I Needed a Win–The Kirkus Review Fallout

You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.  You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction.  Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established in himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.

–The Bhagavad-Gita

That bit of Hindu goodness is the ideal.  Ideally, I would write and not really pay attention to outside voices, because, in the end, the praise is candy and the criticism is poison and only the act of writing, editing, and publishing nourishes me.

Yes, at all parts of the process I need to be open-minded.  I need to listen.  Criticism I can’t ignore, I have to follow.  Anything else I can ignore, I should.  Truth floats and all else should be forgotten.  The end.

And when a book is launched?  It’s best I focus on the next project and the bread of the writing, not the candy, not the poison; the bread of writing, the broccoli of editing (unpleasant, but good for me), and the meat of publishing.  The end.

But after weeks, months, years of nothing but stale compliments and half-hearted ‘atta-boys,’ I need more.  I do.  I’m weak.

I needed a win.

It’s been a long fall and winter.  I’d had some issues in my inner circle of writing friends.  I’d been summarily rejected by all my favorite publishers and agents when I shopped the book of my dreams, which I figured would happen, but I had high hopes anyway.  I had some failures getting blurbs for another book, and then I got a bad rejection from a publisher who said my scenes lacked focus and my characters were overblown.  Ouch.

My first book sold solidly for a while, but then sales dropped off.

And now I’m walking that long road to promote my second.

I needed a win.

I sent my book to Kirkus Reviews, hoping that it would review well.  It was a gamble.  The day I sent it off, a writer friend said Kirkus bashed them up good.  I was frightened.

I needed a win.

Kirkus said that their deadline was Friday, February 7, but when I saw the email on the Wednesday before that, February 5, well, I opened it immediately.  I’d been waiting for two months.

Remember, I’d spent years opening emails saying all sorts of nice things, only to add their own, “BUT”.

I liked it, but…

You’re great, but…

You’re a rockstar, but…

So in this review, I looked for the good stuff, hoping there would be good stuff.  I saw the word “powerful”, I saw “witty”, I saw “compelling”.

I saw those words.  Then I read the whole thing.

And sat in my chair, rocking back and forth, face in my hands, repeating over and over and over…

“I needed a win.  I needed a win.  I needed a win.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I needed a win.  And I got one.

I really thought that after the review, the magic would be gone in a few minutes, and I’d get back to work, shrugging off the nice things the reviewer said about me.  You know, all other praise I’d never really taken seriously.  I could see all the reasons why it was invalid.  It didn’t matter.  I wasn’t as rich and famous as J.K. Rowling, so it didn’t matter.

I found something with this review, though.  I’d go back to it, savoring it, sipping at it like water from an oasis.  I might not get another win for a long, long time, but I got this win.

And I think maybe that’s one of the nice things about being a writer.  Some of us get wins when we need them, others get wins out of the blue, huge wins, and others go a lifetime with very little other than the joy of creating, the joy, the struggle, the sorrow, the sense of victory.

I remember a story about Richard Bach.  He didn’t know he was a bestseller until someone finally pulled him off some airstrip and told him he was a big deal.  And I think of Poe Ballantine who won a huge national award for a story he wrote years before, and it led to a book contract with a huge press.  Stephen King had Brian de Palma make Carrie into a movie with Sissie Spacek.  Both Jeanne C. Stein and Mario Acevedo were in Barnes and Nobles top 20 Urban Fantasy writers in the first ten years of the 21st century.  Wins, all of them, big wins.

I don’t know if I’ll get another win, and on some days, I don’t care.  My day-to-day remains the same: How can I write as much as possible and make it as good as possible?  That’s the end of the story.  That’s what I need to do.  Praise or vitriol, that’s my job.

But this win?

I needed it.  I needed a win and I got it.  Thank God.

Of course, here’s the link:


Share the news!  It even got selected to be in the March 1, 2014 edition of Kirkus Reviews with a big ol’ blurb at the top.  Which happens with less than 10% of submissions.  A win.  A solid win.  I needed it.  Again, thank God.

