Saturday, 27 September 2008

Harper Collins' editor's comments on 'Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation'

Here is the review I won on Authonomy by 'Torbrek...' getting to the top five at the end of August:

The manuscript here is a fun, solid foundation for an engaging youth adult fantasy.

It’s a well-written story following Tor, an appealing young woman who has been forced by political circumstance to pose as a man in order to join the army and use the master sword craft passed on by her grandfather. The reader meets her shortly after she achieves her aim, and as she faces her first initiation trial – to slay a dragon and rescue a princess.

Only, like Tor, the dragon, Xantilor, doesn’t turn out to be entirely predictable – and so begins a friendship that elevates Tor through the ranks to Dragon master and offers a beleaguering kingdom a chance of survival against a tyrannical neighbour.

It is a very appealing premise, and the sassy heroine and opinionated older dragon offer the reader an entertaining pairing of heroes, but at the moment it doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Primarily, the fantasy world needs more realisation; secondly, we'd feel closer to the characters if their motives were explored in greater depth.

For example, Tor’s own history is fascinating and has been carefully thought out. Skardroft’s destruction of Cramble, her grandfather’s legacy, and the weight of her disguise are all important and establish the wider political situation in the readers mind. But because the depiction of these details seems a little rushed, the picture as a whole is a little hazy. The tyrant’s ambitions could be revealed earlier in the story, as this and its connection to Skardroft’s hate of the Hundred Knights should be the framework into which everyone’s personal motives are woven. The core of the work is in place, but I wonder if there’s quite enough around it.

There are some really great characters and ideas in the story. I’d like more of them – and I’d like to be more afraid of them, too. The downfall of the dragons is certainly intriguing, and Corfe is brimming with wicked possibility. Overall, the manuscript is of good quality with an engaging voice and lightness of touch – but more work is certainly required to strike the right balance between a quickly paced story and a richly built world.

I think this is a perceptive and fair assessment of 'Torbrek...'; but it was my first novel, and I don't want to spend any more time on it. Catch a Falling Star, my third book, is what I am working on now.

Monday, 22 September 2008

More Authonomy...

Catch a Falling Star has gone up from 27 to 16 in the Editor's Desk chart on Authonomy.

I'm happy with the new chart. Though the sock puppet people retain most of the unfair advantage they gained, they have all dropped in the charts. It's unreasonable to expect Harper Collins to come up with a perfect ranking system in an imperfect world; this one is now pretty good, and it should be much harder for the next lot of cheats to make it to the top of the chart. So it will get better. And they can always tweak the algorithm.

Well done, Authonomy team, and thank you.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Latest hot news on Authonomy!

'The support of higher-ranked talent spotters counts for more than lower-ranked ones'

With these few words from the Authonomy team, hope revives in the honest members' hearts.

It's going to happen next week - and it'll be retroactive.

Will the sock puppet/friends-and-relatives-backed books go down? They will. And in what direction will my books go? Will I be overtaken by books backed by highly-ranked talent-spotters? No idea. Interesting, though. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Authonomy and the sock puppets

*N.B. Since I wrote this yesterday, Harper Collins has added a new layer to the system, involving voter ranking (see post above) which will, I hope, address the issues I outlined here*

In case this term is new to you, a sock puppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception within an Internet community.

When Authonomy launched its ranking system, I was hugely impressed. It was clever, subtle and entirely positive; it was not possible for ill-natured competitors to vote you down (and believe me, this happens on some sites). The newly unveiled top twenty was full of quirky, original, well proof-read books of all genres; and I'm not saying this just because my three books were in the top ten. I had the advantage of being on the site since day one, and there were only a few hundred books to choose from; but people voted for my novels because they read and liked them.

But a problem soon arose. In Authonomy's FAQ is a cheat's charter:

'Our really savvy members know that attracting external readership can really boost their visibility on the site. So if you already have champions from outside the authonomy community – whether that’s friends and family, or visitors to your blog, facebook profile or other website, you might also encourage them to join the site and give your book their support.'

How many friends, family and fans does an unpublished writer have, people who have actually read and liked his/her book? I've got five, and of those, only my daughter has joined Authonomy.

But some members appear to have many more. Dozens. Who join the site in batches of six or ten, back one book, and leave for good. One book in the top five has over eighty of these obliging 'friends and relations', all of whom joined in the last twelve days. It's difficult not to draw the conclusion that the author is backing his own book under multiple aliases.

(Ah, but the IP address would give him away, you say. No, not if he has a non-static IP address, which is different every time he signs in.)

As you'd expect, his is not the sort of book which will light up the eyes of a Harper Collins' editor, should it hit her desk at the end of the month.

And it's not just that one extreme example, either. A whole batch of lack-lustre novels (and the odd quite good one) has sprung to the top in very short order, while truly excellent books are pushed downwards in the chart.

Authonomy is aware there is an issue. They said;

'We are sorry to say that a handful of individuals are attempting to fraudulently manipulate the authonomy rankings. This is unfair to the vast majority of users to this site. We would like to make it absolutely clear that we will not tolerate cheating and will take appropriate action.'

But all they have done is quietly remove a few votes from some unlucky offenders, while others carry on.

This is discouraging, to say the least, for those of us on Authonomy who rely on votes from people who genuinely enjoy our writing. And if things go on this way, I can't see any agent being impressed by the top twenty - and if the books there are uninspiring, why would she look further down the rankings?

Will the problem disappear as thousands of people join the site, sweeping the cheats away? I'd love to think so, but it's so much easier to manufacture votes than earn them.

What would I do, if I ran Authonomy?
  • Allow only three 'friends and family' per writer, who must declare themselves

  • Rigorously check the backers of everyone in the top five

  • At my total discretion, reduce cheats' scores to zero and make them start again

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Jade Goody stole my title!

My whodunit, Catch a Falling Star, was briefly called Wild Regrets, from The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde:

And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who live more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.

Then I hit on the much better title, Catch a Falling Star; googled it anxiously - no one else had used it for a novel. Hurrah!

And now Jade Goody has snaffled it, for a ghosted autobiography to come out next month. Plih.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Virtual shopping

I have discovered a new, writer-related pleasure, and it's totally free!

Cyber shopping for one's characters.

The big stuff I've already done; my heroine, Caz, has a Hoxton workshop which is not my workshop; it's a bit further west, so she can see the Gherkin; I based it on a lutemaking friend's workshop, and built her a flat on top. It's in Fox Hollow Yard, a fictional place which is partly an amalgam of real places, partly made up.

It's the small stuff which is pure pleasure; which guitar would Ric own, what clothes would he buy, what motorbike would he choose? (A Harley Night Rod Special - not quite sure that's right). What cars would the characters drive? What would Emma buy when she's giving Caz tea under the misapprehension Caz is a journalist? What would Caz wear to catch the eye of Jeff Pike?

Read about it here in Catch a Falling Star.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Gold star on Authonomy!

Midnight last night saw the first five novels, chosen on Authonomy by members of the site, which will be read by Harper Collins editors. The top books were:

SPAMMER by Sylvia
Fiction, Crime, Thriller

TORBREK...and the Dragon Variation by Lexi Revellian
Fiction, fantasy

Fiction, Historical Fiction

Fiction, Crime, Thriller

BOOMERANG by Alan Hutcheson
Fiction, Comedy

These books are all quite different, quirky, and very well written; all, I would say (casting modesty aside) worthy of the editors' attention, and all voted for by readers who had read the first chapters, and believed them to be good.

(I do hope the links work, as Authonomy is still in beta)