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Battle Plan

It’s been a long, hard road (ok, more long than hard – hey, stop giggling, that wasn’t a euphemism – because although it took way over a decade, I really enjoyed the journey), and I’m about to reach the final phase. I’m dreading it, because I know it won’t be as much fun as writing and even editing was. Hence I’d better prepare my “battle plan”.

Battle plan

(I cannot confirm or deny my plans for ultimate world domination at this stage. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

TickDONE

  • build an elaborate fantasy world in my head, with its own history, races, rules, evolution, customs, races, and coherent systems of magic
  • think up a great, engaging story with interesting characters
  • make many pages worth of background notes
  • create timelines, maps, and drawings of settings (for my own benefit)
  • experiment with blurbs and synopses
  • finish writing the first draft of the first book in an epic fantasy story
  • proofread, make corrections
  • rinse and repeat proofreading-and-correction phase (many, many times…)
  • send my story off to beta readers
  • await feedback from said beta readers

HourglassIN PROGRESS

  • encorporate feedback into manuscript
  • start giving up hope about it all being one huge elaborate prank on the rest of the world and start wondering how THAT many people can be THAT dense to want to make such a buffoon their leader next year
  • ponder why Leo finally won an Oscar for portraying such a one-dimensional character in an emotionally dull film (wanting to survive isn’t an emotion), and why a film whose premise seems so far-fetched to me could collect so many rewards
  • carefully read the whole manuscript out loud, making final corrections
  • keep editing my blurbs and synopses, and finally settle on one of them

ChecklistTODO

  • research agents who accept fantasy submissions in Australia, and possibly UK and US
  • research publishers who accept fantasy submissions (update my old research)
  • begin the agonisingly long process of submitting to literary agents and possibly (traditional) publishers, waiting to get rejection letters and praying that the right person in the right mood who can make important decisions gets their hands on my manuscript and decides to give me a chance…
  • if above fails (too many rejections to bear), consider approaching the relatively small Australian publishing house which, years ago, gave me feedback that encouraged me to continue writing: “… as a new writer he clearly has a wide knowledge of the genre and displays a fluency with its style, plot and character conventions… would be interested to see a completed manuscript with a view to considering it for publication.”
  • if above fails, consider publishing story on Amazon (I realise getting published – traditionally – is very ambitious and odds are against me, but, hey, I can dream, right?) and begin work on my new idea…

In the meantime, I’ll have to keep plugging away at my day job, and remember that…

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

– Helmuth von Moltke

Not that I’m considering agents or publishers the enemy. It feels more like I’ll be at war with chance itself. So maybe this one:

Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.

– Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Drumroll… Blurb reveal!

It is with much excitement, spiced with a hefty dose of trepidation, that I’d like to reveal a couple of versions of my blurb. No big deal, I’ve only worked on this for, oh, 11 years or so now.

First off, here are some details about my debut novel.

The Essentials

Genre: Epic Fantasy
Name of book: First Drop
Name of trilogy: The Mage Academy Journals
Approximate word count: 130,000
Status: Polishing and finishing epilogue
Intended audienceAdults (not necessarily YA)

Tropical Island

Quite close to how I imagine the tropical setting of my novel. Heavily influenced by my experiences of growing up in Papua New Guinea. (Image taken from public domain and modified to smudge out anachronisms, etc.)

One-sentence Pitch

I find it extremely hard to sum up my story in a single sentence, but it’s something that is often requested, so here is what I think is its essence:

My story is about a boy who returns to his tropical island home after years amongst pale-skinned northerners to find himself the focal point of intrigues and prophecies due to his unique heritage and blend of abilities.

Extended Pitch

If I had a few more sentences to pitch my work, it’d go a little something like this:

My story is about a boy who returns home after years amongst the pale-skinned northerners to find himself the focal point of intrigues and prophecies due to his unique heritage and blend of abilities.

His own people won’t accept him unless he undergoes their initiation rites. The martial Vennar want to deny his family even exists, let alone escaped from slavery. The pale Nothrans, who’ve built a Mage Academy on his tropical home island, want to manipulate him.

All he wants is to be reunited with what’s left of his family.

Longer Blurb (250 words)

So this is what I’d ideally like to have on the back cover if it were up to me:

Having the potential to learn the magic of the pale-skinned Nothrans, who have been allowed to build their Mage Academy on his tropical home island, Miniri, opens up a whole realm of possibilities for fifteen-year-old Kentos. But, having already spent several years amongst the Nothrans in their lands far to the north, he knows he will have to endure racism from those who cannot see past his dark skin, and studying at the Academy will only serve to further ostracise him from his fellow Quemin.

