

I have a degree in theatre, but my main focus in University was English Literature. I love reading and critiquing fiction. The most important thing I learned about the process was that you have to be objective; no piece of literature is perfect. So in my reviews, I try to find both the good and the bad. I’ll enjoy some books more than others, but being able to offer both sides of the page, as it were, is important–and will go a long way towards giving credibility to the blog and to the authors I examine. Nobody’s perfect.

To that end, I’m not going to let my own biases get in the way. I’ll still read what I enjoy–and some authors here may end up with more reviews than others–but I’ll present each review as fairly as I can. No genre is right for everyone, and I’ll try to look at a book through the eyes of Everyman. You won’t find me reviewing certain genres (like romance–not my thing), so there will be some bias. But ultimately, there has to be some sense of focus for this, and I don’t want to spread myself so thin that reviewing becomes a chore. This is something I enjoy doing, and I plan to keep it that way.

I also plan to concentrate on reviews that I’d consider to be “three out of five” or higher. Those two and three star reviews don’t serve anyone–I’m not here with a so-called “poison pen,”–and don’t serve my ends of promoting great work anyway. In the interest of fairness, I will look at some of these not-so-great books, but it won’t be as often. And, just as the reverse is true, even the most poorly written literature has to have something going for it. I haven’t decided if I’ll actually have a rating system, though I’m leaning towards not. Giving a rating is a personal thing, and has a lot of consequences for the author–I’m not a professional, and won’t claim to be. Take my reviews with a grain of salt and read them through your own filter–my intent here isn’t to rank books from best to worst, but to spread the word about them in the first place. You can make your own decision from there.

So there we are. The new tagline for this blog is Reading, Writing, Reviewing–and I think it’s a stronger direction for this blog than has been here in the past. They say the best blogs focus on what the blogger loves best–and those three Rs are among my greatest passions.

And, as it happens, I already have my February reviews planned and ready to go–I’ll take a look at Lorne Oliver’s Red Island and David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame, finishing the month with a quick overview of Lindsey Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series (which I’ve been meaning to review for quite some time). Keep your Eyes peeled!

A Toppled Tower

from fimoculous c/o Flikr

Imagine, for a moment, a tower that’s built piece by piece over a number of years. It starts as a one story house with a solid foundation; over time, another story is added, then another. Soon it reaches into the sky, and grows higher and higher. It gets that cartoonish curve you see when someone draws something tall and rickety. If it keeps getting higher, what’s going to happen?

It’ll crumble like a house of cards. Unless, of course, you continue to work on the foundation.

This is the trouble, I find myself in currently. Over the weekend, my wife and I were doing some shopping and I had a creative epiphany that solved one of the question I’ve had about my Tapestry Project: how do I bring my main conflict–a behind the scenes war between gods–into the forefront so it means something to the characters? The idea was a war between two fey tribes, the Winterkin and Summerchilde. The conflict has been waged for centuries in an alternate plane of existence, and it’s now bleeding into the real world. Sounds compelling, or so I thought.

The problem was that, in shoehorning this concept into my existing framework, I’ve effectively built too many stories (forgive the pun). Magic in my World is a product of the Elements–I’d have to equate that somehow to the seasons if I have Summer and Winter fey tribes. I haven’t introduced fairies into my story, so I have to make them fit before giving my characters that identity. Having an unseen world that lurks beneath Tornum gives a lot of opportunities, but requires some retooling to make sense. And, ultimately, I’d be adding a core concept to the book.
Really, this epiphany doesn’t work–not for this story, anyway. I like the idea and may use it elsewhere, but for Tapestry, it’s a dead end. But it was revelatory for another reason.

It showed me that my overall story, as much as I’ve worked on it and tinkered with it over the years, has an awful lot of holes. It’s a tower waiting to be toppled by the slightest breeze. Why? Because I keep adding to it.

It’s a good story–I think so, anyway. It’s one I’ve wanted to write for a long time, and I’m excited to finally be doing it. But it’s become larger than itself now, and I’m trying to incorporate too many disparate elements in an effort to make it interesting. This is what happened the last time I put it down. It collapsed under its own weight, and I simply couldn’t keep it straight anymore. This time, I don’t intend to abandon it–but something needs to be done.

