Jun 24

Failure Modes of Fiction Through the Lens of Agency

In my introductory post to this series, I talked about the common Western template for a heroic story: a motivated protagonist faces a dynamic situation that will turn for the worse unless they struggle against fit opposition to bring about their preferred resolution, bringing all their resources and courage to bear on the problem, and paying a high price for victory.

As someone who reads and reviews a lot of books, I've come across a few failure modes of this popular template.

The Spoiled Protagonist

The Spoiled Protagonist has too much agency, and those around her too little. I say "her," because although spoiled protagonists can certainly be men, the majority I've encountered have been women. To be fair, this is quite likely to be sample bias, since I prefer to read books with female protagonists and avoid the ones that are most likely to have male spoiled protagonists.

The term "Mary Sue" gets bandied about a lot these days, often merely indicating a woman who has agency among people who disapprove of that. The original Mary Sue, though, was the author-insert character in a piece of Star Trek fanfiction, who was better at everything than anyone else and who everyone, despite this, instantly loved and wanted to help in every way they could. This is more or less what I mean by the Spoiled Protagonist, but the emphasis isn't necessarily on her ability so much as on the fact that everyone treats her as the promised Chosen One, even when she isn't actually explicitly a promised Chosen One in the world of the story.

Characters who ought to make her follow the rules and wait her turn and prove herself like anyone else seem to lose all ability to do so; they become her obedient lackeys, sometimes at the risk of their jobs or their lives, or shower her with gifts, for no real reason except that the Spoiled Protagonist is the author's darling and every other character exists only to serve her (except the villain, who exists so she'll have someone to defeat quite easily). This is generally dull to read, and also annoying.

The Spoiled Protagonist is such a wish-fulfillment fantasy of agency that she distorts the entire plot and the behaviour of everyone around her, making her also a form of the Plot Black Hole.

The Plot Black Hole

A plot hole is a logical issue with the plot, something that wouldn't really happen, but has been stuck in and glossed over so that the plot will unfold according to the author's desires.

A plot black hole is my term for when a plot hole grows so large that everyone's behaviour is gravitationally distorted around it. All the characters are puppets of the author's predetermined plot, and will behave in the most ridiculous fashion to bring it about. As an example, in a book I read which I am contractually prevented from naming, someone who eventually turns out to be the villain's minion releases the protagonist from prison, which she could not otherwise have escaped, and where she was waiting to be probably executed; reunites her with the only weapons that can stop the villain; and takes her to where the villain is, all (apparently) so that the villain can have a good gloat and a shock reveal, and then escape. (To be pursued, of course, by the protagonist and soundly defeated.)

The Plot Back Hole not only distorts the actions of the characters; it distorts the laws of probability, and sometimes physics. Hence the next failure mode: the Convenient Coincidence.

The Convenient Coincidence

Something has been concealed in an obscure location for a century. Just as the villain is about to finally retrieve it (with no particular obvious reason for having waited so long), the protagonists happen by and discover it - just a few hours ahead of his arrival. The timing is a complete, convenient, and thoroughly unlikely coincidence.

This actual example from a book I read recently is one of the more glaring uses of the Convenient Coincidence (and not the only one in that book, either). The Convenient Coincidence is the opposite of character agency. It's a forcing of fate, which drops the characters into a situation, or helps them resolve it, with no effort or even intent on their part.

Sometimes, as with my opening example above, we don't find out until later that the Convenient Coincidence was a Convenient Coincidence; perhaps the author is hoping we won't notice. I notice.

There are a couple of sub-categories of Convenient Coincidence as a failure of agency, which I call the Convenient Eavesdrop and the Cavalry Rescue.

The Convenient Eavesdrop

The Convenient Eavesdrop is a plot device, a way to work around limitations of point of view and character knowledge. It's generally a clumsy way, and a failure of character agency. If you've ever seen the British spoof of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, Five Go Mad in Dorset, you may remember how the writers mocked the frequent use of the Convenient Eavesdrop in not only Blyton's books, but books for young people in general. The villains are overheard saying, "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans, rhubarb, rhubarb..."

The thing about being young is that nobody tells you anything. If you're to find out much about what's going on among the adults, you pretty much have to overhear them talking, unless they're very modern adults who believe in discussing things with kids. But the thing about the Convenient Eavesdrop is that it happens, not because the character has set out deliberately to find out the information, but by complete accident. The protagonist is in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to overhear the precise conversation that will advance the plot, however unlikely that may be. J.K. Rowling is guilty of the Convenient Eavesdrop, for example, when Harry and his friends are teleporting randomly around Britain during Deathly Hallows, and just happen to be exactly where they can overhear some people they know talking about events in the wizarding world that they have no other way of finding out about, but that they must know in order for the plot to progress. They weren't trying to find this out; they were just handed the information as a gift from above.

