Monthly Archives: June 2016

5 Tips for Writers Writing Book Reviews

Book reviews are vital to authors, but when you’re an author yourself, writing reviews of other books can be tricky. If you’re snarky and cruel, wielding one-star reviews like shurikens, you run a real risk of isolating yourself within the author community and with publishers.

That doesn’t mean that you lie and say you like a book that you loathe. It does, however, mean you act with tact and regard the author and their work with respect. This is not easy if you feel rather vehemently about a certain book.

My own background here: I review everything I read, and I’m in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads with about 1000 titles listed.
Breath of Earth
– Don’t be afraid to remove or hide old reviews. Let’s say that your publishing career has evolved and you’re now publishing books in a genre that you have reviewed rather harshly in the past. Consider this: you will meet these authors at conventions or be on panels together or they might even be asked to blurb your book. Set those old reviews to be private or remove them, and you’ll be removing some potential awkwardness, too.

– Another approach: some authors keep a separate account for book reviews so they can do so anonymously and honestly.

– Be careful about marking a friend’s book as being “currently read.” If you end up not liking it, and they know you are reading it… yeah. I like to wait until I am deeply into a book before I list the status online.

– Don’t be afraid to mark a book as Did Not Finish (DNF). If you’re like me, you have gobs of books waiting in the to-read pile. Life is short; don’t waste it on an unpleasant book! This is also a tactful way to avoid the dilemma of writing a review for a book that just plain didn’t work for you.

Along those same lines, you should not feel like you must finish a book sent from the publisher on places like NetGalley. Mind you, it took me a few years to get the nerve to do this because I felt obligated to finish the provided books. No more. I will go through NetGalley, mark the book as done, and send a note saying something like, “This isn’t a review. I found the book was not to my taste, but I’m very grateful you gave me the opportunity to read it.”

– The most important advice of all: Write every review as if the author will read it. They very well might. I think of it as like writing a story critique: I note the positive, and gently and constructively make observations about the negative.

If you finish a book but have mostly unkind things to say (especially if it’s in your genre), act with care. In such situations, I will type up the review on Goodreads/LibraryThing but keep it set as “private” so I can access it later for my own records. I may or may not leave a star rating.

Always keep in mind the Golden Rule: Treat other authors as you would like to be treated. Most books are not inherently awful. We each possess different taste; respect that.

Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Cybermorality: Should we go back in time and kill Hitler?

Maybe you’ve read the short story “Wikihistory” by Desmond Warzel. It’s the one written in the form of message boards from the International Association of Time Travelers, starting with the post of a new member who proudly announces that he’s gone back in time and killed Hitler.

Minutes later, a senior member goes back and incapacitates him before he can carry out the deed. Why? Because if there’s no Hitler, there’s no World War II, then we get none of the radical technological advances fueled by the war, and without these we’d never have developed—you guessed it—time travel.

None of this is spoilery, since it all happens on page one, but go ahead and read the rest of the story now if you want to. I’ll wait.

Okay, welcome back. My favorite line of the story also comes on page one: “Take it easy on the kid, SilverFox316; everybody kills Hitler on their first trip.” Why? Well, why not? The dude’s name is synonymous with evil. Not many people have earned that distinction. Emperor Nero got that reputation for himself way back when, but by body count he’s a featherweight compared to Hitler.

Now here’s this week’s thought experiment: let’s say you get to go back in time exactly once. Setting Desmond Warzel’s concern hypothetical concern aside, let’s say we can erase Hitler and still get time travel tech without WWII. (For what it’s worth, I think there are plenty of other factors besides warfare that incentivize us to develop rocketry, electronics, and computers.) You can go back whenever and wherever you want, but you only get to do it once. Let’s give you six months to get your project done, then you come back.

We can ask two questions now: what would you do, and what should you do?

I’ve always liked Patton Oswalt’s answer to this: beat George Lucas to death before he can make Star Wars: Episode I. It’s an admirable choice. I hate that movie so much that it has affected the way I review all other movies. For instance, I give Batman v. Superman 1½ stars: one star for being absolutely terrible, plus half a star for not having Jar-Jar Binks in it.