Carrying the blood of the reviled Vennar in his veins means Kentos can master their ability to discern the visualised intentions of others, which makes that martial race peerless fighters. Yet this stain upon his family’s honour must remain secret, for the Vennar’s enslavement of the Quemin was officially supposed to have ended many generations ago.

These are challenges Kentos believes he can handle, even as he recovers from an attack that killed his sister and crushed his foot. What he has yet to learn, however, is that his parents have escaped from slavery with even more secrets – secrets that will make him the subject of prophecies, and of manipulation attempts from multiple unexpected angles.

As his friendship with fellow student Tesliah, who uncovers his story by reading his journals, begins to blossom into a tender first love, and as his path converges with that of Ri, a Vennara he once called friend, Kentos will have to face decisions: most of them difficult… one disastrous.

Shorter Blurb (169 words)

If I had to limit myself a bit more, although cutting each word hurts like heck, I might be able to live with shortening it to this:

Having the potential to learn the magic of the pale-skinned Nothrans, who’ve built their Mage Academy on his tropical home island, opens up a realm of possibilities for fifteen-year-old Kentos. But, having spent several years amongst Nothrans, he knows he must endure racism from those who cannot see past his dark skin.

Carrying the blood of the reviled martial Vennar in his veins means Kentos can learn to discern people’s visualised intentions, but this stain upon his family must remain secret, for the enslavement of his people ended long ago – at least officially.

These are challenges Kentos believes he can handle. What he has yet to learn is that his family has even more secrets that will make him the subject of manipulation attempts from multiple unexpected directions.

As the friendship with fellow student Tesliah, who uncovers his story by reading his journals, deepens, and as his path converges with that of Ri, a Vennara he once called friend, many decisions Kentos must face will be difficult… one disastrous.

What’s Next?

Well, once I finish up the epilogue of Book 1 (quite tricky getting the right threads tied up and leaving enough open to promote interest in the larger story) and complete my current editing run, I’d love to get feedback from beta readers. I have two fellow bloggers who have expressed an interest, and I hope they’ll be as honest as they can with things like pacing, repetition, character development, whether dialogue feels natural enough, whether I have some “pet expressions” I’m not aware of, etc. Thus far, I’ve only had family and close friends read my work, and as grateful as I am to each and every one of them, it’s not quite the same as feedback from objective readers, especially ones who have been through the writing process themselves and know what to look out for.

After that (and I have no idea how long that will take), I’ll have to go through the whole daunting submission process, reading rejection letters and so on. Fun times! 🙂

Review of Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb

A bit delayed, I know, but here is my review of Robin Hobb’s second book in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, Fool’s Quest, which came out in August.

First off, if you haven’t read the previous book, Fool’s Assassin (see my review from last year), I would recommend that you: a) stop reading this review, because it will contain some Book 1 spoilers, b) get your hands on a copy of said Book 1 and start reading that, and if you haven’t already, c) go to the beginning and read the first book of the first trilogy in this epic series: Assassin’s Apprentice. (My post on that book lists the order of all the previous books, but if you want to limit yourself to the “Fitz books”, read the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies before getting to The Fitz and the Fool.) Yes, you can begin with this trilogy, but starting at the beginning will be worth it, trust me.

Still with me? Great, you’re clearly a connoisseur. (Surely you wouldn’t have cheated… right?)

The Front Cover

Fool's Quest - front cover

The front cover of my copy of Fool’s Quest

As with the first book, the version that came out in Australia is the same as the UK large paperback version, this time in a silver theme where the first one was in gold (or was that bronze and we’re heading for gold with Book 3?).

The dominating image is that of a crow with black (and some white) feathers carrying a thin band or a ribbon in its beak. The only other image is nestled in the fanciful decoration of the letter Q, and appears to be a small bottle or stoppered vial containing something dark red, shot through with strands of silver. The significance of both will become apparent as you read through the book.

A succinct endorsement from the Guardian, the expected words of the title, author, and series, and we’re almost allowed to begin reading.

The Back Cover

Fool's Quest - back cover

The back cover of my copy of Fool’s Quest

A quick glance at the back cover shows that there’s not much worth noting other than a black-and-white feather, a blurb that vaguely describes the main conflict that drives the plot, but which I personally found a bit misleading, and another endorsement from the Sunday Telegraph.

Let’s get to it!

Book 2

Middle books in trilogies can sometimes be the author’s less-loved step-child, and something readers will endure in order to get to the good bit, i.e. the conclusion in Book 3. Not so with Robin Hobb, in any of her series (I mean, come on, how great was Royal Assassin, where we got to know Nighteyes?), and especially not so in this particular trilogy.

