Earlier this year I released my most recent book. It performed very poorly. I haven’t had the guts to open up the sales figures for the various storefronts and get a final count of copies soldAmazon makes this process so hopelessly convoluted I’m seriously wondering if the obfuscation is deliberate., but I’m willing to bet it’s less than 1,000 copies.
Certainly some of this is due to my half-hearted attempts at marketing. I hate doing it and it’s always tough to see the result. Some of it is no doubt due to the fact that Witch Watch got some free exposure from The EscapistWe did a giveaway and one of their daily quizzes promoted the book. and TOKoL was only promoted through my blog and a few cheap Google / Amazon ads.
Well, there’s no point in crying about it now. I’m reasonably sure the low sales don’t mean the story is terrible. It was reviewed well by the few who bought it and I think it had quite a few fun moments in it. It was a blast to write and it’s still my favorite bit of worldbuilding.
However, I’ll readily admit it’s not a perfect book. Like all fictional works, you can find problems if you pick at it. Since I spend so much of my time picking on flaws in game stories, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to do the same thing to my own work. This isn’t usually done, but there’s no rule saying you can’t do it.
Before we get started, I should repeat what I said a few months ago: I’m a big believer in the idea that the text is the text and everything outside the text is fanfic, even if it was written by me. If something isn’t explained well enough, then making up shit later doesn’t fix that. If part of the book doesn’t work, then this article can’t fix that. This should be viewed as an explanation of what I tried to do, but it doesn’t (and can’t) serve as a post-launch hotfix for plot holes and other nonsense. None of this is canon. It’s just my usual nitpicky analysis with a better-than-usual understanding of what the author was trying to accomplish.
So below is a list of gripes and flaws that I wish I’d handled differently. Total spoilers ahead, obviously…
Exposition via Inner Monologue
I personally dislike when a book is in such a hurry to get started that it leaves out key details we need to envision the world in our mind’s eye. Like, a book is set in a typical medieval kingdom, so the reader reaches for stock imagery of stone castles and knights. Then somewhere around page 150 the author gets around to letting us know that the castle is made with pink stone. Great, now I realize I’ve been picturing it wrong and I’m probably going to continue to do so because the image has become ingrained.
I also hate when this happens:
The book kicks off by saying the protagonist is running from someone in sheer terror. I don’t mind not knowing who’s chasing him right off the bat, but I am bothered by the fact that I don’t know where this chase is taking place. I have absolutely no context. Are we in a field on a sunny day, or a dark alleyway at night? I don’t know, so I’ll just assume he’s running down the street at night. Another paragraph rolls by and the author gets around to telling me about florescent lights. Okay, that means we’re indoors. This place must be big because he’s running really fast, and it has florescent lights, which implies some sort of institutional setting. Maybe a university or hospital?
After a few more paragraphs of fear, hard breathing, personal regret, and a description of our protagonist, we run into a sentence that mentions footsteps echoing as they strike the concrete. So we’re on concrete, which rules out the institutional settings I’ve been picturing. At this point I’m getting frustrated at these constant mental retcons. I’m going to hazard another guess and picture a parking garage.
No wait, the protagonist is running past rows of shelves. So I guess we’re in a dark industrial warehouse?
No wait, the protagonist has reached a set of automatic sliding doors, and that doesn’t sound very warehouse-ish. Finally we get outside and it’s revealed all of that took place inside a Sam’s Club.
Would it have killed you to clue me in on that about a page and a half ago?! The constant confusion and frustration worked against the fast-paced opening you were trying to create.
I hate when books do this, so I work very hard to make sure the reader has the basic information to visually construct the world before I have anything serious happen.
The problem is that the world in this book is complicated. It’s only one city, but that city has a lot of history, drama, factions, and moving parts. Since it’s not based on a real-world city, the book needs a bit of up-front exposition. I can’t just tell the audience to picture “Chicago, but tropical” or “São Paulo, but high tech”. I need to tell the audience about the main character and the world, and I need to do it as quickly as possible so the story can start.
