November 12th, 2007


Book reviews -- what works?

I'll start this post out with an admission:  I've never really reviewed a book.  Not on my blog, not on Amazon, not anywhere.  And I don't think I've ever bought a book based on a review (unless it was a big shout out on a blog type review).  Maybe that's why I never review any -- because it doesn't affect my purchases.  But I've come to realize -- and seriously, it shouldn't have taken me this long to realize this -- that reviews do affect how other people buy books.  Plus, having recently sold, I know that when my books come out, I'll be dying to hear what other people have to say and know that I would love to have my book reviewed (I know, I know... I say this now but wait until the pitch-forks come out when people read my book).

With that in mind, I've been thinking more and more about writing reviews.  But I don't really know where to start.  First, there's the issue of should just anyone be writing reviews.  I've definitely read arguments that writing reviews is a special skill that not everyone should undertake.  And second, there's the writing of the review itself: what to write about, what to include.  I've noticed that a lot of Amazon reviews are essentially a rehashing of the story (sometimes with spoilers!) and sometimes they're just complaints that their book didn't come on time (gah!).

So I'm asking y'all as writers and readers -- what do you think makes an effective book review?  And I'm not really talking NYT Review, I'm talking stuff that I can do like review books on my blog and on Amazon and other book sites.  Do you like a rehashing of the plot?  Do you like the review to get into the nitty-gritty of structure?  Do reviews even matter to you and if so, what do you like about them? 

Thanks for all of y'all's thoughts!
-Carrie Ryan

Bewitched as Urban Fantasy

I was recently trying to think of how/where I got into urban fantasy, and I believe I may have tracked it down to the source:

The TV series Bewitched.

It all started for me in 1975, when we moved to a new neighborhood. I'd made some friends among the other kids in my neighborhood, but I discovered that there was never anybody outside playing after dinner. I finally worked up the nerve to go over to one friend's house and invite her to come outside and play, but she said she couldn't because Bewitched was on. It aired in the slot between the evening news and prime time programming, and in 1975, it was actually a lot more current than Seinfeld reruns are today (that's scary!). I don't know if it had this effect on the rest of the world, but it totally captivated my neighborhood. Soon, I was right there with everyone else. Instead of playing "house," little girls played Bewitched, which kind of looked the same, what with the toy stoves and all, but it had magic, which made it a lot better. We spent hours in front of the mirror, trying to get our noses to twitch. It wasn't so much that we thought we'd actually have magical powers if we twitched our noses, but there was the off chance it might freak someone out if they bothered us and we twitched our noses at them. The neighborhood Queen Bee/Mean Girl claimed that she had magical powers, and she could tell which other people did, too. Of course, the people without powers were the ones she'd decided to exclude that week. I think we all liked the idea that someone who looked reasonably normal and who lived in a world that looked a lot like ours could still be magical. In all the Disney movies, people with magical powers tended to be either ugly old crones or cutesy fairies, but Samantha gave us the hope that there might be magic in us.

Because of that show, I became fascinated with the idea of magic, and I'd check any book out of the library that had the words "witch" or "magic" in the title (that did lead to a sidetrack into mystery when I got the Nancy Drew book The Witch Tree Symbol, which wasn't actually about witches but rather was about the Amish), and that got me into fantasy.

Now that I think about it, Bewitched has a lot of characteristics of urban fantasy. There's a secret magical world that exists in parallel with the "normal" world. A lot of the conflict and humor comes from the juxtaposition and clash of the two worlds. The main character bridges the two worlds and is often torn between them. The idea that Samantha was willing to accept her husband's demand that she not use her powers seems like a deal-breaker to me as a feminist (though I guess it was a moot point, since she ended up using her powers in every single episode), but that dilemma of which world to live in and what one might have to give up in order to have something else is a theme that often comes up in urban fantasy.

Can anyone else think of what it was that first brought you into the genre?

In other news, I have the cover art for my next book, coming in April 2008:

Collapse )

And in still more news, every so often I write an in-depth article on the craft of writing in my blog, and I thought it would be nice of me to make those available to those who want the writing info but who don't necessarily want to wade through all the other posts about what I'm watching on TV. You can sign up for the mailing list here. I'm going to try to stick to a schedule of posting about writing every other Wednesday.

Shanna Swendson

Agent/Author Communications (Breakdown)

Re-posted from my journal, blackaire at the suggestion of mdhenry and stacia_kane.

In an effort to save everyone some sanity, time and fingernails (because manicures ain’t cheap, yo) I’m going to talk about something that doesn’t really get enough coverage in “advice” posts:

Agent/author communications.  I’m not talking about query letters, or query etiquette, or query-anything, here.  At least not in a practical sense…I’m speaking of what happens outside the lines of email and letters, the raging paranoia and hope and disappointment that authors endure, and the mental fatigue that agents go through trying to keep up with author’s mood swings.