The first book did a great job of setting the mood, catching us up on what Fitz had been up to since we left him at the end of Fool’s Fate, and introducing some new characters – especially Fitz’s wonderful, quirky daughter, Bee – before introducing the core of the trilogy’s plot when (I did warn you about spoilers, didn’t I?) Bee was abducted by sinister forces (the timing of which the blurb gets wrong) and the Fool appeared where you’d least expect him: at the end of Fitz’s knife, revealing in the final chapters a shocking double meaning to the title Fool’s Assassin. Of course we already know that at that time, Fitz didn’t recognise the Fool, dirty and broken as he was, and thought he was protecting Bee from a filthy old beggar. He took him through the memory stone pillars to Buckkeep to try to heal him, leaving his homestead of Withywoods unprotected.

Anyone who knows Fitz can guess that Fitz will blame himself for Bee’s abduction, but of course it will be some time before he actually finds out about it. In the meantime, we the readers are distracted from the carrot dangling in front of us, that is, anticipating that Fitz will go out and rescue Bee, by witnessing Fitz being drawn back into the intrigues and relationships in and around Buckkeep, as well as learning more and more about the Fool’s story. As we do so, we learn about the cruelty of those called the Servants, what they aim to do and what atrocities the Fool has suffered at their hands. Of course we already knew that, despite Fitz’s certainty that the Fool wouldn’t survive, they would find a way to heal him – after all, the trilogy wouldn’t have been named Fitz and the Fool if one of them were to make only a brief appearance and then die… right? Plus, we know about the power of the Skill. And (spoiler-ish hint!) if you know the Rain Wild Chronicles, you may be able to make a connection between events there and the front cover.

Recognition… Finally!

I don’t want to spoil too much of Book 2 for those who haven’t read it yet, but this one thing I just can’t… not say. (Now’s a good time to go away if you don’t want to see Book 2 spoilers at all.)

One of the best things about this book is that Fitz – at long last – gets recognition for all that he’s sacrificed and done behind the scenes for his friends, his king and his country. I won’t go into detail how much recognition that is, or what form it takes, but his reaction to it was just wonderfully written and, I’m not ashamed to say, had me sniffing and sobbing with tears of joy.

The Wit

This book re-introduces the issues surrounding the magic known in the Six Duchies as the Wit, and the topic of Fitz bonding with another animal is brought to the reader’s attention more than in the first book. Again, I’ll stop there so I won’t spoil things with too many details, but as much as I loved Nighteyes, I realised how good it would be for Fitz to find another bond partner.

Tension

Most of the tension in the story comes from the Fool wanting to get back to the town Clerres, where he grew up as a young White – the sooner the better – while Fitz wants to pursue Bee’s captors but is tied down with new obligations as well as a reluctance to act too rashly without knowing more about what he’s up against. (Who would’ve believed Fitz would ever grow wise?)

Just as the reader realised in Book 1 what Bee was long before Fitz gets it through his thick skull in Book 2, we know that Bee’s captors and the people on whom the Fool wants to exact his revenge are one and the same. Of course it can’t be that easy though, and the beginning of the journey is delayed while the reader sinks deeper into the clutches of the intricacies of life at court.

That’s not to say that these delays are annoying, or that these intricacies are boring – I found that for me they created an interesting internal tension, as I couldn’t get enough of all those details and loved meeting old acquaintances from previous books again, while at the same time wanting the two friends to get going already!

Summary

Fool’s Quest does what middle books are meant to do, and so much more. It sets the stage for the conclusion with consummate skill; it leaves the reader drooling for the well-deserved revenge and rescue that must surely come, but also agonising over the cliffhanger ending that must just-as-surely be pointing to unexpected obstacles in the path to that goal.

Along the way, readers are treated to nostalgic walks down memory lane as they encounter once again several much-loved characters from earlier books, but also find out how much some characters have changed.

If there’s anything to criticise, I found myself wishing for more chapters from Bee’s perspective. There were precious few of those, and she is just so refreshingly different that I would’ve loved to learn more about her.

Personally, I can only groan at the idea that I must wait another year to get my hands on Book 3. I don’t even know its title yet! (Amazon lists it as “Robin Hobb Untitled 3″… grrr!) This time, I’ll ask for an ARC.

If you read my review of Book 1 last year, you may remember that I complained about the number of errors the editors let slip through. There were a few in this one as well, but nowhere near as bad as Book 1, and not such glaring ones that ripped me out of the narrative. So kudos to the publishers for the improvement.

