Responding to Reviews

This past weekend, I was at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona. On Saturday, I was on a panel called “Responding to Reviews.” The authors and artists gave some great advice and I thought it was worth sharing some highlights. The panel is below. In the photo below you see Educator KellyAnn Bonnell, yours truly, writer and game designer Shanna Germain, Jennie Breeden, writer and artist of The Devil’s Panties, and game designer Ben Woerner.

reviews_panel

Of course, as an author or artist, when you get a review, positive or negative, it can be problematic to respond with much more than a very polite, “thanks for sharing your opinion.” This is pretty common advice and the panel generally agreed with it.

The panel moved on to discuss what constitutes the most helpful reviews. The panelists cited reviews that give clear examples of what worked for them and didn’t work for them in a book. Also helpful is when the reviewer can cite why something worked or didn’t work. I noted an example of a reviewer mentioning an element of my novel Children of the Old Stars that didn’t work for her. That inspired me to create an important plot point in Heirs of the New Earth that addressed the issue.

The panelists also noted a frustrating tendency of some reviewers to review the artist rather than reviewing the art. As an example, a person might see a statement by a character in a story and assume that reflects the author’s politics or personal preferences, then attack the author’s perceived philosophy. Unfortunately, these reviews are never helpful because they’re never about the work. They’re just a case of the reviewer having their buttons pushed and then venting.

Related to this, KellyAnn discussed the issue of evaluating reviews. She noted that she generally ignores the top 1% of positive reviews and the bottom 1% of negative reviews as outliers. It’s the stuff in the middle that often has the best constructive criticism you can use to help you evaluate your own writing.

Another aspect of the panel was simply coping with poor reviews. Ben noted that there’s an actual physiological response that causes us to look at bad things and remember them vividly. It makes sense as a survival instinct. Don’t go back to the place that hurts. It’s one of the reasons bad reviews tend to sting so badly and stay with us. Shanna noted that she keeps one of her favorite positive reviews handy and reads it over any time a bad review comes in. It helps her to remember the good work she’s done and move on. Jennie noted that sometimes a bad review comes in and if you sit back and think about it, it’s clear the reviewer is having a problem in their own life.

I finished up this part of the discussion by noting that I like to look at the reviews of my favorite authors and remind myself that very successful authors get bad, good, and neutral reviews too.

Are you a writer or an artist? If so, I’d love to hear what you think is helpful in a review. Likewise, I’d love to hear how you cope with the bad reviews. Are you a reader? What do you look for in reviews when you buy books? Do you look at the reviews?

LepreCon 42

LepreCon Science Fiction Convention is Arizona’s Annual Sci-Fi & Fantasy Convention with an art emphasis. “Life, the Universe & Everything” is the theme for LepreCon 42 to be held June 23 – 26th, 2016 at the Park Terrace Suites in Phoenix, Arizona. The guests of honor include Jennie Breeden, creator of the webcomic The Devil’s Panties and D.C. Fontana, who wrote for Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Bonanza. For more information about the convention visit the LepreCon Website. Below, is where you can find me at the convention.

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Thursday, June 23

    9:00-10:00pm. What Is Steampunk? Suite C. Steampunk is often referred to as the “greatest era that never was.” Our panel discussion will open the door to what Steampunk is for those new to the genre. On the panel with me are Ben Woerner and Johnna Buttrick.

Friday, June 24

    1:30-2:00pm. Autographing. Suite E. You’ll find me happy to sign your wares. I’ll have a selection of my books available to purchase.

    5:00-6:00pm. Future of Steampunk Literature. Suite E. A brief look at the history of Steampunk literature and where the future might lead us. On the panel with me is Scott Wilke.

Saturday, June 25

    11:00am-Noon. Responding to Reviews. Suite C. Learn how creators can best respond to the good, bad, and funny reviews they receive online. On the panel with me are Ben Woerner, Elizabeth Leggett, KellyAnn Bonnell, Shanna Germain, and Jennie Breeden.

