Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Should I Try Pubby

Pubby is a website where authors rate each others’ books. Membership has a monthly fee, but it bypasses Amazon’s stricture against paid reviews. Is a good idea to join? The short answer is: in moderation and in limited circumstances for a limited time.

Why I Tried

Indie authors should never pay for reviews. First of all, Amazon would remove your account. Although, a few Vine Voice reviewers hit me up for payment, but nothing happens to them. Second, nobody would believe the honest reviews you do have. While browsing on Amazon, few people will buy a book with under ten reviews, and some advertisers won’t help you until you reach that threshold. Normally, my mailing list of fans can provide 5 to 20 starter reviews, depending on how good the cover is and how close the new novel is to my normal style. If those fail, things get ugly. Sending out personalized invitations to 500 reviewers may get me another 5 reviews, but new reviews risk knocking off earlier unpaid reviews—three steps forward and two steps back. Giving away a hundred e-books on Goodreads doesn’t do much. I got one Amazon review and 4 Goodreads ratings. The read-to-review bulletin board hasn’t yielded results in a couple years. I won’t give away free copies on Amazon again to spur reviews. If you get a competing author or an offended customer who gives you an early one-star on Amazon, your book may never recover. Even free, it counts as a verified purchase and weighs as much as 8 older reviews from bloggers. What can an Indie author do in these circumstances?

Trading reads on a site like StoryOrigin is slow. I think I received six reviews for two books in the few months I belonged, and half were from Amazon.uk. One caused Amazon to remove a previous free review. My net gain was two reviews for three months of effort, not a great payoff. The site was valuable for meeting other authors and growing my mailing list. Although, site membership is now $10 a month.

 

What’s left? Desperate to repair my books that started with a bad cover or an early one-star, I turned to the Pubby website.

The Price

You get a free 10 day trial membership and a few points to spend. You get more points by reviewing the books of other authors on the site. I would recommend the trial membership to anyone with a few caveats. Though some are free, most books are only available to select if you belong to Kindle Unlimited or pay for them on Amazon. If you want reviews for your books to have full Verified Purchase weight, you have to pay Pubby an extra fifteen bucks as a one-time fee. The Kindle Unlimited option is another ten. Why would you want this? Because Amazon purchases from Pubby reviewers can actually earn you more than your subscription fees, and reviews don’t vanish due to the mysteries of the Almighty Amazon Algorithm. Anecdotal evidence has informed me when under ¼ of reviews are verified purchase, old ones can slip off when new ones are added. I opted to get both options and continue for two months at the limited 10-book level at $17.99 a month. For a beginner without a mailing list, it’s a no-brainer.

Summary

The site interface is crude but navigable. In theory, you can gain as many reviews as the work you put in, taking out two books at a time and waiting six hours after purchase to post a review. In practice, they will only allow 10 reviews per week, and your progress is limited by the speed at which the moderator confirms reviews (up to ten days). In case Amazon someday ends up invalidating all those reviews or the books themselves, I didn’t choose my best-rated/most-reviewed novels. Over a span of 64 days, I spent $205 (61 to Pubby and 144 for buying other authors’ novels) and got 57 reviews, with an average outlay of $3.60 each—a financial bargain.

Most of my novels only needed 2 or 3 reviews to repair a stain or boost them to the noticeable level. For books already rated below 4.0, I started cautiously to see how the community would react to them. Reviews for free copies were half the price (1500 vs 2500) and counted for less than verified. Amazon only allows 7 free reviews a week. Though I got a three-star for my lowest ranked older book, it didn’t sting or make an impact, and I stopped when I reached ten reviews. These novels didn’t change ratings at all, just count. The only permanent and significant ratings gains came because of volume and purchases. I’ll talk about my larger scale experiments later.

Though the Pubby-written reviews averaged two lines and were vague, about a third of them were thoughtful and deeply appreciated. A few reviewers obviously didn’t even crack the book or read the summary; their reviews could have applied to any work of fiction. A little resentment leaked through from other people who felt forced to read the books of others because they began with the phrase “normally I don’t read this kind of book.” So much so, the word “normally” now appears in my keyword list for reviews for “It Takes an Oni.”

Because verified reviews and longer books are more expensive, I gave more reviews than I received. For the 60 reviews I provided, I started with nice things above the More click line and then limited negatives to the worst four problems. I gave points for formatting, editing, meeting the promise of the genre, and whether I liked it or not, with examples. Fourteen of them had serious formatting issues. Forty-two of them had persistent grammar and punctuation issues. Most fiction authors I could contact through Goodreads (those I was giving 4-5 stars and wanted to help) admitted that they had no editor and no wish to spend that money. Reviews from kind peers are no substitute for a professional product. If I couldn’t say anything nice, which happened about three times, I put it back as soon as possible, returned my payment points, and got my real money back from Amazon. Of the eight organic paid novels I rated a three-star, one author gave up collecting reviews afterward. Another removed their book from Amazon entirely. However, half of my critical reviews became the top review for that book, so others thought they were helpful.

