Would You Turn the Page? With a ChatGPT Twist

Here’s one of those Would You Turn the Page of This Bestseller? posts at Writer Unboxed.

I’m always up for this, so I often click through and read the page. Yes, this time I would turn the page for sure. I think this is a great opening.

What I’m going to give you here is the first page and then at some point it switches to ChatGPT, and ChatGPT writes the second page. How obvious is the transition and what marks the transition? Fair warning: the real thing shifts to the fake continuation in the middle of a sentence. That’s not me, the Writer Unboxed post broke off in the middle of that sentence, but it adds to the interest when trying to spot the shift.

***

If I leave this house, it will be in handcuffs.

I should have run for it while I had the chance. Now my shot is gone. Now that the police officers are in the house and they’ve discovered what’s upstairs, there’s no turning back.

They are about five seconds away from reading me my rights. I’m not sure why they haven’t done it yet. Maybe they’re hoping to trick me into telling them something I shouldn’t.

Good luck with that.

The cop with the black hair threaded with gray is sitting on the sofa next to me. He shifts his stocky frame on the burnt-caramel Italian leather. I wonder what sort of sofa he has at home. It sure doesn’t cost five figures like this one did. It’s probably some tacky color like orange, covered in pet fur, and with more than one rip in the seams. I wonder if he’s thinking about his sofa at home and wishing he had one like this.

Or more likely, he’s thinking about the dead body in the attic upstairs.

“So let’s go through this one more time,” the cop says in his New York drawl. He told me his name earlier, but it flew out of my head. Police officers should wear bright red nametags. How else are you possibly supposed to remember their names in a high-stress situation? He’s a detective, I think. “When did you find the body?”

I pause, wondering if this would be the right time to demand a lawyer. Aren’t they supposed to tell me about my rights first? I glance at the clock on the wall, its ticking echoing in the tense silence of the room.

“I found it yesterday evening,” I reply, my voice surprisingly steady. “I didn’t know what to do. I panicked.”

The detective raises an eyebrow, studying me intently. “Panicked, huh? That’s why you decided to hide it in your attic?”

I swallow hard, realizing that I’ve dug myself into a deeper hole. The truth is, I didn’t put the body there. It was there when I moved in a month ago. The previous tenant left me a chilling note, warning me about the consequences if I ever revealed the secret hidden in the attic.

“I swear, I didn’t put it there. It was like that when I arrived,” I protest, desperation creeping into my voice.

The detective leans back, crossing his arms. “A convenient story. So, you move into a new place, find a dead body, and your first thought is to cover it up?”

I open my mouth to respond, but the doorbell interrupts me. Another officer, a younger one, walks in holding a plastic evidence bag with a blood-stained knife.

“We found this in the kitchen. Care to explain?” he asks, his eyes narrowing.

I glance at the knife, my mind racing. I’ve never seen it before. This situation is spiraling out of control, and I can feel the walls closing in.

Before I can answer, the detective’s radio crackles to life. He listens intently, then looks at me with a mix of frustration and curiosity.

“Seems we have another lead on this case. You’re lucky this time,” he says, standing up. “But we’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

As the officers leave, relief washes over me. I’ve bought some time, but the mystery of the body in my attic and the ominous warning from the previous tenant remain. I need to uncover the truth before the police come knocking again.

Gathering my courage, I decide to explore the attic once more, determined to unravel the secrets hidden within the confines of my new home. Little do I know that my journey into the unknown is only just beginning.

***

Okay, that’s really, really interesting. I mean the shift to ChatGPT and where the story goes after ChatGPT takes over.

Here is the last bit of the real beginning: I pause, wondering if this would be the right time to demand a lawyer. Aren’t they

And I did say it broke in the middle of the sentence. I think the continuation works just great for the rest of that sentence: I pause, wondering if this would be the right time to demand a lawyer. Aren’t they supposed to tell me about my rights first? I glance at the clock on the wall, its ticking echoing in the tense silence of the room. That’s pretty good! There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Where is it for sure fake? I think the obviously fake part may start with the bloody knife, but why?

A) The details become more standardized. The thought about the bright red nametags is something ChatGPT wouldn’t include. The bloody knife is a typical prop for a thriller/mystery.