Sunday, June 26

    9:30-10:30am. Surveying the Universe. Suite E. Kitt Peak’s mission is evolving. A new large spectrographic instrument is being deployed on the Mayall 4-meter and a new Doppler Spectrometer is being deployed on the WIYN 3.5-meter. What are these instruments and what do we expect to learn? What’s different about this science than the astronomy that’s been done at Kitt Peak in previous years.

    Noon-1:00 pm. Steampunk Before It Was Steampunk. Suite C. A discussion of film, TV and books that had steampunk elements before the term “steampunk” was coined. On the panel with me are Michael Flanders and Hal Astell.

In addition to these events, there’s a masquerade, a terrific art show, demos and gaming. If you’re in Phoenix, Arizona this coming weekend, I hope you’ll come in out of the heat and join us at LepreCon!

Visiting Edgar

I must have been about eleven years old when my brother pulled a book off the shelf and took it outside to read a poem that immediately captivated me. Although it was a bright and sunny day in Southern California and we sat in the shade of an orange tree, I was carried to a dark and dank chamber where I saw a frightening apparition atop a bust of Pallas Athena mouthing the word, “Nevermore.” Of course the poem was “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Just a few years later, I would meet Poe again when a high school English teacher assigned “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Those two events turned me into a fan of Poe for life.

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Over Memorial Day Weekend, I attended Balticon, a science fiction convention in Baltimore. The convention was held at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, which is just around the corner from the place on Lombard Street where Poe was found “in great distress” by Joseph W. Walker on October 3, 1849. It’s not entirely clear what Poe was doing in Baltimore or why he was outside the public house on Lombard Street where Walker found him. What is known is that Poe died in the hospital just four days later at age 40. He was then buried in an anonymous grave at Westminster Hall. In 1865, a movement began to create a more fitting memorial for Poe and by 1875, that culminated in the creation of the Poe Memorial at Westminster Hall where Poe is now interred along with his wife and mother-in-law. While in Baltimore, my friend Nicki Fatherly took me to see the Poe Memorial.

Poe’s interests were far-ranging. He wrote criticism, contemplated scientific discovery, imagined detectives, and was fascinated by the darker sides of human nature. He wrote poetry, essays, and prose. That range has influenced me to explore many topics and forms in my writing. Because of Poe, and authors he influenced such as Ray Bradbury, I’ve felt encouraged to write science fiction, horror, and fantasy. It’s why I write poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ve even written a few reviews. I was glad to visit Poe’s memorial in Baltimore and pay tribute to a man who continues to influence so many over a century and half after his mysterious and untimely passing.

Vampire Novella Giveaway

Back in 2009, my publisher approached me with a proposal to write a series of five interconnected novellas, which would be released as ebooks, featuring my Scarlet Order vampires. Once all five novellas were released, a print edition with all five novellas would be published. The series was called Dragon’s Fall and the first two novellas were released as planned. When the third novella was in production, the publishing company changed owners and the new owner decided to forego the remaining novellas and went straight to the final combined edition, which is the novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order.

Cover of Dragon's Fall: Bondage

As it turns out, those first two novellas are still available and it occurs to me this is a great opportunity to give readers who haven’t sampled my world a taste of the Scarlet Order vampires. I’m giving away five copies of the first novella, “Bondage.” Set in Hellenistic Athens, “Bondage” is the story of the slave Alexandra. Sold to Theron, a mysterious banker, she wonders about her new master who is never seen during the day. As time goes on, she notices that slaves called upon to serve Theron in his chamber in the night do not return the next morning.

When Alexandra’s turn comes she learns Theron is a vampire who binds his slaves, takes his pleasure with them, then drinks their blood. She refuses to be a victim, but as she fights his embrace, Alexandra ingests some of Theron’s blood. Now a vampire herself, she becomes Theron’s concubine. Yet even as she learns the ways of the vampire, Alexandra yearns for freedom…

I’m giving away five copies of the Kindle edition of the novella at Amazon. Follow the link below for details. You’ll find out instantly whether or not you won.

Click here for a chance to win an ebook copy of “Bondage.”

Please note, this book is recommended only for readers eighteen years or older. If you already have read Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, you’ll recognize this as the first part of the novel, which now goes by its original title, “A Gorgon in Bondage.” If you’re a new reader and you win the novella and enjoy it, be sure to write a review on Amazon and then pick up a copy of Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order so you can read the rest of the story!