The biggest cost to me was time, an average of four hours per book for reading, add one each for note-taking, spreadsheet-accounting, and e-mails to remove website obstacles. That’s over 300 hours of effort, something I wouldn’t have time for unless I was between projects.

Fairness

The ratings sci-fi books receive on Amazon (sampling several authors) are typically about half a star higher than Goodreads. The ones I received on Pubby averaged 4.587, about .25 stars higher than my usual Amazon rating. Then again, when I had a choice between which of the ten novels on my shelf I would submit for the next review, I spent my hard-earned points on my best, most popular, and most sale-worthy novels first.

Books with fewer than 30 reviews and actual organic participation didn’t seem to be significantly skewed by the Pubby additions. However, fifteen of the books I reviewed relied solely on Pubby (fewer than 5 Goodreads reviews and over 30 Amazon). Those averaged 72 reviews with 4.458 stars (standard deviation of .19). We have no clue whether those were realistic, and my ratings also fell inside that narrow band. The outliers were more credible, giving some indication of quality range; however, 102 ratings that averaged 4.8 with no 3-star reviews doesn’t seem authentic. Even Jim Butcher’s latest triumph, “Battle Ground” (same star rating) had 4 percent of its ratings 3 and below. Someone in cycling competition would call performance like this sus. Since a quarter of those authors who received bad reviews dropped out before reaching the 30 mark, this might affect the average rating curve.

Hidden Benefits

Keep track of every review you have on Amazon before and during the experiment. If one of your Pubby reviews vanishes mysteriously, they will refund the points you paid. Second books in a series are notoriously hard to collect reviews for ahead of time, but you can get them done here! An epic fantasy book from a decade ago received favorable attention, which let me know I’d underestimated it and encouraged me to spend more effort on the series. If I have one paid review a day, the position on my genre list goes way up from 1.5 million to 2000, which adds a little respectability too.

The text you place in your book description often ends up in reviews, so choose wisely. Once you add a book, it’s there forever. You can also pay extra to have your book reviewed by people who rate your genre or your books higher than average, which we’ll come back to later. Children’s books were easy to review, but many weren’t suitable for Kindle.

The biggest hidden benefit was seeing how good my cover is by how fast people snap up the title after I request a review. If it’s a couple minutes, you have a winner. If it takes a day, invest in a replacement. I could tell how good a novel was by how long it took on average to go from “reading” to “review awaiting approval.” My book “It Takes an Oni” almost always came back with rave reviews the next day, whereas few people wanted to finish my genetic-engineering hard science fiction in five. On this site, you can tell quickly which of your products are marketable, where you should invest future efforts, and where you should cut your losses. A word of caution, any novel over 70k words will be considered “long” by this audience and make garnering reviewers more difficult.

Hidden Costs and Pitfalls

The word count in the book description page Pubby gives you is often wrong, especially for nonfiction. They don’t care. Don’t bother to email the site; just put it back because they aren’t paying you enough.

Often, nonfiction people game the system to a ridiculous level. They put themselves in an obscure subcategory that they’re really nowhere close to the subject matter to just to get higher on a chart with less competition. Please don’t commit fraud like this. I deducted a star and called it out in the reviews. If I could have complained to Amazon, I would have.

In one case, a person reading my book didn’t post a review in the week after, so the site put my on the market again at no cost to me. Unfortunately, someone grabbed it that normally doesn’t read sci-fi and rated it a 3 with a one-line review: “This looked like it would be a fun read, but not really. At least for me.” This was absolutely no help, with no specifics. Did they stop after the first page?

I tried to be super nice my first month—reminding myself of a young bride who won’t fart in front of her husband for the first year. I wouldn’t take a book assignment if I couldn’t post an average rating a four. In nonfiction, logical errors and misinformation from non-experts abound. Some writers only have one title and post it nonstop over a hundred times. As a rule of thumb, a book on Amazon will have about half the number of organic reviews you see on GR. If they only have three on GR and over 100 on Amazon, it feels like a sock puppet. I didn’t feel right lying to people about these and tried to avoid them. The worst side-effect of perpetuating these is that Amazon detects common purchasers, even from Pubby. With every review you ask for, you risk being lumped in with them because people who bought the sock puppet also bought yours. If you’ve ever downloaded your own book during a free day, you could infect yourself by touching this social network.

