Three Little e-Books, and What I’ve Learned from Them

I’m still lingering in the zone of the world of free e-books, trying to learn more about writing by learning from different styles.  Sometimes, this is a matter of observing what works.  The disclaimer that comes with free e-books is that you often get what you pay for.  So far, I’ve found that it would be splitting hairs to discuss the various gradations by which this assertion would be true.  It is still a brave endeavor; consider the hours that it takes to write a book.  Years ago, I clocked in at a 35 wpm rate; my first novel was 185,000 words.  If I wrote at a consistent rate of 35 words per minute, then that would mean that the first draft of my Absconded by Sin would have taken me at the very least 88 hours and change to write.  If I were to make $1,000 off of Absconded by Sin, that means I would be making no more than $11.35/hour for that first draft.  Clearly, many people who have put in close to a hundred hours of toil and thought would hope for at least that much in wages.  As it stands, with Absconded by Sin still somewhere in the draft stages, I’m making infinitely less than $11.35/hour for my efforts.  However, these brave authors who are selling Kindle versions of their books for free on Amazon are all giving their consumers a product in the hopes of captivating their market and/or earning enough good will that they will receive more business in the future. 

Because of my own efforts as a writer, as well as the knowledge that these brave souls are giving away their efforts for free –something that I don’t think that I would ever be able to do myself—I feel obliged to refrain from flaming anyone.  As I read through the comments, I realize that I may be one of the few to hold myself to that standard.  In general, when I see negative comments (and there are frequently a lot of them), they’re brutal; sometimes, these brutal comments are rooted in genuine considerations regarding characterization, plot, pacing, and style.  Other times, I feel like these comments come from someone just looking for something to hate or something to put down.  The other side of the coin, the 5-star comments are the opposite of the 1-to-2 star comments in so many ways.  Instead of someone tearing the author or the main character a new one, you see these same general, formulaic descriptions that would belong in an action movie trailer if that movie was reviewed by nine year old boys.  The result is this schism between staunchly negative reviews and staunchly positive reviews, with less than half of each actually proving that they’d read the work that prompted their critique. 

It kind of reminds me of this focus group that my company conducted a few years back, where this one member of the focus group had clearly lied about her credentials.  When she was asked about what she thought about this feature or that, or about the product as a whole, she replied that it was simply “innovative.”  That was all.  When she asked about her own involvement with the product, she hemmed and hawed and tried to pass it off as none of our business.  With my frustration with vague descriptions and desire not to flame other authors noted, I would like to discuss three contrasting styles in similarly post-apocalyptic books.

The first book of this trio, Amy Solus’s Vices does not leave a lasting impression about how the United States reached its apocalypse.  The only images I’ve really retained about the aftermath include air that is largely toxic (even though she only wears a gas mask toward the beginning of the book) and a sort of martial law implemented by a nameless corporate-government faction.  The novel follows a young girl, Aiden, who spends much of the early novel alone, and slowly gathers contacts as the novel moves on.  At some point, about two thirds of the way through the novel, she comes across a resistance group, and the number of speaking parts seems to triple.  Stylistically, there were a few things that I read that I have difficulty with as a writer: creating long periods of solitude without much interaction with the present surroundings is always hard to conceptualize and to carry, and so periods of solitude almost always need to have a firm sense of direction.  Where is your character going?  Why is she walking barefoot along Highway 101?  Why doesn’t she bother to talk to some of the other travelers that she spies along the way?  Secondly, having two characters with similar names is always treacherous, and Solus has two such pairings: Aiden and Edan, and Kane and Kael.  Those names are all pretty cool, I’ll admit, but I have a hard enough time putting two characters like Ed and Eric on the same page, and the only real similarity there is the first letter.  Thirdly, I have always had trouble with the first person, particularly when I’m trying to set a certain tone; background-heavy portions of plot are fairly easy with the first person, but too much action within the third person ultimately drives characters too far toward the ‘damsel-in-distress’ or ‘wonder woman’ ends of the continuum.  Unless you’re looking to create a perfect action girl or a porcelain doll, it’s hard to create a first person action scene.  There are moments, especially toward the end, where I think that the author does this very well; her fight scene prevents her from seeming too much like either Daphne or Velma, and she’s definitely not making herself out to be Wonder Woman, either.  The last difficulty I would see with writing a stylistically similar piece to Solus’s is that Solus tends to interject a lot of Aiden’s memories and emotions into the text, and not always in a portion of the text where there’s some strongly symbolic moment or another segment that is intended to transport the reader from one action node to another.  Instead, a paragraph might go from action to memory to emotion, and the subsequent paragraphs may linger in memory or emotion before moving back to what’s happening in the moment.  This is hard to do, and particularly hard to do well, and I think that this is one of the things that made Vices difficult for me to get through as a reader; of course, I read it through to the end.

