(Overdue) Book Review: Scavenger: Evolution

***To the best of my ability, this is a SPOILER-FREE review.  Please leave a comment if there are any questions***

This is a book review I had intended to have posted weeks ago, but (as we are all aware) life happens.  Apologies.

Scavenger: Evolution, by Timothy C. Ward, is an omnibus containing the three parts published as:  Scavenger:  Red Sands, Scavenger:  Blue Dawn, and Scavenger:  Twin Suns.  This story is set in the world of Hugh Howey’s SAND omnibus.  This, of course, brings up the question:  Do you need to have read SAND before reading SCAVENGER?  No.  I had not read any of Hugh Howey’s work before reading SCAVENGER.  I can say after having read SAND, the setting and location had a little more context, and depth, to me.  One thing Tim Ward did in SCAVENGER was paint a very interesting picture of the world Hugh Howey created, in SAND, which made it fascinating and made me want to check out SAND.

But I’m not here to review SAND, today.  :)

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In a nutshell, SCAVENGER tells the story of Rushing Stenson, a former sand dive-master whose life has fallen into a rut of depression, alcohol and lack of meaning after the death of his son and subsequent ugly separation from his wife, Star, because of it.  Working a brothel, Rush encounters a stranger with an enticing job offer that would require his unique skills as a diver and would set him up to restart his life.  This job sets, in motion, catastrophic events that lead him to reunite with his wife and fellow dive master, Avery.  With Rush’s help, Avery leads a group of survivors to locate and colonize the lost city of Danvar.

One thing I can say for this story, you just about can’t count on any of the primary character’s loyalty with the exception of one.  That’s not to say anyone is actively trying to stab anyone in the back.  There are outside forces at work driving some of these character’s actions, which has you often wondering when they are acting on their own and when they are not.

This story is told from Rush’s POV and the author does a good job of showing us his intense inner struggles coping with the death of his son and things are revealed that make you understand how and why his life has been in the toilet.

I felt like the story moved incredibly fast. given the events that leading them to try to find Danvar.  While the town had experienced a great catastrophe, I thought people decided, too easily, to follow Avery to find a city, that was almost a legend, just because he said he knew where it was.  This worked in the reboot of BattleStar Galactica, in which Earth was a similar legend and Commander Adama used that legend to give the remains of the human race a reason to pick itself up by the bootstraps and carry on in the wake of the slaughter by the Cylons.  I didn’t feel like there was quite enough desperation for the people of Springston to pack up their children and do the same thing, in this story, being as how there was another town to the south.

This story has no shortage of action, particularly in part 3 (Twin Suns) and the author has no compunction about putting his characters through the hell the story demands and the author handles the action well.

During the journey to locate Danvar, a number of lost technologies are discovered, that made things very interesting, along with the keepers of that technology: The Sentries.  For some things, I would have wanted a little more explanation, given the role they played in this story.  One of which is an additional thread, besides the chief antagonist, that I hope will be explained in the next book.

By the end, I got the meaning of the subtitle, EVOLUTION, and I think things are set up nicely for the next book by leaving you with questions you want answered (as I’ve already touched on).  But most are the right kind of questions that have me looking forward to next book because I WANT those answers.

I do have a few issues with the story, of course.  The antagonist, known as The Gov, is a phantom menace in the true sense of the word (to borrow an apt Star Wars term – probably the best thing to come out of that POS next to Darth Maul, but that’s another story).  While he does have boots on the ground doing his dirty work, so to speak, I didn’t really feel the “thread” that he was supposed to be despite clearly being able to pull the puppet strings from his undisclosed location. not sure if it was the writing or the way he was presented.  It seemed all they character’s had to do was turn off whatever video screen he was on and he was out of the picture (pun intended).   Like most things, I expect we’ll get a better sense of The Gov’s power and influence in the next book.

Another issue for me, was with some of the character motivation/reactions in some situations.  ***I should pre-face this by saying my first FULL read of this book was the audiobook and the narration may have colored some of my reactions to things in the story.***  The best example of this, I think, is near the end of part one.  Just after the Springston catastrophe, Avery finds Rush and Star.  It’s unclear how long it had been since they had seen each other, but the encounter comes across as two friends unexpectedly finding each other on the street, rather than survivors finding each other in the midst of total chaos.  This may have just been because of the way the narrator read this part.  I’ve gone back to see how it read to me and I couldn’t get past the narrator’s version in my head.  A little more context for this situation may have helped it, but it could have just as easily been read differently to convey the proper emotions.  Also, some Rush’s dialogue with Star seemed out of place, bordering on ‘flowery’, in some life-threatening situations.

