indie authors

Writerly Pursuits


Looking at my current Things To Do list — specifically Writerly Things To Do (I also have such lists for the house, the garden and my day job) — got me thinking about activities that characterize the writing life. In no particular order, here is the list:

  1. Read and review the three books from the Emerging Local Authors Collection that are sitting on my bedside table.
  2. Finish writing a story (provisionally) called “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell.” Then post the story to my blog.
  3. Look through my file of stories that have never seen the light of day and select a couple to post on the blog. Then post them.
  4. Read closely and comment on three contributions to my critique group in preparation for a meeting on October 20th.
  5. Format for print publication within the next 3 months the second and third books of the Herbert West Series.
  6. Write some other stories that have been incubating way too long, before the ideas that inspired them wither and die.
  7. Prepare to write another novel — a sequel to the Herbert West Series — set in Egypt, specifically at an archaeological excavation in the 1960s. “Prepare to write?” You know — research, brooding, making notes, visualizing scenes, making more notes, etc.
  8. Read and occasionally comment on the daily stream of posts from the blogs I follow.
  9. Post to my blog at least once a week.
  10. Come to grips with the idea of marketing.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that this is the real stuff of Being A Writer (except the marketing bit, maybe). It’s the 21st century analogue of what writers used to do in pre-computer days — getting together in cafes and bars, gossiping and arguing about the meaning of it all, writing letters, taking walks in the country and thinking about what to write next, mingling in literary salons, scraping away with their quill pens or pounding their typewriters. Nowadays much of the connection and exchange of ideas is done through social media, of course, but the dynamic is the same.

And, of course, there’s #10 on my list — marketing. Now as in the past, there are businesslike writers and those to whom that is an alien notion. Today’s indie authors don’t have to look far for reminders that to succeed, they must regard their writing and publishing as a business. Any who do not do this must resign themselves to failure.

As with the writing rules that also abound on the internet, the real situation is more complex — a compound of financial realities, creative impulses, expectations and motivations. Many self-published writers display a truly businesslike attitude, with (I assume) varying degrees of financial success and personal satisfaction. Many others do not. (Guess which of these groups I belong to. Just guess).

That’s really a side issue, though, the “marketing” aspect of being a writer. The core of it is whatever leads to new creations — writing. Whether the ferment of ideas and inspiration comes from face-to-face conversations with fellow writers, or electronically around the world, it must lead to sitting down and stringing words together. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Dancing in a Minefield: Writers Reviewing Each Other

Book reviews have been on my mind lately — more than usual, that is, because book reviews are always a preoccupation of us indie authors. I’ve been thinking about reviews and reviewing because most of the books at the top of my TBR pile are actually TBR&R, meaning “to be read and reviewed.” I’ve decided this year to give priority to books by authors from my local area, which narrows the field considerably. Even so, the pile keeps growing.

It occurred to me a while ago that I rarely read books just for fun, with no intention to review or even rate them. I think that’s an occupational hazard for us authors, now more than ever.

In the Olden Days (the previous millennium), books were reviewed by special people called literary critics. Back then, writers wrote and readers read. They might talk about books with friends and recommend ones they thought particularly good, but that was just talk.

Then came ebooks, self-publishing and social media. Now everyone can be a critic of sorts. For indie authors, this has created a perilous situation. First, of course, there are Too Many Books. Then there’s the fact that some of them are by fellow writers — people we know from critique groups, writing courses, writers’ conferences or the blogosphere. People we trade jokes with, whose posts we “like” and comment on. How many of us have obtained books from these online colleagues in exchange for “an honest review?”

So what do you do when you read one of these books and can’t write an honestly positive review?

Many just don’t write the review. Some contact the writer privately to express their concerns. Others grit their teeth and try to walk the tightrope, carefully making a case for their less-than-positive comments. Critical remarks may not be too damaging, but throwing a three-or-fewer-stars rating onto a pile of four and five stars, thus lowering a book’s overall score, is guaranteed to make its author unhappy.

No one wants to be a party-pooper, but I, for one, refuse to modify my honest opinion of a piece of writing just because the writer is known to me. That kind of thing perpetuates the negative views some people still have about self-published books and their authors. It may also be why Amazon has decided to remove reviews that appear to be written by people who know the author. This is a rather crude approach, but behind it is the principle that reviews should reflect readers’ true impressions of a piece of writing, unmodified by considerations such as, “Well, it’s not the best, but hey, the author is a nice guy and writes those funny blog posts, so how about 4 stars instead of 3.”

There is a huge difference between a thoughtful critical review and a mean-spirited condemnation of a book accompanied by a one-star rating. We writers can be of help to one another by carefully reading each other’s books and writing sincere (honest) reviews, both positive and negative.

