Subtle Weapon (ShadowTech Book 2) is out now

The second book in the sci-fi/adventure series ShadowTech, Subtle Weapon is out now.

Kaiahive is everywhere, even on the supposedly deserted island the crew escape to. So are the company’s enemies, the Heralds, and the crew are caught in the crossfire, their options dwindling fast.

Can Deva trust old enemies long enough to get her revenge on those who ruined her life? Can Brice and Ryann escape from captivity deep underground? Has Keelin found people who appreciate her for who she is, or are they only using her? And as Piran dives deep into the incredible technology of the Ancients, can he keep their secrets from the company long enough to help save his friends?

As hostilities grow, each of them must fight — for themselves, for their friends, and for their lives.

To coincide with this, I’ve put the first book, Desert Bound on sale until the end of the weekend, at the bargain price of 99c (or your local equivalent).

One-star reviews aren’t pleasant, but they can be useful

I got my first review for Desert Bound earlier this week‌—‌and it was a 1-star. Disappointing, but it happens. Someone bought the book, and it wasn’t for them.

But that wasn’t the case. The review was nothing about the book itself. In fact, the review implied that the reviewer hadn’t even read the book, or bought it.

Instead, the review complained that it ‘says you can order paperback, but it only sells on kindle NO option for paperback!’

This confused me, because Desert Bound is available in both formats. As I write this, I can see a paperback copy on my shelf, and I have the ebook on my Kindle.

I had to dig into this.

Normally, on a book’s page on Amazon, all format options are shown (ebook, paperback, hardback, audiobook and so on). But when I searched for Desert Bound in the Kindle store it only showed the ebook. However, when I searched specifically for the paperback, the paperback came up‌—‌but didn’t show that it was available in ebook.

This wasn’t right. Different formats of the same book are ‘linked’. I checked all my other titles, and found no other discrepancies. So this wasn’t a wide glitch. This was specific to Desert Bound.

I looked closer, and noticed a difference‌—‌the ebook was listed as Desert Bound (ShadowTech Book 1), but the paperback came up as Desert Bound (ShadowTech). Had I entered the wrong metadata when setting the paperback up?

I went into my KDP (Kindle Desktop Publishing) account to check‌—‌and found the same metadata for both books. But, somehow, Amazon had the series title in place of the subtitle with the paperback, which made their system treat the two formats as separate entities rather than different versions of the same product.

So I contacted Amazon. I explained the situation, and asked them to rectify it. I also asked for the review to be removed, as well as asking if there was any way they could contact this (potential) customer and point them towards the paperback.

Amazon replied, and a few days later both formats were showing as available on any search for Desert Bound. But I have to go through a few more hoops to get the review removed.

A part of me is tempted to leave it‌—‌readers are intelligent enough to see that the review isn’t a comment on the book’s quality. If it was one of many reviews, it wouldn’t matter so much‌—‌but it’s my only review so far. It means that Desert Bound has an average rating of one star‌—‌not what I want for a first-in-series!

So, that’s the situation I found myself in earlier this week. I’m trying to look at the positives, and I think there are a few lessons to learn here.

  • Things can always go wrong. Even if I’m certain I’ve entered details accurately, I need to check more thoroughly. Yes, this will take more time (as I’ll want to check the book pages on all retailers, not only Amazon), but it’ll give me greater peace of mind, and help prevent issues like this in the future.
  • Mistakes remain until they’re pointed out. If it hadn’t been for this review, I wouldn’t have noticed the problem, so I thank the reviewer for pointing this out. I would’ve preferred it if they’d contacted me directly, but I can understand why they didn’t‌—‌that would have involved more work, and they were clearly frustrated anyway. Similarly, if there are any typos in my books, I’m all for readers contacting me to point them out. Yes, I do all I can to ensure there are no mistakes, but a few always slip through.
  • Reviews matter, in all kinds of strange ways. ‘Good’ reviews help make the book look more attractive to potential readers, and highlight what works well in the story and the writing. ‘Bad’ reviews can highlight what hasn’t worked, at least for the reviewer. All reviews can be constructive, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (although some reviews are inaccurate, mean or simply make no sense). And, from my experience here, reviews can highlight issues that the writer hadn’t even considered.

This is only a small issue, but I want my books to be the best they can be‌—‌and that includes the buying and reading experiences. If there’s something hindering a potential reader from getting one of my books, I want to get rid of the problem.

If the reviewer is reading this, I apologise. This link should take you to the paperback page on Amazon.com.

And if anyone out there has read (and enjoyed) Desert Bound, I’d love more reviews.