Because there’s really no reason for it.  As my mantra runs, publishing is a business.  It runs from 8-5 East Coast time from Monday-Friday with time off for conventions, parties, the holidays and the months of June-August.  If you send an agent a note at midnight on Saturday, don’t expect a reply until Monday.  Or beyond, if she’s just been to a convention and requested a lot of material, or NaNo just finished and her slush pile has swelled with the 50,000-word opuses of n00bs.   If you have your very own agent and she just took on three new clients, who all got deals, cut her a little slack until the contracts are signed.  Everybody still loves you.  Except when they don’t, and that’s another post.

Example #1: The Query Follow-Up

Scenario: You have a full with an agent.  The allotted response time has passed and you send a status query.  The agent doesn’t respond immediately.  Woe, woe is you.  She must hate your work.  You’ve pushed too hard.  You’ve branded yourself an obnoxious potential client.

Author response: I SUCK.

Likely real-world situation: Your agent is busy.  Give her a reasonable amount of time (definitions vary based on stated agent response times) to write back and give you a status update.  I guarantee she hasn’t read the manuscript yet.  As long as you’re not typing in ALL CAPS and don’t swear at the agent, you won’t come off as pushy or a psycho.

Example #2: The Requested Material

Scenario: Joy!  An agent has requested your partial/full after a conference.  You send it off and wait and wait.  Nothing comes back from the agent.

Author response: I SUCK.  Also, I totally rewrote the first 50 pages following workshop feedback and now the agent has the old partial.  I SUCK.

Likely situation: Requested material carries a little weight, but if the agent just got back from a conference she’s covered in it.  Look up stated response times on the agent’s web site or AgentQuery.  If the time hasn’t passed, chill the eff out and go have a cocktail.  If it has, give her another week because we’re assuming she’s swamped and then status query.  You do not suck.  In your status query, ask politely if she’d like to look at the revised partial.  If she rejects you, do not.  Not even with big puppy eyes.  No.

Example #3: The Dual-Agent Dance of Representation

Scenario:  Holy crap.  You have an offer of representation.  You also have your full with 5 other agents who have expressed interest.  What to do???

Author response: Accept the agency agreement while fainting from joy and totally blow off those other losers who totally did not see my genius.  Obviously they don’t care about me and my baby–er–book as much as the Golden Agent.

Likely situation: You piss a lot of people off doing the above and gain a reputation as an unprofessional wanker.  Thank Golden Agent profusely and ask for 24 hours to contact the remaining readers.  Contact them by email or make a polite phone call if they haven’t joined the 21st century.  Give 24 hours for a response, or to Monday if you’re doing this on Friday.  They may all say “thanks, but no thanks” and then hurray, you’re agented.  One or two may offer representation.  Now you have a choice to make.   Who’s your dream agent?  Who meshes with you?  Pick them, and send a POLITE email to the losers that says nothing about your genius.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Now is not the time to gloat.  Once you sign your AA agreement, then you can.

Example #4: The Editor

Scenario: Screw those agents, they’re leeches who don’t recognize my genius.  I’m going to submit to editors.  And one recognizes, and sends back a letter with suggested edits and a tentative and/or official offer.

Author response: SQUEE.

Likely situation: You get screwed by locking into a boilerplate contract for a low advance and a shitty subsidiary rights clause.  Write to the editor and thank them for their offer, but do not accept.  Say that you feel at this stage, you need a professional rep.  Go get an agent and if your representative agrees it’s a sound offer, let them begin negotiations.   Editors don’t always like this, but they understand because publishing is a business.  Would you rather have a reputation as a gullible chump, or a hard-ass?

Example #5: Your Very Own Agent

Scenario: You have an agent, she’s done a deal, and everything is hunky-dory.  Except you sent her an email about something FOREVER ago and she hasn’t written back.

Author response: Ohdeargod, I’m one of Them.  Those authors who’s agents passive-aggressively break up with them.  Why can’t I be loved?  I’ll dump that bitch first and show her the meaning of pain!

Likely situation: She’s busy.  Is it just before the holidays or the close of the fiscal year?  Has she been attending conferences?  Taken on new clients?  Moved agencies?  Then she’s busy.  Send her another note (a CALM one with only APPROPRIATE CAPITALIZATION) and then have a pill and relax.  You’re earning for her.  She loves you.  You’re a special snowflake.  BUT.  If your letter has gone unanswered for more than a week, and your agent isn’t on vacation in remote Afghanistan, and she ignores pertinent questions about stuff like royalties, and she never takes your calls…that’s a different story.  Time for a frank talk.  But if you send a “Hi how are ya” email and it takes her a few days to respond…cut her a break.  Agents have a largely thankless job and you going all neurotic on her ass isn’t helping.