One thing that’s hard to avoid (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) is to slip into the role of editor-after-the-fact, suggesting that the author should have deleted this scene or that character, or written more description, or less. I think this kind of thing comes from participating in critique groups or being a beta reader. In those situations we are dealing with works in progress, where such suggestions are welcomed. Reviews, on the other hand, must deal with a book as published and complete.

We writers owe it to one another to hold ourselves to a high standard when we write reviews. We know both sides of the page, as it were: we both create and consume writing. We are insiders and as such must play the reviewer’s role consciously and with care.

Local Author Book Review #4: The New Fire by Ada Robinson


The New Fire by Ada Robinson is a historical novel about a history that never happened set in a place that does not exist. But it reads as though rooted in a real place and time.

This is from the back cover:

Imagine a land blending the geography of California, the technology of medieval Spain and the theology of pagan Rome. Isolated by distance and slave-hunters, the community of Iktalan has diverged from its Hispani roots.

Ada Robinson has taken pains to craft her fictional world and its inhabitants, rendering vividly its geography, economy and cultures. The Iktalai and a related people, the Zalatai, are the native peoples of the region. The Iktalai have had more contact with the Hispani, who come from Nueva Hispania on the other side of the mountains; indeed, they have intermarried at some point. Then there are the fearsome Bakai, enemies of all three peoples, who raid coastal settlements to take prisoners and slaves, using repugnant means to subdue them.

The story plays out over a period of months, during which a treaty is negotiated between the Iktalai and the Hispani, guaranteeing protection of Iktalan from the Bakai by the Hispani army in exchange for tribute.

Woven into this tapestry is the story of Sakela, a young Iktalai woman who represents her community in the treaty negotiations and serves as a herbalist and healer. She encounters dangers and challenges, not least among them the need to overcome a personal tragedy. In the course of these adventures she meets the new Governor of Tierra Ermosa, Don Francisco Montoya, and a warrior of the Zalatai who is also her cousin.

Robinson’s prose is clear and direct, outlining with equal clarity religious ceremonies, community feasts, military operations and issues around land claims and taxation. The human stories are nearly obscured by the volume and detail of this information, especially in the opening chapters. Some readers may be discouraged by this, but persistence is rewarded by several tense situations and their resolution, only to be followed by additional complications.

The technique of creating a fictional world that engages readers by its similarity to the real one, while allowing the writer freedom to plot, has been used in several well-known novels by Guy Gavriel Kay. Robinson has accomplished something similar in this novel, with less drama and intensity, perhaps, but with admirable sincerity and thoroughness.

My rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The New Fire is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and at the iBookstore, as well as in print from Amazon. It is also part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.

Local Author Book Review #3: PsyBot by Nowick Gray


The Plot: Computer programmer Joe Norton juggles a series of awkward relationships with women while working for a tech company that’s facing a merger. As if this isn’t bad enough, he experiences strange and disturbing hallucinations and nightmares, in some of which he is offered a rifle for an unknown purpose. Maybe they’re psychotic episodes. Or worse — maybe he’s somehow caught a virus from one of the computer programs he works with. Accident, conspiracy or karma? Joe struggles to make sense of it all, growing ever more flummoxed and distressed. He seeks answers from coworkers, girlfriends and a psychiatrist, embarking on a search for his “home brain.”

The Characters: Joe is a middle-aged guy with a pretty drab life. His reality doesn’t quite measure up to his rather modest expectations. He goes to work, eats TV dinners in front of the “UltraScreen,” changes girlfriends frequently and anxiously. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to care much about him. The other characters, seen through Joe’s eyes (since he’s the narrator) range from quirky to repellent. The most sympathetic ones are Harry, a coworker, and Giselda, the boss’s assistant, but even they are somewhat peculiar.

The Setting: Philadelphia in the fall — as described by Joe, a pretty bleak place. Gritty streets of drab brick buildings. Joe’s girlfriends’ apartments, the office where he works, the eateries he frequents. And a variety of “virtual” situations — airplanes (or airships?), transit stations in space, windowless rooms, festering jungles.

On the plus side, Gray produces good prose. He assembles well-chosen words into coherent sentences, often creating vivid images or displaying a sly humour:

Distracted from the flimsy newsprint, I rode forward carried along on a wave — no, a rising tide — of compulsion toward a greater reality, a more expansive dimension than I had known. At the same time neither joy not freedom beat in my heart. Too much instead of that dark dread, the taste of black ooze in my mouth. And I don’t mean the coffee.