After receiving my the three-star review “not for me”, I stopped caring and became more honest. When I read a nonfiction book that lied on several levels and lacked basic formatting and editing, I issued my first two-star rating. Once the average score I posted dropped below four, the number of options I had to do reviews on dropped sharply. Why? People pay extra points to get the friendly reviews. The ones remaining were usually a lower quality, with no editing. As I gave more 3s, even though I kept the rules about starting positive, I was excluded by genre after genre and my review approvals slowed ever more so I couldn’t request reviews as often. By two weeks into my second month, I could only see nonfiction candidates once or twice a day. Since I wasn’t a woman of color into Raki massage subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, the options were even scarcer, only travel books or nothing for days. I was forced to drop out 10 days before my last month completed.

Case Studies for Larger Review Counts

What about the two special cases where I gathered more reviews? My medical thriller “Preconceptions” started with 3 reviews (2 fives and a one-star), sitting at around 3.5 average. Either readers didn’t like the topic of eugenics/near-future genetic engineering and the rules governing science, or I didn’t wrap it attractively enough. Once I accrued 7 mor reviews so it met the minimum 10 threshold, it had risen to an average of 4.1 with a believable bell curve. My first Book Barbarian sale last April only sold 15 copies. The second sale in mid-October with a comparable venue only sold 8. In a light-bulb moment, I figured out that email/social media sale venues don’t show the number of reviews, only the cover and a short pitch. Having a hundred reviews doesn’t matter if my book isn’t marketable. A sale can get you noticed on the first page of a genre where reviews matter, but only if you can garner enough interest on day one to make the leap. Pubby can’t help a novel nobody wants.

Lastly, I did a larger scale test for “It Takes an Oni,” my supernatural heist novel with a new cover. It started at 5 initial reviews (all five-stars) and actually went down to a more realistic 4.7 by the time it reached my goal of 30 reviews. It sold 51 on its opening sale in March, including my own mailing list. However, I hoped that seeing a sharp new cover and a lot of reviews would sway more of my existing fans to try it. If this happens, I could reach the fifty review mark organically, and Amazon might send a few emails on my behalf. At the very least, bloggers might be more receptive. The sale Halloween week sold over 100 copies, more in two days than the previous year! It also encouraged two additional organic reviews by the third day.

Conclusion

I got my money’s worth on this experiment but won’t be able to repeat it with my next book. Not only would I have to pay $25 a month to go from ten to eleven novels on my shelf, but once you’re completely honest, you’re no longer welcome on the site. Therefore for future novels, I have to make sure my book is marketable, has a good cover, and is supported by my base fans before I post it to Amazon.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Preconception Cover Reveal

 This past November, I wrote a 48K word medical thriller about a breakthru in treating common genetic disorders ethically before conception. It poured out in three weeks. As a result, I spent seven weeks rewriting it, but Preconceptions has more symbolism and raw feeling than any book I've written in the last decade. The main character is a gentleman journalist with few clues about the topic, ala Sam Spade. Other than the main invention, a tool to detect the rapid cell division as an egg tranforms into a baby, everything in it is as scientifically accurate as I could make it. It will be on sale for 99 cents for the first few weeks in order to stimulate reviews. click here for Amazon page

I'm very pleased with the way the cover came out:



Tuesday, July 14, 2020

It Takes an Oni: Sample

An interesting monster…
For a hundred years, he’s stolen art and gems from around the world, and he can look like anyone. Now Solomon Oni has taken a commission to rob something of devastating power from the Smithsonian’s religious artifact vault. His only friend, other than a magical tattoo artist and the odd djinn, is a young misfit witch named Morgan. When supernatural thugs threaten her, he demonstrates just how much a former servant of the underworld can do to punish the wicked. Sometimes it takes a monster to catch a monster. Fans of Oceans 11 and Beauty and the Beast will enjoy this fantasy adventure.

Here's chapter one:

Nothing could go Wrong


“Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.”
—Oscar Wilde

I’ve been called many things—monster, abomination, and thief—but I prefer the Japanese term Oni. Like them, I could reshape my face to look like anyone I want. However, instead of working to punish of the wicked, I became the wicked.

On Memorial Day, I wore the face of Solomon Bourne, a fortyish mouse of a man who dressed like a bank clerk from Mary Poppins. Because my parents never gave me a name, I could choose any I liked. This identity came from the children’s nursery rhyme, “Solomon Grundy, born on a Monday.”

I climbed the stately stone steps of the Maryland Smithsonian office and tugged on the door. I feigned surprise when it was locked. Then, I held up my ID from the Knox Vault Company toward the security camera.

A hefty guard limped over from his desk, powdered sugar from a donut staining his solid-blue tie. Donut-stain was an ex-football player from New Jersey with a bad knee. I knew his name, everything about him down to how much he owed on his Suburban, but I couldn’t think of the guards as people today if I was going to do my job.

He recognized me the way people did the moving boxes in their basement that they never opened. “Why are you here? Don’t you know what today is?”

My big score. I tapped the tickets in my left vest pocket. “The comic-book convention?” I asked with a faint British accent. The success of any magic trick is based on staying in character and selling the lie.