Can an action story have too much action?

I’m currently reading, and enjoying, Joshua James’ Lucky’s Marines series. Lost of action, snarky dialogue, a story-line with loads of twists, and intriguing tech. It’s the kind of stuff I love to read for pure entertainment.

But I had an issue with the first story, Lucky Universe. The start is strong and intriguing‌—‌a marine coming out of some kind of deep-freeze sleep state in time for an imminent mission, with his internal AI updating him on the situation. Then we’re off, into the mission. Of course, it doesn’t go as planned, and the characters are thrown from one fight to another, from one action sequence to the next. Each time they think they’ve escaped, there’s a new problem for them to encounter (which usually involves lots of shooting and fighting).

The book’s solid action. There’s no let-up.

And that’s my problem with it.

There’s a technique in writing/storytelling that’s often referred to as ‘scene and sequel’. This states that after an action scene, there needs to be a ‘sequel’, a moment where the characters (and the reader) can catch their breath. After a barrage of stuff happening, there needs to be a time to process it.

This doesn’t have to be a long-winded debrief from a mission. It could even take place while action rages all around‌—‌imagine a couple of characters escaping an advancing army and holing up in an abandoned building. There’s still the risk of them being found, and they’ll have to rejoin the battle sooner or later, but for the moment they can pause, reflect on their situation. It might be for a few hours in story-time, it might only be a minute or so.

The action doesn’t have to be fights and battles, either. In a drama, the action will be events unfolding, and character actions that deepen the plot. But after each surprising, dramatic event (or after a few of them), the characters need to take stock, if only for a moment. This might be through internal contemplation, or it might be through dialogue. But without these moments, the story runs the risk of being too full-on.

It’s similar to a well-constructed roller-coaster. If you like coasters, you’re drawn to the twists and turns, to the drops and the inversions. But all coasters have their quieter moments. There’s the crawl to the top of the first hill, building the tension. There could well be slower sections, giving a false sense of security, tricking the rider into believing their near the end, before plunging them into the next ‘event’.

Roller-coasters and action stories are designed to be ‘breath-taking’, to literally leave the rider or reader short of breath. In a well-crafted action sequence, the reader might even hold their breath. But this isn’t sustainable. There have to be moments to breathe‌—‌for the reader, for the characters, and for the story.

Lucky Universe, for me, didn’t have nearly enough of these moments. While I appreciated the action itself, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read another eight books like this.

Thankfully, from the second book onward, the action is interspersed with calmer moments. These are often when the characters are travelling to the next battle (so there’s still tension in these ‘sequels’), but at least there’s time to slow down. And this helps the plot‌—‌in the midst of action, it’s far too easy to lose track of what’s happening, so the quieter moments can help explain what’s going on.

Scene and sequel. It’s something to remember in my own writing‌—‌break up the action with quieter moments. Full-on action can leave the reader disorientated, but having moments of relative calm helps give the reader a more memorable ride.

There are books for every reader, and readers for every book (first thoughts after Self-Publishing Show Live 2022)

Earlier this week, I attended the‌—‌Self-Publishing Show Live event in London — two days of presentations from some of the best in the business, and the opportunity for a few hundred writers to get together, talk and have fun. And learn a lot. I’ve barely started processing everything, and when the videos of the presentations are released, there are many I’ll be studying in detail.

But one thing that struck me was the range of books people are writing. The event kicked off with two sisters (Caroline Peckham and Susanne Valenti) who, over a couple of years, have built up a seven-figure business (yes, we’re talking millions here) writing dark fantasy romance and bully romance. Bully romance? That’s fairly niche. I can’t imagine mainstream romance fans going for it, but these women have found enough readers that they’re making a very good living from their books. They’ve been at or near the top of the Amazon ebook chart since January. And they’re truly independent, doing everything themselves (or hiring others for the work they can’t do). They don’t have backing from a publisher. They’re not household names, yet they’re out-selling just about everyone else.

It would be impressive if they’d been writing in a more mainstream genre (crime or urban fantasy, for example). Bully romance doesn’t seem to be on the radar of traditional publishing. It doesn’t feature heavily in book stores. But they’ve found their readers.

Ebook sales have continued to rise, especially over the last couple of years (who would’ve thought that being stuck at home encouraged reading?). More people are reading, and people are reading more. Every reader has their own taste, their own things in books that they’re drawn to. And while the big publishers have to aim for commercial, mainstream success, the independents (smaller publishing companies and, especially, indie-publishing authors) can cater for these increasingly smaller niches.