B) ChatGPT loves -ly adverbs. It can’t get enough of them. However, it’s not as terrible about that this time as I’ve seen in other extracts from generated fiction But what it loves even more than that is Exceedingly Standard Movement Tags. It’s enough to put me off narrowed eyes forever. It also just drops a thousand cliched phrases into everything. The situation is spiraling out of control! The walls are closing in!

Because of those proclivities, I think maybe you can spot the fake text right at “my voice surprisingly steady.” That is almost at the very beginning of the fake part. If you don’t spot that, then surely at the bloody knife. If not there, then definitely at this part: Before I can answer, the detective’s radio crackles to life. He listens intently, then looks at me with a mix of frustration and curiosity. “Seems we have another lead on this case. You’re lucky this time,” he says, standing up. “But we’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

C) It’s interesting to me that it wants to end every bit of generated text with a concluding sentence. Little do I know that my journey into the unknown is only just beginning. It seems to me that it does this a lot.

D) Coherence is a problem. A bloody knife now can’t have anything to do with a body that was already in the attic a month ago. I mean, not if the blood is fresh.

Overall, I think this is one of the worst story continuations I’ve personally generated. Not the very worst, but pretty bad.

***

The real first page is from this book:

I’m not familiar with Freida McFadden and I’ve never read any of her books, but I’m mildly tempted by The Housemaid. I’m not really in the mood for a thriller and also I don’t have time to read anything at all right now, but I do like the beginning. Let’s take a look at the description …

“Welcome to the family,” Nina Winchester says as I shake her elegant, manicured hand. I smile politely, gazing around the marble hallway. Working here is my last chance to start fresh. I can pretend to be whoever I like. But I’ll soon learn that the Winchesters’ secrets are far more dangerous than my own…

Every day I clean the Winchesters’ beautiful house top to bottom. I collect their daughter from school. And I cook a delicious meal for the whole family before heading up to eat alone in my tiny room on the top floor.I try to ignore how Nina makes a mess just to watch me clean it up. How she tells strange lies about her own daughter. And how her husband Andrew seems more broken every day. But as I look into Andrew’s handsome brown eyes, so full of pain, it’s hard not to imagine what it would be like to live Nina’s life. The walk-in closet, the fancy car, the perfect husband. I only try on one of Nina’s pristine white dresses once. Just to see what it’s like. But she soon finds out… and by the time I realize my attic bedroom door only locks from the outside, it’s far too late.

But I reassure myself: the Winchesters don’t know who I really am.They don’t know what I’m capable of…

This is really intriguing, but not very inviting. Nina sounds awful, the husband sounds pathetic, I do wonder about the daughter. (Strange lies, really. I wonder whether whatever Nina is saying about her daughter turns out to be true.) Reviews are interestingly mixed and imply that Nina may turn out to be less awful than the reader first expects.

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Good time to join my new Patreon!

Okay, thank you to everyone who subscribed to my Patreon, downloaded something, and confirmed for me that the files are indeed downloading properly! It sounds like probably they are, though apparently some tech bobbles may be occurring around the edges.

For the rest of February, all the files currently available to subscribers at the middle tier (Early Access Patrons) will remain available. This includes the four Death’s Lady books. I’m thinking of this as a nice thing for early subscribers as well as a way to make sure Patreon is working properly before upload MARAG to Patreon. It’s also a way of modeling how I intend to use Patreon: to enable early access of books that are soon going to become exclusive to Amazon.

Therefore, if you don’t have the Death’s Lady books and think you would like them, this is very much the best time and place to pick them up.

My current expectation is that I will unpublish these books there March 1 and (I think this is pretty likely) drop MARAG into Patreon at the middle tier March 2. Having been unpublished everywhere by then, the Death’s Lady books should be eligible for KU, and they will then become exclusive to Amazon for the foreseeable future. I will then run a sale for this series, but they will never again all be available for $5 the way they are right now at my Patreon.

So, MARAG will hopefully go live on Patreon March 2. If that goes as planned, it will be unpublished there at the end of March and become exclusive to Amazon on April 2. I haven’t put it up for preorder because certain things may be complicating my life and at the time I write this, I’m not sure I can absolutely for certain commit to that release date. I’m also delaying putting it up for preorder there until people have a chance to notice I have a Patreon. However, probably MARAG will go live for preorder in early February.