Cheri Priest’s Boneshaker: Steampunk Novel or First-Person Shooter?

Years ago, I made the mistake of giving Barry Eisler a critique of a book he wrote that was full-on published and out there. I said what I liked and what I didn’t. Now, Barry is a great guy, and so he took my critique of his first John Rain book, Rain Fall, with a grain of salt. Ha. If some yahoo did that to me, I’d punch him right in the kisser. I wouldn’t, but I’d think about it.

So here I am, trying to review books, and I don’t wanna get hit, and what’s my review going to do? I critique people’s unpublished books in an effort to make them better. But once the book is done, it’s been assigned an ISBN and published, well, it’s not gonna get any better ‘cause it’s done. The end. That’s why critiquing published books is a waste of time. That’s why reviewers have been called the demons who walk across the battlefield shooting the wounded. The battle has already happened.

So when people ask me what I thought of their published book, I say nice things, smile, and move on because I don’t want to shoot the wounded.

A long intro to say this: I’m going to critique published novels of people I don’t know and say what I liked and what I thought could use some work.

And that’s where I’m going with Cheri Priest’s Boneshaker. It’s a huge steampunk book in the steampunk genre which is so steampunky. And is it steampunk? Oh, yeah–alternate history Seattle during a sixteen-year-long civil war with zombies and ancient Seattle city monuments.

Basically, a mad scientist’s device unearths a poison gas that creates zombies. The good people of 19th century Seattle create a wall to keep the gas and zombies inside. Think Escape from New York with fewer convicts, more zombies. And like Escape from New York, there’s a society inside the walls for the rebellious, the indigent, and the independently-minded.

Boneshaker’s absolute glowing wonderfulness is in the setting, the details, the writing, the whole atmosphere and mood. Cheri Priest’s rain-sodden, gaseous Seattle is breathtaking. The characters are believable, and for the steampunkers, there are dirigibles, goggles, and cool anachronistic inventions. And guns. Lots of guns, tough guy.

Reading Boneshaker was the first time that I ever felt like I was reading a novelization for a video game. Seriously, it felt like I was playing Boneshaker rather than reading it. There are ever-evolving guns to use to kill the zombies, there are missions to go, time limits, and a slow walk through labyrinthine madness toward the minotaur at the center. Is the evil genius who lords over walled-in Seattle the same mad scientist who unleashed the gas? I won’t give nothin’ away.

But I’d totally buy and play Boneshaker the video game. You betcha’.

So that’s all the good stuff. The bad stuff? Well, video games have conflict but it’s generally one layer of conflict. Get this, kill zombies, get that, get out. In a first-person-shooter, there’s not a lot of internal conflict going on as you mouseclick along.

The characters in Boneshaker don’t feel one dimensional, but I wanted more conflict somewhere. I think why The Hunger Games grabbed me, because of the layers of conflict. The Hunger Games had the romantic stickiness of Peeta and Katniss. Is their love real or just a weapon? I would have liked to see something like that in Boneshaker, and yeah, I’d make it a romance and give it some level of discomfort. And the plotting. We meet the denizens of the walled-in Seattle, but it’s not until later in the game, and even then, the civil war inside seems forced. There’s only one real faction and I’m not sure why the Chinese laborers spend so much time pumping fresh air down into the guts of the city, but I might have missed that plot point.

Maybe I’ve become too Hollywood. Snake Plissken goes into New York to get the president out. In Boneshaker, the mom goes under the wall into Seattle to get her son out. But in movies, the P.O.V. is clear, the obstacles are clear, the story is tight. Boneshaker’s story isn’t as tight as I wanted it to be, but then, it’s a novel not a movie, so I’ll chalk that up to me being Hollywood and move on.

Would I recommend Boneshaker? Oh yeah. If you want a perfect example of Steampunk, this is it. And when the video game comes out, I am so there to buy it.

I just hope Kurt Russell does one of the voices.
Cherie Priest’s website, where you can buy her books.