26 February 2013

Short But Difficult

I've had a couple of requests for me to read short stories recently. This has always been something of a thorny topic for me when it comes to commercial endeavour. In fact, even when I did my time in writer's circles back in the day writing shorts was never really my thing. I always tended to submit chapters of longer works, the contexts of my larger story worlds could never comfortably cram into a single short.

I also have found reading shorts by others to be a tricky business. The best short fiction is ephemeral, leaving you wanting more; at least the worst tends to be fairly inconsequential. Short fiction has always struck me as a tool for a writer to get a quick insight into problems with their style, pacing etc. I have to say, looking back on my own experiences with peer criticism it helped me develop a thick skin, but did it make me a better writer? Only in the sense that I had a thicker skin.

A professional guide can tell you what is 'commercial' according to accepted publisher's wisdom and what is not. If there is some glaring inconsistency in your short that can be picked up.

I have never been upbraided for my overuse of the words 'had been', which is odd because I lean on them far too heavily. Nobody has ever suggested that I change ands into follow on sub clauses either e.g. 'Milo picked up the pen and rose to take it to Niles' should become: 'Milo picked up the pen as he rose, intending to take it over to Niles.' Although the second is slightly longer, it flows better.

I learned these things on my own, without writer's circles.

So the short story has never been a favoured form in my eyes. Less so when you intend to charge people money for it. There was a song out last year, you know the one, about sharing a dollar with someone and them sharing their story in return.

Well, if the story is performed, acted out, forms a short performance piece you might get value for money. If it's delivered to your e-reader, well formatted and packed with dynamic, shapely prose, you almost inevitably won't.

Here's the issue. If I received the best short story I had ever read (An unpublished short work called 'Movies and Kids' written by an author called Nicholas Antosca) was sold to me for a dollar that might seem like a good deal. Except the short story is approx 5k words in length. So I'd have to spend 10 dollars to get the equivalent of a bare minimum Nano entry in word length. Most novels are between 70 and 100k these days (although I predict the return of the 50k special in days to come) the indie author will typically charge me between 1 and 6 dollars for 70-100k, a trad author will retail between 7 to 12 dollars for the same amount.

Now, hold on, I hear you cry. Quantity does not equal quality.

No, not always. But in this case it kinda does. Genre reading has one basic requirement: entertainment. If I could by a genre novel to keep me entertained for 1-3 weeks for 3 dollars why would I buy an equally entertaining (if also aesthetically beautiful) short that I will only be entertained by for about an hour for one third of the cost?

Answer: I wouldn't. No one sane would.

That leaves us with an awkward problem. I cannot, in good conscience, endorse a work of short fiction offered for sale at any cost greater than, possibly 20c. I believe this price bracket is not currently available on the e-publishing platforms. Let me know if I am wrong.

So, until micropayments become a reality, however they manifest, I find my self in the position of having to eschew requests to review short fiction pieces because I cannot recommend that people spend money on them over bulkier works that represent better value for money.

This is because I am a genre-reviewing heathen. A more literary reviewer may be appalled by my mercenary aesthetic sense, and rightly so.

So, this is by way of a blanket apology to short story writers looking for review here. I am afraid that I cannot help you out because I currently can't find your work, as it stands, to be economically viable.

Note: Short story collections are a different matter... particularly pulp shorts etc. Serial segments on a value spiral are also acceptable (e.g. part 1: free, parts 2/3: a dollar apiece, parts 4/5: two dollars apiece, omnibus edition: four dollars).

Get back to me when I can pick up a single short for a few pence. Then we can do a like-for-like comparison with larger works.

5 February 2013

Review: Devil's Hand

The Book: Devil's Hand by ME Patterson

Price: £1.97 (Kindle)

Review Category: An author following me on Twitter posted the most intriguing Twitter shout out for his book about Las Vegas being caught in a blizzard.

The Blurb: Trent Hawkins survived a 30,000-foot fall from a jetliner and became an overnight sensation -- the Luckiest Man Alive. For years, his strange and unnatural luck made him the king of the Las Vegas poker scene. After years on the blacklist, despised by every high roller, he finds himself returning, with his wife, Susan, to his former stomping ground, only to be caught between a serial kidnapper, vengeful angels, poker-playing demons, and a magic-wielding thirteen year-old girl who stands unwittingly at the center of a fallen angel's plot to end all of mankind in an unholy blizzard. As Las Vegas grinds to a halt, Trent is forced to make terrible sacrifices and must ultimately choose his role in the coming War, or watch our world fall to ruin beneath a blanket of shadow and ice.

Preview Available: Amazon look inside, also an excerpt to read on screen on the official novel website.

Would I buy this (again)? : Yes.

The Product: Decent e-book, nice cover. One small caveat. I read a couple of chapters on my Samsung Galaxy Ace because I couldn't be bothered to go and get my Kindle from downstairs. Something in the typesetting made it very occasionally drop a word or two off the bottom of one screen and not display it on the next. This meant I had to freestyle the gist of the two missing words from context. Like I say, it's a small niggle.

The Nitty Gritty: There was a point at which I stopped going into bookshops to look for books. The reason why was that no publisher was putting out stuff like Devil's Hand. I don't know if things have changed. I guess they haven't, people keep drawing comparisons in the places I've looked between this and the Dresden Files. If you're going to say that if you liked Dresden then you'll probably like this people would be right. If you want to say the two things have much in common, then you'd be far less right.

Devil's Hand starts out doing things right by not being in the first person. I understand that there's a sort of gumshoe vibe in Dresden but that guy does sometimes come off as a whiner because that's what first person perspective tends to do in long form unless you're clever. Trent Hawkins, the hero of Devil's Hand, is described in the third person and all the better for it. I found it a hell of a lot easier to get on with Trent.

The other two great features of Devil's Hand show a pretty solid understanding of what this series is and what it's about also. One is that it starts a series and has that "television show pilot" vibe about it, but the story contained within its pages is ultimately satisfying in its own right. The other is that its metaphysical set up is laid out for the reader in a pretty clear fashion, giving this urban fantasy thriller a weight that propels it forward and keeps it involving.

As for the plot, the blurb tells you most of what you want to know. The one thing a blurb cannot help to make clear is just how well acquainted Mr Patterson has made him with the apocryphal (as in actually from the apocrypha, not in the metaphorical sense) source of his mythos. I have found that when it comes to contemporary fantasy aimed at adults authors do have a tendency to think that they can half-bake something and let it loose. I have often left these works feeling, somehow, poorer than I came in. Devil's Hand displays the author's research and knowledge in a plot appropriate manner, hence, it enriches even as it thrills and excites.

Not that this is a perfect score card. There is a little flab that could have used some revision. There's too much fighting between the main protagonist and the main antagonist in the first half. There's a character who at first appears a bit thin, then appears to be a cheap motivational device and later proves to be a set up for something down the line; the whole matter is clumsily handled.

These minor problems, however, do not detract from the fact that the overall impact, once the story is done, is a resounding success. I think that some people would say it's an unqualified good that you can get to the end, turn back and see how deftly the players have been introduced and the set up going forward will give room for surprises and drama. I would say that this kind of dramatic coyness, meaning that you can only really see where you were going when you've got to your destination, risks losing a small number of less patient readers along the way.

None of the problems are fatal. I really enjoyed the book and, crucially, am really intrigued to read the follow up and further volumes in the series. Next time I have a gap in my leisure reading schedule (holiday or such) M.E. Patterson's oeuvre will be one of the places I'm going to go looking for another encounter with the fascinating cast of angelic hosts and demonic hordes.