Jilly: Try Before You Buy

Do you sample a book before you buy it?

Not so much in-person bookshop browsing, because right now that’s off the menu for most of us. But reading an excerpt on an author’s website, or using the Look Inside feature on the world’s most powerful online bookstore.

How often do you think reading a sample persuades you to buy a book, or makes you decide to move on to something else? I never used to bother with it, but a few years ago, after a particularly long series of dud purchases, I gave it a go. Now I’d never buy without trying.

I was thinking about samples this morning, after I discovered a brand-new reason not to buy. I saw a strongly positive review of a new-to-me author on a site I follow. The cover was great, and I loved the premise. The story sounded smart, original, quirky, just what I was looking for. So I headed over to the Zon and checked out the sample.

Have you ever tried food or drink that was delicious on the first mouthful, tasty on the second, fairly nice on the third, but by the fourth or fifth you never wanted another bite and a sixth would have made you gag? It was like that.

The story was told in first person, through the eyes of a smart, potty-mouthed, strongly opinionated character. The inciting incident was impactful and well told. The writing was super-strong. It was just too voice-y for me. If they’d cut off the sample at the end of the first page, I probably would have bought the book. By the end of the third page, I was done. I didn’t even read to the end of the sample or check out the reviews.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided it was a great Look Inside, because I bet the right reader would have devoured that sample and probably gone on to love the book. And the story promise was strong and clear enough for me to discover that I wasn’t that reader.

Do you read samples?

Have you gone on to buy (or not buy) based on what you read? Can you remember why?

Kay: What Next?

The view from my living room window, 10am, Sept. 9, 2020.

A friend gave me a $50 gift card to Amazon for my birthday a few weeks ago, and today, while we in California’s Bay Area are living with skies that look like the apocalypse, I spent it on ebooks.

I was frightened when I woke up this morning to dark red skies—fires are all around us but haven’t been of immediate danger. However, when I first moved to California, a big fire erupted just a mile or two behind my house and burned through more than 3,000 homes and killed 27 people. Most of my street evacuated voluntarily at that time, but I had faith in the fire department and the hydrant at the end of my block. My faith was rewarded, too: the fire came no closer than about three-quarters of a mile. Continue reading

Jilly: Multi-Generational Stories

An unexpected corona-bonus is that author book launches have gone digital. Which means fans who would never have the chance to attend a physical talk and book signing can join in the fun.

This week the Cary Memorial Library in Massachusetts hosted a conversation with fantasy romance authors Ilona Andrews (Ilona and Gordon, in Texas), Nalini Singh (in New Zealand), and Amanda Bouchet (in Paris). I watched from London, and now it’s on Youtube. How cool is that? Click here if you’d like to check it out.

There were lots of good questions about world building, what makes a strong character, what makes a great villain…but one that caught my attention was something like: do you have any plans to make your much-loved stories multi-generational? In other words, to give the kids of your bestselling characters their own story or series. Amanda Bouchet and Nalini Singh weren’t at that point, but Ilona Andrews are currently writing Blood Heir/Ryder, whose heroine is Julie, the adopted daughter of Kate and Curran from their bestselling Kate Daniels series. I’m super-excited about this book (click here for an early squee) and already have it on pre-order.

Ryder feels like a natural progression. After a ten-book series Kate and Curran are due a hard-earned Happy Ever After, but many fans aren’t ready to say goodbye to the world, and the series is rich in secondary characters. It’s made easier by the fact that Julie (alias Aurelia Ryder) was a street kid in her early teens when she first encountered Kate, so she’s only half a generation younger. That means the Ryder book can begin eight years after the conclusion of the Kate Daniels series—long enough for everything to be the same but different.

The question caught my attention because I’m currently writing a multi-generational epic fantasy series. Unlike the natural flow of the Ilona Andrews stories, mine crept up on me. After I finish with my Elan Intrigues books (one currently published, one book and two novellas in the works), I have a series in my head, set in the same world, starring the adult children of the main characters of the Elan Intrigues series. Alexis, the heroine, is twenty-five years old at the beginning of the main series. That’s a whole generation after the end of the Intrigues books. It didn’t occur to me to question it until now.

I started to think about how many other multi-generational stories I’ve read and enjoyed. I love Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, about Vidal, the son of the characters from These Old Shades. Loretta Chase has Last Night’s Scandal, starring characters we first met as children in Lord Perfect. That one didn’t quite work for me, though I’ve often wished she’d write a story for Dominick, Dain’s illegitimate son from Lord of Scoundrels. The most obvious example, which I haven’t read but I know Michaeline loves, is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Other than those, I’m coming up empty.

So I thought I’d turn the question over to you. Does the concept of a multi-generational series appeal to you? Have you read any good (or bad) ones?

Jeanne: Plot Peeves

In the rain.

On Sunday, Jilly talked about plot preferences.