While many of the writers at the event were working in more obvious genres (science-fiction, romance, young adult and so on), a lot were narrowing down, or coming up with interesting combinations of genres. I spoke with a few writers whose stories combined both science fiction and fantasy — a hybrid that might upset some hard-core fans from either camp, but something that is gaining popularity (Chris Fox’ MagiTech books spring to mind — well worth a read if the idea of space battles between gods appeals!). One of those on stage was making a living writing 1920s cosy mysteries. And I managed to spend a few moments talking with Heide Goody, the co-author of books that, among other things, combine comedy with Lovecraftian horror (if that sounds interesting, check out the Oddjobs series).

The list goes on.

I spoke with one writer (sorry, I can’t recall names) who wrote ‘sports fiction’. That’s both a niche term and a broad one — many ‘sports fiction’ books are also romances. His, however, are dramas, similar to Rocky — struggles against adversity set against the backdrop of sports. And while that feels specific (and the specificity means he struggles with advertising), there are readers looking for books like this.

I wish I could remember his name, because I’d definitely check those books out.

Genres can be tricky, though. Words can have many meanings, and getting the wrong ‘word’ can cause problems.

I had a conversation with a writer who thought the first book in her trilogy was romance (yes, romance crops up a lot in self-publishing — it’s a huge genre, and romance writers are incredibly business-savvy). The story focused on someone finding happiness through love, so of course it was romance. But the readers disagreed. She didn’t abide by the expected tropes. Her story might have been about love, but it wasn’t romance.

That doesn’t make sense? People hear ‘love story’ and immediately think ‘romance’, but consider a story like Romeo And Juliet. It’s all about love, but it wouldn’t qualify as a romance by today’s book genre definitions. It doesn’t have the obligatory happy ending, for one thing. It throws out important ‘romance’ tropes.

Personally, I prefer ‘love stories’ like Romeo And Juliet and Wuthering Heights to some of the other romances I’ve read. I’ve tried a few recently, and the insta-love, ‘when will they get together?’ stories bore me. I’ve got nothing against these books, or the many readers who enjoy them — they’re simply not for me. I prefer darker tales. I like books that confound my expectations, that twist or even throw out genre tropes.

I’m in a minority here, I know. I can be contrary, in my consumption of media (I’ve always gone for ‘different’ music and films), and also in the books I write.

I classify my Dominions books as dark Dystopian thrillers, but Dystopian fiction is closely tied to Young Adult, and Dominions is definitely not YA. Also, the thriller aspect is more slow-burn than many mainstream thrillers (like Jack Reacher or John Milton.) The genres fit, but they also confuse.

Then there’s my Shadows trilogy, my attempt to combine science-fiction and horror. Yes, there are very successful sci-fi/horror hybrids (and Alien was a major influence on Shadows), but why would horror fans want to read a science fiction book, and why would sci-fi fans want to scare themselves with horror?

My new series, ShadowTech, is more mainstream, but it’s still veering toward the darker side of things. I’m interested in the internal struggles of the characters, more so than the external action the stories (and the mainstream readers) demand.

But these are the types of stories I enjoy writing, and reflect the stories I enjoy reading. I might be in a minority, but I can’t be alone in this. In fact, I know there are readers who have enjoyed my books — reviews and comments tell me that.

There are millions of individual readers, and millions of books. It’s a struggle bringing compatible readers and books together. But the options are out there. No matter how obscure, no matter how niche, there are books for every reader, and readers for every book.

And when I get my head around everything from this conference, hopefully I’ll be in a better position to make those connections.

The second book in the ShadowTech series is now available for pre-order

Subtle Weapon (ShadowTech Book 2) picks up where the previous book finished, throwing the crew into even more chaos. It’s out on August 18th, but is available to pre-order now from all the usual places. And, as always, the price will rise a couple of days after release, so pre-order now to get Subtle Weapon for a bargain price.

Kaiahive is everywhere, even on the supposedly deserted island the crew escape to. So are the company’s enemies, the Heralds, and the crew are caught in the crossfire, their options dwindling fast.

Can Deva trust old enemies long enough to get her revenge on those who ruined her life? Can Brice and Ryann escape from captivity deep underground? Has Keelin found people who appreciate her for who she is, or are they only using her? And as Piran dives deep into the incredible technology of the Ancients, can he keep their secrets from the company long enough to help save his friends?

As hostilities grow, each of them must fight‌—‌for themselves, for their friends, and for their lives.

Raising the tension in Lindsay Buroker’s ‘The Forbidden Ground’

I recently read Linsday Buroker’s Death Before Dragons novella The Forbidden Ground. I’ve found her other books to be a lot of fun‌—‌banter, action, fast-paced, exciting‌—‌and this one was no exception. But what struck me was the increase in tension in the climax.