But as much as I despise that film, as much damage as it (and the other abominable prequels) did to my beloved childhood memories, I have to admit this would be a terribly selfish use of my one chance to change history. One guy ruined my favorite movies, one guy murdered millions. Seems like a straightforward choice.

So let’s stick with the second question. Never mind what you’d like to do with your one opportunity to go back in time. What should you do?

A lot of people will say the right thing to do is to benefit humanity. (Since I really do think erasing Episode I from history would benefit humanity, perhaps we should add that we ought to benefit humanity to the greatest extent possible.) If that’s true, then seeing to it that Hitler stayed in art school isn’t necessarily your best option. Stalin killed millions more than Hitler did. Genghis Khan killed millions more than Stalin—twice as many, in fact. Something like 45 million people, over 10% of the world population at that time.

But maybe preventing genocide isn’t your best option. Maybe you want to go back 95 million years or so and kill every last mosquito you can find. The number that gets thrown around is that about half of all human deaths in history can be attributed to diseases delivered by mosquitoes. So just wipe them out. Don’t worry about the bats that eat them; with no mosquitoes on the menu in the first place, they’ll just evolve to eat something else.

But maybe extinguishing an entire species just for human benefit isn’t your cup of tea. If so, then how about this: tell ancient people about germ theory. You could save a lot more than 40 million people if all the physicians of antiquity knew that sterilizing their instruments in boiling water is a really good idea.

While you’re at it, read up on obstetrics before you go, and teach those same physicians a thing or two about delivering babies. Prior to modern medicine, the maternal mortality rate during childbirth was about 1 for every 100 live births. Today we measure it in deaths per 100,000 live births. So here’s a pretty awesome Mother’s Day present: cut childbed mortality by 99.99% throughout history.

Or maybe all of this is still too selfish for you. Maybe we should benefit not humanity but rather the entire planet. You’d only have to go back to the 1960s to meet the first scientists making serious headway on climate change. Bring plenty of books with you. You’d catapult our understanding of carbon emissions decades ahead in a matter of weeks. You could even kick off the green energy industry, and then when you got back home you could retire on the massive profits. In the long term, you’d save not only millions of human lives but also dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of plant and animal species.

Or maybe you’ve got a better idea. If so, comment here, or tweet me @AllBeinMyself, or head over to Novelocity’s Facebook page to make your opinion known!

Steve Bein


Summer is coming, and with it the opportunity to stalk encounter many of us as we pop up here and there. The following list can help you keep track of where to do just that. :

JULY 2016

* Jul 21st – 23rd – will be participating in the 23rd annual conference of the Klingon Language Institute (the qep’a’ cha’maH wejDIch) in Chicago, IL.
* Jul 29th – 31st – is a GoH and appearing on programming at Confluence in Pittsburgh, PA.

* Jul 8th – 10th – appearing on programming at Readercon in Quincy, MA.

* Jul 8th – 10th – appearing on programming at Readercon in Quincy, MA.

* Jul 29th – 31st – will be attending ArmadilloCon in Austin, TX.

* Jun 30-Jul 3rd – Appearing on programming and running the Angry Robot booth at CONvergence in Bloomington, MN.

* July 1st – 4th – appearing on programming at WesterCon in Portland, OR.

* Jun 29th – 31st – appearing on programming at ArmadilloCon 38 in Austin, TX.


* Aug 12th – 14th – will present at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR.
* Aug 17th – 21st – appearing on programming at WorldCon in Kansas City, MO.

Aug 4th-7th – Appearing on programming and running the Angry Robot booth at GenCon in Indianapolis, IN.
* Aug 17th-21st – Running the Angry Robot booth at MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City, MO.

* Aug 17th – 21st – appearing on programming at Mid-American 2 (aka the 74th WorldCon) in Kansas City, MO.

* Aug 4th – 7th – appearing on programming at Gen Con Writers’ Symposium in Indianapolis, IN.
* Aug 17th – 21st – appearing on programming at Mid-American 2 (aka the 74th WorldCon) in Kansas City, MO.