Writing is lonely and based almost entirely on outside validation.  So when our letters go unanswered and our partials languish for months, it sucks and it can send you down a paranoia spiral like cheap weed.  But publishing is a business.  Nobody out there is cackling as they shove your manuscript to the bottom of the pile.  They’re overworked and barely have time to eat.  Their assistants are MFA students who hate life and don’t understand why their novel about a man finding himself in post-industrial Manchester wasn’t picked up, and some bitch’s werewolf erotica was.  Neither of them have the inclination or the time to spite you.  Very little in publishing is personal, unless you’re that editor who bought If I Did It.

So relax, already.  Be professional and you’re already ahead of the game.

Muses, Muses, We All Fall Down

It's been awhile since I've been able to come in and post anything over here at LJ.  Life is incredibly swamped, the summer's been insane, I weathered umpteen signings and a conference, am on book five of the series now, bruised my heel which in turn tweaked my back, and two of my senior cats are their declining years now and age is starting to catch up with their health.  Lovely--some of it, yes.  Some, no.  It's all just life.

But to get back in the swing of things, I thought I'd post an entry I wrote for my shared Witchy Chicks blog a month or so back--because I was feeling all out of inspiration today and yet having to work anyway.  It happens--it goes in cycles.  So, here we go:

I’m perhaps in the minority of writers who—oddly enough, considering my whole metaphysical outlook on life—doesn’t really believe in the Muse as she is commonly pictured.  At least I haven’t given her an embodiment/form in my life.  That isn’t to say I don’t believe that the Muse can strike when we least expect it, but working writers can’t afford to wait for her.  We can’t rely on her, and we sure as hell can’t bank on her to be here for us during deadline hell.  A lot of writing (as a career) is just forcing your butt in the chair, your fingers on the keys, and working whether or not you feel like it.  Publishers don’t want to hear excuses like, “I don’t feel inspired” and if you expect to be able to pull one over on your editor, think again.  Professional writer means acting like a professional.  The past few years, I was on a three books a year schedule (which thankfully moves to two next year!), which proves that the Muse can be off gallavanting around while I continue to work, because I guarantee you, she wasn't always perched on my shoulder.

Having said that…do I have a Muse?  If so, she’s elusive and never lets me see her outright, but I can say that I’m never wanting for something to write.  When asked where I get my ideas I, like so many writers, want to throw up my hands and say, “What kind of a question is that?  Are you serious?  How can you not have a dozen ideas a day?  Look around you—look at the world—there are stories everywhere!”  I see the world as a smorgasbord of comedies, tragedies, love stories and fantastic quests.  So, no, I don’t give a name to my Muse, because she’s everywhere, in everything and everybody.


That said, I do have my Mortal Gods of Writing.  All I have to do when I’m feeling down is pick up one of their books and I remember why I love writing so much, I remember to dream, to think, to dare.  These Mortal Gods have moved me to wonder, to laughter, to fear, and to tears with their ability to turn a phrase, to craft an idea, to evoke emotion.


Bear in mind, everyone's pantheon will differ--and no fair calling foul on mine because I won't call foul on yours even if I may raise my eyebrows and privately think you're nuts. ~grins~

My personal pantheon of Muses…these Mortal Gods of Writing…consist of the following (and you’ll notice some of them pull double or triple duty):


The Muses of Wonder: Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter S. Beagle, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley


The Muses of Language: Ray Bradbury, Annie Dillard, Kenneth Grahame, Richard Adams


The Muses of Suspense: Daphne du Maurier, Stephen King, Anne Rice, JA Jance


The Muses of the Epic Quest: J.R.R. Tolkien, Richard Adams, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tad Williams


The Muses of Mythological Reference: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Joan D. Vinge, J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman


The Muses of Urban Fantasy: Kelly Armstrong, Charlaine Harris, Neil Gaiman, Anne Rice, Jim Butcher, Cathy Clamp & CT Adams


The Muses of the Story: Amy Tan, Michael Crichton, Greg Bear


There are many other Mortal Gods of Writing, but these will give you some idea of from where I draw my inspiration in the literary world.  These Mortal Gods have, through the years, unknowingly encouraged me to keep going, inspired me when my mind felt parched and tired, and taught me through their own work, how to write.  I thank each and every one of them, and can only hope to pass on even a fraction of that inspiration to other aspiring writers.

So, who are your Mortal Gods of Writing?  And have you spent time in their temples lately?  You can find the nearest one right between the covers of one of their books.