Today, I thought I’d flip that and talk about plot peeves–the things that annoy and frustrate me in stories.

(Hold onto your umbrellas, kids, cause I’ve got a lot of them.

No. 1. Failure to show the climactic moment. No, I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about what Robert McKee, screenwriting guru, calls the “obligatory scene,” the scene the author has spent 300+ pages making you anticipate and is therefore obliged to show you.

It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness. The best example I can think of is an episode from the show Elementary (Season 6, Episode 12) called “Meet Your Maker” where Holmes and Watson are asked to locate a missing woman who was a financial dominatrix. (Hard to explain. If you want to know, you’ll have to watch it.) After 40-ish minutes of various plot twists and surprises, they locate the missing woman, who has been kidnapped and forced to craft untraceable guns (because of her sideline as a toymaker). Unfortunately, by the time the show reached this point, all those twists and turns had eaten up all the show’s runtime. The writers chose to skip the “freeing the captive toymaker from the bad guys” scene and jumped to the denouement where everyone was congratulating each other. What the hell? Continue reading

Jilly: Unputdownable or Re-readable?

If you had to choose, would you prefer a book that’s unputdownable or one that’s re-readable?

That’s what I was asking myself yesterday. I’ve been working through a TBR list of new-to-me authors who write in sub-genres similar to mine—historical fantasy, low fantasy, fairy tale re-tellings, what Michaeline memorably described as cozy high fantasy. They’ve all had something interesting to offer: an engaging premise, charismatic heroine, fascinating world, compelling conflict, lovely word-smithery—but none of them put the whole package together in a way that had me transported, desperate to read more and sold on the next in the series.

After a dozen damp squibs I started to wonder if the problem was me, so I took a break and paged through my Kindle to refresh my palate with a guaranteed good read or two. I have a new-ish Kindle with all my purchases on it, but I also have a really old device where most of my library is consigned to the archive. It’s my Keeper Kindle. The only live titles are books which have really grabbed me (unputdownable) and those which I re-read again and again (re-readable).

As I scanned my options, I realized I need to narrow the selection even further. There are some excellent, compelling, well-written stories that I return to again and again. Others that I was glued to first time around, but somehow when I’m looking for a special read I always choose something else.

Take historical romance author Loretta Chase. She’s an excellent writer and a brilliant storyteller. I love Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion, and her Carsington books. I particularly enjoy and often re-visit Miss Wonderful, thanks to its Derbyshire setting and Industrial Revolution-inspired plot. It’s clever, funny and energetically upbeat, so I root for the characters as they battle to overcome a seemingly insurmountable conflict. The book doesn’t just have a happy ending, it makes me feel happy as I read it. Contrast that with Silk is for Seduction, the first Dressmaker book. It’s powerful and emotional. It has a brilliant dark moment and one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read. The problem is that for most of the book it’s impossible to see how the characters can find a happy ending together, even though it’s equally apparent that they’ll never be happy with anyone else. Even though Love Conquers all in the end, reading the book is an emotionally stressful experience. I bet loads of readers love being put through the emotional wringer, knowing it will all be OK in the end. Not me. On first read I found the book utterly unputdownable. I don’t want to read it again.

In the end my choices were Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor followed by T Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace. I had a fabulous time. I’ve read both books multiple times but familiarity only enhanced my enjoyment—several hours of warm and uplifting feelgood, like catching up with old friends. I don’t think I’d describe either book as unputdownable, because even on first reading I took my time and savored every page.

The other question I asked myself was whether I’d like my own books to be unputdownable or re-readable. Obviously I’d love them to be both, but if I had to choose, I’d want to be re-readable. Unputdownable stories might bring bestseller status and greater financial rewards, but to stay with a reader over the years and bring them recurring pleasure would be my definition of success.

How about you? Do you have a preference, as a reader or a writer?

Kay: Finding New Authors with StoryBundle

One of the four books offered in the “Glitter and Hope” StoryBundle

One of the four books offered in the “Glitter and Hope” StoryBundle

I recently fell onto the mailing list of an outfit called StoryBundle, an organization of which I had never heard until then. They’ve been operating at least since 2017, so that’s my bad. And while I’m not one to promote shamelessly (and full disclosure: I have no connection to these folks whatsoever and have not benefitted from their program), their operational model is an interesting one.

StoryBundle groups books by indie authors and sells them for a short time at a low base price (usually $3), inviting purchasers to pay what they will, as long as it’s at least that base amount. In the current bundle, you’d get four books for that $3. If you pay a minimum of $15, you get 11 books—the original four, plus seven more “bonus” books.  You choose how much of your payment goes to the author and how much goes to StoryBundle, and a portion of your payment can go to a charity of your choice, as well. Continue reading

Jilly: The Murderbot Dilemma

How much would you pay for an ebook? Or a series?