Anyone able to tell me what Book 3 will be called, or what’s required to get an ARC, please let me know in the comments.

Review of Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Having finished reading Robin Hobb’s latest work, the recently published Fool’s Assassin, Book 1 of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, and having freed up some time on the weekend, I’m finally ready to write the review I mentioned in my previous post.

I’ll keep this post relatively spoiler-free for those who haven’t read it; of course, I won’t be able to restrain myself from writing another spoiler-laden post later on….

The Front Cover

Fool's Assassin Front Cover

The front cover of my copy of Fool’s Assassin

This version of the front cover (the UK large paperback version) has been kept relatively simple in design, but done lovingly with embossed fonts and a gilded look that seem to want to let you know you’re holding a masterpiece in your hands, even before you read the endorsement from George R. R. Martin.

At first glance, the daggers make sense for something bearing the word “Assassin”, but the significance of the bee near the top won’t – at least not until you’re about a fifth of the way through the book’s 630 pages. The snow-covered scene around the first letter of the title is a simplified drawing of the location where most of the story takes place: Withywoods.

The Back Cover

Fool's Assassin Back Cover

The back cover of my copy of Fool’s Assassin

Turning the book over, you’ll see the blurb, another bee at the top, and a butterfly wing at the bottom, the significance of which will be made clear later.

Re-reading the blurb again now that I’ve read the book, I find the last sentence to be a little misleading, but I’ll get to that.

The Backstory

While Robin Hobb does try to cater for first-time visitors to her Realm of the Elderlings (the name given to the world in which most of Robin’s stories take place) by gradually mentioning (some of) the most important parts of what has happened previously, I would probably not recommend this book as an introduction to her writing.

Those not familiar with Fitz’s tendency to overthink everything and his failure to understand why some people care about him without having ulterior motives may well consider him an unrealistically masochistic drama queen who loves to feel sorry for himself. However, if you are among that group, I would heartily recommend introducing yourself to what has to be one of the best fantasy series ever written (you can probably tell that I’m completely objective) by beginning with Assassin’s Apprentice (see the list of books there), Book 1 of The Farseer Trilogy, and working your way through that trilogy as well as The Tawny Man Trilogy, at a minimum. Ideally, read The Liveship Traders Trilogy and The Rain Wilds Chronicles as well in order to get a full understanding of the story. It’s worth it.

Those who do know Fitz, on the other hand, have suffered with him through all the heartache and pain Robin has wreaked upon him, and know of his unique combination of talents as well as the sacrifices he has made for his kingdom, will most certainly appreciate that the author takes it easy on our favourite unsung hero… at first. And they will love the story Fitz has to tell.

To give you a quick summary of the backstory… ok, I’ve made several attempts at writing this and gave up. There’s no way of doing the story justice and keeping it relatively short at the same time, so, once again, I’ll refer anyone not familiar with the backstory to the previous trilogies. And, if you like, to my Fitz and the Fool post from a few months ago, where I wrote about their wonderful friendship.

The Plot

Fool’s Assassin begins slowly. (In fact, I said the same thing in my Assassin’s Apprentice post, but it’s even more so in this case.) Fitz, who, as previously, tells the story from a first-person perspective, lives and, somewhat surprisingly, enjoys a quiet life in the backwaters of the duchy in which he grew up. Known as Tom Badgerlock, for it is safer if no one knows that FitzChivalry Farseer is still alive, he and his wife Molly look after the Withywoods estate, where once his father Chivalry lived (and later died from his “accident”) after abdicating the throne over the revelation that he had fathered a bastard.

Fitz has many regrets, mostly about losing Burrich, the man who raised him, and about the fact that the Fool seems to have moved on without as much as a word (“doesn’t call, doesn’t write…”) after taking his leave at the end of Fool’s Fate. He deals with his melancholy by writing each night, presumably the story of The Tawny Man, his current musings, and sometimes doing translations of Skill-related writings for his old mentor Chade, the assassin-turned-royal-advisor to King Dutiful with whom he occasionally keeps in touch. He also keeps in touch with Nettle, his daughter with Molly, who is now a grown woman and Skillmistress in Buckkeep, where the royal family lives. However, Fitz wants nothing to do with the goings-on at court.

Except for Molly, no one around him knows of his abilities with the “royal” magic, the Skill, nor of his Wit, the baser magic that allows him to sense almost all forms of life and to communicate with animals. Not to mention that he is a trained assassin. Since his wolf-partner, Nighteyes, died many years ago, he has never wanted to bond with another animal.