This, authors, is why I will never not call you out for a Convenient Eavesdrop. It's deprotagonizing. If you absolutely must have the characters find out some information through eavesdropping, make them work for it. Make them go looking for the information; have them hide in wait for the villain to have a conversation they know or hope is coming, at risk of being discovered. Make the information they get ambiguous, so they have to keep working to confirm it, or act on less-than-adequate knowledge. Or flip the trope, and have the villain maneuver them into something that seems like it's a Convenient Eavesdrop, but the villain is fully aware of their presence and takes the opportunity to misinform or mislead them. Don't just give them the information on a plate with parsley round it because they happened to take a walk one night.

The Cavalry Rescue

The Cavalry Rescue is, of course, a staple of fiction. All seems lost, and then the other character(s) who went off to do something else - possibly abandoning the main characters in a fit of pique (looking at you, Ron Weasley), possibly with another assignment, possibly having been feared lost - suddenly turn up in the nick of time and rescue Our Heroes. There are ways to make it work, and there are ways to have it be a failure of protagonism.

When Gandalf turns up at the Battle of Helm's Deep, it's a Cavalry Rescue that's been set up in advance. He's told the other characters to expect him at a certain time. The challenge in this kind of scenario is for the main group to hold out long enough to be relieved, and you can get some good tension out of the question of whether they will manage this.

But when a Cavalry Rescue comes thundering in at the exact right time and there's been no pre-planning, and the rescuers just happened to turn up at this moment for no particular reason except that it saved the author's plot, that's a failure in my eyes. A failure of agency, specifically, like any fortunate coincidence.

The Penelope Pitstop

Speaking of rescues, there's another failure mode of agency that I call the Penelope Pitstop, which dates me. The original Hanna Barbera Wacky Races cartoon from the 1960s, which I watched as a child in the 70s, featured exactly one woman, who was thrown in at the last minute and constructed entirely out of stereotypes (as was the style at the time). Penelope Pitstop, while clever and resourceful in many ways, as soon as she fell into the clutches of the villain (which happened with monotonous regularity) would go completely passive, cry "Hayulp! Hayulp!" in her southern belle accent, and wait to be rescued, which she inevitably would be. I understand things are not as dire in the more recent remake.

The Penelope Pitstop is a pattern I see over and over in fiction, particularly, for some reason, fiction set in the 19th century - whether it's the more adventurous type of Regency romance; steampunk; or gaslight fantasy. The typical way it plays out is that we're told the heroine is brilliant and self-reliant, but what we're shown is that she makes one stupid, reckless decision after another, from each of which she has to be rescued by a man. In particular, she falls into the clutches of the villain, almost always because she's gone off by herself with no backup and without telling anyone where she's going, and he threatens her with author's choice of terrible fate, only to have the hero burst in at the critical moment and prevent his dastardly plan.

An associated trope is Reeves-McMillan's Shiv, which I've taken the liberty of naming after myself (in imitation of Chekov's Gun). This is where the captured heroine does something, such as fashioning a shiv from a bit of broken glass, that promises us that she's going to take some kind of decisive and effective action - but she signally fails to shank the villain with it, and it's all a bit of a let-down.

I'd love to see the Penelope Pitstop (and Reeves-McMillan's Shiv) retired, and replaced with heroines who, if they are captured (through no fault of their own), are quite capable of facing down the villain and engineering their own escape - or, better yet, rescuing the hero. Things can certainly be a bit scary while they're working towards that end, of course, as long as it doesn't just become a Gunboat.

The Gunboat

The Gunboat is what I call the pattern of bombarding the character with adversity, and then allowing them a relatively easy, linear win. It is not the same as showing them struggling against fit opposition, certainly not through the lens of agency; they're helpless for a while, and then get offered an easy escape that they don't have to work for much.

I understand where it comes from: the adversity bombardment, with no apparent options, is a common real-life experience, and if that’s the end of the story it’s unsatisfying. There must be an escape if the ending is not to be simply depressing. I'm also a tender-hearted author, and a professional problem-solver, and I've been known to give in to the period of suffering followed by an escape - "earned" not by the character's efforts, but by their simple endurance - rather than put in the extra effort to turn it into a conflict. 