I’ve been trying to decide whether to invest in Martha Wells’ Murderbot books. I don’t usually dither over book purchases, but this series has me hovering over the buy button.

The community on Argh Ink (Jenny Crusie’s blog) loves Murderbot. Jenny loves and re-reads the series. These are smart people. They read a lot. They’re sharply observant and constructively critical about their recommendations and DNFs. They tend to like the kind of stories I like. So that’s a strong positive.

I read the first novella, All Systems Red, and really enjoyed it. I wasn’t desperate to read the next book immediately, but I haven’t forgotten it and moved on. I felt like that about Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles—had a hiatus of maybe a couple of years before I bought the second book—but that series became a favorite and one that I regularly re-read.

The Murderbot premise is great—an introverted, self-hacking robot protagonist who’s technically not a person but who has an engaging personality–fascinating, funny and conflicted. The author makes you care about the character. The writing is clever and complex. The stories are sci-fi, with lots of great world-building and action, but deeply character-driven. As far as I can see from a quick scan of the reviews, the first four novellas arc to a satisfying conclusion.

There’s really only one argument against Murderbot. The price. According to the many disgruntled reviews on the Zon, the first four titles are essentially one book, with each act published as a separate novella. According to Amazon US at the time of writing, they are: Continue reading

Jilly: Behind the Scenes

I enjoyed Michaeline’s post yesterday, about her love of secret passages and rooms, trap doors, hidden compartments and all kinds of mystery architecture. She loves them as a reader, so she likes to incorporate them into her own stories.

She set me thinking.

Mystery architecture is a wonderful tool for storytellers. There are so many good examples, but below are a few of my favorites.

The hidden basement and secret shelter in Jenny Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman.

The smugglers’ cellar and well-oiled trapdoor that Francis Crawford of Lymond uses to sneak into locked-down Edinburgh in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings.

Another smugglers’ construction— the concealed tunnel between Darracott Place and the haunted Dower House in Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax.

All kinds of hidden delights, from ancient temples to sneaky palace passageways, in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief and its four sequels.

I like all that undercover stuff, but what really thrills me is an insider story. When I see a swan gliding serenely along, I want to see the feet paddling like mad under the water. I love, love, love to watch characters working on their craft. I need to share their setbacks, mistakes, failures and ultimate triumph. I like to write those stories too.

In real life I love it when restaurants offer a chef’s table so diners can watch the kitchen in full flow. I really like that pro tennis has been experimenting with allowing players to talk to their coaches mid-match—and we all get to hear their discussion. And some of my best trips to the Royal Opera House have been to watch working rehearsals, or to see costumes being made, props being constructed, and choreography developed. To give you an idea of what I mean, click here for a ten-minute video of the Royal Ballet working flat out on the big sword fight between Tybalt and Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Romeo & Juliet.

One of my favorite movies ever is Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom—double dealing, dirty tricks and the private language of competitive ballroom dancing. Christopher Guest hilariously gives dog shows the same treatment in his mockumentary Best in Show. And for books, what about:

Faro’s Daughter (Heyer again), where the heroine is a gambler’s daughter who runs a fashionable gaming house with her delightfully clueless aunt; or

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor—half-goblin Maia loses his entire family in an airship crash and unexpectedly becomes Emperor. He has no training, no allies, and seems an easy target for every ambitious, manipulative, scheming courtier in the palace. Maia outwits them all by learning the system from servants, soldiers, airship crews, and other ordinary people that make his world work.

A hairdresser friend of mine once told me he’d never book a chef’s table. He’s spent his entire working life behind the scenes and he knows exactly what happens. When he reads a novel, or goes to dinner, or to a movie, he wants a finished product, all glossy and shiny. He’ll take the fairy tale presentation every time.

Where do you stand on insider stories? Are you a fan, or would you rather sit the other side of the curtain, watching the action from the plush seats?

Jilly: Ryder

I’ve been reading a lot lately and I’ve never been so grateful for the ability to escape reality for a while in favor of a world where you know the toughest challenges will be overcome and the good guys will prevail.

I’ve read new releases by authors whose work I like a lot, well reviewed first-in-series by new-to-me authors, and genre classics of yesteryear, but the thing I’m most enjoying right now is a new urban fantasy serial from the husband-and-wife team who write as Ilona Andrews.

I posted here a couple of months ago about their Innkeeper Chronicles “plague sale” (99 cents for the first three books; all proceeds, net of their literary agency’s costs, to be donated to the CDP Covid-19 Response Fund). The new serial is even cheaper. It will eventually be edited and self-published, but for now it’s free to read on the authors’ blog.