While shifting loyalties of the characters added tension and some mystery, I thought there may have been little too much flip-flopping going on and it have been the lack of some explanation, but I found myself having to go back and re-listen to some parts so I was straight on who was doing what.

But other than that, I thought it was a well-written story.  The author weaves in poetic prose to give life to Rush’s inner thoughts and motivations, albeit to occasional excess.  Again, I thought the story did move a bit fast and might have benefited from showing us a little more about what was going on, but it does work as written.

I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys tension-filled science fiction and would invite readers of SAND to give it a look.  I would score it a 3.5/5.  ***My goodreads rating is 4 stars because 3.5 wasn’t an option***

So do you agree? Disagree?  Comment below.

***Note:  I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review***

 

 

Hugh Howey: So You Want to be a Writer…

I’m always on the look out for good writing advice.  There is so much diversity among the views of professional writers, on the craft and business of writing, it’s always helpful and fascinating reading.  I have a file of links and articles to the advice that resonates most with me and I’ve found my next entry.

Hugh Howey’s blog post: So You Want to be a Writer… should be essential reading for anyone asking for writing advice.  It’s written from the perspective of someone that has greatly succeeded in the modern era of publishing.  It comes from his own experience, and carries a lot of universal truths.  While there’s no guaranteed “silver bullet” for success, his post my be good instruction on how to aim the gun.

Link:  So You Want to be a Writer…

Star Wars – The Force Awakens Overdue Thoughts

It’s been about 5 weeks and almost $1.9 Billion in box office. I think that’s long enough for me to offer my own spoiler filled thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I think the way for me to review it is to offer up some general thoughts, then address some things individually.

I saw this movie during opening weekend, in a matinée 3D showing (all regular showings were sold out until 6pm that night). As a longtime Star Wars fan, I went in cautiously optimistic. the trailers showed J.J. Abrams was utilizing a lot of familiar elements: vehicles, sounds, the retreatments to familiar musical themes in the trailers were fantastic. Oddly enough, I don’t recall hearing much of those in the movie which was disappointing. But I was glad the Abrams didn’t try to rebuilt everything from the ground up, the way he did with Star Trek.

One of the biggest criticisms about the film is the similarity with A NEW HOPE. All of the Star Wars films follow a formula, and this one isn’t much different. Chris Stuckmann discusses this well on his YouTube channel.  I get following the formula, but THE FORCE AWAKENS carbon copies too much, in my opinion.  I mean, really?  Hiding data on a droid and sending him on his way on a desert planet, so it doesn’t fall into the hands of the First Order.  There’s a planet killing weapon to be destroyed and there’s a resistance force to stop racing against time to do it.  It was a well-made film but I’ll just watch Episode IV, if I want that story.

The film moves fast, I think.  Maybe too fast for the story they tried to tell.  There’s maybe 20 minutes of runtime from when Po Dameron is captured by the First Order to when he meets Finn and escapes.  And during that time, we get introduced to Rey, learning she lives a crap life, alone, scavenging through crashed ships on Jakku.  Now I know audience expectation was as high as it could be for any movie, and J.J. Abrams had to fulfill a lot of implied promises, so it had to move quickly.  But it felt rushed in its execution.

Let’s get to the fun part:  Specifics  :)

Finn – The First Order troopers were supposed to be brainwashed to serve from a very young age.  But in his first action, it doesn’t stick and he questions what he’s doing?  I suppose.  Captain Phasma has him evaluated and the clear him.  That doesn’t say much for the First Order itself (more on that later).  I would think that kind of upbringing, would make him very socially maladjusted, but he seems to get along pretty well with the general population.  Although, nearly every word that comes out of his mouth is banter rather than dialogue.  I just couldn’t take him seriously, and even though he used Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber,  the most, I never thought he was going be any kind of jedi (at least not in this film).  Even when the lightsaber fight with Kylo Ren started, I still never thought he would be the guy.  FUN FACT:  Finns trooper designation, FN-2187,  is a nod back to Episode IV.  2187 was Princess Leia’s cell number on the Death Star.

