POW! Right in the Kisser.


I posted almost three months ago on the great review I received at Booknest.eu for Pilgrimage to Skara.

Since then, things have been…different.  For the SPFBO contest, I’ve had six total ratings (with five reviews so far).  My composite rating so far is 4.1.

(Muse: Out of five stars?)

No, out of ten.

(Muse:  Dang, you suck.)

It’s by a long ways the lowest combined score of any of the finalists.  It is also the lowest score (if it holds) of any SPFBO finalist, of any year.

So, notoriety….I got that going for me.

I kicked this around in my head for a while to figure out why these reviews bothered me so much.  I wasn’t upset over low ratings or people not liking it, or even snarky commentary (of which there wasn’t much).

I love characters.  I think they are the hallmark of any spec-fiction book.  Plots and tropes are worn and reused.  Settings can be unique but often aren’t, and writing styles can be near-literary to colloquial without raising a book’s memorability.  But I think characters are what really makes a book both relatable and memorable.

And this is exactly what the bad reviews focused on:  my characters and why they were terrible.

That realization–that is, for someone who is so focused on characters and character development, I apparently failed to make my characters appealing to a wide swath of readers–is like a punch in the nose.

(Muse:  That sounds pretty dumb.  You would think you would be able to see that before you published it, you dim bulb!)

One might think that but sometimes, it is awful hard to step back and look from an unbiased perspective at you own work.  This is why good beta readers are so important–something not lost on me in working on Scion of Andoya, where beta-reader-input is is (in the current revision) leading to some major changes in the narrative.

Granted, the dislike of the characters hasn’t been universal but it has been a far more common issue among reviewers than, say, plot, setting, writing style, or dialogue.  Specific criticisms have been varied but I really can’t argue with most.  Even in places where I believe things were misunderstood or taken out of context, that’s still on me, for not communicating the intent more clearly.

I’m still disappointed in myself over this but nothing for it now but learn from mistakes and to move on.

Beta Readers…any interest?

The new year is upon us and that means a fresh start for the projects I’ve been idling on.

One thing that happened is that I finished the draft of the first novel of the Princess of the North quartet, Scion of Andoya.  So now, I am looking for beta readers.

If there is any interest, please let me know.  Anyone who enjoyed Pilgrimage to Skara might be interested in this one too.  The tone and pace are quite a bit different, but the prose is about the same.

Of course, if Pilgrimage made you want to vomit in your hat, this might not be for you either.  🙂

Anyone who interested please email me at jonathanspembroke@gmail.com and let me know.  Wide fantasy critiquing is a plus; if you have a blog or website, please link it, unless you know I already know about it (as in, I’ve been there and interacted with you).



TFOB Part I – Writing Heroes of Diversity


I finished the Tucson Festival of Books.  Whirlwind experience, so much to see and take in. From the pavilions, to the big name authors present, to the “Cowboy For Bernie” walking among the throng, it was something to see.

Sadly, some things didn’t happen.  I never managed to get face-to-face with Chuck Wendig and thank him for his insane-yet-insanely-helpful ramblings on his blog.  Also, I wanted to ask authors residing in the state if they had considered a “spec fiction writers of AZ” association, or even one for the southwest.  Outside one brief discussion, the opportunity didn’t materialize.

(Muse:  They probably have one and just don’t want you in it.)

That would be safest for everyone!

I got to sit on some great spec-fiction panels.  The first one on the first day was titled, “Writing Heroes of Diversity.”  The panelists were Austin Aslan (The Islands at the End of the World), Beth Cato (Clockwork Dagger) and Jon Proudstar (Tribal Force)–hereafter referred to as AA, BC, and JP, because I just spent a day on the road and am feeling even lazier than normal.

It was interesting.  As I suspected, a lot of the discussion centered on the idea of writing from a cultural or gender perspective other than one’s own, and cultural appropriation.  The central question: can you do the first and avoid the second?  I found this topic timely, considering J.K. Rowling being under fire just last week for this very topic.

All three kind of hedged their answers, saying you could, if done with care.  I got the impression they wanted to say, “No,” but as they all had done so, they really couldn’t.  AA said the best way to approach it was with humility, to do your research and talk to people living those perspectives.  BC and JP basically agreed, the later saying,  a good writer “spills their own blood and will give to get.”  Or in other words, nothing comes to those who sit on their ass.  Sweat equity in your research will reap rewards in terms of authentic representation.