“It’s a federal holiday. The place is closed. You don’t need to be here to open the vault.”

He was referring to Dangerous Religious Artifacts department, so named because the US government could never admit that magic exists. Built in the Lincoln era, the DRA was the most secure facility in the country. I’d been here as Bourne every time they opened or closed the vault for the weekend. But on a holiday, there were only four guards in the entire building instead of the normal ten. I had arranged the perfect way past the defenses. My client would be pleased.

I pulled an authorization form out of my doctor’s bag. “That’s why the company wants me to drain the tanks today. With all the arrests and artifact seizures this year, you have record levels of dark Kirilian radiation.” That was the polite 1970s term for black magic that would melt your eyes out for even looking at it. “Wouldn’t want any of that stuff leaking out, would we?”

With a sigh, he let me in. Officially, this facility was storage for overflow Smithsonian exhibits, and the workers rotated the items in the lobby to keep up appearances. The current display had to do with Watusi ceremonial dress, but the wooden staff in the mannequin’s hands wasn’t Watusi; it was Northern Chinese. I couldn’t read the runes to be more precise. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Bourne wouldn’t know the difference, so I can’t say anything.

While Donut-stain radioed his boss in the control room, I signed the logbook in front of a surly African-American woman. She must have started her civil service career in the TSA because she had me take off my leather sandals first. Then she patted me down thoroughly. In the process, she failed to notice that I had removed the prints from the pads of my fingers.

“Pass your bag through the scanner.”

I had latex gloves, tools, Chiclets gum, and a dozen other suspicious devices in my kit, but the only thing that raised an eyebrow was the plastic box of medicated wipes in my jacket. “It’s for hemorrhoids.” I didn’t say mine. The container had a gel-filled false bottom the exact size and shape of the gemstone I was here to liberate. I used a gel because I didn’t want anyone to rattle the container and find the cubic-zirconium replica.

“It’s okay. He always carries them,” said Donut-stain.

I’d included them in my identity since the beginning, making the prop invisible.

She grimaced. “Proceed to the elevator on the left. You must be escorted at all times.”

Yeah, but they never follow me into the bathroom. I had tested the switch technique on a smaller item. I could toss the container out the narrow bathroom window and walk out scot-free. Within a minute of the drop, my associate Elaine would pass by walking her dog and scoop it up in a plastic baggie.

Another side of beef in uniform stood at attention beside the elevator. They both had six inches on me, but with my superhuman strength, I could knock them out if I had to. The trick was to get away with the crime without leaving evidence that anything supernatural had been involved.

Bored by the holiday closure, guard two did something unheard-of. He asked me a social question. “How about that Polish soccer game last night?”

He meant the FIFA tournament, but I didn’t own a TV. However, I didn’t want to reveal a personal fact that they might use to track me later. So I touched the hearing aid in my right ear. “Pardon?”

Soccer guard averted his eyes. It’s a trick I learned. People avoid looking at what they perceive as disabilities. It makes them uncomfortable and leaves fewer witnesses for me. I can lip-read for other reasons.

The guards put their keys in on either side of the ancient elevator and turned them simultaneously. Donut said to Soccer, “The people downstairs like that he can’t listen in on secrets about m-a-g-i-c.”

“How did it happen?”

“Testing one of their vaults with dynamite. Long story. His family has been in this business for generations. His grandfather met Jesse James.” A good legend grows with each telling.

The doors opened, and I stepped inside. The elevator had two buttons. I hit B. In twenty minutes, I would be holding the thing I’d worked for two months to steal.

As the doors began to close, a woman’s voice called from the lobby, “Hold the lift!”

When I saw her long, white hair, I pushed the Close button frantically. It didn’t help.

Soccer guard put his foot in the gap.

I froze in terror. What is she doing here? She’s supposed to be attending law school.

Delilah could expose everything. Her undergraduate degree in history made her an outstanding researcher and archivist, and her minor in psychology had sharpened her ability to unearth the truth from obscure clues. If I weren’t working for a god, I would’ve run away then and there. However, the Drinking God always enforces oaths; he’s touchy about that. She won’t recognize me if I don’t speak. This can still work.

Slightly out of breath from the run, the gorgeous blue-eyed Nordic woman passed over credentials from the pocket of her business jacket. “Delilah Theowin, Salem security.” Most witches lived in Salem, the private dimension that Lilith got in the settlement for divorcing Adam. “I’m here to suspend the wards for the special opening today.”

Donut-stain frowned. “Why not Agnes?”

My sentiments exactly. Agnes was a half-blind bureaucrat and let me get away with anything. If the heist went south, I couldn’t choke Delilah unconscious and look myself in the mirror again.

“The theonic radiation in the DRA is a concern, so they brought me in as a specialist. I’m skilled in handling sacred items.” Witches referred to lethal levels of raw, undirected magic from another realm as “theonic,” leaving the nature of the god unspecified. She didn’t use judgmental terms like dark or evil, even though her last scrape with the supernatural had permanently bleached her hair corn-silk white.