And I’m very much looking forward to that, let me tell you.

I’m also hoping to have RIHASI ready to go in April / May, but obviously that is just a hope, not a plan, since I have only written part of the beginning of that book so far. It won’t go as fast as MARAG because, I mean, this isn’t Christmas Break and so obviously I don’t have as much time to pour into it. Nevertheless, as I say, I would like to have it ready to go in the early part of the year, not that long after MARAG.

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The middle

Here’s a post from Patricia Wrede about getting through the middle of a manuscript.

I liked this part particularly:

Unexpected assistance can come similarly, from other characters (intentionally or not), from landscape or weather that helps the protagonist, from unexpected helpful twists that result from thing the protagonist did a while back. Or the “ups” can result simply from the protagonist’s grim determination to continue in spite of all the obstacles they’re facing. …

which led into this part, which made me laugh:

As with the protagonist, the solution for most writers, most of the time, is to slog steadily onward with grim determination.

Ha ha ha sob, yes, that’s pretty much the experience for at least part of the middle, for at least most books. There’s a great extended metaphor here, about slogging onward through the blizzard vs backtracking and heading for the gates of Moria:

Ultimately, the important thing is to keep moving. If you sit around in the blizzard thinking for too long, you (and your story) will freeze to death. Backtracking to a safe pausing-place is still moving. A safe place to pause, for the writer, is one where one has options to consider. The pass is full of snow, but the Mines of Moria are still a possibility—dangerous, but so is this whole journey. An alternative is to consider which of the characters’ options would be the most fun to write, or which would provide the greatest opportunity for the writer to throw in an unexpected cave troll or Balrog. This is where the advice to “have ninjas jump through the window” turns up—it’s not really about the ninjas, it’s about what the writer can do to make the story fun and interesting to write again. Because generally, in my experience, if the writer has fun writing it, the readers will have fun reading it.

And here I would say: readers almost always love the parts I loved best while writing, BUT readers also generally seem to be pretty happy with the parts that were a slog. Not always, but that seems pretty typical. Which is a relief, for some books in which the whole dratted middle was a dire slog, which can happen.

One of the things I don’t see here, but fine to be true personally, is that some books don’t have a tough middle. They move right along from front to back. That’s why they’re fast to write. For MARAG, I’m wondering whether any early reader will point to a few paragraphs about 15 pages in, 20 pages in, and say, “This seems slow right here.” But then things start happening, and I enjoyed those earliest chapters, but the action kicks up at the end of the third chapter and is almost, but not quite, nonstop from there. With a lot of grim determination to continue in spite of increasingly difficult conditions.

Even the action climax was fun. Both action climaxes, which happen boom-boom, one right after the other, though in alternating points of view. Then the falling action. I almost always like the falling action part.

It’s a lot less typical to enjoy the middle. Definitely nice when that happens, as with most of the books in the Tuyo series.

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Cute dog pic

Okay, so also

Here’s the dog I bred Morgan to, winning a Group Two placement at a show this past weekend! Way to go Ch Red Fox at the Front!

2nd place in the Group means he won his breed, then placed second of all the winners of all the dogs in the Toy Group. I wasn’t there, but a well deserved win for sure, he has great structure to go with his lovely head.

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Update: Progress! In an Unexpected Direction!

Okay, so as you know, I finished MARAG earlier this month (yes, it was even faster than TANO; yes, it sets a new record for me) and sent it off to beta readers this past Wednesday.

Last Thursday was a wicked, evil day in which I drove to St L and back in the rain, in rush hour, with an important set of stoplights blinking red and no way to completely avoid the problem, apparently, as Waze only detoured me around part of the resultant traffic jam. The whole last hour of the drive home was dark as well as rainy. Oh, I guess I should add, I was taking Morgan to the ophthalmologist for an eye check and she was fine, so I mean, the day wasn’t totally without redeeming features. But we got home way after our proper dinner time and if Morgan wasn’t as grumpy as I was, I don’t know why not.

Friday, I read part of a book I’m beta reading, including the very fun action climax. But I also felt weird because MARAG was out of my hands and I felt strange not working on something. I don’t want to start RIHASI until I’m prepared to be serious about it. I trust this will happen in February, when I’m down to proofing MARAG, but I don’t want to point my attention in that direction right now.