At the start of the book, career criminal Maxwell Law is released from prison. The prison is on some sort of platform out on the ocean, so the opening has Max approaching the city on a ferry. He rides the ferry to the port, then walks into town. He notices a lot of things have changed while he was away. This sequence gave me a great excuse to fill in the details of the city as the place comes into view. Max thinks to himself about what he’s seeing, and that gives the audience the needed information to build their own version of Rivergate in their head. I also used this section to put in a lot of important historical / cultural information.
The problem here is that it’s just too much. My editor warned me that my exposition via inner monologue was too long. I knew she was right, but I couldn’t bear the thought of tearing apart the opening chapter and rebuilding it in dialog. As it stands, nothing meaningful happens in the story until page 24 when Max meets Blackbeard at the local Moon ShotA franchise brothel, like the McDonald’s of whorehouses. and sets the first of our plots threads in motion.
Of course Max ends up in a fistfight over old debts, because that’s the kind of story this is. From there Max gets kidnapped by corporate goons. He’s taken to Landro the executive, where he learns that robots have been murdering people in broad daylight. Landro wrongly thinks that Max is an expert on the topic and asks him how the murders were done, since this sort of thing is supposedly impossible. Max tries to play along so he can swindle his way into a corporate expense account by offering to “solve” this crime. Landro takes him up on the offer, and sort of counter-swindles him so that Max has to solve the crime.
This is all great stuff, but as soon as it’s over Max goes back into inner exposition mode.
There’s too much of this, it goes on for too long, and it’s packed too close together. It’s not strictly wrong, but it’s also not the most interesting way to tell a story.
During his pages-long introspection, Max recalls how he was framed and thrown into prison by cops that he refers to as the Three Little Pigs. The TLP act as a sort of background tertiary villain for most of the story.
The Three Little Pigs
The TLP were probably inspired by news stories of real-world crooked cops that get away with flagrant crimes far longer than seems reasonable or plausible. Rivergate has a lot of corruption in the form of bribes, confiscations, and selective enforcement, but the TLP represented an extreme breakdown where a few guys got together and mistook the lax rules for NO RULES.
The problem is that the TLP never felt like a credible or interesting threat to the reader. They seemed to pop up at random and behave in such a cartoonishly evil way that they felt sort of out-of-place in this otherwise grounded world. They were supposed to be a looming background threat, but people seemed to stop thinking about them the moment they left the scene. TLP weren’t creating tension via an ongoing danger, they were just interrupting our story for random bullying that seemed unrelated to the action at hand.
All of this stems from the fact that I didn’t reveal their motivation up front. They come off as cartoon villains because it seems like they’re just picking on Max for giggles. It’s eventually revealed that they’re actually deeply in debt to someone dangerous. These guys aren’t untouchable bullies hurting people for laughs, they’re three conspirators in a death spiral. They pushed things too far and now the system is turning on them. They’re stuck in a narrow space between the criminals they’ve betrayed / exploited and the cops who resent the problems they cause for the rest of the force. The TLP are desperate, which makes them really dangerous.
This is all fine, except almost none of it made it into the book. I did finally get around to hinting at it, but that’s not until the last time we see them. That’s way too late, which means that these guys are boring until their last scene, when they stop being a problem.
This is all backwards. I should have made their situation clear the first time we meet them, and then hinted at the other details as the story went on. Also, the TLP vanished from the story for a long time. It was so long that readers seemed to feel like the story had grown beyond them. Once we’re solving grand conspiracies and unravelling the nature of AI, the drama with the TLP feels so pedestrian.
I think it would have helped if I went out of my way to make sure the reader understood these pieces were still on the board. The TLP should have popped up a couple of times in the middle of the story or otherwise gotten in Max’s way to show that he was going to need to deal with these guys before the end.