Pacing is often very difficult to do well, and I am finding that to be the case in many of the books that I’ve read so far.  For Sale in Palm Springs was working well up until the end, and Boxer Hobo had an appropriate pace, despite having a narrative arc that was not so easily discernable.  I found Vices to be more uneven than the previous two books in terms of plot and pacing; there were segments that were effective and just long enough to get me through the action without being so long that the sense of action or urgency was lost, and there were other moments where it felt like there was a chapter or two that had been edited out.  It’s like the Who’s Tommy going directly from the “Pinball Wizard” segment to the “Tommy, can you hear me?” call and response.  If you’re looking for either plot (lyrics) or tone (music), you’ll likely be left wondering what you’ve missed.

The next book that I read, Jason Halstead’s Wanted, was much more in my wheel-house in terms of pacing, tone, and target audience.  As far as apocalyptic literature goes, Vices and Wanted are different genres.  Whereas Vices focuses on a teenaged girl and her emotions, and certainly fulfills a YA niche (if not a YA/Women’s lit interstitial niche) with tendencies that are almost similar to memoir writing in terms of the basic action-reaction format, Wanted is much grittier, and belongs in a realm of men’s adventure.  Wanted focuses more on action and interaction, and clearly isn’t written to appease feminists or the individuals who rate movies for the MPAA.

Wanted follows two central characters: Carl Waters and Jessie Banks.  The latter is a porn star and B-movie actress, while the former is a marine/mercenary who has retired to the hills above Mexicali.  They are two out of four people targeted by a billionaire’s private army.  The other two, a former Olympic hopeful and her teenaged brother, vary at points from third wheels to bad-ass side-kicks.  The older sister, in particular, has her moments, even if these moments seem to take away from the primary duo of Carl and Jessie.  There are gaps, where it is unclear exactly how much time has elapsed between one scene and the next, but these may largely be chalked up to the author refusing to have his readers sit through a glut of filler text.

The action-thriller aspect of this novel means that there’s always a fight or a tense scene around the corner, and the body count, though never firmly established, gets major boosts via an early spark as well as the last shootout.  Most of these bodies rack up due to Carl’s almost Rambo-like reflexes and resourcefulness, while Tanya (the Olympic hopeful) also takes out her share of nasties.  Mainly, although there are moments of dialogue and backstory – and you get a decent-sized helping of who Jessie Banks was before she started her most recent career – the novel focuses on the action and minimizes the moments of reflection.  That said, like many action-thrillers, you don’t get to see another side of the characters.  Carl begrudgingly helps Jessie and the kids, when he really has little choice in the matter.  Jessie battles various addictions (the only one that is obvious is alcoholism, but others are certainly implied), as she tries to help the kids and not be so burdensome to Carl.  Tanya quickly goes from a bit of a priss to one of the stronger characters, and her light shines brightest when characters like Jessie and the brother tend to fade away.  Lastly, the brother (Dustin, although the name escaped me throughout my initial draft of this), goes from a fawning schoolboy to oblivion, with a small hiccup in between.  Overall, I’d say that Jessie, like her or not, has the most depth to her backstory, whereas Tanya leaves the strongest impression.  Nevertheless, this isn’t like some Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, and neither of the action girls carry the emotional power of Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby.

Several of the reviews that I’d read attacked Wanted for one of three things.  First was the beginning, which establishes that Jessie is disturbed for several reasons, one of the primary ones being (the second item) the constant mention of sex.  Initially, sex is all that Jessie wants and all that she seems to understand; when she realizes that she can’t get sex, she turns to the pursuit of money, which is the only way that she can get her next fix.  Later, when Tanya first interacts with Carl, her skepticism and immediate response to him is all centered around sex.  Sure, you’re not going to hear all of this mention of sex at your family’s Christmas dinner, but it doesn’t seem unnatural when you consider that theirs is a barren wasteland of a generously-deemed society that seems to lack either a sense of community or any defined type of compensation.  Lastly, I’ve read the criticism over the ending; I’m not going to toss out any spoilers (except repeat the notion that Tanya is pretty damn cool), but the ending truly isn’t satisfactory.  One other reviewer mentioned that it felt like the book was just a teaser for a longer book, and that the ending was an arbitrary cut-off point that only occurred so that Halstead could break it off into another book.  I’d tend to agree with that assessment; based on the lack of an appropriate resolution, and the multiple threads that haven’t been tied off, it’s clear that this wasn’t intended to be a stand-alone novel.  I would be tempted to read through the latter two-thirds of this series were it not for the selection that I read as a preview to book two.  The preview displays Jessie and Tanya’s behavior as they work through another segment of their adventure, and takes the two in a direction that I didn’t find believable or palatable based on what I’d read about them in Wanted.  I’m still up in the air about continuing the series, but reviewers suggest that book one is really the apex of the series.