So I thought, you know what, I think I’ll write the first chapter of UNTITLED: TANO II. I’ve had that chapter in my head practically forever, and it’s in a familiar voice, and it’ll be fun, and I can write one chapter and set it aside, which works very well for me a lot of the time, by the way. I wrote the first bit of MARAG about a year ago.

So I opened my laptop and gazed thoughtfully at a blank Word document for about ten minutes (this is a long time for me). I typed one sentence and gazed at the screen some more, and finally thought, maybe I should start with a brief, active scene that presents a problem and lets Tano show off a little. I mean, a scene that reminds readers that Tano is insecure, but in a crisis, he thinks and moves very, very fast. Of course he has taken a big step up as far as the insecurity goes, that was the the point of TANO, but this story opens right after TASMAKAT closes, so it hasn’t been that long and he is still struggling somewhat because getting through something like that is obviously going to take time. And yes, at first I meant to jump ahead ten years and start when he’d really found his feet, but I didn’t wind up doing that, so here he is, this is Tano pretty much as he’s shown in “Returning Hokino’s Knife.”

So I mused for a bit about what kind of brief, short, quick, unimportant scene I might start with and then I wrote a wholly unexpected first chapter of about 10,000 words, thus bringing back a couple of characters we haven’t seen for a while (and that I didn’t expect to see here), plus introducing a couple of characters who I think might turn out to be important secondary characters for UNTITLED: TANO II.

That was Saturday.

On Sunday, I finally wrote the chapter I had in mind at the beginning. This is a very intense conversation that sets up the broad situation and also incidentally clears a whole lot of important characters out of the way, giving them things to do elsewhere, so that Tano can take center stage for the journey back to the starlit lands and eventually to the sunless sea. This was another 10,000 words. What can I say? It was an unexpectedly immersive weekend.

Until I wrote the first chapter, I thought most likely I would skip through the entire journey from the river to the mountains by saying, in effect, “Sixty days later, we finally came to the roots of the great northern mountains.” But … now I have these neat new characters. I mean, I don’t have to bring them into the main story. They could stay just in the first chapter. But they’re right there! And I’m chuckling about how they’d interact with Tano and Raga and everyone! And I can see potential for bringing back some characters we meet in MARAG, and then those characters will need to be established properly as well.

So we’ll see. Depending on which characters move forward, we may see at least a little of that journey. I realize we’ve seen the winter country already. I would have to handle this journey in a way that prevents readers from getting bored with that. I definitely wouldn’t want to spent the whole book in the winter country! Lots to do in the starlit lands! I barely know anything about that part, but I’m sure there will be a lot to do!

The next scenes I have very clear in my mind are almost certain to take place in the subsequent book. I mean, it depends on how fast this story moves, but it would be pretty remarkable if it moves fast enough to get to the part where a Saa’arii becomes an important character.

Oh, I know more about the Saa’arii now! Not a lot, but something! And more about the Tarashana, too, though again, not a lot.

However, I don’t think I’ll tell you anything about Saa’arii castes or Tarashana pronouns just yet. Instead, let me show you the first paragraphs of UNTITLED: TANO II.

***

Raga spoke darau almost as well as I did, but he did not understand Lau as well as he spoke their tongue. The problem came from that.

Also, many Lau think they understand Ugaro better than they truly understand us. They are especially likely to make this mistake if one of our people speaks to them in their own language. The problem definitely came from that.

***

There you go. Then we have a few paragraphs of setup, and then the problem occurs and Tano steps up without even thinking about it. I sort of hope I will actually write this book in time to release it this year. RIHASI first, though. And the last part of SILVER CIRCLE. And at least part of a NO FOREIGN SKY sequel.

I would order a cover for Tano’s new book right now, though, if I had the faintest idea what the title was going to be. Maybe I should pick a word and make that word important later. That’s actually a pretty keen idea; maybe that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Meanwhile! The first couple of early readers have already gotten back to me about MARAG, and while there will be a bit of revision — as always, I’m startled by how I missed some very obvious weaknesses — I do think this will be something I can do quickly. I will probably do a fast round of revision in the next few days, then make a print proofing copy for my mother to read and tell the artist how many pages I think the paperback will be and start proofing seriously, on the theory that I probably won’t be doing so much more revision that the page number changes dramatically.