And I do suspect that there's a way to do the Gunboat right, because endurance of suffering is something that deserves a more important place in fiction. I'll discuss this more in my final post in this series, when I talk about diverse experiences of agency. I'm not sure what the Gunboat done right exactly looks like, though. Is it "I'm not going to take this anymore", a change from passive to active? Perhaps. Is it looking for escape over and over, not finding it, giving up, and then being offered one risky opportunity and deciding to take it? Perhaps. I'm reasonably sure, though, that "character suffers... suffers... suffers... suffers... suffers... escapes by being handed a solution" isn't how to do it right.

What all of these failure modes of agency in fiction have in common is that the character gets a result that they didn't work for; the author just gave it to them in order to move things along. If you're going to follow the Western template of an active protagonist, in my view the protagonism needs to be constant. The protagonist definitely shouldn't succeed all the time, but they should strive all the time, and any progress they make should be through striving - not through an unlikely coincidence arranged by the author, or another character offering them help for no reason, or getting rescued while helpless and passive. There are other modes of fiction, of course, and in my next post I'll discuss the different approaches to agency in different genres and subgenres; but if your chosen mode is the motivated character in a dynamic situation striving for a goal against fit opposition, write that, and not the story of a series of lucky accidents.

If you struggle to do so, by the way, I found Jack M. Bickham's book Scene and Structure enormously useful in helping me write stories that flowed naturally from a character's pursuit of a goal.

Not every story, of course, needs to be written that way. In the next post, we'll look at genre expectations about agency.

Mar 14

Spec Fic and Comedy

Like millions of other fans, I'm saddened to hear of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors. It seems like a good occasion to reflect on humour in SFF (science fiction and fantasy), a topic I've been thinking about lately in any case.

I recently read, or at least started to read, a single-author collection of supposedly humourous SFF. The humour didn't work for me, as sometimes happens, and what that revealed, like mudflats at low tide, was that the stories weren't particularly good stories, and the SFF consisted mainly of cliches (while the humour consisted mainly of silly names). I didn't make it past halfway through the second story, a limp Lord of the Rings parody, neither funny, nor well-written, nor interesting.

I see this a lot in would-be comedic writing. I have to admit, as a reviewer I do often grant an author a pass for a dubious bit of worldbuilding, plotting, characterisation or what-have-you if the writing makes me laugh. The risk you run when you rely on this, though, is that if the writing doesn't make the reader laugh, there's nothing left to fall back on.

I maintain that a big part of the reason that Pratchett was the preeminent comic novelist since P.G. Wodehouse, responsible at one time for almost 4% of the entire British publishing industry's sales, was that he wrote books that worked as stories. His characters in the early books may have been cliches and stereotypes, but by his long and productive middle period he was writing characters with depth, complexity, growth and development.

There's a subtle, but detectable, gradient from cliche to stereotype to parody to character trapped in an unfortunate pattern of behaviour by habit and social expectation, and Pratchett showed us the full spectrum in the course of his career. He was an insightful observer of humanity, as all the best comedians are, but he was also a compassionate one - not just holding people up to mockery but reminding us that, whatever their failings, however small-minded and ridiculous they might be, they deserved consideration as human beings. (Even when they weren't, strictly speaking, human beings, but dwarves, trolls, golems, vampires, Igors or goblins.)

He's often compared to other writers, most frequently Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse, but his stories have more depth than either. In Adams, there are cosmic stakes, but they're minimised by the absurdity. In Wodehouse, the stakes are seldom higher than social embarrassment. In Pratchett, the stakes are high, and we care about them, and yet we're laughing.

Sir Terry PratchettRaeAllen / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

I'll make a comparison myself. There's a fairly obscure American humourist called Damon Runyon. Most people who've heard of him know him through the musical Guys and Dolls, or perhaps the Shirley Temple movie Little Miss Marker, both of which were based on his work, but he wrote a great many short stories in the 1930s set in the more dubious parts of contemporary New York. They're stories of revenge, lost love, family tragedy, violence and, occasionally, good triumphant with the help of rough, hard-bitten characters who have a sentimental side. Yet, mainly through the voice of the unnamed narrator (who observes much more than he participates; he's never unambiguously the protagonist), they're funny, both because of their wry, ironic observations and because of the distinctive language. They are, at the same time, slangy and poetic, and characterised by a total avoidance of the past tense.

My parents had an omnibus of the Runyon stories, and I read them a couple of times growing up. A while ago, frustrated by another would-be comic fantasy that I didn't find funny or otherwise enjoyable, I set out to write my own version of the same premise, and for reasons connected with that premise I picked the Runyonese dialect to tell it in. To make sure I was getting the voice right, I re-read some of the Runyon tales, and I was struck by the fact that there's often a dark, or at least heartwrenching, story going on behind all the humour. So I strove to make that, too, a part of the story I wrote, which you can read here.

