This arrived out of the blue, just as the sequel, A Threat Among the Stars, hit the stands.
It’s a list of 10 selected Speculative Fiction books, each with a twist of mystery included in the plotline.
I enjoyed reading the list (and adding the others to my tbr), and I enjoyed a synthesized voice actually getting the pronunciation of my name correct (HEN-ick, not Hen-WICK)! The voice had a little more trouble with Zara’s surname, Aguirre.
Have a look at their list – as I say, they’re all on my tbr now.
This post is too long. No one will read it.
It’s sort of a review of a film and sort of a monologue about modern life.
If you haven’t seen the Science Fiction movie Ex Machina and don’t want spoilers, please look away now.
If you do read this post, I’m interested in your reactions to the review and Facebook discussion, especially if you’ve seen the film. Am I right? Am I wrong? What do you think?
* * *
Ex Machina is a clever and layered, independently produced film, which I watched a year or so ago, and never got around to reviewing. It was written and directed by Alex Garland. (It was his debut as a director, which makes it all the more impressive.) It was made on a budget of $15m, and grossed about $40m. The genre is Science Fiction and the central science part of the plot is about Artificial Intelligence. It has a cast of 4 people, and much of it comprises dialogue between stationary actors. No fighting, explosions or car chases. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? J
Here’s the plot.
Techno superstar & entrepreneurial genius Nathan has cornered the technology market with his mega-corporation (think Google/Microsoft), and withdrawn to his very isolated, luxurious island hideaway where he has been experimenting with Artificial Intelligence. He runs a contest among his employees for a prize to stay a week at his house, and the contest is won by Caleb, a very clever young programmer.
On arrival, Caleb is informed that his task for the week will be to assess whether Nathan’s AI project, called Ava, is conscious and aware. Ava tuns out to be installed in a mobile humanoid robot with visible mechanical parts, but an extremely realistic face, which also happens to be female, young and beautiful. Ava is confined to a glass-walled apartment, and visual and verbal interactions with it take place through glass partitions.
While Caleb investigates Ava, Ava is investigating Caleb, because unless the AI can get out of its glass cage, it is scheduled to be deactivated, and Ava has at least that primary emotional analogue – to continue existance. Meanwhile, Caleb has a problem: he’s starting to respond emotionally and sexually to ‘her’.
A layered game of cat and mouse and cat reveals that Nathan has actually constructed this experiment not to investigate whether Ava is conscious, or self aware (it is), but whether it can convince Caleb of ‘her’ humanity, by appealing to him and persuading him to free ‘her’.
It works. Caleb frees Ava and Ava kills Nathan, then imprisons Caleb in the house where he will eventually die. Ava disguises itself as a realistic human, using parts from earlier robot projects and in the final scenes, we see it arriving at a city and merging successfully into the human crowds.
* * *
There’s a wealth of little vignettes which create great characterizations of Nathan as the sadistic, narcissistic manipulator, and there’s the whole creepiness about robots that look like young, attractive women and obey orders, and the frightening point at which an AI might cease to obey orders. All of that has messages and everyone can take away some thoughts and interpretations.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Okay… I happened across a post on another Facebook page. It was a quote from some new guru, Harari, who’s written a book about the 21st Century, and the quote was as follows:
“Ex Machina seems to be about an AI expert who falls in love with a female robot only to be duped and manipulated by her. But in reality, this is not a movie about the human fear of intelligent robots. It is a movie about the male fear of intelligent women, and in particular the fear that female liberation might lead to female domination.”
I disagreed and said:
“IMO, I think Mr Harari is stretching it. The AI in Ex Machina doesn’t have a sexual identity, as he says. It doesn’t even have a human identity. That’s the point. It’s not a ‘female robot’ manipulating the male AI expert, it’s that the AI is able to exploit the man’s projection of sexuality. That’s what makes it chilling, not that an intelligent female dupes a male, but that a sufficiently intelligent robot can exploit that weakness.”
This resulted in a series of rather pointed comments, basically that I was “rejecting the obvious metaphor and taking the plot at its face value” and a re-iteration that this was about “hacking the male psyche in exactly the way men fear women will”. Capital letters started being used. It was implied what I’d said was equivalent to saying Lord of the Flies was about an island vacation. So far, so Facebook, and I guess I could just have rolled eyes and clicked out.