JP made an interesting observation.  He said that while writing Tribal Force, he found himself writing about characters that all looked like him, omitting the pale people, and that he didn’t want to go down the same road so many authors did.  I thought that notion kind of profound.

A question from the audience came on avoiding stereotyping.  BC recommended seeking critique readers from various backgrounds.  AA simply said the best hedge against that was that all characters–good, bad, and ugly–should be three-dimensional, and not flat representations.

So all this got me to thinking: how diverse is my writing?

I write a lot of second-world fiction but the ones I set in our world, I usually don’t mention race at all.  Often, I don’t even describe the physical appearance of the characters, aside from genders.  Is that worse?  Better?  I’ve heard both opinions.

And on gender, I looked at the last dozen short stories I wrote.  Exactly half featured a female protagonist.  Pilgrimage to Skara has a male protagonist but features strong female movers and shakers.  Princess of the North has dual female leads. One is Andoyan (essentially Scandinavian), the other half-Andoyan and half-Darzish (essentially Arabic).

I guess I have yet to write a gay or trans protagonist.  No reason, other than it has never come up.  No, I lied, I wrote a horrible story with a gay protagonist a few years ago.  It was execrable and I have never let it see the light of day.  Not because of the lead character but because the plot sounded much better in my head than it came out on the page.  And yes, that character’s orientation was essential to the plot.  When that’s the case, I make note of these things.  The rest of the time, I usually don’t bother and let the reader draw the characters in their own head.

Do I need to do more?  Austin said-

(Muse:  You said you were going to use initials.)

Shut up before I stuff you back in your hole.  Austin said, “Beware of writing diversity for the sake of diversity.”  That’s what I thought I was doing, or not doing.  Now I wonder if was working with big ole fat blinders on.

So now I am really confused.  Should I write more diverse characters or shouldn’t I?  Or…should I just write what I write and worry less about this topic, and let it sort itself out?

Anyway, it was a good panel and I am glad I chose to attend it instead of the other one in that same time slot that had caught my eye.

(Muse:  It was a good panel because it left you with more questions than answers?)

Sometimes, just having something to ponder is enough to keep you searching for the answers.  And that’s life’s great journey, isn’t it?

Daily Update #35

Well, well, well….  Here we are in 2016.  Another year in the books, another year of writing under my belt.

(Muse:  Another year where you failed to sell a book, chump.)

Love and kisses to you too, sunshine.  Since it is a new year, just a few tidbits to start things off.


– Way back in this post, I made some goals for 2015:

  • Get Pilgrimage to Skara published
  • Make three short story sales.
  • Finish Princess of the North.

Sadly, I didn’t quite make any of these goals.  On the first, self-doubt, that boogeyman that affects so many of us, started rearing its beady-eyed little head.  Some things I read about self-publishing really made me doubt myself and as a result, I chickened out.  I did get two sales this year, so that was good.  And I logged 60K words into Princess.  Again, good, but bad that I didn’t finish.

– I am going to forgo setting goals this year.  Don’t worry, I will keep plugging away but we have a lot going on the home front, with some projects I am working with Mrs. Axe.  So it will be a more fluid year.

– The other day, I read some discussion on the true definition of steampunk.  To me, what’s not remarkable is that so many people have diametrically opposed views on which elements constitute a fiction sub-genre.  What is remarkable is the vigor with which people dismiss opposing viewpoints and cleave to the notion that only people that agree with them hold the one true view.  Writers are supposed to be more open-minded.  Who knew?

(Muse:  Sarcasm much?)


– I see that Tor.com is closing to short story submissions – as of tomorrow (7 Jan), in fact.  I understand their position:  too much good fiction coming in from known sources to wade through the slush pile of the great unwashed.  Understood, but still disappointing.

– It looks like I am going to have some networking opportunities with a published author here in the near future.  Different genre than my normal spec fiction but a) it never hurts to know people and b) I might learn something or get some feedback.  Pending the author’s approval, maybe I will blog about it later this month.

Tucson Festival of Books is coming up in mid-March.  I am going to set myself up now and I say I will try to live tweet the event.  I will have a blog post on this when we get closer.


Before I call it quits here, I have an anecdote that is a few months old but is still illustrative.  I got a call from a good friend, who is a bibliophile and reads some of my stories from time to time.  I sent him one that I didn’t think much of; it felt rushed and incomplete to me.  He enjoyed the tale so much that he was felt compelled to actually call (versus email or text) and tell me how much he liked it.  And I thought it sucked.