Even strange events one Winterfest, when a messenger appears, asking to speak to him but disappears before he even has the chance to meet her, aren’t enough to make him realise what is going on. As before, he still possesses an extremely bright mind, but continues to wield it with all the finesse of a blacksmith doing fine embroidery. Web, the Wit-expert, is visiting and tells him that the strange “performers” who turned up unexpectedly shortly after the messenger seem invisible to his Wit-sense. This should ring a bell for anyone familiar with the previous books, but Fitz simply finds he’s enjoying himself while hunting for clues as to what happened to make the messenger disappear without delivering her message, leaving nothing but some blood stains. When the trail goes cold, he dismisses it as odd but not worth pursuing.

Contrary to what the blurb suggests, his life does not erupt into any further violence at this point. Rather, it continues peacefully for many years.

The Skill-healing performed on him by his “coterie” in the previous books has the lingering effect of keeping him healed and looking young, while Molly, ever pragmatic, refuses similar treatment. Thus Fitz gets to watch her age and regret that she cannot bear him any more children. (After Nettle, Molly had several other children with Burrich, who married her when everyone thought Fitz dead.) And then, well into menopause, Molly claims that she is finally pregnant. The reader’s heart, once again, breaks ever so slowly as Fitz struggles with the realisation that Molly is becoming senile, insisting she is right about her pregnancy as the seasons pass.

As mentioned above, I do not wish to spoil the story if you haven’t already read it. Suffice it to say, then, that there is more heartbreak in store for Fitz, as people he holds dear pass away, but there is also a wonderful new friendship that takes up the bulk of the book, a fateful reunion with the Fool (I won’t count that as a spoiler – given the book’s title, you’d expect the Fool to make an appearance, even though you wouldn’t expect it the way it happens, which will make you ponder several possible interpretations of said title), and even a few chapters from a new point of view.

The end of the book arrives suddenly. Having lulled you into a deeply intricate world of magics known and unknown, having built for you a spectrum of friends and enemies, the selfless and the selfish, and everything in-between, Robin Hobb springs the Fool on you from an unexpected angle, revealing that he has been seeking to contact Fitz for a long time and is attempting to find someone referred to only as “the unexpected son”. The story lives up to its title long before the reader realises it.

(Some of) The Details

Like in Fitz’s previous writings, each chapter begins with a few sentences or paragraphs of other writing – something Fitz found in historical scrolls, missives he has received, intercepted, or written but never sent, publications on various subjects, and so on. Typically, Robin uses these to give you a glimpse of the theme ahead, or some insight that will help you understand the greater story, although the connection between this “appetiser glimpse” and the chapter that follows is not always immediately obvious.

Isolated though Fitz is from the rest of the Six Duchies, the greater story around him continues, too. The land is in the process of adding a seventh duchy after the death of Eyod, Kettricken’s father and ruler of the Mountain Kingdom. Kettricken is no longer queen, having given the reins to her son, King Dutiful (who makes a couple of very small appearances; it seems Fitz is still successfully repressing the fact that he is actually Dutiful’s biological father). Nettle has managed to build a new coterie with several Skill-users for the King. The Witted, once hunted and killed, are now more accepted into society thanks to Web and the events of the previous books.

Once again, the realism present in a work of fantasy fiction is something to which all fantasy writers should aspire. The characters are finely-wrought and act believably in accordance with their own well thought-out backstory and the setting of the detailed tapestry that forms their world.

Robin does not buy into the “don’t ever use adverbs!” BS that some editors and writers seem to preach; she uses them, but not overly so to the point that it becomes a crutch. She manages, as ever, to use language that gives her writing that “authentic olden days feeling” without it sounding artificial or too try-hard, and without sending the average reader to the dictionary.

One thing that really bugged me, though – being a writer myself who is a bit of a grammar Nazi – was the number of errors in the book. Many were relatively minor and would be overlooked by most, but some are glaringly obvious. I’m wondering whether the publishers’ proofreaders (surely they have those?) and editors were on vacation to let that many errors slip through. I’ve contacted the publishers and will be emailing them a lengthy list of these errors in the hopes of stamping them out for future editions, at least. (Update: email sent!) I may also write them up as a blog post.

One for the Fans

Robin Hobb is an author who does not need to establish her credibility in a world of readers clamouring for high-paced, hard-hitting action. Rather, she is able to take her time, re-introducing the readers to characters directly and indirectly as though mentioning long-lost friends to her fans, who will be thrilled.