This is a very valuable lesson for me. If something as simple as a cool idea can tear the foundation of my story to pieces, there’s something wrong. I need to repair the foundation, rather than thinking up new and creative ways to solve the problems inherent in the story. I didn’t expect that lesson, but I’m glad for it. It’s given me a lot to think about.

And lo, as if the Great Muse was thinking of me as I pondered my problems, I came across this article, How To Strengthen A Story Idea. Go ahead and click on the link, it’ll open in a new window. The greatest thing I took away from this article is that if you feel that your story is falling flat, you’re in trouble. You have to reinvigorate it somehow, and it’s likely a larger problem than warrants adding some action or a new character. To quote the author, Roz Morris, you have to “recreate the gut ‘wow.'”

How do you do that? I’m just learning that myself, but this article is a great place to start. In the back of my mind, I’ve known for a while that my story is getting too complicated. Most of the research I’ve been doing will end up in the ‘background,’ colouring the characters, setting and themes, but that doesn’t mean it’s strong, or relevant to the story. I have to find our what is, and go with that.

This is what I’ll need to consider over the next while. Do I need to involve kabbalah, I Ching, Tarot, astrology, alchemy and theological philosophy? Do I need to have each character’s name reflect some esoteric or occult meaning? What’s really important for this book?

The answer to that question, simply, is the story. That’s what’s important. I can have all the window dressing I want: if the story isn’t good, the book’s not good. The narrative is the foundation–and I can add as many stories to the tower as I want, it won’t do a lick of good if I don’t have a strong foundation.

So where does this leave me? I’m of a mind to shelve the project for a while, work on something else, and come back to it with a clear head–something suggested in the article above. I’m wary of that though, because I know myself. If I put it down, even for a couple weeks, there’s a chance I’ll neglect it completely.

So for the moment, I’m going to continue working on it–through research, if not actual writing. I need to get back to basics, and my research on Tarot will give me that anchor. Once that’s complete, I should be able to get a clearer view of the overall story, do some revised plotting and outlining, then dive right back in. In the meantime, this is something I needed to learn, and I’m glad it came when it did (as opposed to, say, after releasing the first stories in this project). It’s a lot easier to fix  the foundation if you haven’t built the tower already.

A New Year, and a New Focus

So here we are, back in the full swing of things after a nice long holiday. A lot of blogs I follow have been talking about New Year’s resolutions and what they’ve got planned for the new year. Which has got me to thinking about what I want to accomplish in the new year.

If you’d have asked me back in December, it would be an easy answer: finish writing all three phases of my Tapestry Project, and publish most of it. That’s the focus, though I have another novella on the backburner I’d love to put out this year too. But as of late, I’ve had some creative issues with this project, and need to re-evaluate–but more on that on Wednesday.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about what I want to do with this blog. A while ago I announced a change in focus/schedule, and it’s working pretty well for me. I’ll still go with a Publishing/Reading/Industry post on Mondays, a Writing/Creativity post on Wednesdays, and the occasional Indie Review or Indie Interview on Fridays.

But…that’s where the change will come this year.

If you’ve been following me, you know that last week I posted four separate reviews of Indie work. I had a blast reading all these stories, and reviewing them, too. That, along with some advice and encouragement from indie writer friends, has got me convinced that I’ve hit upon something. I enjoy reviews, and I’m good at it; and as I want to do what I can to support the Indie community, I think this is a good way to go.

So in the coming year, expect to see more of a focus on reviewing Indie work. There’s a wealth of it, and it deserves to be talked about. Most importantly, one of the most difficult things about self publishing is Getting Out There–it’s challenging to be heard among the thousands of voices that clamour for a reader’s attention. I hope I can help promote some of these wonderful authors, and in my own small way, increase their visibility.

Another important note: I’m going to concentrate on reviews that I’d consider “3+ Stars.” This is mostly because I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to say anything if I can’t say anything nice–but also because there’s an enormous amount of (frankly) sub-par work floating in the aether, and I want to focus on giving attention to those who deserve it. I won’t be reviewing first draft, hastily published fanfic, because that’s not what I want to focus on.
That said, there is a lot of solid writing out there that may not bet great, but still deserves a review–either because it’s  a great effort that needs more work, or it’s just not the best offering of an otherwise good author. I’ll still look at some of these works, but will likely compile them into a group of others for a quick look in a single post. It’s also worth noting that, as an objective person, I won’t always enjoy a book that’s otherwise very well written because it’s not to my taste–and those books deserve attention too.