Rey – I liked Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey.  I had trouble buying her proficiency as a pilot flying the Millennium Falcon, for the first time, against three tie-fighters at low altitude.  She also seemed to get along a little too well in the other planetary environments they visited throughout the film, after having been on Jakku since she was a young girl.  Her quick learning of how to use the Force WITHOUT any training was ridiculous.  To use a jedi mind trick without any instruction on an already brainwashed stormtrooper was incredibly implausible to me.  Sure, it took a couple tried for her to make it work, but since the Jedi/Sith were basically forgotten during the 30 years prior, it seems unlikely she’d even know that was even an ability that was available.  And winning a force tug-of-war for Luke’s lightsaber against Kylo Ren (who has had training and is in the bloodline of Darth Vader) borders on the un-fracking-tolerable.  Granted, we don’t know her past so maybe this can be explained, but I don’t see it.

Han Solo – Han was pretty good, but the way they brought he and Chewbacca into the story was utterly ridiculous, IMO.  And I mean “Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO” kind of ridiculous.  Rey and Finn are adrift, in space, in a disabled Millennium Falcon and Han just so happens to be passing by Jakku doing some other freight run and finds them.  They had been looking for the Falcon for years and POOF, there it is just in front of them.  And we know Han wasn’t there to get the Falcon because he and Rey talk about its recent history and Han didn’t even know who had it on Jakku.  Otherwise, Han served the story well.  You can easily tell the 30 years since Return of the Jedi hadn’t gone well for all involved.  As the movie progresses, there looks as though Han has some sort of recognition of Rey as though he may know her or know about her.  His death was handled well.  It was a good OMFG moment in the film, even though I had already heard about it.  He’s one of my favorite characters and he will be missed.

Kylo-Ren (Ben Solo) – I’m kind of on the fence about this one.  He’s a vulnerable villain character that is being pulled by both the dark and light sides of the force and his personal conflict is evident.  But he’s also too young to be in the position he’s in with the First Order.  Sure, Vader had a temper.  Many an imperial officer was force choked to death for failing in their duties, but something doesn’t go Kylo’s way, he has a temper tantrum and destroys expensive equipment.  Outside of that, I thought he was a good character, as a half-baked Sith lord.  However, in my opinion, they revealed him to be Han and Leia’s son way too early.  That could have been another big impact moment only to be topped by Han’s death.

General Leia – Carrie Fisher’s performance was so stiff and so bad, I cringed whenever she opened her mouth on screen.  I didn’t take her seriously as the leader of the so-called Resistance.  Leia would have served this movie in some other role.

Speaking of the Resistance – WTF??  I thought the New Republic government was still running things at this point and the First Order was trying to muscle their way in.  So if General Leia, leading the resistance, is part of the Republic structure, then why her military force “The Resistance”?  It would make more sense if the First Order had already had a serious foothold in the Republic and the Republic was hanging on by a thread.  But that’s not the case.  They’re just the current Army of the Republic, albeit a very small force compared to the First Order.  Which leads me to…

The First Order – Said to have risen from the ashes of the Empire, I think it’s well-funded, and run by idiots.  They seemed to have two agendas that butted heads:  Find Luke Skywalker and snuff out the last of the Jedi, and if we think about it, destroy the Republic government.  Yeah…we’ve never seen that before.

Supreme leader Snoke – A joke, as depicted.  A figure with alleged mastery of the Force, giving orders as a giant ass hologram.

Starkiller base – Also a joke.  Stupid plot element that wasn’t even mentioned until past the halfway point of the movie.  A weapon built into a planet that could target and destroy multiple planets with one shot…but it had to suck the life out of a nearby star to charge up and fire.  WTF??  There is not enough suspension of disbelief to make this even remotely acceptable.  Everyone on the planet would die even before the weapon was charged.  Oh, and the Order found the location of the Resistance base and they had to launch a hastily planned, daring attack to destroy it before the weapon charges and destroys them all!  Deja Vu.  FUN FACT:  Luke’s original last name was Starkiller.

Captain Phasma – Wasted character.

R2-D2 – Everyone is depressed because the map the BB-8 has been running around with is only a part of a larger map and is useless.  But wait!  R2-D2, who has been in “low-power” mode for years, all of a sudden powers on and has the rest of the map!  Even after C-3PO says he probably doesn’t!!!  *FacePalm*

Maz Kanata – Meh.  If they insisted on bringing Luke’s lightsaber, that was lost in Empire Strikers Back, into this movie, Mas was probably as good way as any.  I would like to have how she got he saber to be explained, and I hope its worth it.

TR-8R – This is the name the internet has given to the trooper sees Finn and yells:  “Traitor!”  Finn has the lightsaber and Maz tells him to use it a weapon.  It just so happens that TR-8R has to only weapon in that battle that’s lightsaber proof (ugh).  That baton thingy, he had, that was like a really large police nightstick couldn’t be cut by the lightsaber.  Whatever.