* Aug 17th – 21st – appearing on programming at WorldCon in Kansas City, MO. (Including launch party for debut collection On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories)

* Aug 17th – 21st – appearing on programming at Mid-American 2 (aka the 74th WorldCon) in Kansas City, MO.

* Aug 17th – 21st – appearing on programming at WorldCon in Kansas City, MO. (Including the launch of her new novel, Breath of Earth, to be officially released August 23rd)

* Aug 4th – 7th – appearing on programming at Gen Con Writers’ Symposium in Indianapolis, IN.


* Sep 2nd – 3rd – will be giving the keynote address at the Roanoke Writers Conference in Roanoke, TX.
* Sep  14th – 18th – will attend BoucherCon in New Orleans, LA.
* Sep  23rd – 25th – will appear on programming at FenCon in Irving, TX.

* Sep 17th-24th – Attending the Out of Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat from Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

* Sep 2nd – 5th – appearing on programming at Dragon Con in Atlanta, GA.

* Sep 23rd – 25th – appearing on programming at the Baltimore Book Festival in Baltimore Inner Harbor, MD.

* Sep 2nd – 3rd – will be attending the Roanoke Writers Conference in Roanoke, TX.
* Sep  23rd – 25th – appearing on programming at FenCon in Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX.

The Revision Chronicles: 5 Sentence-Level Tips

shearsSo, now you’ve worked through the high-level stuff. Your scenes and characters are pulling their weight. The protagonist hurts and your details matter.

Time to look at sentence-level revising! First off, there’s a great book by Ken Rand available through Fairwood Press called “The Ten Percent Solution.” As implied by the title, it shows you how to trim your manuscript by ten percent, just by getting rid of extraneous words. It is worth a read. Some of the tips below come from that book and some come from my experience critiquing manuscripts for writers who are just starting out.


Five Tips for Sentence-Level Revisions!

  1. Tight POV: “Jane saw the birds. She heard them chirping.” If we’re in Jane’s head, then we know that “she saw”, “she heard”, etc. Just cut to describing the birds. Repeating that “she saw” will actually distance us from Jane.
  2. Redundancy of Action: You don’t need to say that John “pushed the button with his finger.” What else would he push it with? Only tell us if he pushed it with something unusual, like his nose.
  3. Redundancy of Speech: “I hate you,” she said angrily. Ditto above. But if it’s “I hate you,” she said wistfully, then we’re moving into interesting territory and you can keep it.
  4. Don’t Double Up: “They ran and jumped through the fields and meadows, laughing and chattering as they went.” A little of this is fine. But occasionally I’ll read a story where every sentence looks like this. Trim it down.
  5. Weasel Words: It almost looked like a chair. She felt something like surprise. She very nearly came close to almost sort of describing a thing accurately. Cut!


And now before you start feeling too despondent, I’ll tell you that I regularly found all of this in my early writing. Except, I didn’t know to find them. It was only later that I realized all these things were slowing down my writing and making it clunky. Good news? They’re all super easy to fix. Just take a pass through and look for them. Soon it will become second nature.


What’s Your Book About?

You’d think that after being at this writing thing for 30 years, I’d have a ready answer for this question, but it’s not so easy a thing as it may first appear to be. Sure, I can go with the glib, “oh about a hundred thousand words,” but that’s not even half as clever as I like to think it is, and it leaves the questioner unsatisfied.

So, because this question recently popped up in several guises for me, I thought I’d turn it into the topic of this month’s essay. Bear with me as I break it down.

Although simple on the surface, a meaningful answer to “what’s your book about?” is going to depend on the context. Specifically, who’s asking, and why? At a minimum, I can think of four very different types of answers:

  • Elevator Pitch
  • Summary
  • Proposal
  • Synopsis

They’re all related, but they’re all different, and they serve very different needs. Let’s take them in order of likely length.

Elevator Pitch is a sound bite. Publishing lore tells us it gets its name from the span of time you have to tell an editor about your book as the elevator door closes until it opens again. An example could be something like:

    It’s like Trading Place meets Alien, set in ancient Rome!