My best guess is, I will probably be putting the preorder for MARAG up on Amazon for April 2, on the theory that I should be able to drop an epub at my Patreon at least two weeks before that, probably more. If everything happens later that that, I hope it won’t be much later. I also hope I will make that decision by this time next week, but a couple things in my life might still interfere, so we’ll see.

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The Right Book at the Right Time

Good post by Molly Templeton at tor.com: Every Book in the Right Time

Books come to us when they come, and it’s either their time or it’s not.  … You can build the perfect moment, but you have to have some idea what it is. And you have to have the time and inclination to design it, rather than taking the moment that you get. … Still, sometimes the books are late. Or early. Or just off. A friend and I were talking recently about The Secret History, a book I still haven’t read but have, for at least a decade, intended to. She said that most people she knows who first read it as adults hated it. (Did I take this as a challenge? Only slightly.) Those who read it younger, on the other hand, are passionate. Another friend has told me more than once that you have to read The Secret History in the wintertime. Maybe this cold, dark, gloomy start of the year is exactly my time—or exactly the book’s time.

It’s a good post. I’m not reading anything right now, but perhaps soon.

Have you heard of this book Templeton mentions, The Secret History? By Donna Tartt. I had not heard of it. It turns out it’s literary. Here’s the description: Under the influence of a charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at a New England college discover a way of thought and life a world away from their banal contemporaries. But their search for the transcendent leads them down a dangerous path, beyond human constructs of morality.

My instant reaction: Wow, rush right out. /sarc

I have zero sympathy for the oh-so-sensitive, oh-so-special alienated misfits who just can’t bear the banality of modern life. I have deeply negative sympathy to these superior individuals who discard “human constructs of morality.” I will add that I felt just as strongly repulsed by this sort of protagonist thirty years ago; it wouldn’t matter how old I was when I read this, I would be dropping in the trash the moment a protagonist moaned about the banality of ordinary people and how painful existence is for someone with such special, delicate sensibilities. My reaction to Steppenwolf was For heaven’s sake, get a grip. And see a shrink because you’re obviously clinically depressed.

In fact! You know what this brief description of The Secret History reminds me of? It reminds me of From All False Doctrine, where the charismatic classics professor’s special manuscript is a hoax and the cult based on that manuscript is completely misguided; where the clever, eccentric misfits who get pulled into his cult certainly get led down a dangerous path beyond human constructs of morality; and this that is not at all something desirable.

Templeton finishes:

This year, I am trying—trying!—to alternate old and new. Writing about books means there is always something new I should be reading. But there is also always something old that I should understand—there are always books whose moment I might have thought slid past me, but it didn’t, or books I just never saw before. Or books like The Night Circus, which sat right in front of me, waiting.

Yeah, it would be nice if I finally read some of the books that have been on my TBR pile for a decade or so, including The Night Circus, in fact. Realistically, I probably won’t get to it this year either, but who knows?

Anybody got a book you have kind of wanted to get to for years and years but haven’t? Drop them in the comments and maybe someone will give you an emphatic thumbs up that finally makes you open that book, or a vehement thumbs down that makes you decide not to bother. Either would be valuable!

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Get up out of your chair, take your hands off the keyboard

From Jane Friedman’s blog: Beyond BICHOK: How, When and Why Getting Your Butt Out of the Chair Can Make You a Better Writer

I hit this paragraph and laughed:

You’re driving on a long stretch of highway when you have an insight about your main character’s childhood. Or you’re mid-hair-rinse in the shower, when you suddenly understand how to bring together the braided strands of your novel. Or you wake up at 2 a.m. with the resolution to that thorny plot issue you’ve been wrestling.

Have you ever noticed how many ideas arise when you’re not sitting at the keyboard? 

So true. I particularly like these examples because it’s awkward to stop and take notes in all these situations. At least, not coherent notes of more than a few words. I will add, sometimes this is very fast. You close your laptop and go to get the dog’s leashes and BEFORE YOU EVEN GET TO THE DOOR, suddenly you figure out what you should do with that next scene or that you were just starting to go in the wrong direction.