One of Halstead’s major successes with this book, and where Solus falls short, is the discussion of setting.  Halstead doesn’t do a whole lot of setting the table, but he does enough to paint an illustrative portrait of this fictitious wilderness north of Mexicali. Halstead deals well with what TV would dub the ‘Apocalypse How,’ where Los Angeles and other major metropolitan areas were irradiated by a nuclear strike, forcing the survivors to flee to other smaller metros, like the nearly 1 million person Mexicali.  Carl’s survival in the hills is plausible enough, although building the wind and solar farms to power his compound would take both “MacGyver” and B.A. from “The A-Team” in terms of ingenuity.  One glaring omission that I’d expected early on was mention of Mexicans, and more particularly the cultural and language barriers that may come from a sudden influx of US citizens.  If Carl stumbled upon this empty land some twenty-or-so miles out of a 1 million person metro area, I would have expected more description of his interactions.

Wanted goes into emotions and backstory, but it isn’t so intrusive that it takes away from the action or the pace.  After reading that Jason Halstead is a coder, I can see the influence of his coding on this book.  His narrative includes all of the features it needs, and makes them generally tidy and utilitarian.  In other words, his word count is generally quite efficient.  You may not agree with the characterization (especially when Jessie goes through her withdrawals) or the constant references to sex, but it’s pretty clear that the author is trying to take you along for a ride.  By this token, I’ve come up with a comparison of verbosity.  First and foremost, none of these books I’ve read so far are as verbose as Hawthorne or Melville.  Secondly, I am not trying to place any value judgments through these comparisons.  That said, if we describe Solus’s tone and pace as Danielle Steele, then Halstead is like Clive Cussler; better yet here’s an analogy:

Jane Austen: F. Scott Fitzgerald::Amy Solus: Jason Halstead.  If this is true, then: Fitzgerald:Hemingway::Halstead:Morris

The last book that I’ve been reading out of my free set of Amazon purchases has been Stan Morris’s Surviving the Fog.  This is a go-for-broke attempt at splicing a gender-binary Lord of the Flies society with apocalyptic literature.  Mike, the main character, is put in charge of a society of teenagers after an extraterrestrial fog has managed to wipe out the entire population below 7,600 feet.  Slowly, outsiders come out of the woodwork, including a logger, a forest ranger, a mother of two, and others.  Aside from a rather poetic (and sci-fi) prologue, Surviving the Fog ranges from sparse and succinct to logical and proof that the author has thought out his Apocalypse How and is focusing on Apocalypse: Now What?  Considering the amount of thought that Morris has put into the circumstances, it’s a good thing that his writing style lacks a lot of backstory and inner-monologue.  If Morris tried to capture the inner thoughts of even a third of his characters, then the book would clock in at several thousand pages and still lack resolution.

I’m about two-thirds through the book right now, so I cannot really speak to my satisfaction level with the book as a whole.  However, my immediate observations indicate three difficulties that are hard for most writers to negotiate.  The first is that of movement.  Sure, your characters are taking a bicycle trip from Yakima to Tallahassee and you don’t really want to include every mile; what happens then, when they’re riding through Idaho in one scene and then taking a bus to Graceland in the next?  There’s a happy medium that many authors do not strike.  I think I tend to overexplain transitions, while there are moments where some of the authors that I’ve read recently are leaving me scrambling to figure out how we took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  There were a few moments in Solus’s novel that left me in that hole, and a few more in Morris’s.  Halstead, on the other hand, struck a happy medium.  Since Morris is trying to juggle so many more considerations than Golding was in Lord of the Flies, I can understand the need to describe and then move on, but there are points where it appears that Ralph did this, Mike did that, Yuie did that, and they all did that other thing.  This latter part is too much movement; it’s like passing all of the gates on the giant slalom when you were actually trying to race the Iditarod. It’s not enough to explain that you swept past gate six, but managed to clip gates four and seven; when you push off of the blocks at the beginning of the race, you need to explain how the air feels on your face, what the rush does to your chest, and even how the push off the blocks makes everything from your glutes on up to your delts seize up.  What?  No, I haven’t been watching the Sochi Olympics… why do you ask?