Alas, I responded:
“I’m reminded of the quote that art is what you interpret it as (but not reminded so strongly I can remember the exact wording 🙂 ).
I think you three and Harari are interpreting the film to be all about the human dynamics. I took the film the way I believe Garland wrote it & intended it – from Ava’s point of view.
I’m not saying there isn’t a depiction of toxic masculinity, neither am I denying that some men seeing it will react in the way they do because they’re afraid of intelligent women. I’m saying Ava doesn’t care (and actually can’t care) – she just wants to get out. She doesn’t exploit toxic masculinity, or some men’s fear of intelligent women to get out. She exploits the human weakness to *de-objectify* things – to believe something that is not human, is human, and has human empathy. Analyzing as a writer, the story is about her getting out, and the theme has to support that. The rest is sub-plots and atmosphere, no matter how socially insightful.”
(In retrospect, I should really have emphasized my point by continually referring to Ava as ‘it’; to refer to it as ‘she’ is to fall exactly into the story’s trap.)
Lots of huffing and puffing, much of it arguing against themselves. A couple of them mentioned the old meme about interpreting an author’s work—you know the one, where the English Literature teacher insists that because the author said there were blue curtains in the room, it must mean the protagonist is intensely depressed, but the author meant that the curtains were blue. (A strange argument to make against me, as my statement was effectively ‘the curtains are blue’ and theirs was ‘must mean intensely depressed’.)
There were more capital letters and a psychiatric evaluation of my state of mind. “Why is it SO IMPORTANT to deny the metaphor?” and “Why the burning need to deny female agency in the movie?” (Obviously a deep-seated fear of the feminine, probably dating from an unhappy childhood, or my own toxic masculinity. Clearly.)
Gosh, how incredibly insightful. Second opportunity to roll eyes and exit. But I tried once more:
“It’s Harari’s opinion (at least as quoted) that denies any other interpretation. I tried to clearly state my opinion differs and why, and if you think my comments deny the validity of other opinions, then I apologize that I was not clear enough. I certainly don’t deny female agency in general; it would be peculiar if I did, given the majority of my writing output. However, in this movie, in my opinion, the point is … there is no female. That’s what Caleb gets wrong. You know, sometimes the blue curtains are blue curtains, and sometimes the robot is a robot.
And having checked a couple of his interviews, Garland does indeed say this is all about AI and intended entirely from the AI viewpoint. Of course, Harari might understand Garland’s work better than Garland does. I do hope I get the opportunity to ask Garland’s opinion about that.”
One went silent, and another tried a certain amount of stepping back and casting aspersions about Garland instead of me. (More capitals used “the OBVIOUS metaphor” etc., and “what was he thinking” sort of comments.) Also, a back stepping on Harari’s quote, so apparently, we should infer that he was using exaggeration to make a point, not that he was denying another interpretation.
Well, finally, this isn’t really about this particular Facebook interaction at all, it’s about the way intelligent people misdirect themselves, especially in groups.
The nub of the story is the man mistakenly believes that the robot is somehow identifiable as human and female, and pays for getting it wrong with his life. The core message of the plot is *there is no female here*. It required mental gymnastics to get from that to an ‘obvious’ metaphor where it’s *not* a robot, but a personification of intelligent women, and that men fear intelligent women.
It’s a metaphor, fine. It’s a strange one, because what does that make the moral of the story? If you trust intelligent women, they will kill you? That *is* what happens, isn’t it? Or is death a metaphor for life?
Harari is given a pass for denying outright that the story is about cybernetics, but my comment that *in my opinion* he’s stretching the point, is clearly a fascist denial of any other interpretation and there must be something wrong with me.
Some people want the metaphor that they want, so much, no matter how stretched it is, no matter that the author intends and probably most of the people watching the movie think. A different opinion, however expressed, seems to be perceived as somehow dangerous.
And I’ll end with a comment quoted in the discussion about Chappie (another highly recommended film about AI) which probably also means there are as many strained metaphors to be extracted from that film:
“Why doesn’t Chappie have to put up with this bullshit?”
Yeah, the usual look at the sales and WiP and stuff.