Scary Fairy Tales

A trend that’s developed in recent years is to produce gritty reboots of classic fairy tales, which amuses me because in many cases, it’s hard to get grittier or more frightening than the original stories! Children’s book and movie adaptations often give us the impression that fairy tales are lighthearted moral tales. What’s more, the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales were actually titled Kinder- und Haus Märchen which translates as Children’s and Household Tales. In fact, the collection compiled by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm consists of old German folktales and they were meant to be passed down to children, so they could pass them down to their children, but that didn’t mean the tales were lighthearted!

Blood-Sampler-375 One of the best known of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is “Schneewittchen” or “Little Snow White.” In 2002, I purchased a copy of the tales in German which included the original notes. I was writing a lot of my vampire tales at the time and I couldn’t help but notice how vampiric the Snow White story is. In the story, Snow White’s mother pricks her finger while doing needlework. A drop of blood falls on new-fallen snow covering an ebony window pane which makes her wish for a pale child with lips bright as blood and hair of ebony. I realize that in medieval times, pallor was considered a sign of wealth, but the pale creature associated with blood made me think vampire almost right away. In the original notes, the Grimms describe a romantic sleigh ride with Snow White’s mother and father. The blood on the snow with the ebony almost takes on the connotation of black magic.

Later, Snow White’s step mother demands her heart as proof of her demise. This scene is even in Disney’s version. When Snow White does bite into the poison apple, she’s laid to rest in a glass coffin. In the Grimms’ original, the wicked queen actually kills Snow White three times. She’s resurrected not by a handsome prince’s kiss, but instead when the handsome prince’s men drop the coffin, dislodging the apple piece in her throat. I took these vampire-like elements, emphasized them, and wrote them as “The Tale of Blood Red” which appears in the collection Blood Sampler available in print from Alban Lake Publishing. You can also find the ebook at Amazon.

Another story I’ve been thinking about lately is “Der Teufel und seine Grossmuter.” The most straightforward translation of the title is “The Devil and His Grandmother.” In the story, interpreted this way, the devil appears before three runaway soldiers and gives them a whip that can produce gold from thin air. In seven years’ time, the devil will return and pose a set of three riddles. If the soldiers answer correctly, they can keep the whip. If they fail, they will be carried off to Hell to serve as the devil’s minions. This deal-with-the-devil story is pretty heavy stuff for a kid’s story. Not to mention the whole theological implications that the devil has a grandmother!

Now, “der Teufel” can also be translated as “dragon.” This is most pronounced in translations of the Biblical book of Revelation where Teufel is used both for Satan and the metaphorical dragon in St. John’s vision. When der Teufel appears in the story, he flies in on wings and breathes fire. To me, that seems more like a classical dragon than a devil, so I translated the story as “The Devil and his Grandmother.” Not too long ago, I gave the story a steampunk twist, set it in India and mechanized the dragon. “The Steam-Powered Dragon and His Grandmother” will appear in the anthology Gaslight and Grimm coming from eSpec Books. They are running a Kickstarter Campaign right now. Please click the link and check it out. There are some awesome rewards and it’s the best way to find out how a mechanical dragon can have a grandmother any more than the devil himself!

Trick or Treat!

This year, I’ll be celebrating Halloween at TusCon, a science fiction convention in Tucson, Arizona. In many ways, it’s the perfect way to celebrate Halloween because I’ll be with family and friends. There will be costumes, parties and great conversations. The fabulous people in the convention suite always have lots of goodies throughout the weekend. That said, I will miss taking my daughters out for Trick or Treat and greeting those children in the neighborhood who come by our door. The photo below shows my daughters and I during Halloween 2011. This season has always been a favorite for me and my family.

Halloween 2011

So, where did this tradition of Trick or Treat come from? Although Halloween has its roots in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, it’s celebration has not been entirely continuous, particularly in the Americas. What we do know is that the Irish fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s revived interest in Guy Fawkes Night in the United States.