Look for more information–and more reviews!–coming soon to Speaking to the Eyes. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey!

(Not so) Indie Review: Captain Nemo

by Kevin J Anderson

This week I’ve featured a number of reviews by indie authors I enjoyed over the holiday. This is a focus I’d like to start honing on this blog, and it’s been a way to test the waters. The intent is to highlight some of the wonderful work being put out by writers who simply love to write, but don’t want to get embroiled in the bureaucracy of the Big 6. There’s some fantastic work out there that isn’t being seen, and I hope to be able to bring some of it to light, in my own small way.

So why feature Kevin J Anderson, the of Star Wars, Dune, and author of more than 100 published works?

Well, he’s certainly not indie, but he’s a proponent for the eBook format. Anderson has most of his works available in eBook format, many of them put through his own e-publishing company Wordfire Press–which also publishes work by Neal Peart (of Rush), Frank and Brian Herbert, and Rebecca Moesta.

But on to the review.

I can sum up this book in one word: fun. Make that two words: incredibly fun. Really, in all seriousness, this is a great book, and I’d highly recommend it. That said, it’s a book of particular taste, and it won’t be for everyone.  So take my review with a grain of salt–but at the very least, I’d urge you to try a few chapters.

The premise is simple: Jules Verne, author of such classics as 20,000 Legues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth and basically the inventor of the science fiction genre, is a struggling writer who longs for excitement but can’t seem to leave the confines of his dull life. Meanwhile, his childhood friend Andre Nemo is catapulted from adventure to adventure. Nemo is everything that Verne is not, and the best our struggling author can do is live vicariously through his friend.

You can see where this is going. Nemo corresponds with Verne throughout his adventures, and eventually Verne transcribes them into story, gaining considerable fame for it. He achieves his dream of becoming a successful writer–but at what cost? Are the stories even his? This is a question that’s at the heart of the book, and though it’s never answered, it begs to be asked with each page–and not just within the narrative. I think it’s no mistake that Anderson chose this conceit while using the real Verne’s stories as a structure–the entire book becomes a commentary on the fleeting originality of literature (or lack thereof), the ownership of ideas, and the ethical uses of those ideas if they’re borrowed.

Anderson could be asked to answer those questions as well, of course, and I wouldn’t think to answer for him. It’s all very meta, and I think it’s enough to let the questions hang. What I can say is that, despite what some reviewers have said, this book is by no means uninspired, derivative, or  simply reinterpreted. On the contrary, the way Anderson weaves Nemo’s life with Verne’s is well done, and makes for a compelling narrative. Even if you don’t want to read it through a glass of literary criticism, it’s a rousing adventure tale, and quite simply a love letter to the sci-fi genre.

The book is divided into several parts, each referring to a different story written by Verne, and in which Nemo shares the adventure that supposedly inspired that work. Interspersed with Nemo’s exploits is a fictionalized biography of Verne himself, as he struggles with home life, direction in his career, and his disappointments in love and writing. While Verne’s  story is interesting, it’s definitely Nemo that steal the show, and his incredible escapades set up a stark contrast to Verne’s dull life. And herein lies the main theme of the book (and one so pertinent to writers of any genre): is it better to experience your life, or to live through other people’s experiences?

The meat of this book, as said, is taken up with Nemo’s adventures. He find himself battling pirates, gets shipwrecked on a mysterious island, journeys to the centre of the Earth, fights in the Crimean War, builds a submarine…and more. It’s simple, unabashed fun. If you’ve read any of Verne’s stories, you’ll probably love this book (though ‘traditionalists’ might wonder at some of the liberties taken). Even if you’re not–as I admittedly am not–each adventure is exciting and engrossing. Anderson’s style is also languid and easy to become immersed in, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to read 50-100 pages without lifting my head from the book. If I had one complaint about the action in this story, it’s that there’s almost too much of it; some of the adventures aren’t explored as much as I would have liked, and so much was crammed into the book that it was a strain to suspend my disbelief. That said, I wouldn’t change it for the world–it’s not supposed to be believable, it’s adventure.