I even missed a perfect opportunity for this! Late in the book, Max and Jen Five are on the way back from Precision Circuitry in the Wall District. It’s the middle of the night. To follow their next lead they need to go to the port and break into someone’s storage locker. When they arrive at the port, the police are doing some sort of raid. Max doesn’t want to drive through a police blockade on the way to commit a crime, so he just goes back to the hotel and they decide to pick things up the next day. If I’d just placed the TLP at the scene, I could have kept them relevant and blocking the protagonist’s goals without needing to change the story at all.
As his first step in solving the robot murders, Max drives out of the city and crosses the vast expanse of automated farms. He tracks down a scientist who can explain to him how AI works.
This scene was really important to me. I wanted to loudly signal to the reader that this book wasn’t another tenth-generation knockoff of Asimov’s Three Laws. Those stories are so well-known and so influential that I felt I needed to make it clear that I was headed in a different direction. In Three Laws stories, it’s sort of taken for granted that robots will want to harm humans, but then be restrained by the pesky three laws. A lot of the storiesParticularly the ones written by people building on Asimov’s ideas. involve a bit of rules-lawyering and mental gymnastics on the part of the robots as they try to circumvent the laws.
In my book, I needed to make it clear that the murders weren’t about a robot that found a loophole in the rules that allowed it to kill people. Whatever the problem, this wasn’t about haggling over interpretations of the phrase “protect humans”. We think of robots as being governed by hard rules and logic gates, and organics as being governed by a web of fuzzy stimulus / response interactions. I wanted to say that my robots were more like the latter, but at the same time I wasn’t going to be doing any of that Ultron / Data-Lore / CLU 2.0 / AM shit where a robot becomes malicious because it wants love / acceptance / friendship / religion / sex / fatherly approval or other biologically-minded desire. In my story, the robots are appropriately alien.
The problem is that a lot of people said this entire section felt sort of pointless. This scientist isn’t a suspect, isn’t involved with the crime, doesn’t know anything unique about the killings, and has no stake in the story. There’s almost no tension here. This scientist is just an oracle to reveal things to our protagonist / audience.
(Also, yes, I used this section to explain where food comes from in my world. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)
Even after all these months, I don’t see a good way to fix this scene. I suppose I could have made the scientist more immediately interesting by pointing some red herring clues in his direction? Then again, I don’t like that idea since it might confuse the reader. We needed to know this exposition is true, and thus it had to come from someone we trust. I’ll admit that this scene doesn’t advance the plot, but it does contain a ton of important information.
There was probably a better way to do this, but it’s not coming to me. I can’t think of how to fix this that wouldn’t break something else. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the reader wasn’t naturally curious and eager to hear what the character has to say. It’s not just the author’s job to explain things, it’s also their job to get the audience to want to hear the explanation.
Max Seemed Too Slow
Lots of people were a little annoyed with Max because he solved the crime about a chapter later than they did. In particular, the scene where he looks down at the haunted circuit and says, “We still don’t know what this thing does.” struck people as being uncharacteristically thick-headed of him.
I don’t like mysteries that you can solve right away. I also don’t like mysteries that are just a big pile of nonsense where the audience isn’t given enough information to figure things out. It shouldn’t be trivial, but it also shouldn’t be impossible. The best mystery is one where most people don’t get it until the Big Reveal, where they slap themselves in the forehead and say, “Of course! That makes perfect sense!” That’s nice if you can pull it off, but it’s not easy to outwit a majority of the audience. How can you know you’ve calibrated the mystery correctly?
I had four people read the book prior to release. Exactly half of them figured it out. I figured that was just the right mix of “mysterious yet solvable”. Of course, my test readers were mostly fans of mystery novels, and this book was actually a technology puzzle. This wasn’t really a whodunnit so much as a howdunnit and a whydunnit. I think this threw off my genre-savvy test audience. That made me overestimate just how well the story would hold up to general analysis.