This scene takes place after the antagonist falls through a hole in the ground, discovering an underground lair. She’s joined by a dragon (in human form), but he’s caught in beams coming from four mysterious orbs. Buroker has already established the relationship between the antagonist and the dragon (not a romance, but there are hints that it could become one), so it’s obvious that our hero wants to free him.

The beams are weakening the dragon, so the antagonist must act fast. Already, we have tension‌—‌a life-or-death situation and a limited time in which to act.

She attacks the first of the orbs, using her magical sword. It’s hard-going, but she manages to destroy it. The beam from the orb disappears‌—‌but the dragon is still held by the other three beams, and is now on his knees, clearly in pain. There’s no option but to attack the second orb. She does this, destroying it. The dragon is still held, growing even weaker.

Buroker could have had the antagonist destroy the final two orbs just as the dragon is about to breathe his last. That would have been satisfactory, if a little underwhelming. Instead, she adds another element to the tension.

Up to this point, the antagonist has been in no direct danger‌—‌she’s not the one slowly dying. If she fails to free the dragon, she still gets to live. But now, things become personal.

She strays too close to one of the remaining beams, and immediately feels the urge to turn her sword on the dragon. The beam‌—‌or the magical force behind it‌—‌is telling her to kill the dragon in his weakened state, and it’s taking everything she’s got to fight the compulsion.

The stakes have changed. This is no longer about life and death, but about something far stronger. If she can’t resist this urge to kill her friend, she’ll have to live with the knowledge of what she’s done for the rest of her days. She’s facing a ‘fate worse than death’, or a ‘damnation’.

This shift makes the climax far more exciting‌—‌and far more effective‌—‌but it took setting up. Throughout the short book, Buroker ensured that the reader understood the relationship between these two characters. As readers, we went into this climax knowing that, as annoying as he could be, the dragon has previously saved the antagonist’s life. They have a bond. As dismissive of ‘lesser beings’ as the dragon is, we get the impression he’d miss the antagonist if she were not around‌—‌and she’d definitely miss him if he were to go.

This increase in tension emphasises something that is at the heart of most (all?) good books, and is something that Buroker excels at‌—‌relationships are more important than plot. Without some kind of meaning for the characters, action in a story is nothing more than ‘stuff that happens’. For it to become a plot, for it to become a story we remember, we (the readers) must be engaged. We must care what happens to the characters.

This is especially true of the climax. In The Forbidden Ground, Buroker gives us physical danger and physical action, but ups the tension by making the whole battle personal. She makes things more exciting by engaging the emotions of both the characters and the reader.

It’s a solid story-tellling rule‌—‌the final climax of a story should be personal to have the most impact

Dominions on special offer

For the next few days (until Monday 23rd), I’m offering the first four books in my Dominions series at reduced prices.

Dead Flesh (Dominions II

Dead Flesh (Dominions II) is only 99p / 99c

Deep Water (DominionsIII)

Deep Water (Dominions III) is only £1.99 / $1.99

RIled Dogs (Dominions IV) is only £2.99 / $2.99

(These offers are only available in the US and UK, but the complete series is still available to read for free through Kindle Unlimited)

In praise of ‘satisfactory’

About a decade ago I worked as a teacher. Back then, there were politicians pushing for ‘every student to be above-average’, and there was talk of rearranging lesson observation gradings so that ‘satisfactory’ was no longer good enough.

It was like dictionaries no longer mattered.

Ignoring the linguistic butchery, I understood the intentions. They wanted improvement. On the surface, I’ve got no argument with this. Education should be about improving oneself, in both formal settings (schools, colleges, and so on) and in other areas. Education never stops‌‌—‌life is a constant process of learning and (hopefully) improving.

I can see this in my own life. When I played guitar regularly, I’d practice in order to improve my technique, to play harder music, to get faster. When I use the bouldering wall, I work on different problems, improving my finger strength, body position, attitude and so on. And when I write, I aim to make every new story better than the one before. I read not only for enjoyment but also to inform my own writing. I listen to and read material on writing craft and story structure.

Learning can be hard, though. It’s not linear‌—‌there are times when things fall into place, and we make great leaps forward, but there are other times when we can’t wrap our heads around ideas. We struggle over something that feels inconsequential. Sometimes we need to revisit older ‘learning’, embedding it deeper or reminding ourselves about first principles. Sometimes we need to take it steady, or even take a break altogether.