That reflects what I like most about this book. While I’m not accustomed to Verne’s writing (having only read Journey), I’m familiar with other writing from the era, and can say that Anderson successfully captures the ‘voice’ of late 19 Century Romantic literature. The language isn’t as stilted and formal, but the feel behind it is there. I found the passages with Nemo traveling across Africa in a balloon to be most effective in putting forth the sense of exploration and curiosity that filled Europe at the time. Everything outside the Continent was curious and exotic, and people were eager to swallow up everything they could; the writing of the era reflected that, and it’s a testament to Anderson’s writing that he’s able to do so as well, even after having learned so much in the past hundred and fifty years.

Nemo has a great character arc, and is fully fleshed out. He’s easy to sympathize with, and the reader immediately connects with his curious nature and wish to explore the world. His story was extremely satisfying, and I found myself hanging on every word. By contrast, Verne’s character is a bit dull and flat; he comes off more as a complainer than anything, and I honestly didn’t find him very interesting. I didn’t need to follow his story, as I could guess where he’s end up almost from the beginning (and indeed, a prologue shows us just that). I was really only interested in his story inasmuch as I wanted to see what he would do with Nemo’s.

But in Anderson’s defense, I think this bland portrayal of Jules Verne is completely intentional. Set against the themes of the book, it makes sense for him to be underdeveloped and uninteresting–the whole point of this story is that he lives vicariously through Nemo, and doesn’t have much personality of his own. Perhaps it’s a stretch on my part, but I could see this as being a further commentary; Verne is only interesting through the filter of Nemo–that is, the storyteller is only as good as the story.

The only real complaint besides that noted above is that the book is a bit repetitive. There’s a common trick of writers that do series or sequels, in that the first pages of a book give a brief summary of the last one, to either remind the reader or help “catch up” someone who hasn’t read what’s come before. This is unnecessary for a single book like this, but Anderson does it rather often. I found myself regularly reminded of what happened in the last chapter or even several pages back–and for someone who tends to read in large chunks, I found it a bit wearing.

But ultimately, as if it weren’t obvious, I loved this story. I try my best to be objective when I review a book, because no piece of literature is absolutely perfect–but I enjoyed Captain Nemo so much that I’m finding it difficult to come up with things that didn’t work. That’s not to say it should be on the syllabus next to Shakespeare, Hemmingway and Verne, but in my own and honest opinion, it’s very simply a Damn Good Book.

Kevin J Anderson can be found on Twitter, at Wordfire Press, and on his own blog. You can find many of his books, including Captain Nemo, on Amazon and Kobo, and your local bookstore.

Indie Review: Scourge

by David H. Burton

Today I’m looking at a writer I’ve been eager to get to: David H. Burton. He’s written several books, and Scourge: A Grim Doyle Adventure, has been on my reading list for some time.

(I should take a moment to point out that the author of this review is not David Burton (no “H”,) the author of Hell Cop, which I have not read.)

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s simply delightful. It really is. If you’re in the mood for something fun, adventurous, and quick, this is a good choice. The first few chapters were marvelous–I got to grinning like a school boy with each new introduction of some wondrous contraption or magical being. This is one of the best examples of steampunk I’ve come across yet–though I admit I’m new to the genre and haven’t read the “seminal” works. Burton is able to weave technology and magic–and even biology–seamlessly, and in such a way that it seems absolutely normal, yet exciting.Each new mechanical oddity trumps the last, but it never gets old.

The story concerns young Grimwald Doyle and his brothers and sisters, who in the first chapters are whisked away into a fantasy world filled with gargoyles, Jinn, sprites and changelings. Mechanical contraptions are powered by absinth, and magic has all but died out–though there are rumours that evil mystics–the Darksworn–are summoning elemental powers to strengthen their rule over the world. Ultimately, it’s a basic “good versus evil” story, though it’s more complicated than that and it’s dealt with in a way that’s not at all cliche.

This is a book that’s meant for young adult readers, though there’s enough to keep the interest of adults in the book. In that respect–and some others–it’s comparable to the Harry Potter series, especially in its tone. This suits the book very well; the YA market is thriving for this kind of book, and as well written as it is, I’m sure it’s doing well. But for adults, this means there’s a sense of curiosity and awe that permeates the book as we discover each new marvel through the eyes of one just getting to know the world. Grim has to grow up fast and make some real adult choices, but he’s still young, and his ecstatic wonder is ours to enjoy along with him.