If you want hard-hitting non-stop action, this book will not be what you expect. If you enjoy letting yourself be drawn into a very rich and well-crafted world, however, where attention to detail is required to understand the finer details of the plot, you will love Robin Hobb’s latest book.

The author once said that Fitz’s story was done, and that she would not write any more stories involving him. That was before The Tawny Man. I am glad that Fitz once more managed to rattle around Robin’s brain and made her realise that there is more to his story that is worth telling.

Personally, I can’t wait until Book 2. And then Book 3. And, oh, I hope it doesn’t stop there.

Back – and ready to read Fool’s Assassin

After being away from home (and from blogging) for a while, I’m back again, and really looking forward to reading Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb, Book One of the new Fitz and the Fool trilogy. I couldn’t buy the book while overseas (at least not in English), so I bought it from Target back here in Perth for just under $20 (which is a decent price since the RRP is nearly $30).

I’ve got a bit of time this week to read it, but I’m a rather slow reader. (Plus, I’m still jet-lagged, so I’ve only read about 30 or so pages of it before becoming too tired to read last night.) So it’ll take me a few days to get through it – as much as I’m dying to devour the whole book in one sitting, I prefer to soak up every word and imagine every scene like a private movie in my head. Call me crazy, but it’s how I read.

Once those few days are up and I’ve read it (I’m hoping to finish on the weekend, but might not get there until next week), I will most definitely blog about my take on the book (yes, there will be spoilers!). It will, I surmise, most likely be a very positive review; after all, Robin Hobb is my favourite author for a reason (as George R. R. Martin says on the cover, it’s “Fantasy as it ought to be written”). Having said that, I’ve built up quite some excitement for this book, so it’s possible the book might not live up to my high expectations. (Possible… but doubtful. Despite the errors I’ve already found in the first 30 pages. Maybe I’ll blog about those, too.)

Also on my “TODO” list for the near future is finally catching up on reading some of my favourite blogs (yes, there will be comments on older posts I think, it’s been quite a while) and blogging about how to merge two versions of the same document (with LibreOffice Writer, in my case) that started out the same but have had different edits made, since I’m going to have to do that with my manuscript soon anyway. I’ve done it before and it’s quite easy, actually.

Anyway, there you go – my “I’m back for more” post. 🙂

In case you’re interested in previous Robin Hobb-related posts, here they are, 3 from the A-Z Challenge in April and two from a couple of months ago when she visited Perth:

(The one about hobbitses, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Robin Hobb. But it’s funny. I think.)

Note from the Author/Translator

My unseeing gaze traverses from my editor’s email on the computer screen to the weary old chest standing on the floor next to my desk, pretending innocence. Logic, once my dear and trusted friend, shies back in revulsion from what my mind knows to be true. I spit the bite of mouldy pizza crust that my hand must have picked up on its own accord into the paper bin. The remainder of the slice follows close behind.

Again, I squint at the email, this time noticing the date in the header with a feeling of disbelief. It certainly does not seem like three weeks since I stubbed my toe on the chest in front of my apartment door on my way out. It doesn’t seem that long since I picked up the topmost book from the first of three dusty piles inside, not realising that the first of them, chronologically speaking, was on the bottom. Assuming that it was my editor’s misguided attempt at realism, or humour, I opened the book. Vaguely, I remember picking up the phone to call her, to complain that she could at least have the author type up his manuscript, and that she has worked with me long enough to know the languages I can and cannot translate. Yet even while the phone was ringing, I took a second glance at the cramped handwriting, and what had seemed an unreadable mess of characters in a foreign alphabet only a moment ago dissolved, and became… what I now know as “Common”. I recall flicking back to the first page of the loosely bound volume, and the strange-looking symbols now making sense. It was my name: Kentos. No, well, not my name exactly, but the name of the Quemin I became for the time it took me to translate all three stacks, whose joy and despair, whose triumphs and tragedies I have lived, whose tropical island home – and entire world – seem far more real than the rain now splattering against my dirty window.

I wonder whether these memories that engulfed me so completely will fade like a dream. At least I typed the translation even as I read each volume; the huge document on my hard drive is proof of that. I open it, look up the word count, and frown at my fingers: they should be bloody stumps from typing so furiously in just three weeks. Did I sleep at all? Or, come to think of it, dare I sleep now, lest I wake to find no document, no manuscripts, and no chest, other than in my mind? Will I still be thinking in base eight and say “shelf” and “eighting” instead of thinking in base ten and saying “sixteen” and “sixty-four”? Will I continue to divide my days and nights into eight hands each after a good night’s sleep?

To distract myself from these useless questions, I re-read the email.