Even though the plot revolves around computer programs and virtual reality, the occasional occurrences of technical language are not incomprehensible. Readers who can relate to metaprograms, branching logic and metamovers that window to lot-caches may derive more from the story than those who do not, but the latter can skim over those sections without losing the thread.

The premise of the novel is interesting and original. Unfortunately, its execution bogs down in excessive detail soon after the opening scenes. The first quarter of the book, in which the drabness of Joe’s life is contrasted with his bizarre visions, is excruciatingly slow. Finding little to charm or captivate me, I nearly bailed around page 40; only my resolve to finish the book in order to write this review kept me going. By page 100, I was intrigued. Joe was starting to engage with his problem and trying various strategies to solve it.

Sadly, this promising thread frayed out into a repetitious series of further bizarre incidents with little coherence. Reaching the end of the novel became my primary motivation again, rather than a desire to discover the reason for Joe’s weird experiences and curiosity about how things work out for him. I wasn’t willing to wallow in disembodied strangeness again and again. “Goodbye Joe, and good luck,” I thought, but since the end was in sight, I kept plugging away.

I’m happy to say that the final 20 pages brought a fairly satisfying resolution. Despite (or perhaps because of) its denseness, PsyBot is a book that gives a reader plenty to think about.

My rating: 6 out of 10 stars. In my 10-star rating system, 6 stars means “Good but unremarkable.” In the case of PsyBot, I would change this to “Potentially good but hard to engage with.”

PsyBot and other books by Nowick Gray may be obtained through his website: or through his author page at Smashwords:

And, of course, there is one copy of PsyBot available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library as part of its Emerging Local Authors Collection.


Local Author Book Review #2: The White Limousine by John R. Paterson

Time travel. Second chances. A lost love and a new love. These are the compelling elements of The White Limousine, a science fiction romance by Victoria author John Paterson.


The plot revolves around two couples: Lisa is part of a genius team that creates the world’s first working time machine, and Eddie is an adventurer who takes a job as a very special kind of chauffeur. They give Fred a chance to fix the worst mistakes of his life, the biggest of which is losing his true love, Kimberley. But things go wrong.

The white limo of the title, which reads like something designed by Elon Musk with help from James Bond’s “Q,” is the vehicle that whisks the characters from 2014 into the past. Complications arise when the limo returns empty except for bloodstains, and Lisa becomes part of her own experiment. From that point two stories unfold, one in 1950 and the other in 1985.

Science definitely takes a back seat to romance here. Paterson offers just enough scientific-sounding information to maintain plausibility, but keeps the focus on the characters’ emotions and their relationships with one another. Underlying the story line of The White Limousine is a sincere concern with values and ethics, which manifests in a lurid subplot involving a rather bizarre church. A car chase right out of the movies concludes this episode. Even though some details strain credibility, the story is engaging enough to ride smoothly over these bumps.

I noted a few problems with editing: inconsistency with the surname of one of the principal characters and frequent instances of missing or misplaced quotation marks that make it difficult to tell who is speaking when.

It’s tempting to compare this book to Stephen King’s 11/22/63, since they share the premise that time travel is possible, and both feature characters that fall in love while visiting the mid-2oth century. King, true to form, takes the shadowed side of the road, while Paterson mostly sticks to the sunshine and takes the reader on an entertaining excursion.

My rating: 7 out of 10 stars.

The White Limousine is available at the author’s website, and one copy is in the Emerging Local Authors collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.



Local Author Book Review #1: Clamming Up by Lee-Anne Stack

Since the recent launch of the Emerging Local Authors collection at my local library, I have decided to read some of the 174 books and write reviews of them. I’m not sure how many I’ll be able to get through, but I’ve noted at least half a dozen that seem worth checking out (literally). Expect reviews here in the next few months. This is a personal commitment!

And since I frequently find the 5-star rating system inadequate, I’ll use a ten-star system, thus: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative.

Enough preliminaries!

First up is Clamming Up by Victoria author Lee-Anne Stack. Right from the get-go I’ll reveal that I was a beta-reader for this book months ago, but this review is based on my recent reading of the published book.


Lee-Anne Stack really knows how to write a good time. Her characters, business partners Kate and Pearl, take their two-woman home reno business to Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, to do a job for a rather… memorable couple. (Here I’ll just digress for a moment to say that Tofino, along with Pacific Rim National Park and the neighbouring community of Ucuelet, are magical places. Getting there is a journey — through a mountain range, past pristine rivers and lakes and what remains of the magnificent coastal rainforest. Tofino is a quirky mix of locals and tourists, with endless beaches, surfing, resorts, restaurants, and even a hot spring in the vicinity. It’s one of my favourite places).