“Yeah,” said Donut, glancing at me. “I heard something about that.”

I’d brought this on myself by spreading the backstory too far.

From a long line of witch priestesses, Delilah had a rare resistance that had been strengthened by the tattoos all over her body. With their aid, she could pick up cursed items, absorb, and redirect the harmful energy. Instinctively, my eyes went to the ward spiral visible through her white nylons. Don’t stare! With great effort, I raised my chin to be a gentleman.

Stay in character, and this will all work. I stepped to the back of the elevator car to hide as Donut-stain escorted her in. Why is he starting to take an interest in his job now?

Her hair smelled of lavender, just like it had ten years ago. With her heels, she was an inch taller than me. She said one word, and I knew I was doomed. “Morgan!”

The ten-year-old girl came galloping through the lobby like a wild horse, her wavy black mane flowing unbound. Small for her age, she made up for it with attitude. She wore a private-school uniform with a pleated skirt but no shoes. She’d removed them for the security search but never bothered to put them back on.

Her mother growled, but the infraction didn’t merit an argument in front of people she worked with.

Donut-stain frowned. “Hey, this is no place for kids.”

Delilah pushed the down button. “Yeah? Well, nobody told me her new school would be closed today, and she’s been banned from the only suitable day care. Anger issues.”

“Mr. Mask?” said the girl, gazing at me with her chocolate eyes.

How did she recognize me with implants and surgical alteration? Despite having a mouth like a truck driver, this child was the most dangerously smart person I had ever met. I tried to reason with her, putting a finger to my lips.

The doors closed with glacial slowness again.

Donut-stain said, “He can’t hear you, kid. He’s deaf.”

“She’s talking to her imaginary friend,” explained Delilah.

Morgan opened her mouth to contradict them both, but I took a chance and signed, “Play along. I can’t talk, or your mother will know my secret.”

Her eyes grew huge. “I understand,” she said aloud. Then slowly, she signed back. “How am I understanding?”

“Magic.” I was vague on purpose. You don’t tell a little girl about mommy’s nasty deal with an elder god.

Her mother smiled at the girl’s “pretend” sign language and chatted with the guard.

“I suck at magic.” Morgan made a gesture that she shouldn’t have known for several years. “I’ve been thrown out of three schools. Can you help?”

I recognized the symptoms from other crossbreeds. “Then those schools suck. They only know how to teach people to do magic. You are magic. You have a rare and precious gift. You can speak any language the person you’re with knows.” Other abilities should manifest as she matured. “Some of your anger may be due to the disconnect between what people are saying with their mouths and the truth that their body language is revealing.” My mother had been an oracle, and personal information sometimes popped into my head when I met people. The talent came in handy when planning a new job. Hacking people is easier than cracking safes.

“I’m a bloody unicorn,” she muttered aloud. Her face lit up like I’d given her the keys to her own life.

“Language!” her mother said sternly without turning.

The elevator stopped, but our signing conversation continued as Donut led us down the hall toward the head archivist’s office. “Are you my guardian angel?” Morgan asked, pointing toward my sandals.

They don’t have a word for what I am. Not a nice one. “Not an angel, but I watch over you whenever I can.”

Her mother pointed to a row of chairs. “Sit!”

Both Morgan and I obeyed reflexively.

Harrison Tweed stepped out of his boss’s office, the holiday replacement. This buffoon was everything I hated in an Ivy League bureaucrat—attractive, oily, and fond of claiming the accomplishments of others. “Hello… I’m the security officer, the acting supervisor at this site. Whom do we have the pleasure of meeting?”

Pompous ass. I shouldn’t complain. His incompetence made my job easy.

Donut made introductions.

Harrison actually kissed Delilah’s hand before he took her into the office to sign some forms.

I whispered, “Call me Pepe Lepew. Mwah.” I kissed the little girl’s hand.

Morgan burst out in a fresh round of giggles.

“You two know each other?” Donut asked.

“What? You mean do I break into her house once a year and leave her presents, while she puts cookies out for me? That would be creepy.”

Covering her face, Morgan held in a snicker. That’s exactly what we’d been doing. When she turned three, she’d left her favorite platypus plush doll in a hotel. I had tracked it down with my divination skills and returned it, but she caught me in the act. To buy her silence, I’d taught her how to tie her shoes. Her mom was a righty while Morgan was a lefty like her no-good absentee father.

The guard took out his phone and pulled up a video of some sporting match. I used his moment of disinterest to transfer the Chiclets into my jacket pocket.

She signed, “Why are you here?”

“To rescue someone.”

“Who?”

The most powerful genie of his age, trapped in a vault. I made a locking gesture over my lips.

“Angel stuff. Got it.”