I might never have thought of attempting that, though, if it hadn't been for the example of Terry Pratchett. Death (the phenomenon) isn't funny. Death (the character, who makes at least a cameo appearance in every Discworld book and is a main character in several), while usually serious himself, is a cause of comedy in other people.

Let's reflect on that for a moment. At least one person dies in every Discworld novel. Often, it's a minor character, but usually it's someone with a name, though sometimes we don't learn the name until Death says it in all caps. And these are primarily thought of as comic novels.

That, too, was part of Pratchett's genius. Nothing in life, not even death, was outside his warm, human, comedic insightfulness. Now that he has made the transition himself, it's up to us who are left to try to carry on his legacy, not only of funny fantasy, but of kindness, good storytelling, and reflection on the human condition.

Aug 30

Books Like Mine

In many ways, there are no books like mine. I deliberately don't imitate other people too closely. I'm not writing generic commercial fantasy; that's been done by plenty of other people, and I have no interest in it.

At the same time, nothing that's readable at all is completely unlike everything else. If you're a fan of my books, here are some others that resemble them a bit. I've noted the ways in which they resemble them, so that you can avoid the ones that are like my books in ways that you put up with, rather than in ways that you actively enjoy.

These authors have something else in common with me and each other, apart from the content of their books: good editing. This isn't a given for indie authors (or trad authors, these days), as you're no doubt aware.

Disclaimers: Links are to Amazon and include my affiliate ID, so I get some laughably small amount of money (in the form of Amazon credit) if you buy on my recommendation. I've beta-read for several of these authors, and sometimes vice versa, and know most of them on social media - because that's what I do when I find an author whose books I like.


Cheerybright is my extremely tongue-in-cheek, not-at-all-literal name for the opposite of grimdark. Grimdark is a style of fantasy that's very popular right now, being written to great critical and commercial acclaim by George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie and others. It features morally ambiguous or downright villainous protagonists, lots of suffering and slaughter, and very little hope. That's not my thing. It's not the thing of several other authors I know either, and when the revolution comes and people get sick of grimdark, we'll be waiting with our backlists.

Even though I jokingly use the name "cheerybright," I absolutely don't mean that this style is always sunshine and rainbows. People suffer and struggle through dark times, but they're decent people, and they struggle in the justified hope of a better world.

(Edited to add: we now call this genre "noblebright".)

C.J. Brightley: Her Erdemen Honor series is the epitome of what I'm talking about. I'm reading the second book right now. Start with The King's Sword (Erdemen Honor Book 1). The hero is a loyal soldier, humble and dedicated, and that makes all the difference. Although it's about a soldier, there's no rush to get to the fighting; there is some fighting, but that's not what the book's mainly about.

Brian Rush: Brian's books have more explicit sex than mine do, and go a bit darker in places, but I include them in my "cheerybright" list because of their unambiguous moral universe. It's very clear who is wearing which colour hat, especially in The Order Master (Refuge Book 1). The Stairway To Nowhere (The Star Mages Book 1), an earlier work, has much the same feel. Both series are science fantasy, mixing technology and magic, something that I also do in a completely different way. There's action, but it's not continuous.

Debora Geary: I refer to Debora's work as "suburban fantasy". Where your typical urban fantasy has cosmic battles against supernatural supervillains, featuring a heavily armed, smart-mouthed protagonist, her books are about comfortable contemporary suburban witches being kind to one another and eating cookies. It sounds dull, but it really isn't; there's plenty of struggle, it's just more intra- and interpersonal, and very few things explode. The start of her main series is A Modern Witch (A Modern Witch Series: Book 1). The whole long series is very consistent, to the point of formula, but it's a formula that, if you enjoy it, you'll want a lot of.

Larry Kollar: Larry's loyal, brave, resourceful young adult protagonists treat each other decently and with respect. His series starts with Accidental Sorcerers.

Morgan Alreth: Athame (The Unfortunate Woods Book 1) begins the story of two youthful characters who feel like real people, and who navigate the pitfalls of a fantasy world with humour, determination and integrity.

Daniel Swensen: Unlike the others featured here, Daniel has only one book out so far (and it's from a small press, so I initially forgot it). Orison is one of the best fantasy books I've read, which, if you look at my reading list on Goodreads, you'll see is an impressive achievement. It could so easily be grimdark, but it very much is not.