Part of the laundry list of actions might have something to do with the oodles and oodles of characters.  I often enjoy lots of characters because I think it lends to credibility.  Unless you are building a world where a person can go days without seeing another soul (such as Solus’s Vices), your main character will have the potential for many interactions.  For instance, I work in a small office (eight people total), but there’s rarely a day where I don’t at least exchange pleasantries with the rest of my office.  Surely, there’s not much reason for me to talk to the marketing manager or the sales manager, as they’re in operations and I’m in production, but we at least check in about each others’ weekends or weekend plans and such.  In Morris’s novel, the main characters belong to a camp of about 53 people, and probably about half of them are referred to by name.  Some pair off and break-up, which often makes them like another entity entirely.  Of course, there’s other groups outside of the camp, each with their own named and nameless characters.   Not all of these named characters have speaking parts, but more often than not, they do.  I know from experience that it is very difficult to juggle ten or twenty different characters, even if most of them are secondary characters.  My third NaNo Novel became a bit of an alphabet soup after a while, always trying to juggle the top line characters with secondary or even tertiary characters.  That’s part of the reason why this novel is still lacking a complete first draft.

Lastly, dialogue is always difficult.  I’ve heard many writers and writing coaches say that dialogue must improve, enhance, or move the plot, yet there’s always examples of television dialogue like “Tony, my brother, mom wanted me to ask you how your recent move to Bakersfield was.  Do you like your new job as a claims adjuster?” Of course, the dialogue provides us with everything we need to know about Tony, but who actually talks like that, especially with someone that they know?  I recently sat down on a bench with someone who was reading a book about the Croatian diaspora. It was easy to say to this guy “oh, Croatia, are you Croatian?  Ever been?” but I’ve never mentioned to someone “oh, my Croatian heritage is why I tan so easily and it means that I’m just about a natural whenever I step on a boat!”  Good dialogue is hard enough without the items that are just not natural for interpersonal interactions.  Both Solus and Morris are uneven in this regard, whereas Halstead seems to get it.  Dialogue isn’t something that comes naturally to me, either, and I realize that there are multiple ways of tackling it.  Roddy Doyle’s dialogue is terse, laden with accents and aphorisms.  Dashiell Hammett’s is similarly terse, but he packs so much wit and pace into his dialogue that it’s almost like a comedy bit where people ask questions and only get non-sequiturs in response.  Both Hammett and Doyle provide potent dialogue.  Meanwhile, you read some of the classics: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, and Melville (among others), and you realize that nobody talks like that; in fact, much of the speech is so high that it is highly improbable that people even spoke like that in the 19th century (for Melville) and so on.  Their dialogue can be potent and witty and incredible… of course, the actual definition of incredible is “not believable,” and their dialogue is that, too.  When you write dialogue, beware of sounding like an episode of Whose Line?  Sure, a little might be funny, but a lot can kill.

Without taking lines of the dialogue or going into too much depth about these books, I hope that I’ve again illustrated that you can learn a lot from free books, and perhaps hook yourself into a new adventure or a new character or even a new style.  While all of these books have their flaws (and what book doesn’t, if you look at it long enough?), they all also have redeeming qualities.  As I would hate for a fellow author to flame me as I try to make a name for myself, I’m going to sum up my feelings for the free books that I’ve reviewed so far with some awards:

Best in Show: Wanted.  So far, Wanted is the best of the free Amazon books that I’ve read.  It has better pace than most, stronger dialogue, and more consistent movement.  Its direction is largely clear, even though its resolution is not.  For Sale in Palm Springs also has its moments, and can be considered a runner up.

Best fight scene: Vices.  Toward the end of the book, Aiden’s big scene is pretty satisfying.  It’s the type of fight scene that doesn’t try to do too much, and doesn’t leave you hanging.  It is largely more believable than the fight scenes that I’ve encountered in other free books, and certainly isn’t over the top.

Most Likeable Character: Henry Wright, For Sale in Palm Springs.  He is a well formed, hard -working, and honest character.  I felt compelled to sympathise with him from the get go.

Most Ambitious: Surviving the Fog.  Despite picking apart the novel’s faults, I really appreciate what Morris is trying to do with this writing.  It is certainly hard to contain, and can stand some more meat on its bones, but the ideas that it presents definitely make it palatable.

Best Voice: Boxer Hobo.  Reiterating what I’ve written in other posts, Noctor provides his narrator with a very distinct, often witty voice.  The voice is consistent, with the caveat that an alcoholic isn’t necessarily the most consistent in their own perceptions and/or voice.

For those of you who have made it this far, I salute you.  You’re probably angry at me p***y-footing around with “I didn’t like this about the book” rather than “I didn’t like this book,” but I believe that I have done so responsibly, and hope that someday someone will either (a) praise the merits of my books, (b) feel that they’ve learned something from my books, or (c) provide constructive, measured commentary about how I can improve my books, once published.

As for my own books, I am currently splitting my time between the first drafts of two projects, as well as another go-over for the first completed novel-length work of my adult life (Absconded by Sin, first draft completed in 2011).  I aspire to get Absconded by Sin in front of an editor by May, but also know my Robert Burns (the best laid plans…)  Upon publishing this post, I’ll likely go back to editing Absconded by Sin.  ‘Til next time!

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