And even with all this learning, perfection can only be an aspiration, never a destination. There’s always room for further improvement.

Which is why there’s no shame in being ‘good enough’. Sometimes (arguably most of the time), satisfactory is‌…‌well, satisfactory.

Let’s bring this back to reading and writing. I’ve read many satisfactory books. I can’t recall them now, but I enjoyed them at the time‌—‌because they did their job. They entertained me.

I was reminded of this recently as I read Scott Bartlett’s Mech Wars series. The books aren’t literary masterpieces‌‌—‌there were times when the writer side of me would pull me from the story, re-reading passages that were more tell than show, trying to work out ‘better’ alternatives.

But I read all four books. I wanted to know how the story ended, and what would happen to the characters. The series did its job in entertaining me. It was a perfectly satisfactory read.

I should note that this is my personal view. As I often do when finishing a book, I checked on-line reviews. Bartlett has a decent number, for both the series and the individual books, and the vast majority are positive. Readers enjoy the series. It’s military sci-fi‌—‌Bartlett doesn’t present it as literary. He’s telling an action-filled adventure, and that’s exactly what readers get.

The books don’t have the feel of first drafts, so Bartlett edited. I’m sure he made them the best he could, back when he wrote them (over five years ago). And then he reached a point where he felt they were good enough to put into the world.

Which reminds me of an interview I read with the band Massive Attack (after the release of their Mezzanine album). They talked about how they’d be constantly tinkering with the songs, passing files back and forth as they edited, but they eventually had to stop and release the album‌‌—‌but if they had time, they’d continue tinkering.

Works of art aren’t so much completed as abandoned. There’s always room for improvement. But there has to be a moment when the artist (musician, producer, writer, whatever) puts a stop to editing and decides it’s ‘good enough’, that it’s ‘satisfactory’‌—‌that is, it satisfies their own editorial standards, and (hopefully) will satisfy its audience.

And then it’s time to move on to the next project.

But why not continue to polish that first project? If each editing pass improves it, why not keep going?

Because where would it end? Some writers spend years on their first book in an attempt to make it ‘perfect’. But progressive edits yield diminishing returns, while taking up a great deal of time. If the writer wants to improve, they need to practice‌—‌and that means writing more. That means working on new stories and new projects.

A few years ago I re-read my first book, Dark Glass, in preparation for writing more books in the Dominions series. I wasn’t happy with the quality of that book, so I re-worked it‌—‌tightened up the story, added scenes, took away even more, and improved the writing itself. Dark Glass might’ve been the best book I could write back in 2016, but I’d moved on from there‌‌—‌and with the re-write, I was happy with it once more.

But the next couple of books were originally written at the same time (2016), and while I’d learnt from Dark Glass, they’re still not representative of my current writing. A part of me was tempted to rework both Dead Flesh and Deep Water, but I realised this could be a never-ending process‌‌—‌by the time I reached the end of the series I could very easily return to the start, making more improvements. And that would leave no time for writing anything new‌—‌no time to put in the practice and actively improve.

Stories need to be shared. If Bartlett had continued editing Mech Wars, he might not be finished yet‌‌—‌and that would have deprived thousands of readers of the enjoyment they derived from those books. If he’d waited until the series was ‘perfect’, he wouldn’t have had the time to write his other books, books that his readers continue to devour.

There are times we want ‘literature’, times we want to wallow in expertly-crafted prose and marvel at poetic word-play. But, for the majority of readers, and for most of the time, we want entertainment. As long as the writing is good enough to carry the story, we needn’t ask for anything more.

A story that satisfies is good enough.

Desert Bound is now on pre-order

It’s been a while, but I finally have something new coming out‌—‌Desert Bound, the first book in the ShadowTech series.

Ryann never wanted to be a commander. Nor did she want to be a fugitive, on the run from the company that trained and enhanced her. And she definitely didn’t want to end up in a lawless desert city, hunting an ancient tech relic for a double-crossing crime boss.

The relic is the key to untapped power, and others hunt it with ruthless determination, willing to kill any who get in their way. As enemies close in, as the company watches from the shadows, and as her crew crumbles around her, Ryann must fight like she’s never fought before.

The ShadowTech series picks up from the end of the Shadows trilogy‌—‌so if the ending of Shadowstrike left you wanting more, here it is. And if you haven’t entered this world yet, Desert Bound is a fine place to start, especially if you want some fast-paced sci-fi adventure.

Desert Bound is released on 20th May on all the usual ebook sites, with paperbacks through Amazon. And you can pre-order (the ebook) right now for the limited-time price of only 99c (or your local equivalent)