Further proof (as if we needed it) that you just never know what’s going to pique someone’s interest.

All for now, friends.  Keep on going and be well!

A Gronking to Remember

So ….

I’ve been working with a collaborator on a cover for Pilgrimage.  It’s coming along nicely.  And what’s more, it’s original – as in, it is being created just for the book.  Apparently, that is not always the case.

Okay, so let’s back up.

I’m not big on fan fiction, except as a diversion.  Sometimes it is fun to do just as an exercise but I don’t take it a serious literary output.  This is different that doing an homage, where you pay tribute to the awesomeness of another writer but populate your work  with, you know, you’re own work, not theirs.  I guess there is also a sub-genre of fan-fiction featuring real-life people (mostly celebrities) in, uhm, erotica.  Again, I should not surprised.

Enter A Gronking to Remember, by Lacey Noonan, which is a 68-page tale about a woman with a sexual obsession with New England Patriots tight end Ron Gronkowski.  Now the title makes sense, doesn’t it?

(Muse:  It makes something, all right.)

Yeah.  Anyway, so based on what I have said, you might have already pre-formed an idea of the quality of subject matter before you read the first page.  I did and sadly, expectation matched reality.  (As an aside, here is a clip of Ron Gronkowski reading an excerpt on Jimmy Kimmel Live.  It’s mildly amusing.)

But this is where it gets interesting.  Evidently, the couple originally featured on the cover of the book was unaware that is was used so and ended up suing Noonan, Amazon, and other e-book distributors for unlawful use of their image.  (The legal aspects are covered here.)  The image has since been replaced on Amazon, at least, with another photo.

This all got me rubbing my chin when thinking about my own cover.  This becomes  another stumbling block on the road to self-publishing.  What if your cover designer gets you in hot water over a photo?  Or lifts the artwork from someone else?  Big publishing houses have the machinery to protect against these issues but an author on their own may not – and may not even know where to turn.

Fortunately, I have total trust in my cover designer (my sister) that I won’t run afoul of this trap.  But it was a sobering moment, for sure.

I mean, if campy erotica isn’t safe, are any of us?

Daily Update #34

So ….

What did Ferris Bueller say?   “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  I feel like that sometimes when if comes to writing, especially when I look at my blog and guiltily notice is has been almost two weeks since I posted.  Yes, I accept any and all beatings.  Anyway….

– I still have some submissions out.  I did nine through the first quarter, so on track for 36 for the year.  Not bad.  No acceptances yet and I did get a rejection just yesterday on a piece I really thought was going to make it.  I am still confused as to what the publishing world wants.  I recently read a professionally published piece that was beautifully written – lyrical, really.  Better than anything I’ve written.  But there was no story there.  It was description only.  I had to scratch my head at that.

Pilgrimage to Skara….  Well, I have been trying to agent it for over a year, so now I am going to proceed on my own.  It will take some time, but I am assembling my marketing strategy, getting a cover made, etc.  We’ll see what happens.  Work on Princess of the North proceeds, though slowly.  I still expect to finish before the year is over.

– I am the king of underperforming when it comes to word counts but last month, I went the other way.  I wrote a story about an old man and a young girl forming a father-daughter relationship which, at 5700 words, felt like it could have gone another 1500 or so.  Long story and one I will probably never place but it was fun to write.

– I finally started a Twitter account (feed on the right side here).  Social media is hard for us old guys to grasp.  But I picked up some followers I did not recognize right away.  Networking isn’t just about shaking hands anymore, is it?

– I watched the premiere season of Daredevil on Netflix this weekend.  It was pretty good; if a viewer liked Arrow on the CW, they’d probably like this.  It’s similar but bloodier.   You know, the major networks better pay attention.  Other TV show sources, like Netflix, AMC, CW, and FX are putting out a lot of high-quality programming.  ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox are not going to be able survive on the triad of reality TV, sitcoms, and cop/lawyer/hospital shows forever.  The demographic that watches that is going to die off or get bored.

– On that note, Avengers: Age of Utron is only a few weeks out.  If I were a fangirl, I would squeal with joy.  Okay, I’ll squeal anyway.

Anyway, that’s about all for my random ruminations today.  Be good, dear friends.