Kylo-Ren’s lightsaber – This was one of the first things that got the internet in a tizzy when the first teaser came out.  The blade was more like fire, rather than what we’re used to seeing.  Then there was the crossbar.  Holy crap, the crossbar was the point of contention across the internet.  Was it good?  Was it bad?  It was a very divisive element early on.  I thought it was incredibly impractical.  It’s not a traditional sword.  With a lightsaber, it’s incredibly easy to cut your self with the one blade.  Add in that crossbar and you’re lucky if you don’t cut your self.  Kylo did actually use it in the fight with Finn, and that was good for actually giving it a use.  From what I’ve read, the crystal, Kylo used, when he built the lightsaber, was cracked and the energy has to vent out of the sides.  This also explains the unfocused nature of the blade.  Sure, let’s go with that.

I’ve done a lot of nit-picking, but I did enjoy the film.  It’s popcorn fun, and was a descent launch into the next trilogy.  I’ll be buying it when the Blu-Ray out.  It doesn’t have the same magic of Episode IV, but the prequel trilogy isn’t terribly difficult to top (Except for Episode III).

Till next time.

That Drink During A Marathon

For my first post of the new year, which I believe is my 100th post, I’ll be addressing a point brought up in the comments on my last post.  But before that, some updates:

  • My outline spreadsheet template is taking shape, which was a goal I had for this year.  After looking at examples from a lot of different writers, I think I have a format that’ll work for me for planning things out down to the chapter/scene level.  I’ll apply it to what I have done on my NaNoWriMo manuscript so far, then plan the rest of the story out to the end, so I can get those word counters on the left moving again.
  • I Should hear back soon about a couple submissions I have out.

So, in my last post, one goal I listed was:  Self-publish a story every other month.

Ambitious for me, to be sure.  I’m gunning for those to be novella length, but it’s likely some of those will be short stories.  Timothy C. Ward commented on that post and posed a question about that goal:  “Do self pub’d short stories really make money?”

Answer:  Yes.  Caveat:  If your Hugh Howey.

And I totally understand Tim’s point with that question.  An unknown writer with a small audience self-publishes a 7,000 word short story on Amazon for 99 cents, and spends time promoting it and hopes it gets enough exposure to get noticed.  On the other hand, that same unknown writer can submit and sell that same 7,000 word story to a magazine or anthology and get paid a per word rate for his or her effort.

Each option has its pros and cons.  Which is the best?  In my opinion, it depends on your individual long-term goals and publishing strategy.

So let’s examine our 7,000 word example as a submission to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  F&SF publishes fiction up to 25,000 words at a rate of 7-12 cents per word paid on acceptance.  On the low-end of that scale, the 7,000 word story should get you $490.  A very nice payday.  I’d love to get that check.  What does it take to get that payday?  The story is submitted and gets added to the slush pile.  F&SF is an upper tier short story market and a sale there has its benefits:  Potential Hugo and Nebula award exposure, counts as a qualified sale toward meeting membership requirements in SFWA.  A sale to F&SF is a big deal, so the slush pile is extra high and, consequently, the editor can probably only give each story a limited window of opportunity to grab their attention.  You’re asked to wait at least 8 weeks for a response.  They will buy stories that fit their publication, so you could wait 8 weeks or more to (most likely) receive a form letter response that doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of your work except in the rare occasion you DO get a personal note on the rejection that may say its good, but not for them.

If you can make this sale then you’ve accomplished something, no doubt about it.  If not, then the conventional wisdom is to get it right back out in the mail to another market.  Rinse and repeat until it sells or you run out of places to send it to.  If that’s the case, then you have a story that’s spent months, possibly even years, in limbo, doing nothing for you except having given you practice at your craft (which is vitally important).

At the other end of the spectrum, the unknown writer can self-publish it.  Until the rise of the e-reader and the associated self-publishing platforms, this wasn’t even an option for shorter works unless they were part of a published collection.  E-readers changed all of that.  Story length means virtually nothing.

I see most short stories published on Amazon and B&N priced at 99 cents.  It’s what I price at, so let’s use that as the example.  Royalty rate is 35%, so the writer will earn 34 cents.  To make that same $490 from selling to F&SF, that story would have to sell 1441 copies.

1441?!?!?  That’s just crazy talk!!  Oh yes, it is.  If you out source the cover design and formatting, it gets even crazier than that.