Celebrated on November 5, Guy Fawkes day often involves wearing masks, going around door-to-door and begging for pennies, and setting large bonfires. The holiday commemorates the execution of Guy Fawkes, who led a plot to blow up the English Parliament and remove the Protestant King James I from the throne.

Over the years, Guy Fawkes celebrations in the United States became increasingly rowdy and raucous until the 1920s and 30s. During the early years of the Great Depression, Guy Fawkes Day reached an apex of destructiveness and many communities sought to ban it and find alternative ways for young people to have fun. My father, who was born in the late 20s, never seemed especially fond of Halloween. I always gathered he didn’t like the holiday’s pagan connotations. I now wonder how much of that was based on the way Halloween was introduced as an alternative to the more secular Guy Fawkes Day.

It’s also worth noting that in New Orleans and in towns on the Mexican border, the Day of the Dead and All Souls Day were important celebrations on November 1 and 2 respectively. Although these holidays which commemorate the ancestors are considered rather somber affairs where they started in Europe, they took on much more festive qualities in Mexico and the United States. Cooking, family, and games are often part of the festivities, as are visiting cemeteries and sprucing up the plots belonging to people’s ancestors.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the first known instance of the phrase “Trick or Treat” appeared in the Herald of Blackie, Alberta, Canada on November 4, 1927:

    Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.

It’s unclear from this whether the phrase actually started in Canada, or if it was in use before this, but the context does make it sound like “trick or treat” was an unfamiliar phrase at the time. The phrase would definitely be in common use by 1951 when it appeared in the Peanuts comic strip. A year later, Disney produced a Donald Duck short entitled “Trick or Treat.”

However you celebrate it, I hope you have a wonderful Halloween full of treats and if you do encounter any tricks, may they be fun ones!

Vampire Tour

I just spent a wonderful weekend in New Orleans. On Friday night, my wife and I booked a Vampire Adventure through Boutique du Vampyre to cap off our celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I highly recommend the experience.

We started in the courtyard of Boutique du Vampire tasting a delightful sampling of wines from Vampire Vineyards. We tried the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Chardonnay, and the Pinot Noir. All three were lovely, but the Cabernet in particular had an interesting peppery bite I don’t recall experiencing in another wine.

Boutique-Courtyard

We moved on to a wonderful dinner at Muriel’s Jackson Square Restaurant in New Orleans, where our hostess, Marita Crandle, told us several stories of ghosts and vampires in New Orleans.

After dinner, we moved on to a tour of the French Quarter at night. We saw the apartment where a woman escaped with deep cuts. She was held captive by two brothers named Carter, who drank her blood. When they police investigated, they found over a dozen bodies drained of blood. The Carter Brothers were tried and executed. Their bodies were interred in the St. Louis Cemetery, but a year later, when the crypt was opened, supposedly no evidence of the bodies were found.

We moved on to the Ursuline Convent, which is New Orleans’s oldest building. It’s said that in the 1700s, the French sent a group of young ladies to New Orleans to find husbands. These ladies were noted for carrying casket-shaped cases. Unfortunately, the young ladies were abused and forced into prostitution. Afterwards, the cases were placed in storage in the convent’s top floors, which are sealed off to this day, even in the sweltering New Orleans summer. Were the caskets more than simply suitcases? Some have speculated the women were, in fact vampires.

Ursuline-Convent

We finally moved on to the home of Jacques St. Germaine, who I described in detail in a post last year at the Scarlet Order Journal. It was fascinating to finally stand face to face with the actual place.

We finished our adventure back in the courtyard of Boutique du Vampyre, where Marita Crandle read tarot cards for my wife and I. Whether your a skeptic or a believer, I was impressed by the insight revealed by each of our readings.

Marita promises that each adventure is unique, so even if you book an adventure, it may be very different from the one we had and you can request changes if you’d like. She also promises that if we take another tour, it’ll be different from this one. She was a wonderful hostess and I encourage any vampire fans in New Orleans to call the Boutique and schedule an adventure of their own.

One final footnote to our adventure, when my wife woke up the morning afterward, she found these puncture marks on her arm.

Bite-marks

Did our vampire adventure perhaps get just a little too real?