For decades, writers have been told the most important thing to do is to put “butt in chair, hands on keyboard.” As acronyms emerged with USENET forums in the 1990s, this became abbreviated “BICHOK.”

Which I still think is good advice a lot of the time! Most of the time! But it’s definitely true that taking the dogs for a walk … or just going downstairs to get a lightbulb … getting up out of the chair AT ALL can definitely help kick you past a problem scene.

Okay, the rest of the article is all about the subconscious and the creative mind and so forth. Then this:

Conventional writing advice suggests taking a break when you know what’s coming next. That presumes that only your writing time is productive and that all look-away time is unproductive.

But in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, the late sci-fi author wrote: “As soon as things get difficult, I walk away. That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.” He clarifies by saying that when you move toward cats, they tend to move away, but if you ignore them, then they become interested.

If you move properly, your cat won’t move away from you when you move toward her. But still, yes.

Lots of tips about when to take a break and what kind of break is good.

Long article, not as shallow and facile as so many seem to be, certainly worth a read if you’re interested.

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Something New: Patreon

Okay, so, I will be trying something new this year!

Have I mentioned I dislike figuring out how to do new things online? I really hate figuring out how to do new things online. But! I think there are some really obvious, really big advantages to trying out Patreon:

* Patreon appears to be the simplest way to make ebooks available to all readers everywhere before dropping each ebook into KU and making it exclusive to Amazon. Unlike distributing ebooks through Draft to Digital, I should be able to make each new ebook available via Patreon and then make it unavailable, click, done, without worrying about some platform failing to unpublish it and thus causing potentially serious problems with KU terms of service. My intention is to drop each new book into Patreon for two weeks or a month before it becomes available via Amazon.

* Patreon gives me a way to make the stories otherwise available only in my newsletter available to anybody. This is especially important as I’m bringing out stories in installments. What if someone subscribes to my newsletter now and gets only parts 4 and 5 of Ryo’s story about stealing the tiger pelt? That isn’t great, and it’s not what I intended when I thought of putting stories in the newsletter.

* Patreon takes 8% off the top rather than 30%, so it would be nice to have people subscribe to Patreon.

SO, what I have up now are the following:

A) The complete story about the fox and the boy –> Word file –> Tier One

B) The complete story about young Ryo stealing the tiger pet –> Word file –> Tier One

C) The ebook of The Year’s Midnight –> epub file –> Tier Two

And what I really, really need to know are the following:

DOES THE LINK WORK? Everything blue in this post has the same link. If you click on the link, does it take you to the right place?

DOES THE PAGE LOOK OKAY? Do you see anything obvious that I plainly did wrong or failed to do with this page? I looked carefully at multiple Patreon pages and I think I did this right, but maybe not!

DO THE FILES DOWNLOAD PROPERLY? If anybody who joins at any tier would kindly check whether the Word files download properly, I would be grateful. If anyone who joins at the middle tier would kindly try downloading The Year’s Midnight to make sure the epub file downloads properly, I would be even more grateful. Patreon SAY it supports epub files, but I would like to make sure.

If all of this works properly, then my goal is to drop an epub of MARAG into Patreon in March and then unpublish it there and drop it into Amazon / KU in April. If something doesn’t work properly on Patreon, my goal is to fix it and follow the same schedule, but if it takes longer to get something fixed than I hope, that would be awkward. That’s why I’m putting The Year’s Midnight there right now, to check and see if epub files work before I try it with MARAG. This is also why I haven’t picked a preorder date for MARAG on Amazon. I can’t do that until I can see if all the rest of this is going to work properly.

ALSO

I’m going to pull the Death’s Lady ebooks everywhere else and drop them into KU. I have hit the unpublish buttons everywhere. What I’m going to do, if all goes well, is drop all four of the Death’s Lady books into Patreon until maybe the end of March, then nix them there and drop them into KU and run a sale on them once they’re on KU.

At the end of the year, I’m going to assess how the Death’s Lady series did exclusive versus how it did wide, but my very strong presumption is that royalties on this series will be much, much higher exclusive. If I didn’t think that was going to happen, I’d leave them wide.