Kate Nia O’Malley is quite a character. She tells the story, and her narrative voice moves the plot along briskly, with considerable verve. The opening scene gets things off with a bang and they don’t slow down much until the final epilogue.

As Kate and Pearl work on the interior of a guest house — sawing, nailing, mudding, sanding and painting — romance and adventure swirl around them. Two personable guys make the scene — doctor Colin and boat owner Andrew — leading to fun times. Sitting on my couch, I vicariously went surfing, diving and clamming (of course!), and enjoyed superlative meals in a variety of situations. The book reads as fast as a screenplay; much of the narrative is carried by snappy dialogue. These women are as competent with one-liners as they are with power tools!

The mystery is fairly subtle until the last few chapters. The death of a fisherman before the book starts casts a shadow, especially over Andrew, since the dead man was his uncle. The presence of some shady (but colourful) characters adds a bit of menace. Sinister hints accumulate to the bursting point, precipitating a frantic search and the final denouement. To be quite frank, I found the resolution of the mystery a bit weak, but that didn’t matter because getting there was so much fun. The characters are distinct and memorable, and their interactions with one another are almost more important than the plot. This is a fun read, perfect for beach, bath or boat.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

Clamming Up is available through Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Other ebook formats may be purchased at Smashwords and the ebook stores it distributes to. And folks who use the Greater Victoria Public Library may check out the copy there.

The Irascible Indie. Part 4: Who Are the Real Writers?

If you’ve read the other parts of this series, you may be thinking it’s about how not to promote your writing. If it inspired anyone to seek out the many blogs offering positive advice on marketing and promotion, so much the better. I admit my approach to these aspects of being my own publisher is lackadaisical. But does that make me a Bad Writer?

This might be an answer…

Writer = one who writes.

Real writer = one who makes one’s living by writing.

Hobby writer/dilettante/fake = one who writes for one’s own amusement, with something other than writing as a source of income.

Is it really so?

Real writers have to market, promote, make business plans, etc. (unless they have publishers who do those things for them). Hobby writers can just put their books out there and hope for the best.

Real writers have to work social media, make connections with their readers, create and maintain their brand. Some, perhaps many, hobby writers do these things too, but their livelihood doesn’t depend on it.

Hobby writers (unless retired with adequate pensions) need to spend most of their time and energy at their day jobs. That leaves only “spare time” for both writing and marketing. Which one do you suppose gets neglected?

Things all writers have in common:

1. A compulsion to write.

2. A desire to have their writing read and recognized.

So the only difference between real writers and hobby writers is that real writers need to make a living from their craft.

This leads to the big questions:

1. Are real writers better at writing than hobby writers?

2. Does any of this matter to readers?

The writing itself may be bad or good, regardless of what kind of writer produces it. Hobby writers, under less compulsion to keep producing new works and marketing their existing ones, may take more time and so turn out work of greater quality. Without the need to direct all their writing to a target market, hobby writers are free to write from inspiration, possibly creating works of originality (or weirdness). On the other hand, career writers must sharpen their game if they want to succeed, so have to pay attention to quality as well as quantity.

All writer-publishers should be aware of the “ugly truth” about the publishing business.

But does this mean if you don’t want to market and promote, or are a dismal failure at it, you’re not a Real Writer?

Of course not! It’s only a problem if you expect to sell a lot of books and make a lot of money. Most of us began writing because it’s what we love to do, not in order to set ourselves up for failure and guilt. We all have choices and not everyone is looking for the same rewards, as illustrated by this quote from writer SK Nicholls (commenting on another writer’s blog post about trad vs. indie publishing):  “I have heard people say hobby writers can’t be taken seriously. Only writers writing for money and those who treat writing like a business can succeed. I suppose that depends on your point of view and your definition of success. It certainly isn’t mine.”

It’s crucial to maintain a balance between your expectations of whatever constitutes success for you (money earned, readers attracted, awards bestowed) and the effort you are willing to put into marketing and promotion. The gap may in rare instances be bridged by good luck or magic (but don’t count on that).

For readers, there’s really no point in worrying about whether the writer of a book you are considering is a real writer or a mere hobbyist. Some readers will not read anything that has not been endorsed by critics or reviewers, but most look at the story first. If the story interests and excites them, then they want to know more about the author.

Who are the Real Writers? All of us — all who write with passion and energy, striving to perfect our art. How good we happen to be at selling our work is another matter. There are professional writers and writers who prosper financially, but those are subsets of the broad category. We are all writers.

So endeth the series. The Irascible Indie goes back to reading, mulling, questioning and writing. (And with spring just around the corner, add gardening to that list).