In any case, I think a 50% solve rate is perhaps too easy. If it’s that easy, then why didn’t anyone within the world sort it out?
To fix this, I wouldn’t really make the mystery harder. I just needed to have Max “get it” a little sooner.
Saturn and Jupiter
At one point, Max goes to see Jupiter, some sort of super-hacker. Again, this character is an oracle. Like any oracle, he needs to be distant, hidden, hard to reach, and eccentric. Examples include Mr. Universe in Serenity, The Oracle in the Matrix movies, or that idiot covered in pigeon shit in Hitman AbsolutionHe’s not a well-executed example of the trope, but he’s still an example!.
I didn’t want to play this trope too straight and I didn’t want Max to have too much help. An oracle character is a standard trope in cyberpunk, but it doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense in a mystery story. It’s no good having a mystery if the protagonist can just visit someone and get the answer.
So it turns out that Jupiter is in jail, and his junkie son Saturn is running the place. So then we get this exchange:
Saturn nods. “Okay. But in the future use the network. I don’t do this face-to-face stuff like my dad.”
“Jupiter is your dad? That means your names are backwards.”
“Nevermind.” Max says.
In mythology, Saturn was a Roman god and the father of Jupiter. The problem is that this story isn’t set in our world. This is a different world with different countries and different cultures. So then the reader runs into this section where apparently this other world has our Romans in their history books. It’s like finding historical references to Victorian London in Star Wars. It doesn’t fit and it takes the audience out of the story.
What I’d imagined is that this world had dead religions and mythologies, just like our world does. I don’t want to stop and explain one of those dead religions and put it into historical context. Instead I borrowed Jupiter / Saturn to act as a stand-in for the equivalent mythologies in this world. At some point in the past they had a belief system with father / son deities, and for convenience I slapped these familiar names on them so the audience could get a feel for how they worked without me needing to burn a couple of pages explaining what these mythologies said, who wrote them, how long ago it was, and why people still talked about them centuries later. I imagined the actual story of my Jupiter and Saturn would be different from the ones the Romans had, but the general gist of the things were similar enough.
That saved me from boring the audience with fake mythology from fake history that was unrelated to the plot. The problem is, this borrowing of names as shorthand is not at all obvious to the reader and it’s completely unreasonable to expect them to make that leap. The most obvious explanation is that their Saturn is the same as our Saturn, and this other world is more alternate timeline than alternate reality. It’s a needless confusion for the reader. I could have just given them fake names and skipped the mythological references. It wasn’t really needed.
Slightly Confused Ending
The final problem was that there was an awful lot going on at the ending. All the different plot threads concluded in the space of a few pages. The Three Little Pigs were dealt with, Max managed to placate the Royale brothers, he cleared things up with Blackbeard, he finally reconnected with Claire, he solved the mystery, and defeated Landro. A lot of stuff was going on, some of it was really complicated, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice any of this wonderful momentum to stop and explain what had been happening off-screenIs it really “off screen” in a book?. Specifically, a few people lost track of all the different versions of the robot. The clues were there, but it’s nice to make sure everything is clear by the endOr if it’s supposed to be a mystery / puzzle, then it needs to be clearly acknowledged as a mystery / puzzle.. For people who were confused, here is the untangled chain of events:
At the start of the book, there are two robots we’re interested in:
- Halona is Landro’s robo-receptionist. She is a simpleton with a first-gen brain retrofitted to fit in a latest-gen body. For convenience, I’ll refer to this particular body as the Winstead model, for reasons I explained here.
- Andrew is Dr. Kvenst’s favorite robot. We don’t know what body Andrew was using at this point, except that it was male.
Once the adventure gets started, Kvenst decides she wants Andrew to help out. So she has Andrew swap over to a Winestead body. When this robot meets Max, he names it “Jen Five”.