In my opinion, one shouldn’t need to hire out formatting for a short story.  The front matter should be fairly simple.  There should be no need for chapter links or anything like that so it ought to be straight forward.  Covers for shorts shouldn’t need to be epic, but they do need to look professional so if you can afford to hire out, it can only help.  Then there’s the edit.  Again, best if you pay for a pro edit.  For me, these aren’t options.  I barter for some of these services in other ways, and I’m rolling the dice by not buying these services.  It’s a risk I take.

So self-pubbing shorts doesn’t look very appealing, does it?  So where’s the benefit?

As I’ve said before, self-publishing is not a sprint race.  It’s a marathon.  The tools available now allow writers to make their content available to readers as fast as they can create it.  Thanks to the internet age, readers are consuming more content than ever before.  To keep the masses from going hungry, you must feed them.

Supply and demand.  Economics FTW.

I see self-pubbed shorts serving a couple of vital needs:  Exposure to the target audience – This is self-explanatory.  If you publish enough stories on Amazon and categorize them properly, inevitably, people will see it.  How soon?  How many?  This all depends on what you’ve been doing to make yourself seen by the audience.  Are you interacting with your audience on a consistent basis through social media or some other means?  And by that, I DON’T mean tweeting 100 times a day “Buy my Story”.  Sure, you do want to let people know when you release something, but 90% of the twitter feed from writers I follow are tweets pimping their stuff.  I followed them because I found some of what they posted (when I found them) to be interesting but the interesting stuff turns out to be buried treasure in a desert of spam.

But I digress.

Actual reader feedback – When you can get actual honest reviews, from complete strangers, it can go a long way to finding your strengths and weaknesses that may have gotten by your beta readers.

I also see shorts functioning as a gateway for new readers to find your content.  Self-pubbing gives you total control over your product.  Any time you want, you can run a special or even give a story away for free.  People like free stuff.  A KDP Select free day is a big help with this.  On a free day, I get a 100 times more “sales”.  This doesn’t always translate into cash sales of other works, but it can.  If they like your writing, they may be inclined to click one of those links you have in your front matter to another book you’ve published and, if you put together a good product where that link takes them, you may have a sale and, more importantly, possibly a fan that may be back to pick up your next book.

Resale potential – Let’s say you have a couple of 99 cent short stories that follow a similar theme, and have been out for a long time, buried in your backlist.  You can always breathe some new life into them, but packaging them in a collection with a couple of new stories of the same theme.  If all of those stories would have been priced at 99 cents individually and sold one copy each, you would net $1.73.  Put those five in one collection, price it at $3.99 (which saves the reader a dollar vs. buying them individually) and you qualify for the 70% royalty rate which nets you $2.79 – an additional 61%.

There’s a bit of an upside here, after all, don’t you think?

So, how does long-term strategy factor in?  To use Tim as an example, he uses the sale of his shorts to traditional markets to help cover the expenses of self-publishing his longer works like Scavenger: Evolution.  He got a pro edit, pro cover, and even an audiobook, and looks like it belongs sitting next to any other pro work on Amazon.  And those things cost a lot of cash-a-ronies, which means there’s a return on investment to consider that will impact the frequency of future publications.

For myself, I’m using them for all the reasons stated above:  Exposure, gateway for building my audience, etc.  Whether this works for the long-term.  I’ll be rolling the dice on quality if I can’t afford to buy services for novels and do it on my own, but its a chance I’ll have to take.  One reason for initially beginning with a pen name was to get my feet wet in self-publishing.  Make all the mistakes under the pen name and cut over to either another pen name or use my own when I think I’m ready.  I’m making that change sooner than I had planned, but again, its a chance I’m willing to take.

Which way is right?  Both…and neither.

What I think is one of the most beautiful things about publishing in the 21st century is you can work it from both sides.  A lot of what I write doesn’t feel like a good fit for things like F&SF and rather than waiting months to find out, I publish them myself.  But when I write THE END on a story and the re-read has me thinking; Holy crap, this is a story for Asimov’s if I ever read one, then that one is going out in their slush pile, no doubt about it, and I’m thinking of the next thing to write before I even finish walking back from the mailbox.

Conversely, if I think a story is ready for prime time, can make a cover I’m happy with, and format it flawlessly for e-readers, then its going up for sale.

Back to the original question, do self pub’d short stories make money?  You make the call.  Everything I’ve said here has been said a hundred times before by the likes of Michael Stackpole and Dean Wesley Smith

While they don’t put a lot of money my pocket directly, I do think they’re a great cup of water to keep you going in the marathon.

 

Till next time.

 

 

 

 

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