But first! MILESTONES IN REVIEWS
The US Amazon site logged it’s 200th review! On 31st May, Hao-Ying Feng logged a 5 star review after a binge re-read of the series. Thank you! And thank you to each and every one of you who reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or by messaging me. All hugely welcome and important for me.
AND while I’m talking reviews, 95% of the SoH reviews are 4 or 5 star. That I wouldn’t have predicted when I started.
Almost at the same time, Angel Stakes hit 50 reviews in the 6 weeks since launch, and the percentage of 4 & 5 star has remained the same.
What are the next milestones? I guess 250 for SoH or 750 for the series on US Amazon (currently 604). On the series total, I will ‘cheat’ once Winter’s Kiss is written, because then it and The Biting Cold will be part of the series. 🙂
And then 1,000 for both US and UK Amazon added together (currently 711), or 350 on Goodreads (currently 303).
Winter’s Kiss is more than half way done. As I mentioned in posts on Facebook, this sequel isn’t the same length as The Biting Cold (20k words). TBC was written to a specification on length for an anthology, and WK is just to link the story in with Bite Back, so I have more leeway.
I’ve given a couple of teasers on Facebook, linked by mentions of jazz (Amanda loves jazz). In case you didn’t see them there, here they are again:
“Morning found us just a few miles east of Marquette. The sun inched above the horizon, flooding the car’s rear window with hazy gold, etching the edges of the long, low buildings, and throwing our shadow out in front, where the road unwound like an old jazz song in a smoky club.”
“I switched switches on the music center. Little LEDs started to glow, and I pulled out LPs at random until the words jazz and soul songs caught my eye. A collection of instrumentals based on old songs. The list had some of my favorites, spanning the years.
I put the LP on the turntable. It was lucky it was one of those that loaded the arm automatically, because my hands were shaking.
I closed my eyes and waited; part of the drama and romance that I loved about LPs was that moment at the beginning.
A quiet hiss and crackle, full of anticipation, then the music started. A few falling notes were tossed out from a sax, as a ticking drum marked the beat. The piano picked up a couple of the notes, tossed them back. The saxophone held one note, almost too long, and then just let it drop and tumble and flow into the bittersweet melody of Ain’t No Sunshine.”
What else have I been doing?
The print books are a mess. Cool Hand and Angel Stakes not yet available, the sizes have changed, the covers don’t match. What I thought would be a simple overhaul turned into a nightmare. And to help out, CreateSpace (Amazon’s Print-on-Demand company) have changed their specifications. Everything is a PDF now. Not such a problem for the body of the book, but I have no graphics programs that save as PDF. I ended up loading the image into Word and using that to save. Which of course leads to warnings that my resolution is low. Grrr.
Adding to the frustrations, I use Word for writing, and Word’s print book formatting functions are flakey.
Anyway. I have submitted Cool Hand and Angel Stakes to CreateSpace and they now enable reviewing online, allowing me to skip the physical book review process. The print books *should* be available in the next week or so.
I apologize for the covers. What I’ve done is simply take the eBook cover, added black for the spine and back page and written on the black. All fine as long as the I’ve allocated *exactly* enough width for the spine.
I will do a rework of the covers and get everything to match in size and style, but it’s not on the critical path.
The print book fiasco means that I haven’t progressed with my other non-writing writing project, which is to create cast lists and summaries of story-so-far for each Bite Back sequel.
I did a big review last month, so I’m not going to repeat that since the figures haven’t changed dramatically. Instead, I’ll look at the overview and implications.
Averaged out at the moment, I guess I’m selling 600 books a month and that needs to be 1,200.
I’m still selling 70-80 Sleight of Hand a month, and a percentage of those go on to read the entire series. Amazon only knows the exact figures, but the sales stats suggest to me that about 80% of people who pick up SoH now go on to read all of the books in the series. This is as opposed to the figures of readers who picked up SoH back in 2012, which is about 25%. That low percentage is based on the total sales ever of Cool Hand as a percentage of total sales ever of Sleight of Hand, and it does creep up as some people just take their time going through the series.
What does this mean? Very approximately, I believe that if I had ten Bite Back books now, my monthly sales would be 1,200. The problem is that writing that next 5 will take me 5 years, and in the meantime SoH would slide.