Fantasy in an Age of Steam

Medieval fantasy is fine. Some of the books I've mentioned above are medieval fantasy. But it's also fun to break out of that mould and write about the collision of magic and technology (and society) in a more industrial-revolution setting.

I'd describe these books (and my own) as "steampunk-adjacent" rather than out-and-out steampunk. Mainstream steampunk is often very silly. It features extremely high concepts that, all too frequently, are let down by poor execution. These books try for less (they don't go over the top with the devices and the aesthetic), but achieve more (they're well written and tell a good story).

Sabrina Chase: Unlike the headstrong "plucky gels" of so much steampunk, the main character of The Last Mage Guardian (Guardian's Compact Book 1) is level-headed, pragmatic, and highly effective at something that women aren't supposed to be able to do: magic. It goes cinematic at the end, but is none the worse for that.

Lindsay Buroker: when I'm looking for people to review my books, my best results come from approaching people who've enjoyed Lindsay's books. She's highly productive at the moment, and has a large backlist, so if you're just starting you're going to have to read fast to catch up. Her main series, now sort of complete (though she keeps writing new books in the same setting), starts with The Emperor's Edge. It's permanently free.

Her books are more action-oriented than mine, but they also have a lot of good character interplay, often humourous, and some of the characters at least try to resolve things without fighting. There's also a science-fictionish aspect behind the magic in most of her series, which isn't always apparent at first.

I welcome anyone's suggestions of other books that are similar to mine. And for a longer list of indie books I recommend (some of which are very unlike mine), go here.

Jan 07

Review Problems: The Breadth of the Fourth Star

I review a lot of books (100 last year, according to Goodreads; although that includes some I abandoned and excludes some I beta-read, it makes a nice round number, so let's use it).

Here are the figures by the number of stars I awarded:

5 star:  9
4 star: 54
3 star: 25
2 star: 8
1 star: 0
0 star: 4

The 0-star reviews were ones I decided against by the end of the sample, but had already put on Goodreads as books I was reading. Three of them I received when I was a reviewer for the Kindle Book Review, and one from Netgalley. I didn't feel I could give them a star rating because I hadn't read enough for a proper review, though I'd read enough to know that I didn't want to keep reading.

So more than half of the books I reviewed got four stars. Why is this? Is it a problem? If so, what can I do about it?


First of all, I'm getting pretty good at filtering out the bad books. I begin with the cover, though I really only glance at it, because I've seen good books in bad covers (and vice versa). Then I read the blurb. If the blurb has a typo in it, or is poorly expressed or confusing, or sounds like yet another rehash of tired tropes, or just doesn't sound like a book I'd be into, I don't bother to download the sample.

I check the reviews, particularly the ones with low numbers of stars. If anyone complains about a lot of typos or other language errors (which I find more distracting than most people), I rarely if ever download the sample.

Much of my filtering is by the sample. I sample any book that sounds like I might enjoy it (I have well over 100 samples on my Kindle right now), and if the sample doesn't grab my attention, or is full of typos and homonym errors or excessively dark for my taste, I delete it and move on. If it's borderline, or if it sounds interesting but I think it's a bit overpriced, I put it into a "possibles" collection on my Kindle. I have to say that I haven't, so far, gone on to buy any of the "possibles", because there are always plenty of other books.

No doubt this means that I've missed out on some books that improve dramatically after the (approximately) first 10% that's in the sample. That's unfortunate, but I have no way of telling those books from the ones that don't improve, which are, in the nature of things, more common.

It also means that I do read some books that get worse after the first 10%, which is where the three-star and two-star reviews mostly come from. Some of those low-star reviews were books I committed to read when I was reviewing for the Kindle Book Review, though, and I didn't feel I could just abandon them because I wasn't enjoying them. That no longer applies, so if anything, my proportion of 4-star reviews is likely to grow.

My Rating System

Here's the rating system I use. I've seen a lot of other reviewers describe their rating system, and it's pretty consistently similar, though everyone uses their own words to express it.

1 star: Awful. Dire. Pretty much all bad, with no redeeming features.
2 star: Bad, but with at least a hint that the author is capable of better; or very, very much not to my taste (despite being reasonably well done for what it is). I usually don't persevere with the second type these days.
3 star: The good and bad balance out; either there's a lot of both or not much of either.
4 star: I liked it, it was definitely more good than bad, but it wasn't without flaws (or, even if it had no significant flaws, it wasn't amazing enough for 5 stars).
5 star: One of the best books I've read, I will recommend this to all my friends and think about it long after I've finished reading it and buy whatever the author writes next and hug it and squeeze it and call it George.