The comparison to Harry Potter doesn’t end there. The basic structure has a similar feel to it; Grim and his siblings are cast into an orphanage/school where they clean up after the rich students (they don’t attend classes themselves, but learn a lot about the world). There, they must solve a mystery that the adults can’t seem to fathom, and figure out which of the people they know are responsible. When I first recognized this pattern, I thought it was a strike against the book, but the narrative is so engaging that the concern melted away. If the trope is familiar, it’s unique enough that it stands on its own, and I actually ended up enjoying Scourge more than the Harry Potter books (which I found got quite repetitive). The only thing I found odd was that the adults can’t seem to figure it out. These are supposed experts in their fields, but are stumped; yet the children are able to puzzle it out with some simple research and logic, using information the adults should already have. Burton can’t be faulted for this, of course–the Harry Potter books have the exact same issue, and the whole point of books like this is for the young adults to be the heroes of the story.

The book is obviously the first in a planned series. The main plot of the book is resolved well enough, but there are a few hanging threads, meant to be picked up in later books. I can see this becoming a successful series–it’s got legs–but I haven’t seen any indication of a sequel yet. Scourge was published in 2010, so I can only hope that a new story is forthcoming (though I’ll mention that there is a short story for children, Simian’s Lair, which takes place in the same world).

The characters are engaging and interesting, though some could be further developed–namely all of Grim’s siblings. His sister, Rudy, gets a fair share of attention, but the other children seem to be mere mentions. Each of them has their use, but for the most part they fade into the background except for the scene in which they provide that use, and I wonder if they could have been done without. Other than putting across that Grim has a large family (and that his two fathers have taken to adopting children to protect them from the antagonist), there doesn’t seem to be much reason for so many siblings. But, this is something that could be developed further in forthcoming books, so I wouldn’t could it against Scourge.

Burton does a great job in characterizing those who get center stage. Grim is well rounded, as is Rudy and their Aunt, who has a semi-mysterious role to play. Their friend, Quinn, also had a great character arc, and I actually felt that of all the characters, he grew the most. He had a lot at stake, and his journey was satisfying. I’ll look forward to reading more about him.

The pacing of the book was a bit variable. It gets off to a raucous start, and drew me in completely–but once the inciting incident is resolved and explained, the book slows considerably while Grim’s new situation is described. While the chapters are short and progress quickly, it seemed that not much happened for what could be termed the ‘second act.’ There’s enough wonder to keep the reader interested, but I found myself wondering what Grim was meant to overcome, apart from fitting in at the orphanage, getting used to to horrible food, and slogging through his chores.

Once the action picks up again, though (maybe just under halfway through the book), there’s a mystery to solve. Things get interesting, and actually quite serious. The pace gets frantic. If the middle part of the book was a  bit slower, it’s made up for by the rest. The last third or more of the book moved at a breakneck pace as the stakes get higher and higher. I particularity enjoyed the journey Grim needs to make outside of the orphanage, searching for a particular item, and wanted to read more about that quest. The book ends with a great climax, and while there’s a promise of further adventures, nothing important is left unanswered.

In the end, I’d certainly recommend this book. It’s a fast read, and a lot of fun. If you enjoy steampunk, Harry Potter, or simply a nice adventure with an interesting mystery, this is for you!

David H. Burton has written several books with a fantasy flair. You can find him on Twitter or on his website. You can find Scourge: A Grim Doyle Adventure and his other works on Kobo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes. Check it out!

Indie Review: Perilous Chance

Chance_cover_featureI’ve always been interested in mythology, and it’s influenced a lot of my writing. When I was a kid, I devoured stories about the gods and their monsters–and even today, I love reading about the psychological explanations for such myths, the archetypes of our collective unconscious. This is probably a big part of why I enjoy J. M. Ney-Grimm’s work as much as I do.

I’ve reviewed a book of hers before, and I’ll come back to her books again on this blog. Today, I want to look at her latest release, which came out just as the holidays were starting: Perilous Chance.

This is a wonderful (longer) short story with Ney-Grimm’s characteristic voice. It flows like a fairy tale and has an airy, almost fanciful feel to it, without losing any of its importance. It’s a tale of mistakes and redemption, and the power to do the right thing now, even if you can’t change the past. This has all the hallmarks of the fairy tales that seem to have inspired it (and her other works), and makes for a quick and very satisfying read.