It’s pithy, it’s catchy, it’s verbal spun sugar, all sweetness and light and no substance. But that’s fine, and it doesn’t matter that I haven’t really told you anything about the book, because I’ve left an impression in your mind, seeded your imagination with a fistful of ideas. If it works, that friendly editor will give you a chance to expand on it.

Summary is vastly different. The good news is you get more time, the bad news is you still need to pack a lot into a small space. Think of this as a spoken paragraph, one you should have prepared for when you’re out in public (say, at a convention) and someone asks you, “what’s your book about?” You’re not trying to hook an editor or agent with your reply, but a good response might sell a copy of your book. At worst, you need an answer that counts as polite conversation.

You can get there by expanding and elaborating on the Elevator Pitch. How? Simply reference your setting (either locale or context, or both), a key concept, the protagonist, and a major plot point to create conflict. Like so:

    Young Vibius Tertullus’s father has just died, requiring him to travel from Rome to Alexandria to inherit the family business. Along the way his caravan is struck by a strange craft falling from the sky. When Vibius assesses the resulting carnage, he sees a figure that appears to be himself, laying unharmed some distance away. Gazing down at his body he discovers himself transformed into as foul a creature as ever was seen in Tartarus! Worse still, he’s trapped in the wreckage and can only watch helplessly as his true body rises, directs an obscene gesture his way, and runs off! Vibius has to get free, make his way to Alexandria in the body of a monster, and convince the waiting officials to give him his inheritance.

If you’ve done this right, by this point your questioner should be gazing at you in awe and wonder, nodding enthusiastically, or pressing some cash into your hands and asking you to autograph the book.

Proposal is something else again. It’s less about the special effects and more about connecting with potential readers, but your audience isn’t the reader, it’s the editor or publisher who wants to be convinced that readers will buy into your story. This is where you stress “relatability” and demonstrate that, bells and whistles and cool SFnal ideas and Fantastic concepts aside, over the course of the book your protagonist experiences growth and change, is sympathetic and engaging. This is where you hit the motivations, reveal your narrative engine, and lay the groundwork for what will be your compelling narrative:

    All his life, Vibius Tertullus has sought to live up to the expectations of his father — a famous adventurer and military hero — and all his life he has failed. Despite earning praise as a great scholar, Vibius lacks the stamina required of a hero and the necessary grit for adventure. Indeed, he rarely leaves the simple desk in his meager office at the gymnasium. But it’s a good life, and one that suits him, even if it’s not what his father had hoped for him. Now news has reached Vibius that the old man has died and that a mysterious inheritance awaits him, but only if he can venture from the safety of Rome and travel to distant Alexandria. It should be a simple enough trip, one made comfortable and secure by traveling via a trade caravan. And perhaps that would be the case if a crashing space vessel didn’t disrupt things midway through the journey, and some menace of alien technology or design place his consciousness in the body of a hideous, slime-slavering monster from the stars. Now Vibius must embark on an adventure far beyond anything his father might have wished for him, with the stakes much more than just some family inheritance, but rather the chance to recover his simple, human life.

And just like that, it doesn’t matter what particulars our protagonist might experience on his journey, because as readers we’ve already bought into the need for a journey. We’re cheering for Vibius, in part because we can relate to his woes of a less than perfect relationship with his father, and because despite rising to the occasion and trying to do what needs doing, he’s smacked down even further. That this takes the form of a body transference is surprising, but the details aren’t what matter here. Rather, we’ve locked into the narrative that will drive everything that comes after, and we’re glad to have it!

Synopsis is that last bit, a simplification of the entire book, one which hits the high points of character and plot and lays out the entire structure in brief. Alas, there isn’t room in this space to create one for you (that, and because I have no real idea what happens in the rest of this made-up book). Many authors — and I count myself among them — have come to hate writing synopses, on the grounds that if they wanted to write a miniature version of their book, they’d have done it in the first place.

There is a certain sense of futility in turning a 100K or 200K word novel into a 5K or 10K Synopsis. And yet, all too often, if your successful Elevator Pitch has opened the door to submitting a Proposal, and that too has found favor, you’re going to be asked to do just that. And unlike the other variations on “what’s your book about?” that we’ve covered, where brevity is a guiding principle and being concise is your only friend, now you have to hold on to these same ideas while at the same time embracing the totality of your story with arms spread wide to encompass everything while both hands grasp furiously to pull all of it back into coherent form.