So, between the filtering and the definitions and my increasingly-developed critical eye, most books end up in the 4-star bucket.

The Problem

The trouble with most books being 4-star is that 4 stars starts to have such a wide range of meaning that its significance is diluted. There are 4-star books that are barely 4-star, that are only a little more good than bad, that have significant flaws which weren't quite enough to prevent me from mostly enjoying them; and there are 4-star books that are almost 5-star, that only miss out on 5-star because of one or two issues, or because, while they are really competently done, they're not amazing.

Possible Solutions

In the past I've tried having sub-ratings for language, plot, characters and setting, rating each of those out of five stars and then giving a combined rating. In most cases, though, the sub-ratings end up pretty close to the overall rating, and they're often all four stars.

I've tried starting with 100 points, knocking off points for each issue, and then converting to stars at the end by dividing by 20. It gives much the same result, though.

I think what I need to do is create a scale within the 4-star space to indicate where in that relatively wide space a book falls. A 10-point scale would give me the most flexibility. I'll probably need to explain, each time I use a value above 5, that the scale doesn't round, that 4.5 means that it's in the middle of the 4-star range and 4.9 means it's almost, but not quite, 5-star material. Maybe I should use some punctuation other than a decimal point to make that clearer. A dash can be read as "to" (4-5), a slash as "out of" (4/5), and a comma just makes it look as if I'm German (4,5). A tilde looks like "approximately" (4~5) and a caret as if I'm raising it to a power (4^5). How about "4#5"?

No, I'm going to have to explain it each time anyway. I might as well just say, "On my 10-point subscale within the 4-star space, ranging from 0 (just above mediocre) to 9 (just short of amazing), this book rates a..."

Jun 25

How I Turn Down Review Requests

I review a lot of books. For a few months now, I've been one of the reviewers on the Kindle Book Review (KBR) team, and that gets me direct requests from indie authors who want a review. (If that's you, you should first read my review policy.) Edited to note: I'm not accepting new requests for a while.

I have very particular tastes in fiction, and as a former professional editor I'm also highly conscious of quality, so I end up turning down a very high proportion of the review requests that come to me. It's probably 80-90%. At the same time, I'm enthusiastic about the indie revolution and I want to encourage people as much as possible, so I try to be helpful even when I'm turning someone down.

KBR has what I consider a sensible policy: no book review under 3 stars is posted under their name. They're not in the business of running books down. My particular implementation of that policy is that if I don't think I'm going to like the book, and preferably love the book, I won't review it. Apart from the 3-star rule, why would I voluntarily spend my time reading something I dislike?

This post is about why I turn people's books down and, more importantly, how. I've written a number of these rejection emails now, and I thought other reviewers might be interested to see the kinds of things I say.

striatic / Foter.com / CC BY

There are a number of what in the project management world used to be called "QA gates" that a book needs to get through before I'll review it - or before I'll buy it, if it's one I've found for myself. The first is the pitch or blurb (I'll refer to it as the pitch from here on in, regardless of whether I mean what someone emails me or what's on the Amazon page of a book I'm buying for myself). Some people pitch me stuff I don't read, like nonfiction, or epic fantasy, or dark fantasy, or conspiracy-theory-based thrillers (a lot of those, for some reason). I turn these down quickly, with minimal comment, usually reminding them that my Kindle Book Review profile says that I don't review what they've just pitched me. Pro tip: read the instructions.

Some people pitch me stuff I do read, but they do it so poorly that I don't want to read their version of it. Either their pitch contains significant editing issues, or it's rambling, or it just sounds like they've taken a stencil from their favourite book and sprayed some paint through it, producing a bad imitation.

If it's a book I've found for myself, I pass at that point and move on. If it's being pitched to me by email, I sometimes give them some benefit of the doubt and at least take a look at the sample, either by downloading it to my Kindle or just looking at it on Amazon. After all, a weak blurb can, theoretically, have a good book lurking behind it.

In my experience so far, though, this theory isn't borne out in practice, and if the pitch is badly written the book is no better.

Here's a rejection I wrote yesterday. Although I mainly mention the preview here, it was based on a combination of the pitch and the preview.

Thanks for the request, [author]. I've had a quick look at the preview on Amazon and it doesn't really grab me. The punctuation is very rough, which I always find distracting. I can forgive that if it's an unusually compelling concept, or if there's a great hook in the first couple of pages, or if the characters are out of the ordinary, or if it's a story I've never seen done before, but as far as I could see yours doesn't have any of those factors going for it.