So now we have identical twins Halona and Jen Five. Halona is just barely smart enough to serve coffee and Jen Five is… well, we don’t actually know how smart she is. That’s one of the questions the book asks.
About two-thirds of the way through the story, Jen Five’s body gets destroyed at the protest march. Max hauls the wreckage back to Kvenst and leaves.
While he’s gone, Jen Five’s brain is moved to a new Winstead body. However, at this same time, a backup copy is also made. For convenience, I’ll call this backup Andrew. (The text doesn’t explicitly say so, but there are hints that possibly even more copies were created. Kvenst would probably have wanted at least one copy to remain with her at the lab.)
So now we have three robots all using the same form factor: Halona, Jen, and Andrew. Jen and Andrew are mentally identical at this point, having the same brains with identical memories. Andrew and Halona are physically identical at this point, having the same body with the same cosmetic options for eyes and hair.
Max reunites with Jen and they resume their adventure. Meanwhile, Andrew wants to keep an eye on Landro. So Andrew returns to the city and (somehow) takes Halona’s place. We don’t know if violence was involved, but we do know that Halona wound up near the dumpsters in the basement. From here, Andrew spent the next few days pretending to be dum-dum Halona and keeping an eye on Landro.
At the end of the story, Max sends Jen away. He wants to confront Landro by himself. Jen follows him secretly and slips into Landro’s office while the power is out. There’s a three-way standoff between Jenn, Max, and Landro. Jen is killed.
After the standoff, Lando lets his guard down in the lobby, since he assumes the receptionist is Halona. Except, it’s actually Andrew, who disarms him.
Mentally, Andrew is an exact copy of Jen, except it spent the last couple of days sitting at the reception desk making coffee for Landro instead of finishing the investigation with Max.
This is made more confusing by the fact that Max refers to this last surviving robotThat is, the last of the robots involved in the story. There are plenty of robots left out there. as “Halona”, because he doesn’t quite follow the chain of body-swaps right away. Andrew goes along with it because Andrew doesn’t care about names or genders or faces. From Andrew’s perspective, swapping bodies is no different than being assigned a different company car and swapping names is as trivial as changing your profile picture. It just doesn’t care.
I know that’s confusing. I didn’t want to break the flow of the story to explain things in the moment. It also wouldn’t make sense to ruin the surprise by explaining things ahead of time. I think the correct solution would have been to have a couple of clarifying lines in the final exchange at the end of the book. It’s fine if a few people are a little confused about ancillary details during the climax, as long as the central mystery is made clear. It’s fine to do a little mop-up exposition after things calm down. But I didn’t, which means people were still a little confused when the story ended.
It’s a pity. It feels great to nail an ending.
So those are the things that bugged me about the book.
If – for some unfathomable reason – having the story criticized and spoiled made you want to read it, then you can get the Kindle version of The Other Kind of Life. Or if you really have it in for trees you can buy the print version.
 Amazon makes this process so hopelessly convoluted I’m seriously wondering if the obfuscation is deliberate.
 We did a giveaway and one of their daily quizzes promoted the book.
 A franchise brothel, like the McDonald’s of whorehouses.
 Particularly the ones written by people building on Asimov’s ideas.
 He’s not a well-executed example of the trope, but he’s still an example!
 Is it really “off screen” in a book?
 Or if it’s supposed to be a mystery / puzzle, then it needs to be clearly acknowledged as a mystery / puzzle.
 That is, the last of the robots involved in the story. There are plenty of robots left out there.
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.
A Lack of Vision and Leadership
People fault EA for being greedy, but their real sin is just how terrible they are at it.
Starcraft: Bot Fight
Let's do some scripting to make the Starcraft AI fight itself, and see how smart it is. Or isn't.
The Disappointment Engine
No Man's Sky is a game seemingly engineered to create a cycle of anticipation and disappointment.
The Plot-Driven Door
You know how videogames sometimes do that thing where it's preposterously hard to go through a simple door? This one is really bad.