ALSO

Many thanks to commenter Allan S, who told me about Glynn Stewart using Patreon this way. I’m not doing it exactly the way Glynn does it, but I wouldn’t have thought of Patreon at all except for Allan’s comment.

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SFF Whodunnits

A post at Crime Reads: 9 GREAT SPECULATIVE WHODUNNITS

I’ve got one that they probably missed, and one or two more that might possibly be included, but let’s see! This post begins this way:

I love a great whodunnit, and one with sorcery or sentient spaceships is even better. In my debut novel, The Longest Autumn, priestess Tirne must solve just such a mystery. As one of four seasonal Heralds, it is her job to escort the deity Autumn between the human and godly realms each year for his season. But this time, the magic mirror separating their worlds shatters after they pass through. Tirne is accused of sabotage, and her title of Herald is stripped from her. The world is trapped in endless autumn. While sorcerers and priests work to repair the mirror, crops fail and plague sweeps through the populace. Time runs out as Tirne dives into her temple’s intrigues to find the true culprit, clear her name, and regain her prestigious position as Herald.

This does not sound appealing to me, and why not? A specific common trope is centered in this story, and it’s one I particularly dislike. I’m not sure I identified this as a trope, and in particular a trope I hate, until now, when I said to myself, I just flinched away from this book; why did that happen?

It’s this line: Tirne is accused of sabotage, and her title of Herald is stripped from her.

I really, truly dislike the trope of false accusation, particularly of humiliation that comes from false accusation. This is not a rare trope! This is common! Then the person works hard, clears their name, triumphs over the bad guy, and everyone celebrates. That’s all very well, but the dark period that comes after the false accusation, especially public and underserved humiliation, is very difficult for me to get through. If I see that a story has this plot element, I am unlikely to pick up the book. Even if the novel has glowing reviews — even if people here tell me it’s great –– I will remain reluctant to pick up that novel. If I hit that trope in the middle of a novel, I may stop reading. This is true even if I know for certain the person clears their name. I hate it that much.

However, obviously not all Whodunnits have this element. Most don’t. I wonder what SFF mysteries this post is going to pick out? Let’s see:

The Death I Gave Him by Em X Liu. This unique spin on Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a closed-circle, futuristic murder mystery set at Elsinore Labs.

Okay, that sounds interesting! A Hamlet retelling! Didn’t see that coming.

Told through fictional memoir excerpts, phone transcripts, and descriptions of security footage, it’s the perfect blend of the literary and science fiction genres.

Still interesting! I enjoy epistolary novels. I don’t particularly like tragedies, of course, but a take on Hamlet? That really does sound interesting.

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey. Ivy Gamble is a hard-drinking loner of a private investigator, hired to solve a grisly murder at a magical high school. Her estranged sister is a teacher there, and the story perfectly balances Ivy’s personal stakes and fractured relationships alongside the murder case.

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. In a world where cloning allows anyone to extend their lifespan indefinitely, the six-person crew of a spaceship all wake up as fresh clones in their ship’s lab. They emerge into their own murder scene. Their previous bodies are obviously decades older, but all memories of their time on the ship are missing. Together, they must discover what happened over the past years and solve the mystery. Complicating matters, every one of them has past crimes they’d prefer to keep hidden.

Voyage of the Damned by Frances White. Twelve magical heirs of a kingdom–one from each province–embarking on a luxury ship for a pilgrimage to their sacred mountain. On the first night, one of their number is murdered.

Even Though I Knew the End by CL Polk. Helen Brandt … made a deal with a demon ten years ago. The collection date for her soul is only days away when she receives an offer she can’t refuse. A new demon offers to return her soul if she uses her mystical abilities to track down the White City Vampire, a serial killer who’s been stalking the streets.

This book has a great cover:

But although I love this cover, I am also pushed away by the obvious horror vibe. I know Polk writes dark. That plus this cover means I am unlikely to try this book. Thus we see that a cover can be amazing and cool and evocative and so on, but still signal a reader: NO.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Alex Stern [is] a young woman with the rare and extraordinary ability to see ghosts. This gift earns her an invitation to attend Yale University, where she uses this talent to monitor the university’s mystical secret societies. The upper-class students use various forms of magic to charm their way into politics, manipulate the stock market, and climb the social ladder even higher. But when a girl is murdered and the underground societies are possible culprits, Alex must find the killer. 