I make it a policy to only review books I think I can love, and I can't see myself loving this one, sorry. Hope you find other reviewers that it works better for.

Sometimes I have doubts about the pitch, because it sounds like it isn't something I like, but I give the sample a bit more of a look just in case. Here's another one I wrote yesterday:

Sorry, [author], but I'm not loving it. It's well-written, for which I commend you, but it's just not a book that I would pick up to read if you hadn't requested a review for it. The broken-down, alienated protagonist and the devastated world that's the setting are putting me off.

I know that's just your setup for why the story's issue is compelling, but I'm afraid I just can't muster up enough enthusiasm to persist. I emphasize that this is a matter of my personal taste, and a lot of people will love it for exactly the reasons that I don't.

Good luck in finding other reviewers, I'm sure they'll give it a good review for all its many strengths.

I always try to distinguish between "this book has issues" and "this is not the book for me".

(I do feel a bit guilty sometimes about the "hope you find another reviewer" line, because I've submitted my own book for review to all three of the other spec-fic reviewers on KBR, one in March, one in April and one in May, and as at nearly the end of June none of them have replied, even to say "no". Nevertheless, I keep saying it.)


Sorry, doesn't sound like one for me. Post-financial-collapse sounds close to post-apocalyptic to me, which as noted in my profile is something I don't read. The blurb gives the impression of an overly complex story told in a hyped-up manner, and there are hints of conspiracy theory as well, which I need to have noted on my profile as something else I don't read. I glanced at the first few pages, and they read like the blurb, though at least they look like they've been edited (rare enough in indie books to be worth remarking on).

Not for me, but certainly for someone. All the best with finding that right reviewer.

And another:

I took a look at your sample. While it's well enough written, it's not really my kind of book. I don't read military or action-centred books as much as I used to. I don't think I'd love it, so I'm probably not the reviewer you want. I hope you find someone who enjoys that subgenre more.

One of my pet peeves is when an indie author tells me in the blurb (which we all know is written by the author) how wonderful the book is and what my reaction to it is supposed to be. Here's my response to one that said that his book "attempts to punch the reader in the gut with laughter, smack them on the head with passion and kick them in the shins with character development" (he did at least say it was an attempt).

Well, I've had a first look. I'm afraid I remain unpunched, unsmacked and unkicked.

It's not actually bad, though I'd seriously advise you to move your intro to the end and fix the homonym error ("you're" for "your"). But it hasn't hooked me, and I can't see that changing. I don't have an American sense of humour, is probably the problem.

I'd suggest that another reviewer would probably be more likely to give you a good review.

Here's another blurb-boaster:

To be honest, your blurb puts me off a little. That's mainly because you're using evaluative words, like "mind-bending" and "unimaginable", which sound like hype (and like things I'd rather decide for myself than be told by the author). I also tend to assess a writer's style by their blurb, and that formal, adjective-heavy style doesn't appeal to me. It leads me to suspect that I may get a lot of telling rather than showing in the story.

I want to give you a fair chance, though, so I will download your sample from Amazon, and if I enjoy it enough that I want to read the rest I will let you know. If I don't, I will tell you why, as helpfully as I can.

I've had a lot of requests lately, so you're currently fifth in the queue. That means I may not get to your book for a while, particularly since I'm going overseas for a couple of weeks soon. I'll get back to you as soon as I can, though.

And the follow-up:

I took a look at the sample last night, and I'm afraid I couldn't get into it, for pretty much the reason I expected. It's written in a very formal style, which seems like an attempt at a "high" style. It's very literate, but you don't quite pull it off. For example, the first character to speak is very slangy, which is clanging in the midst of all that formality, and then you use a phrase like "be him" when it should be "be he".

The other problem is that as far as I got (about 15% of the way through the sample) there was no actual action. It was all the character contemplating things, mostly in vague abstract terms, and running through the backstory in his head. I didn't see a problem he was trying to solve, and for me, at least, I need to see that very early on in the story if it's going to hold my attention. There was nothing to hold onto.

You've had a number of positive reviews, so clearly this book is working for people, but I'm afraid it didn't work for me. I hope that's helpful to you in some way, and I encourage you to look for another KBR reviewer.

I often let people know that I have hesitations from the outset:

I will download the sample, but I have to say my initial response is hesitant. That's mainly because I have difficulty suspending my disbelief of your premise (a stimulus that we've never encountered before that makes us helplessly abandon all rationality). I'll read the sample, though, and see how that goes, and if I want to continue to read I'll be in touch.