The story has an official title, Blood Heir, but the working title is Ryder. It’s urban fantasy, in the Kate Daniels universe, and the story takes place eight years after the end of the bestselling KD series. The protagonist is Julie, Kate’s adopted daughter, who’s returning to Atlanta in secret with a new face, a new name (Aurelia Ryder), even a new scent. Her mission is to save Kate from a terrible, prophesied, but currently unrevealed, threat. When the first chapter was posted, the authors’ plan was to offer a snippet as a treat for KD fans. The response they received persuaded them to keep going, and now, twelve chapters later, they’ve confirmed that Blood Heir/Ryder will become a book, likely to be self-published in the first quarter of 2021. That news made me so happy!

They’re uploading each chapter as they write, more or less once a week. It’s classic Ilona Andrews—engaging characters, strong community, high stakes, fantastic worldbuilding, and snappy dialogue. I’m loving it so much. Every new chapter is a treat. If you like the sound of this, and you’re not already following along, check out the story so far here.

Have you read anything good lately? It’s a long time between Ryder installments. Any and all recommendations would be most gratefully received.

Michaeline: Plague Books for Fun and Education

Medieval painting of people enjoying the country scene of The Decameron

Seven ladies and three gentlemen escape the plague-filled city to have some fun and tell some stories in The Decameron. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Pandemic. All the stuff stemming from the pandemic including death, illness, poverty and hardship. Murder hornets (remember murder hornets?). Asteroid misses. Earthquakes. Locusts. Oh yeah, tornadoes. I’m sure I’m missing a few.

I won’t count protest. It needed to happen. It still needs to happen, and unfortunately, it will continue to need to happen, I’m afraid. I could wish that everyone had gotten totally frustrated, fed up and ready to change the system for good when Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012 (or any of the other times a black death at police hands sparked protest and outrage). However, I see why it is happening now, instead of last August. What with unemployment and staying at home, people have time to protest, maybe for the first time in their lives. And the pandemic’s side effects have certainly intensified everyone’s anger and outrage. Maybe this time, we’ll see a long-lasting change for the better.

But, back to the Corona. Oddly enough, most of the books I read in May ( 3 and 1/2 books . . . when will I be able to read again?) had something to do with The Plague. The Decameron (J.M. Rigg translation) was a bunch of really rich people who said, “Let’s escape all this crap, and sing and dance and eat good food in the good country air, and tell stories every night.” Two weeks later: “OK, bored now. Or going to get bored soon. Let’s go back to the plague-y town.” It took me a month and a half to read through two weeks of tales (with four days off for hairwashing and piety – on the characters’ part).

The Ozark tales sometimes borrow from The Decameron. (Image via Open Library)

It’s worthwhile to read this once in your life, I think. However, if you need something lighter, I would read Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Tales, collected by Vance Randolph. The best of the dirty jokes of The Decameron, but with down-home people. (Caveat: I last read this book in my 20s; it stuck with me, so it’s good. But there’s probably A LOT of problematic material in a dirty joke book that just didn’t register on my young radar. So, you have been warned.)

The new Penric story by Bujold, The Physicians of Vilnoc, was so good. Doctors working to solve the mystery of the plague, using cooperation and understanding and compassion and BRAINS. (The people of the Decameron did not apply their brains toward solving the problem at all. They applied their brains towards distraction, which is a good strategy, as far as it goes.)

I’ve been meaning to write a review of this, and it deserves one. Aside from the story of the plague (which is an engrossing mystery with higher stakes than any country house whodunit), it also provides justification for Penric’s

Penric and his demon, Desdemona, race to prevent a pandemic in The Physicians of Vilnoc. (Image via Goodreads)

path – he trained as a healer in his 20s, but suffered from a breakdown and almost committed suicide. In this story, he has to deal with his fears of burnout, and a reckoning of abandoning a healing path. He discovers that many of the doctors he runs into have heard of his translations of medical books. As a healer, he could have directly saved hundreds of people. But through his translation work, he indirectly saves millions over his lifetime and the future. This is a sideplot, if you can even call it a plot, but it’s an extremely satisfying aside.

Finally, by chance, I picked up an old novel (1909) called When a Man Marries. I picked it up mostly because one of the cover shots I saw was an omnibus with an unfortunate design, so it looked like the book was, “WHEN A MAN MARRIES THE MAN IN LOWER TEN” which sounds like a thrilling, ahead-of-its-time sort of book.

The author, Mary Roberts Rinehart, writes very well and has great characterizations, but also slaps the reader constantly across the face with the fan of casual, middle-class white racism. In this particular book, she writes crappy comments about a Japanese butler, South American native women, and the Irish. Her characters very obviously build their lives on the backs of lower class people, and so I feel I must include this as a trigger warning before I go into the pandemic part. She was definitely part of the problem.

That said, I was very surprised when this screwball comedy (and it IS very funny when it sticks to observations about its own class) centered on a smallpox quarantine. Jimmy Wilson is depressed because it’s the second anniversary of his divorce (in 1909). Kit, our narrator and Continue reading