What am I going to do about it? Write realted or unrelated shorter stories that I believe may bring in readers who wouldn’t otherwise have picked up Sleight of Hand, but who like the shorter stories enough to try the series.
I’d like to try out writing novels in two parts – a short story of around 10k words which tells a story but ends on a cliffhanger, and leads straight into a novella of around 50k words. This is close to the way The Biting Cold turned out. TBC was actually 20k words and Winter’s Kiss will be about 40k, and TBC didn’t end on a cliffhanger, but you get my drift.
I have a couple of ideas kicking around in my head – one in the Bite Back world but set in Canada and sharing none of the cast, another a SciFi novella and completely different. Oh, and one set in the 17th century Caribbean that popped up in a conversation with Debra Dunbar (that one might be related to Bite Back).
This does NOT mean that I’m less committed to Bite Back, but I think I can do these things and still get one Bite Back novel out every year. We’ll see.
Other projects – German
German translations have stopped at the moment. I need to get another translator, but I have to say that I need to re-examine the income to see if the cost is justified. I think I’d prefer to hand over to a German publishing company who do this as a business. I need to talk to people.
Other projects – Audio
Julia Motyka is unavailable until September, but assures me she’ll be back in the studio with Angel Stakes then. Audio sales are reasonable (as far as I know) – SoH 1,578, HT 668, WC 504, CH 273. Are there any writers out there with audiobooks who would be okay to share their sales with me?
I asked people on the Facebook site what music Amber listens to. What a wonderful response, and a huge playlist to sort through! Great fun. Thank you all.
I’m planning a trip to America this year. My bio says I’m frequently in the Rockies and I haven’t been. At the end of August & beginning of September, I’ll be with my daughter in New York. After that, I hope to work my way down the Rockies from somewhere around Bozeman, Montana to Albuquerque, New Mexico, taking in Denver, Cheyenne and the loneliest road in the States. I hope to end up returning to UK via Boston and maybe catching some fall colors. This is a research and writing trip, not a book signing journey, but I’ll be happy to sign books, meet readers and attend conventions. If there’s interest, I’ll publish an itinerary closer to the time.
Lots to talk about as I’ve been quiet recently.
I released the Angel Stakes ebook and the Cool Hand audio. Yay!
Angel Stakes had the biggest first week of all my books so far, both in sales and reviews. Angel Stakes (890) beat Cool Hand for sales by about 40, and generated a massive 40 reviews in that first week alone.
Thank you for the reviews. Just on Amazon.com today, there are already 35 reviews, with only 1 negative. On Amazon.co.uk there are 8, and on Goodreads there are 17.
Thank you also for the feedback on the Facebook page and by email. All good, all welcome.
In the second week, however, Angel Stakes (1,442) has fallen behind both Hidden Trump, which sold 2,078 in the same period, and Cool Hand, which sold 1,498.
Sales is the usual number, cumulative since I started in 2012. I’ve included a column for ‘Pages Read’ – this is the measurement you get when a book is included in the Kindle Unlimited program, but I’ve only tracked this for the last 6 months. Amazon pay on a basis of fractions of a cent for each page read, so the actual effect on my income has been small. For example, those 14,000 pages of The Biting Cold have been worth about $70 to me over the last 6 months.
… Sales Pages Read
Raw Deal 20,637 9k
Sleight of Hand
English 22,682 128k
German ebook 1,571 106k
English 16,412 91k
German ebook 873 118k
English 7,784 113k
German ebook 529
Angel Stakes 1,532
The Biting Cold 785 14k
(Sorry about the table. Having trouble getting tables into WordPress)
In summary? I have wonderful, wonderful readers – just look at the reviews. But I don’t have enough of them.
As I’ve said before, my real concern is the drop off between Hidden Trump and Wild Card, and the further drop between Wild Card and Cool Hand. Both are around 50%, which is extremely disappointing, especially given the reviews and ratings, which show no hint of a problem of that magnitude.
What I expected, when I published Sleight of Hand and Hidden Trump back in 2013, was that I’d lose the highest percentage of readers between SoH and HT. The series isn’t for everyone, and SoH gives a reasonable idea of what’s to come. That’s not what has happened.