I wanted to hug her, but that would get me arrested for other reasons. Instead, I asked, “What happened at the day care?”

“I don’t know what the big deal is. I took a nap during some boring movie, and one of the other kids woke me up, screaming that I was a freak. So I washed his mouth out with hand sanitizer.”

She’s glowing in her sleep again. “You can’t do that.”

“They didn’t have any soap.”

“You can’t sleep anywhere but in your own bed! I warned you.”

“Why not? Normal kids do.”

“I agree it’s not fair,” I replied. “For now, you have to trust me.”

The manager’s door opened, and Harrison frowned at the guard. “Take the child to the break room. Buy her something with sugar. Just keep her out of our hair.” Then he gestured me inside.

Access to the vault area was through the back of the manager’s office.

I glanced down the hall toward the exit. Delilah could lose her job for what I was about to do. Watching her cry about that would be hard, but facing a berserk god would be worse.

****

Harrison narrated the whole experience as if he had designed it. “The DRA repository is surrounded by three feet of reinforced concrete on every side, with alternating meshes of silver, cold iron, and electrum to prevent access from supernatural forces. Recently, Knox has installed blockers for cell phones and ground-penetrating radar.” To be fair, the Knox Ultima mark 7 was an impressive piece of craftsmanship that filled the entire wall. The brushed-titanium fittings and pearlescent midnight-blue paint job wouldn’t be out of place on a Jaguar. Not many people could see the faint wards woven beneath the lacquered surface. The US government had spoiled the effect by installing fluorescent fixtures in the seventies. “The glassy substance around the perimeter is eog, a living aetheric material that absorbs any magical attack and transfers it to a storage array in the floor. It’s wand-proof. Inside, we maintain a self-contained environment so tight it could be used to store smallpox. The only way in or out is through this seven-layer door.”

Just to throw him off his smug stride, I pointed to the two-foot plus sphere in the left corner.

Harrison rolled his eyes. “Oh. That’s the night depository. It’s how agents drop off dangerous items after hours.” The top quarter of the ball had been cut out like a Pac Man mouth with a pivot rod through the jaw. He demonstrated by lifting the lever at the bottom to show how the contents could be dumped onto the other side of the wall.

“Like a mailbox,” Delilah said.

“We catalog and shelve them the next morning. To drain the energy sink, we’ll need to open that impenetrable door.”

She smiled at the dramatic flair. “I’ve read the specs, sir. It’s a simple three-person lock. Mr. Bourne turns off the antimagic sponge. I suspend the wards, and you turn the combination. If you don’t mind my asking, why is he here instead of a federal employee?”

“Ah, well… one of the Special Branch geniuses invented a dimensional-gate detector last Halloween, and we’ve been busy rounding up artifacts ever since. Unfortunately, this storage facility isn’t rated for such a large influx, and our last two specialists passed out. Mr. Bourne’s disability has reduced the effects of aetheric resonances. Besides, losing a contractor doesn’t impact our safety reports or insurance.” He said the word “contractor” with the same distaste as “cockroach.”

The first collapse had been a fluke, but I’d arranged the second with chemicals. I relied on the collapse fallacy for my plan B. If nobody gave me the time I needed to switch gems, the chewing gum in my pocket contained blood caps. I could fake internal bleeding. While they ran outside the cell-blocker radius to call an ambulance, I could do the deed.

Delilah frowned at the idea that anyone was disposable.

Tapping his watch, Harrison prodded me to do my part. The nondisclosure signing and tour had put us behind schedule. The vault timer only had five-minutes remaining in the window where the combination would work.

I opened the access panel and worked the override levers and knobs like an eighties kid with a Rubix cube. I wasn’t as dexterous as one of those teens, but I was a great deal stronger. Mechanical devices respect that about me. I twisted the final valve into the off position and nodded.

“That’s your cue, Miss Theowin,” said Harrison.

Delilah pulled a delicate Sterling silver rod from her purse, slashed downward, and uttered the release phrase. When that didn’t work, she cleared her throat and repeated the incantation.

“We don’t have all day, miss. Are you sure you’re qualified for this?”

Nope, that was the spell to reveal asshats. Undoing wards required the precision of an orchestra conductor and the brains of a calculus instructor. He had neither. Delilah flipped through her manual, looking for the part of the formula she might be missing. I had seen others perform this ceremony enough times that I had spotted her mistake early on.

Mr. Sphincter tapped his right wingtip.

During the third try, her voice and hand were shaking so much that she botched it worse than a first-year student. Three minutes. We didn’t have time to be delicate, so I let go of the valve and cleared my throat. Using my hands, I formed a hollow circle and moved it in an arc over my head.

She slapped her forehead. “You’re right. I didn’t adjust the equation for the phase of the moon. Let’s see…that results in a revised angle of—”

Harrison snapped. “Just do it, you stupid woman!” Only he didn’t use the word “woman.” The slur was hard to pretend not to hear.