The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei. In the past, the protagonist Asuka struggles with questions of identity, belonging, and family on a dying Earth, all while competing with other hopefuls for a place on the mission. In the present, an explosion during the journey kills three people and knocks the ship off-course. Asuka is the lone survivor of the explosion and accused of the crime. 

Winters Orbit by Everina Maxwell. Set in a fictional high-tech solar system, a prince dies suddenly. His cousin Kiem is tasked with marrying the prince’s widower Jainan to secure political alliances. When it’s revealed that the prince was murdered, Jainan is the prime suspect. He and Kiem search for the truth behind the crime while they grow ever closer to one another. 

Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang. Isabeau Agarwal is a monster hunter seeking her latest quarry at a quaint roadside inn. The beast can hide in human form, and she must determine which of the residents is actually the inhuman creature. But the investigation is made even more complicated when one of the guests is killed.

Okay, those are the nine from this post, and I have to say, almost all of them sound good! That’s unexpected! More extensive comments for each book if you would like to click through to the post at Crime Reads. I tried to pull out a good teaser from each.

I have of course already read Winter’s Orbit, and while I thought it was flawed, I also thought it was amazingly catchy and I liked it a lot. Of the other’s, I’m shying away from The Deep Sky, ,and of course it’s obvious why, right? Of course. It’s the false accusation.

Lafferty’s setup sounds amazing; a lot of these do sound really promising, I hardly know which sounds the most intriguing. That last one looks light and fun. What are some more SFF Whodunnits? A few did immediately leap to mind for me:

Wrapt in Crystal by Sharon Shin. Here are my comments about this book, which I took as a mystery, but which Sharon told me she thought of as kind of a Western. I think it works both ways.

The City and the City by China Mieville. Have you all read this? It’s my favorite of Mieville’s.

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart. I have not read this, though it’s on my TBR pile. Someday, someday …

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All right, comments? Have any of you read anything here? Or do you have another SFF Whodunnit you’d like to add ot the list? Drop ’em in the comments!

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Update: Allllmost there with MARAG

Okay, so I thought it might take several days to complete the basic revision pass for MARAG. But, oh look, a snow day! (Ice, actually.)

That’s good timing in several ways, rather annoying in other ways, but the basic result of having a three-day weekend right now is that I will probably complete this revision pass today. I have eight notes left. They are the most annoying notes because when it comes to revision, I do the easiest stuff first. Changing names I have decided I don’t like to different names, stuff like that. Things like “Complete this subplot” and “Read through the whole story and see if Marag’s fundamental character comes through clearly enough” comes dead last.

I started to say “character arc” there. But Marag doesn’t really have a character arc. Neither does Sinowa, come to think of it. Minimal arcs, anyway. The whole basic story unrolls rather fast, the pace gets intense. If you exclude the lead-in and the denouement, then … three days, I think, for the basic story. The relationship arc is, as you probably expect, getting to see each other at their best and falling for each other. Without ever using the word “love” because the Ugaro don’t think of it that way.

Both Marag and Sinowa start off pretty sure of themselves. The exact kind of confidence each of them has is different, but they’re both pretty confident. They don’t become more confident of themselves during this story, or not much. I mean, how could they? Marag has been a singer since she was twelve. She knows she going to become a truly exceptional singer — this has been obvious to everyone for a good while; that’s why her marriage is so important. Sinowa has had high standing among his people for a long time; he’s tremendously confident because of course he is.

During the story, they don’t become more confident of themselves. They both become much more confident of each other. That’s the arc. I didn’t really think about it that way until now, but that’s what this story shows: it’s a combined arc, not two different individual arcs. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. The plot is pretty straightforward. It’s not really a mystery story. Some of the details are murky even at the end (and may serve as plot hooks for some other story). The point isn’t the mystery, it’s the sheer difficulty of solving the problem. A singer couldn’t have done it alone. A warrior couldn’t have done it at all. That’s pretty much the point.

I’m very much looking forward to comments from early readers! I am still doing stuff with subplots and I do want to read through the whole thing again from the tope, but barring random disasters such as power outages from the ice or whatever, I will probably be ready to send it out later this week.

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