If you'd rather look for another KBR reviewer in the meantime who might be able to start sooner or might have a more enthusiastic response to the premise, please feel free. Let me know if you find someone, though, so we don't double up.

To which my later follow-up was:

I've read the sample, and I'm afraid it didn't grab me enough to overlook my problems with the premise. Sorry about that, and I hope you can find a reviewer who loves it.

Another example of the two-stage rejection. This one sounded different enough that I thought it might be worth making an exception to my usual reading taste:

I don't usually go for dark, and I never read zombie novels, but I'll take a look at the sample and if it's unusually good I'll write a review. I'll let you know either way.

The follow-up:

I've had a read, and I'm afraid it's not for me. Before I even got to the zombies, the staccato style, with very few commas, and a homonym error in the third sentence put me off.

I suggest you approach another KBR reviewer.

By the way, the responses I've had to these emails fall into two groups. Some people don't reply at all, which I think is a good choice. Others just thank me for the feedback, apparently genuinely, which is also a good choice. I've not, so far, had anyone get offended or confrontational.

Here's my response to someone who was writing in English, although it wasn't her first language:

I'm going to say no to reviewing these. I downloaded the samples, and although there were a few errors of English usage, I understand those, and they aren't the problem. The problem is the run-on sentences.

If you're not familiar with that term, a run-on sentence means that it runs on from one thought to another without much (or any) punctuation. What should be multiple sentences ends up as one, and the effect is that the reader has nowhere to take a mental breath and has to work harder on comprehension.

All of that means that I would probably find I had to force myself through the book, and that doesn't lead to a good review. I'd suggest that you approach one of the other KBR reviewers instead.

I hope this is not too disappointing for you. I know how hard it is to get reviews.

Last example. Here's someone I gave detailed advice to, stressing what he was doing well.

Well, I had a read of the opening chapters. I have some suggestions. I hope you take these in the spirit in which they're meant.

Firstly, the good. You can spell and punctuate, and the words you use mean what you use them to mean. That puts you way ahead of the average indie author right out of the gate. Your premise is interesting, and your character concepts seems sound.

The problem is that, in my opinion (and others may think differently), your writing needs a lot of tightening. Less would be far more. Your sentences are often very long, and they ramble. Not only that, but there's a lot of scene-setting detail that I suspect isn't important to the plot.

You open with a prologue, which some people are opposed to. There's another school of thought, though, that says that if you aren't going to get to the action and the conflict right away, having a prologue that sets up the action and the conflict is a good way to hook the reader.

The thing is, I think you should get to the action and the conflict right away, or at least as soon as possible. What hooks me into a book is that I see a character with a problem who's trying to solve it. We see that in the prologue, but in the first few chapters of the book we see a character who goes surfing, teaches a class, establishes his gamer cred, has a very long conversation with an old friend about how they're both broke and having relationship problems, and then we get a long chunk of backstory about how they became friends, and it starts to go into a blow-by-blow on the friend's academic history, and at that point I lost interest.

What I'd suggest is that you cut to the chase and drop in just as much backstory as you need, when you need it. I suspect, given your premise, that the exact details of how long it took to get the divorce and which court granted it and so forth aren't essential plot points. I further suspect that the important parts are that one character is a military historian who can use his knowledge to lead, and the other is an ex-cop, and they're old friends, and they don't have current relationships or jobs that they love and would find hard to leave. Now, I may be wrong. There may be other things in there that are important. But if so, I'd suggest mentioning them when they're important, and not in a long introduction.

You could do something like this: When the big reveal happens, and the protagonist has to decide whether to go off Earth and help in the battle, he thinks to himself: "What is there for me here anyway? By the time my adjunct professor salary pays off my student loans, there'll be a colony on Mars. My divorce is final as of a month ago. I don't even like my job." And then he says, "All right, I'm in."

I do think this book has a lot of promise, but at the moment, for me, the interesting bits are buried behind a pile of unimportant detail. The rule of thumb is that you can usually cut about 25% without losing anything essential, and I'd say that's a rule you'd do well to follow.

You don't have to take my advice, of course. I'm just some guy on the Internet. If you do decide to take my advice, though, I would like another chance to review the book, because I think it has potential.

Although this author replied and said he basically agreed, he also said he wasn't planning to follow the advice since he was moving on to the rest of the series now, and if I just "pushed through" the issues in the first 5 chapters...

Um, no. Your readers are not going to do that, any more than I will. I'm reviewing to help other readers, and because I personally enjoy reading. If it becomes a chore, or if your book just isn't my thing, I'll stop.