Delilah’s eyes sparked with dangerous fire. She wanted to spend the last few minutes of my window reaming him out.

It might have been worth the loss of the gem to watch this, but an explosion near the elevator knocked us off our feet. White dust rained down from the acoustic tiles.

As I helped the witch to her feet, I realized someone else had figured out that today would be ideal to rob the vault, but Delilah had blown the timetable. Such precision meant an inside job. I began to suspect Harrison of being more than a jerk, though I couldn’t open my mouth to warn her. My best hope was that these thieves were professionals. I could still rescue the gem and use their heist to mask my own crime.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Classic Space Opera for Free

Fellow Indie author Craig DeLancy has a free novel this week. His series reminds me of the snark in the old Retief books and the alien races ring true to classic Flinx space opera.

Click here to pick up a copy!

Well of Furies: Predator Space Chronicles I by [Craig DeLancey]


Monday, April 27, 2020

Opening Salvos


I analyzed first sentences and first pages from 566 common-domain and free novels to better understand what makes a good book beginning. From a publishing/programming standpoint, we’ll call a page 250 words. Clearly, math tools won’t write the perfect opening for you, but it can, like spell-checking your resume, prevent readers from dismissing you before getting to the end. I don’t know what ideal is, but I can look at the bell curve of hundreds of attempts and tell you what the bottom 5th percentile looks like.

FIRST SENTENCE

The first sentence should ideally grab your reader and demand attention. I’m not talking about using an exclamation point. The best ones set the tone and character without the reader realizing how much you’ve communicated. Often, they state a theme that the book is going to prove. I only saw one “it was a dark and stormy night.” I wish I could give good and bad examples below, but copyright restrictions prevent that. I can relay observations. The average grade level is 7.4, although applying the Gunning-Fog reading level to just one sentence isn’t reliable, so we’ll need other indicators.

One thing you want to avoid is proper-noun soup where you bombard the reader with long, foreign words until they give up. The samples averaged 1.3 names per opening sentence, with a record of 9 names. Statistically, anything over 3 is excessive. If you have a military space opera, though, you can safely make it four because those readers are accustomed to ranks being part of the name.

How long is an average first sentence? However long it takes. I’ve seen them everywhere from a one-word expletive to 112 for “Le Mis”. However, if I cut out the few ancient tomes over the 100-word level, we’re left with a pretty consistent average of 17 words, plus or minus a 10-word standard deviation. Thus, if you take more than 32 words to grab your reader, it’s probably too much. For hard words (3+syllables), they averaged only one occurrence, with that usually being part of a name or an adverb. Having over 3 hard words should be a red flag unless you’re writing a medical thriller. What about commas, another sign of complexity? Of sentences I scanned, exactly half had any. Use one if you need it. The 8 eight percent with more than two are probably risking their audience, and the guy with seven is daring them to leave.

What should this opening sentence be composed of? First, I will examine the verbs used. The most common, by far, were forms of IS. Note the exponential curve, where SAID appears half as often. The remainder of the top achievers were all action (total 33%+), sensory (8%), or recall (5%) verbs. These all make sense because they set the tone/mood for your scene and pull the reader in—except begin/start, which stood out as weak and could have been eliminated to make a better opening. People tend to die, fall, or awaken much more in the first line for the sake of drama. They also stare rather than look.

Verb
% line ones
% first
page
is
11.9
9.1
said
5.3
6.0
know
2.6
2.6
come
2.3
1.9
stand
2.1
0.9
begin
1.8
1.0
sit
1.8
0.8
see
1.8
2.0
go
1.4
1.2
make
1.4
1.6
take
1.4
1.3
die
1.2
0.4
stare
1.1
0.3
think
1.1
1.2
wake
1.1
0.3
fall
0.9
0.5
hear
0.9
0.8
glance
0.8
0.3
look
0.8
1.5
remember
0.8
0.3
believe
0.6
0.6
check
0.6
0.3
feel
0.6
0.9
move
0.6
0.3
wait
0.6
0.4
watch
0.6
0.4

What also speaks volumes are the five common words in the rest of the novel that we never see in the first line: get, seem, keep, try, and happen. I’ve found that I can replace almost all instances of the overused word “get” in my writing with stronger/more specific ones. I suspect the same may be true of some of the other passive ones.