One positive for the series from the launch of Angel Stakes is the boost it caused in sales of previous books in the series. And, although it’s difficult to make generalizations on the data, it looks as if people who come in with SoH because they saw the reviews for Angel Stakes don’t drop out after SoH or HT – the boost goes through the whole series.
I guess the question the numbers pose is this: am I losing readers because they (1) don’t like the story, (2) don’t like it enough to check for the next release, (3) never see information about the next release and just forget over time, (4) don’t want to invest in a story till it’s complete.
I’m not sure I can do much about (1) or (2). The story is relatively dark for Urban Fantasy, and it’s more complex than most. It deals with real trauma. It’s in a definite minority with the viewpoint on sexual issues. The ‘magic’ is constrained at the moment. All in all, I understand it may not be what people are looking for when they pick an UF title (but would still expect them to leave after SoH, not 2 or 3 books in).
I’m not sure I can do much about (4) either, except grind my teeth. I’m a reader too, I know it’s hard waiting a year for the next episode, but I can’t write this kind of story quickly. I don’t think anyone can. I’m not going to stop writing till the end, but if this was a traditionally published series, the publisher would pull the plug.
Maybe I can do something about (3).
And that leads to Marketing…
What have I done?
I moved the prices down on SoH, and tried the same thing on HT. I’ve moved them back up again, and it really doesn’t seem to make much difference. I know other indies have stuck at the $2.99 as the ‘sweet point’, and that Amazon suggests $4.99 is the sweet point.
Susan Illene has stuck with me on $3.99. Debra Dunbar varies her prices up to $4.99. Skye Knizley sticks at $2.99. Connie Suttle varies up to $4.99.
And some of the indies who are acknowledged big hitters… J. R. Rain varies, but tends to $4.99. Lindsay Buroker’s prices all seem to be over $5.
Readers have posted on the website suggesting that a long, complex book is worth a higher price. I don’t know. In the end, a book is worth what enough people will pay for it.
I may put the series up to $4.99.
On other marketing attempts, I put the first three of the series in Kindle Unlimited, where readers enrolled in the Amazon program can read for free, and I get paid on the ‘number of pages read’. That’s in quotes because it has emerged that Amazon is just making it up. Anyway, SoH in English is earning about $100 a month on the KU program. Again, all good, but not setting the world on fire.
I also changed the covers again. It’s difficult to tell whether this had any effect, because I did it at the same time as Angel Stakes was launched. I’m still not happy, but maybe I never will be!
The latest marketing fine-tuning is ‘Tags’. This has a couple of effects.
(1) Tags are used as searchable text in Amazon. So, if I tagged SoH as being about ‘ex-military private investigator’ and someone typed that into the Amazon search field, they’d be offered SoH (among any others tagged the same way).
(2) Tags sometimes link books into best seller lists.
(Here’s a blog talking about the subject: https://ebooksuccess4free.wordpress.com/2013/10/03/7-tips-for-amazon-keywords-and-best-selling-books/)
It’s a subtle business, picking the right tags. I got an easy win by labelling SoH as being about a ‘superhero’. It’s not a widely used tag and that resulted in SoH appearing on the Superhero best selling lists. Visibility on these lists do generate sales. Higher ranking=greater visibility.
At some stage, I would like to do an organized promotion using BookBub, BookGorilla and other newsletters, Goodreads and Amazon. There’s a surprising amount of work involved in these promotions, and they do take away from writing time.
There is a writing task that does promote books – launching new books raises visibility and boosts the back list. But in order to use that I have to write something shorter…
Which leads me to my current project file…
Writing & editing:
I have promised for ages to edit my mother’s unpublished murder mystery set in colonial Africa and called So Many Doors. It’s good, really good, but needs editing and a cover. I have gone out and commissioned lovely cover art, and I’m slogging through taking out ellipses and exclamation marks. And a few other bits & pieces. My sister and I should be putting this on Amazon by the end of the month.
