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?

Jilly: Plot Preferences

Almost all my favorite stories are character driven. What I want most from a book is a main character I can commit to. I love to dive deep into their head and stay there, living every word of their challenges, actions, setbacks, dark moment and ultimate triumph.

That means I prefer books written in first or close third person point of view with a powerful internal plot—a character who desperately wants something and will grow and change over the story as they battle to achieve it.

However. With the exception (maybe) of category romances, which focus intensely on the internal plot, a great character driven story needs a robust external plot to provide a framework for the hero or heroine’s adventure. And some external plots engage me more strongly than others.

I’ve been mulling this over for a week or two, ever since I finally read Martha Wells’ Murderbot books (four pricy novellas and a novel so far). The internal story is fascinating, because in this world the characters with biggest personalities and most powerful emotions are not humans but bots, especially Murderbot. The fact that I bought and read all five books is a tribute to the author’s skill in creating Murderbot’s voice, personality and emotional arc, because the external plot is computer-based space opera. Murderbot’s adventures turn on data, systems, drones, hacking, viruses and killware, with spacecraft, planets, wormholes and tractor beams. I know loads of people who enjoy those story elements. I’m so not one of them. I bought and read these books despite the external plot.

Which got me thinking about what I do enjoy in an external plot. I like main characters with career or life goals, because True Love alone is not enough—for a credible HEA the characters need something to do when they’re not kissing and cuddling. I like Jeanne’s heroine in The Demon Always Wins—a nurse who runs a free clinic on the Florida/Georgia border. I’m all in favor of the hero (retired quarterback, now CEO of a startup electronic car company) and heroine (language analyst for the CIA) in Kay’s upcoming trilogy. My heroine in The Seeds of Power is a princess who’s also an expert cultivator. The main character in my current WIP (The Seeds of Destiny) is a healer.

I love power politics. Like Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, in which a forgotten half-goblin prince finds himself Emperor of the Elflands. Robert Graves’s I, Claudius: derided underdog brilliantly survives the murderous excesses of the Roman empire and reluctantly ends up on the throne. Werewolf and shifter stories, which are usually built on hierarchies. And the brilliant, hilarious warlike theocracy of space vampires in Ilona Andrews’ Sweep of the Blade.

I don’t enjoy plot moppets—so Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester (Jeanne, Justine and lots of other people I know like this) or SEP’s Dream a Little Dream (a favorite of Michille’s) are not for me. And I have zero interest in shoes, clothes, shopping and the trappings of extreme wealth.

There must be others, but those are the ones that spring immediately to mind.

How about you? What kind of external story do you like best?

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?

Jilly: Cast of Thousands

Do you read series? What do you expect from the final book?

This week I happened to read the last book in two different long-running bestselling series, one urban fantasy and one straight-up fantasy. In each case the series ran to ten or more books, plus novellas and other related stories in a complex world with a large cast of characters.

To my surprise both grand finales left me underwhelmed, for the same reason. About a third of each book was devoted to wrapping up the series story arc in a high-stakes, satisfying manner. The other two thirds made sure that every single significant character across the entire series (barring those who’d met an untimely end) reappeared and contributed to the story resolution in some way.

It reminded me of the final number in a musical, where the entire cast is on the stage together, giving it full beans. Big finish. Rapturous applause. Curtain. Followed by individual curtain calls for the principals.

I was quite pleased to see some of the characters again, but after a while the whole setup became predictable, even tiresome. It distracted me. I started placing bets with myself about which character would appear next and how they’d be shoe-horned into the final confrontation.

These aren’t books written by newbie writers. They’re traditionally published titles written by skilled authors with proven track records. This can’t be a mistake. It must be what readers (or most readers) expect and enjoy.

When I’ve finished my Elan Intrigues prequel books I’m planning to write a long-ish series with the same protagonist (Alexis). At the moment I think it will be six books, set in various locations and with a hefty cast of supporting characters. If best practice would be to make the final book a kind of ‘greatest hits’ experience for the reader as well as saving the world and giving the H&H a happy ever after, I should try to get my head around that now. It might make a difference to the way I write the earlier books.