I don’t know what to say. I’m blown away. It’s enough for a trilogy. But before we go anywhere with this, I have to know… is it a translation (if so, from what, and from whom?!?) or is it your own? God, I need to get some sleep.

It’s unsigned. Very unlike her, not to be formal, even in emails. I can’t believe she didn’t mention the fact that I sent the document off without any editing, not even bothering to run a spell checker. But what’s more, if she didn’t have the chest deposited outside my door, then… who did?

Rusty hinges squeak in protest as I once again open the plain chest’s rectangular lid. Perhaps another look at some of the pages between the reddish ox-hide covers, with “Academy” stamped on them, in Common of course, can give me a clue as to their origin. As I did three weeks ago, I pick up the topmost volume – are there more now than there were when I closed the lid after finishing the translation? – and let it fall open at random.

I whimper in helpless dismay as I realise that I am again looking at symbols I don’t know at all. But… I still know Common, and even Quemin. This large, bold and aggressive hand bears no resemblance to Kentos’ tiny, meticulous writing style. Have I missed one of the books? I turn back to the first page, and my heart simply refuses to continue beating.

“I know you!” I whisper hoarsely when at last it jump-starts again. “I almost killed you.” My hands are shaking so hard that I almost drop the book. Suddenly, I know. I understand. With great care, I place the book on the floor, then the next on top of it, continuing until I am holding the last book of the first pile in my hands. I open it, and, somehow, a new document is already open on my screen. I prepare to again immerse myself in that other reality, to become someone else once more, knowing that what little of me I leave behind in this reality will take care of me, from bodily functions to keeping up with translating the experiences flooding my mind.

Then again, I am clearly no expert on what is real and what is not.

So how do I get beta readers?

Fellow writers, I need your help. I see so many of you blogging fondly about your beta readers, so I thought to myself, “I should really get me some of them!”

First, I went to my local supermarket. Not knowing much about the nature of beta readers, I thought it made sense to start there. After getting blank stares from the pimply store clerk and the lady at the enquiries desk, I looked around the shop myself, but found nothing. (And yes, of course I checked the stationery aisle. Duh.)

I was about to leave the store when a man in a hat and trenchcoat (which is very rare in our climate, come to think of it) approached me cautiously and whispered, “I hear you’re looking for beta readers. Try the hardware store.” He turned and walked away before I could ask him more, but not before I noticed he was grinning widely. I decided it was probably what’s known as a “knowing grin”, and followed his advice.

The big, friendly guy at my local Bunnings showed me several readers – a Holman Stainless Pressure Gauge that reads water pressure; a Garman Soil pH Meter that he assured me with a twisted smile was very accurate indeed, several thermometers, and so on – but none of them even had the word “beta” anywhere on them. I thanked him, walked away a few steps, thought of another question, but he was already busy chuckling with another customer in a trenchcoat. Those must be becoming popular again, maybe I should think about getting one.

My wonderful wife, who, right when I told her about my lack of success, was giggling at something the kids must’ve said, suggested I go to the optometrist where her friend works; she gets her glasses there. When I arrived, her friend was just getting off her phone. “Ah, Amos,” she greeted me, “I just heard a wonderful joke; please forgive me if I giggle for a while longer. How can I help you?” She made me do some eye tests and let me try out several pairs of reading glasses, but they just made the magazine she asked me to read while wearing them all blurry. “Your eyes are fine,” she giggled at last – I really should’ve asked her what that joke was! – and, disappointed, I went home.

Very reluctantly, I braved the Interwebs and attempted to do a Google search, but, as I’d feared, Google asked me in its typical condescending manner, “Did you mean… ‘better readers‘?” If it could have giggled, I’m sure it would have.

I threw up my hands in frustration and decided I would ask you, dear readers of my blog (yes, both of you!), about getting me some beta readers.

  • How do I go about getting me some beta readers?
  • How many beta readers should I have?
  • At what point should I even consider getting them?
  • Is there something about my pronounciation of “beta” that makes people giggle uncontrollably?

(Ok, in all seriousness now – no giggling! – I’m at around 85k words and am aiming for about 100-110k total in the first book of my fantasy series. Any hints leading to the capture of a suitable beta reader will be much appreciated.)

Xanth – A to Z: X

X is for Xanth, the land in which Piers Anthony’s series of fantasy novels is set. (And X is for Xanth because, well, X doesn’t give you that many options.) The books are mainly aimed at kids, but his fans include many adults who grew up reading and laughing at his puns. If there’s a pun in the English language that isn’t in one of Piers Anthony’s books, chances are, it’ll be in the next one. (No, seriously – people send Piers Anthony requests for puns to be included and he tries to fit them into his stories.)