Did any sentence pattern establish itself as dominant? Not really. Not even all the sentences were complete. In the span of an entire novel, I see few patterns occur more than .5 percent of the time. The most common are usually:
SV       SVAN             SVN                SVJN

For opening lines, I saw these in lower concentrations plus few others, mainly with AJN instead of S and a wide variety of prepositional phrases. The range is so extreme and sparse that I could make no further generalizations.
SVRSVANPAN         AJNVJ            AJNVJPANPNPO     JNVJN                        SVJPN
SVPJN                       SVPAN           SVPN

The next thing to examine is the difference between the parts of speech in the first sentence when compared with all the others in a novel: no profanity or interjections to speak of, fewer pronouns, contractions, verbs, and objects. When you think about it, proper nouns have to be used before the pronouns or objects that represent them. Contractions should only be used in dialog, so those should occur less often. The increased prepositions tended to be mostly “of” or “in.” Adjective counts fluctuated based on style and genre, but they would remain fairly consistent throughout a given novel. Openings use more prepositions, articles, and proper names to compensate for the missing parts. (see table)

Part Of Speech
% First
Sentence
% Other
Sentences
First
Word %
by Type
Prepositions
14.5
10.7-11.9
5.5
Articles/his/her
14.7
10-11
22.7
Nouns
13.5
13.1
7.3
Ambiguous(noun or verb)
13.5
14.3
5.2
Adjectives
8.9
7.0-8.7
6.1
Pastp verbs
5.1
5.2
0.9
Proper nouns
5.0
2.9
19.5
Adverbs
3.2
3.4
3.2
Subject (he/she/it/you)
3.1
6.1-8.5
17.8
Gerund
2.9
2.4
0
Is verb
2.7
2.2
0
Clause
2.5
3.6-4.3
4.1
Other verbs
2.5
3.1-3.5
0.6
Conjunctions
2.35
2.4
0.9
Help verbs
1.9
3.5
0
Contractions (N plus V)
1.2
2.0
0
Objects
0.8
1.3
0
Said
0.7
1.8-2.3
0
Interjection
0.0
0.2
0

Zeroing in on the very first word, we can see that two-thirds of the opening sentences start with a strong article, proper noun, a subject, or an adjective. A good choice of subject is usually I or we. The word “it” leads to meandering passive voice, but this may be the Victorian tone the author is trying to set. The use of “he” or “she” as the opener immediately begs the question for the reader—who the heck are you talking about? Even when the title of the chapter explains who the author is referring to, having to go back and deduce the information hacks me off. Beginning with a verb, conjunction, gerund, or interjection is not normal unless it is a past participle used as an adjective or a command such as a forceful “don’t” inside dialog. I would go so far as to say that spending your first word on a conjunction is a complete waste, as is beginning with the vague adverb “there,” or a padding word like “actually.”

Why is this important past the first few seconds of reading? Well, the rules for clarity and creativity for the first sentence apply to every chapter and scene break after that. When readers put down and restart your book, it will likely be at one of these breakpoints. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stopped an Indie novel because they began every scene with the name of the main character. Boring! It’s like flipping a coin that always turns up heads. By the third time in a row, you’re going to know something is wrong. Only it’s worse for proper names because the odds for repeating them three times at random would be one in 400. With hundreds of scenes in a novel, it can happen, but it shouldn’t be the default.

FIRST PAGE

By contrast to the opening line, the first page smoothes out to an average reading level of only 6.1 (down 1.3 grades). The average sentence length is also 2.1 words shorter than the opening sentence. This tells me that many books overextend a little on the first sentence trying to shove all the info-dumps in. This happens for Indie as much as traditional publishers. About all I can say with certainty is that if your first page is above grade 9.5, you should simplify it.

What lessons can we apply from what we learned from the first line? If you start three paragraphs in a row with the same word or type of lead-in (name, article, gerund, or relative clause), people will notice, especially since paragraph beginnings stand out on the first page.

You should avoid introducing too many characters right off the bat. When you do, give them unique names that don’t look or sound alike, so we know who is who. How many new character/place names is too many on the first page? The average was 8 +- 6 unique names. If you have over 17 different uppercase names on page one (not counting ranks and titles), think hard about trimming. My personal record was 24, where two people were discussing Dwarves (which I capitalized to denote the race) and their favorite Sean Connery movies. So these rules of thumb have exceptions.

How long should we wait before starting dialog? The graphs were bimodal on this one, with 12 percent of them jumping in on the first sentence. The rest of the books waited an average of 190 (+-40) words, setting the scene carefully before anyone speaks. Thus, unless your main character is stranded on a desert island, you should have some sort of dialog before the top of page two. But some of those quotes I spotted were air quotes or nicknames. To compensate, I tracked how far to the first flowing dialog, where one quote ends and another begins with no tags in between. One-third of my samples never achieved this feat! Now, most of these were due to the samples being short stories or only 20 percent of a book, but several were because newbies hadn’t mastered the technique. I came to the conclusion that if the author didn’t have flowing dialogue by the 30K word mark, it probably had occurred by accident. Without these outliers, the average distance to flowing dialog was 1051 words +-1122, somewhere between pages 1 and 10. The threshold for starting too late is around page 15 (3750 words). I may use that as one of my metrics for whether to buy an e-book from the sample.