What do you think? Do you like to see all your favorite characters lend a hand at the end of a series, or do you, like me, just want the author to draw the story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion?

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.

Jilly: Getting Away From It All

It’s a holiday weekend here. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and we’re in limbo, waiting for the corona-crisis to be resolved or at least assimilated into our post-pandemic daily lives. Wherever you are, I hope you’re safe and well.

Usually around now people in the UK get the first inkling that summer is around the corner. That promises vacation, relaxation, maybe a change of scenery, perhaps a beach read or two. Except this year relaxation is not an option, and the scenery is depressingly familiar. Mr. W and I had tickets to visit San Francisco at the end of July for RWA Nationals. We expected to meet up with California-based friends and to enjoy a civilized meander down the coast with Kay. Clearly none of that will happen. We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to hop on a train and visit friends and family outside London.

Many of my friends have reported increased cabin fever lately, and I wonder if at least some of it is down to the loss of that holiday promise, the anticipation of a treat or just the idea, the possibility of something new. Chez Jilly we’d have shared days and weeks’ worth of fun planning our road trip, investigating possibilities online, talking to Kay about places to stay, discussing landmarks to visit, imagining food and wine we might sample. Planning a vacay is like a free holiday-before-the-holiday, with only the good bits—no budget constraints, no sunburn, and no jet lag. I think being robbed of that fantasy is almost as bad as missing out on the trip itself. Continue reading

Jilly: Quarantine Bargain

Another week checked off the calendar. Another week closer to the end of this pandemic. Fingers crossed. I hope you and yours are safe and keeping as well as can be expected.

While we’re waiting this crisis out, would you be interested in a great read, at an incredible price, for a good cause?

Any regular reader of 8LW will know that I love, love, love anything written by the husband and wife team who write as Ilona Andrews. Their books are enjoyable, intelligent urban fantasy adventures packed with action, romance, mythology, humor, kindness and much more.

I especially love the Innkeeper Chronicles, a self-published series featuring Dina DeMille, the proprietor of a magical B&B in Texas that serves as a secret waystation between earth and the rest of the universe. There are heroic werewolves, chivalrous martial space vampires, fabulous creatures, smart magic, epic fights, great dialogue and lots of jokes.

I already own the books, but if you don’t, and you feel tempted to try them, you’ll never have a better opportunity. Right now the first three books of the Innkeeper series are on sale for a princely 99 cents. All proceeds, net of Ilona Andrews’ literary agency’s costs, will be donated to the CDP Covid-19 Response Fund.

Go on, try them. You know you want to. The Zon link is here.

I’m pretty sure there will never be a better time, a better price, or a better cause.

Take care, stay safe, and see you next week.

Michaeline: Review: From the Moderne Vampyre Genre

Accounting ledger in French which is also the cover of the book; title in Dynatape

*The Utterly Uninteresting & Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant* by Drew Hayes. (Image via Amazon US.)

I’m not a huge fan of vampire stories, but it turns out I really like the ones where Everyman (or Everywoman), the unspectacular and messed-up mortal, gets turned into a vampire. There’s just something about that juxtaposition of cool immortality with lingering mortal uncertainty that really interests me.

I loved the first few MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead series with Betsy, Queen of the Vampires – in the first book, Undead and Unwed, a former Bridget Jones-type gets thrust into the Vampire lifestyle after an accident. And What We Do in the Shadows is a sweet movie about vampire “sharehouse” in Wellington, New Zealand. (I’m referring to the 2014 film; I didn’t know about the 2019 TV series until now. See? Blogging has some great side benefits!)

Now there’s another vampire world I can add to my list: I just read The Utterly Uninteresting & Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes and had a lot of fun!

All three of these vampire universes share characters who are very much aware of the vampire tropes, and how they (as vampires) turn tradition on its head. They don’t want to be evil bloodsuckers, and their main focus in life isn’t their next meal, but trying to “live” an undead life with a degree of comfort – and they want to be better people.

Fred is particularly aware in many ways that he’s part of the Vampire Story. He thought he’d turn into a suave and effortlessly cool vampire after waking up under a dumpster drained of his blood, but Continue reading