I can’t tell you how to write a successful Synopsis every time, I personally believe it’s a different experience for every book. I can say that it’s probable you won’t find it a pleasant experience. Nope, not at all.

But hey, three out of four isn’t bad.

Pacing the Novel, Part III: Plotting for Pace

Movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader) is one of the two key aspects I introduced in part one of this series.  In this article, we’ll look a little deeper at how to get the plot in motion and maintain a fast pace.

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

One of the keys to pacing is the plot turn, a moment when the plot changes direction.  Plot turns come in many varieties:  action, discovery, revelation, dialog, reversal.  The most exciting books use all of these types of plot turns to keep the pace high.  So one turn might involve a physical fight that the protagonist loses, then they might find a clue in an ancient manuscript, then have a conversation with someone that heightens the tension between characters and shows that the character lied in an earlier dialog. . .and so on.

The greater the variety of turns you use, the more interesting the plot tends to be.  Books that rely too heavily on one type of turn tend to get predictable.  Oh–this is the part where the detective asks more questions and gets more answers.  Or worse:  this is the part where the character suddenly puts together two pieces of information for a surprising revelation!  Again.  And again.

Take note:  it isn’t a plot turn if the new element *does not* change the trajectory of the plot.  So if the character gets new information, but continues to do and believe exactly the same thing, it’s not a turn.  If the character loses that fight, and it does not change their relationships, force a change in tactics, or escalate the conflict, it’s not a turn.  If you read a book where many things seem to happen, but none of them seem to be important, it may be because the events are not changing the plot or the characters.

The interval between plot turns determines the pace of movement in the book.  Some authors are very deliberate about how they manage plot turns in relation to page count to create a page turner–one suspense author recommends a turn every three pages, for instance. If you have too many turns in a quick succession, it can create a whiplash effect where the character, and thus the reader, can’t absorb the information.   This can be a very useful tool for analyzing plot and pacing. Take a look at your scene or chapter breakdown:  where can you identify plot turns?  How far apart are they, and is that rate of movement appropriate for the story you want to tell?

The other big reason that stuff happening doesn’t add up to a great read or a fast pace is that plot is more than just a series of events—the events must be connected.  They must form part of a pattern the reader is invested in and interested in uncovering.  The most infamous example of this is the difference between:

“The king died and then the queen died.”  Things happened.  They are big, important things–and nobody cares.

“The king died and then the queen died for love.”  The same things happen, but now there is a connection between them, a very human connection that raises the reader’s investment.

If the reader can’t see the connections between the events, the pace of your story will feel slow or jerky.  The first, most important question the writer needs to address about any story is “So What?”  The king died, so what?  Why should the reader care about that event? Revealing or suggesting connections between events (often relating to motivations for characters) takes a bunch of events and transforms them into a compelling narrative.

Here are a few specific things you can do to help increase the movement of your narrative:

During your synopsis, pay attention to the verbs—the strength of verbs often shows the rate of movement.  If your verbs are all state-of-being verbs (is, seems, looks) that’s a red flag that the plot isn’t moving–and more to the point, that your characters aren’t moving it–creating the links between events that will drive the story forward.

Another way to increase movement is to create a sense of urgency:  a ticking clock that establishes a timeline; a crucible, a forced relationship like a cruise ship, a pair of handcuffs, or a tense marriage that keeps the characters close and creating friction; increase tension on all levels—whenever possible raise the stakes instead of lowering them.  You can raise the stakes by involving more people (increasing the scale of the conflict) or by making the conflict more personal.

Finally, make sure the timeline for both protagonists and antagonists keep moving.  The antagonist is not just waiting around for your character to go to school to make their next move, but is, in fact, working toward their own goals with equal (or greater–remember, we want to escalate the conflict) determination.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll turn toward the other pillar of pace:  Intensity.  Because even the fastest, best roller coasters have that concentrated moment at the top of the hill where the reader hangs, breathless, before the next plunge.