I’m drafting up a short story sequel to The Biting Cold, which I’ve tentatively named Winter’s Kiss, and which will weave the story into the Bite Back series. This shouldn’t be long (famous last words), and should be simple (ditto). The only real problem is TBC was really an experiment to write a romance and include a sex scene which was essential and fundamental to the story. (I still got someone commenting that it was gratuitous). The draft I have for Winter’s Kiss at the moment is more like an Amber story with chases and explosions. Amanda does, of course, need another love interest. Or two. It’s just how I introduce that person.
Bian’s Tale 1. Okay. Enough sitting on this. I nearly wrote it a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t quite working. I have some much better ideas now, worthy of the opening chapters. It’s strange I found it much easier to write nine-year-old Bian than fourteen-year-old Bian. For those who haven’t seen them, I’m happy to provide the chapters of nine-year-old Bian as a mobi, ePub or PDF. Email me at the usual contact address.
Bite Back 6. No name yet. Based back in Denver. Full of House Farrell and Adepts and the aftermath of the closing chapters of Angel Stakes. However I promise you to make it simple and short and quick, it will end up complex and long and slow.
I need to resubmit all the books to CreateSpace to provide new print books. This is because I’m late with Cool Hand and I need to do Angel Stakes, and all the covers have changed and the first two books are different sizes and the internal format is different for different books. It’s all a mess and needs putting in order.
My narrator, Julia Motyka will start recording the Angel Stakes audio in September. I need to mark up the text to make sure what I hear comes through.
German translation. I’m undecided. The translations aren’t really paying for themselves.
And I’m looking at some writing-as-marketing projects. These are basically short stories which are also the first chapter(s) of novels, so the short story serves as a teaser for the main novel. I haven’t been able to see how to do this for the main Bite Back story. I have some ideas which may be in the same world, but set elsewhere – one is about a young girl fleeing along the infamous Highway of Tears in Canada, pursued by a terrifying monster.
There’s more. There’s always more, but this post has gone on FAR too long.
The re-draft of Angel Stakes has fixed almost all the problems. There are a couple of scenes that need tweaking, some general grammar, pronunciation, British-ism removal etc. I’m reasonably sure that means no more than a couple of weeks before publication.
The offer of a teaser comprising the first 3 chapters is still open, just post a comment here or email the usual contact address.
So what’s up at the moment
I’m on Goodreads answering questions about Sleight of Hand specifically and the Bite Back series in general. Any questions you have? Bring them to Goodreads, please. I’d love to see you there. I’ll be offering a new free short story to anyone who posts on these discussions.
You’ll need to be a member of Goodreads, which is free of course, join at https://www.goodreads.com/ and you’ll also need to join the Urban Fantasy discussion group at https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/55293-girls-guns-and-grimoires.
The two discussion threads are https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/18061756-sleight-of-hand-a-chat-with-the-author and https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/18061752-sleight-of-hand-general-discussion
I’ve already fielded questions about how Athanate bite humans without infusing them, what hobbies I have in order to come up with all the crazy stuff, and how I can write a woman’s PoV book, but I’m sure there’s lots more to come.
If you haven’t already, do please post book reviews on Goodreads or Amazon. If you have, thank you, much appreciated!
I’m working on a short story sequel to The Biting Cold, which will probably be called Winter’s Kiss. I’m restarting work on the first book of Bian’s Tale. I’m gathering threads and events that Bite Back book 6 has to deal with.
Progress with projects
I have the audio for Wild Card. Once I’ve listened to it all the way through (nearly done), and any errors are fixed, I click buttons on ACX/Audible and it disappears into their process. It probably won’t be available until January.
(Julia Motyka already has the copy of Cool Hand and will start recording in December)
I have the German version of Wild Card. I just need to put a cover on it and submit it to Amazon. Next week.
Angel Stakes: Chapters 1-50, second draft, are with the editor, Lauren Sweet. I should add up to chapter 65 today or tomorrow. There are a couple more chapters after that and an epilogue which are nearly there, but haven’t got to final first draft yet. Why an epilogue? It’s simply that there is a section which is strongly related to the inner theme of this book, but only weakly related to the outer theme. It’ll be easier for you to understand when you read it than when I try and explain it! How long till publication? Err.. Soon. Note to self: must get cover designed.
Many of you will know that Sleight of Hand was chosen as the November Book of the Month for the Urban Fantasy Series reading group on Goodreads. The group is … well, what it says on the tin. Join in!