The story starts out with a sense of impending doom–a dangerous and magnificent creature is coming. You don’t know what it is or what’s at stake, and before you learn either answer the story is thrust into a quiet domestic setting set some time before. It’s a very effective beginning–tantalizing, intriguing, and mysterious. It drew me in right away, eager to figure out what was coming, and that tension stayed with me for the rest of the book.

As the narrative begins, we’re introduced to Clary, a young girl who’s stuck taking care of her entire family. Her father’s a drunkard, her mother is apathetic and listless, and her baby brother is colicky. Her younger sister wants to help out, but the two of them are young enough that they don’t know how to take care of a house, and have to figure it out as they go. This sets up the inciting incident really well, as it shows that Clary is a much stronger person than she thinks she is–this ends up being a nice reflection of another main character (I would argue the main character), Jennifry.

Jennifry is of indeterminate age, but much older than the girls. When she was younger, she experimented with patterning–Ney-Grimm’s system of magic–and went a bit too far. Now, she’s infected with Troll Magic, and is forced into a life of seclusion. Her story is slowly revealed through the book, using Clary’s story as a framing device–which, because of the comparison noted above, is very effective. One gets the impression that Clary is a reflection of who Jennifry was when she was young, before her unfortunate mistake. This gives some excellent pathos to Jennifry’s character, as well as a sort of urgency to Clary, who must make careful choices to avoid a similar fate.

Jennifry’s story occurs in flashback, so there is some jumping around in the book; this is the only real issue I had for the story, as it caused a bit of confusion for me. I can see why this choice was made—there are certain ‘secrets’ (another theme of the work) that can’t be revealed until later in the narrative. In this sense, the jumping around in time works; unfortunately, I found myself confused here and there as to why we were jumping, and parts of it felt disjointed. It was only after finishing the book entirely that everything fit together nicely; as I was reading, there were times I thought I had missed something. That said, everything does fit together in the end, so this really wasn’t an issue.

In fact, looking back on the story, it suits the tone well. Interjected throughout the story are short snippets from the creature’s POV; these are set apart from the rest of the story by using a distinctly different voice, which feels almost alien compared to the rest of the story–which is exactly the intent, I think. Because of the jumping around in the timeline, one isn’t always sure when these POV scenes take place, but that’s revealed gradually over the course of the story. As that plot line becomes clearer, it informs the rest of the plot, until everything comes together at the end, like ripples in a pond clearing away the silt at the bottom. I’m not sure if this technique was intentional, but it adds a unique flair to the story, and although I did find it confusing initially, it grows on me the more I think about it, and I wouldn’t want to do without it.

In my review of Ney-Grimm’s Star Drake, I mentioned that I couldn’t figure out how magic worked in her World. This story clears some of that up, and it was delightful to read about it. I suspect that her other work expounds on this even more. Since I’ve been following her writing, I’ve been reading mostly her more recent books and working backward; if I’d have started at the beginning, I think those questions–and other posed in my review above–would have been answered. At any rate, I found a certain clarity in Perilous Chance that I didn’t see in Star Drake, although I think the latter would be a bit clearer now if I were to revisit it (which I’m sure I will soon).

One thing I really liked about this book was the exploration of the creature. The revelation of just what the creature is, how it came to be, what it will do–and, importantly, what the other characters believe in regards to all of those questions–is spread nicely over the course of the book. It almost sets up a sort of sub-plot, though the creature’s actions directly affect the rest of the story. Because information is given in carefully doled out portions, the reader is left feeling that there’s something mysterious lurking beneath the whole story, something that has more significance than we’re originally led to believe. This further creates a wonderful release of tension at the end of the book, and a very satisfying ending. This thread is expertly written, and subtle enough that I found myself pleasantly surprised at the resolution of the plot.

And that leads me to something I find in all of J. M. Ney-Grimm’s work I’ve read so far. She has an ethereal sort of quality to her writing which is extremely effective–all the more so because I can’t pin down exactly why. It’s almost mystical. This ephemeral tone is what sets her work apart from anything else I’ve read–it’s absolutely unique, and absolutely engaging. Perilous Chance is no exception, and it’s my favourite story of Ney-Grimm’s so far.

J. M. Ney-Grimm can be found on Twitter, and on her Blog. You can find Perilous Chance on Kobo and Amazon, where you’ll also find the rest of her work. Highly recommended!