The puns may be a bit excessive and far-fetched to some, but if you can put up with that, the books are full of humour and a lot of fun to read. I was recently very proud when my son, with whom we’ve been reading the first book, guessed the “big reveal” the first book, A Spell For Chameleon, was building up to.

Xanth, which looks suspiciously like Florida, is a land in which there are many species of (often pun-related) creatures as well as your typical fantasy creatures and, of course, humans. Humans in Xanth all have a unique magical talent – that is, if they don’t, they’re exiled from Xanth (into Mundania, which looks suspiciously like our normal world where magic doesn’t exist). These talents can range from the boring and mainly useless make-a-spot-on-a-wall variety to full-blown Magician-calibre talents, which are required for anyone serving as king or queen.

Books set in The Magic of Xanth usually follow the adventures of a member of the “royal family” or someone with a Magician-calibre talent, quite often being below the age of 18 and thus not yet having joined the Adult Conspiracy.

If you need something to cheer you up, or are looking for a fun introduction for kids into the fantasy genre, pick up a Piers Anthony book and enjoy.

Wheel of Time – A to Z: W

W is for the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (or James Oliver Rigney, Jr., his real name). The release of the books spans 23 years, or nearly 30 years if you start from when Jordan began working on The Eye of the World in 1984 (published January 1990) until Book 14, A Memory of Light, concluded the series in January 2013.

Due to Robert Jordan’s death from cardiac amyloidosis in 2007 before the final volume could be released, Brandon Sanderson completed the series using notes and recordings Jordan had made, though Sanderson and Harriet McDougal (both Jordan’s editor and his wife) decided to do what Jordan had tried to avoid, namely to split Book 12 into three books.

The series is as long and as complex as no other (that I know of), with a cast of so many people it was sometimes hard to keep up with who was who without consulting a wiki. In fact, I found some of the “middle books” quite tedious to read, because, as interesting as the story was, the “main main characters” were getting about one or two chapters per book and the story got caught up in so many side-plots that it was getting a little annoying. However, it’s worth sticking with the story, as the plot threads come together nicely again in the later books.

As I mentioned in my post for “B-Day” in the A to Z Challenge, I love book series, and I love thick books with many pages and details galore (as long as it’s well-written and interesting, of course). I don’t think there’s much (any?) competition for Jordan’s series when it comes to length and page- or word-count. The total word-count for The Wheel of Time is over 4.4 million (yes… million), with a couple of books getting close to the 400k mark. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to keep track of all these characters and plot threads over such a long time.

Many references to mythology and legends from a number of cultures can be found throughout the series, including of course the reference to the concept of time being cyclical, with several ages repeating themselves over and over, from Hindu mythology. The attentive reader can find references such as tales of the great giants, “Mosk and Merc”, battling with spears of fire (Mosk being Moscow, and Merc being America). (There are many more such references if you’re interested.)

The world Jordan created is rich in detailed history and a variety of cultures. Although the epic storyline builds up to an inevitable Tolkien-style face-off between the forces of good and evil, Jordan’s sense of humour and his ability to make this rich fantasy world seem utterly believable pervade every chapter.

If you haven’t read this series, you’re missing the benchmark against which other fantasy works are measured.

Quests – A to Z: Q

Q is for Quests. And for not having all that many Q-ey topics queued (whoa!) up to choose from. Just like the quite clichéd actor asks his director, “What’s my motivation?”, so the typically quirky fantasy hero quizzes his author, “What’s my quest?” If your hero doesn’t ask that question, why not?

(Incidentally, and completely off-topic for this post, I failed to publish anything yesterday, so this is my second post today after the one on Patrick Rothfuss. In my defense, it was a Good Friday family day and I just didn’t get around to it. Sue me. 😛 )

Quasi-quest-related image

Uhm, that’s the best quasi-quest-related image I could come up with. Plus, I love xkcd, and most people don’t even know what a quokka is. (Creative commons licensed image is embedded from xkcd.com.)

All quips aside, it’s not exactly a quantum leap forward to state that you, as the one in quontrol of your hero’s actions and quotes, should always be aware of what his inner quest is and how it drives him.

I sincerely hope the quantity of Qs in this high-quality post haven’t made you queasy or quiver while you quail in fear. They certainly haven’t quenched my quota of one quarter of a quadrillion quid that I’m aiming for. Sometimes, quantity beats quality (quod erat demonstrandum).

(For the attentive reader: Which above q was used inquorrectly?)