The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO)

So. I’ve written my own book. I’ve published my own book. Now what do I do?

This was the position I found myself in during the Spring of 2017, and no doubt the position many other self-published authors have found themselves in. Writing a book seemed like hard work. Getting it on Amazon seemed like hard work. But in fact, that’s just the start. If you want people to read your books, you have to be proactive and go sell them. If you’re self-published, no-one is going to do that for you. But someone might…may…help you out a little.

If you write fantasy books, you have the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. Created by fantasy author Mark Lawrence and supported by fantasy bloggers, the first competition ran in 2015. 300 books are entered into the competition. The only real rule, is that your book is self-published, and fantasy. It’s a gloriously level playing field, when such things rarely exist. I hadn’t sold a single copy when I stumbled my way into the competition in 2017 – Toric’s Dagger was on pre-order and not yet out. There were other authors like me, but I was also up against writers who had over ten books out, writers who had been traditionally published, writers with multi-thousand-dollar audiobook contracts. It didn’t matter. My book, along with 29 others, was sent off to one of the ten bloggers, and whichever one she liked the best, was going to reach the final. Name and reputation didn’t come into it.

Clearly, with a one in thirty chance of making the final, most writers don’t get much attention. I was luckier than most. Toric’s Dagger finished in the top ten or so in its group, and in doing so got a full review from the blogger. Who didn’t hold their punches. But new writers need to see the bad as well as the good. And anyway, even in a big competition like this, all opinions are subjective. Take on board the criticisms you agree with and forget about the rest. Did all of this get me any sales? Maybe. Not much. But I learned a hell of a lot from the experience and it’s also allowed me to get to know some of the other amazing authors out there, and learn from them.

Those books that win their ‘heat’ find their way into the final. They get reviewed by all ten participating blogs. This is the point where books can get a load of attention. And for the winner? The book that’s beaten 299 other contenders? That’s massive. Massive, free promotion for the book, and for the author. The winner of the 2016 contest, The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French, was picked up by a big publisher. Yes, agents and publishers are keeping an eye on this, and why not? They’re getting a proven winner out of it all.

 

 

So, the SPFBO. Good for self-published writers. Bloggers get to make a real impact in the genre they love. Agents and publishers get to pick up on new writers and trends. Fantasy readers get to find out about books they might otherwise not hear about. I’m declaring it a win-win and overall good thing.

If you want to find out more, the 2018 contest, aka #SPFBO 4, can be accessed via Mark Lawrence’s website

Finally, the casual reader of this article may just want to know, hey, what are the best books to come out of this thing? Well, that’s always going to be subjective, depending on what type of fantasy you’re into as much as anything else. Plus, with 900 books entered in the first 3 versions, there’s no doubt some very good books have been overlooked. That said, here’s a list of books from the competition, either that I’ve read myself and enjoyed, or that enough people have raved about to make me believe there’s a very good chance a fantasy fan will love it. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

2015 SPFBO
WINNER: The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung
I would also recommend: What Remains of Heroes by David Benem, Bloodrush by Ben Galley

2016 SPFBO
WINNER: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French
I would also recommend: Paternus by Dyrk Ashton, Path of Flames by Phil Tucker, Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle

2017 SPFBO
WINNER: Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J Hayes
I would also recommend: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson, The War of Undoing by Alex Perry, The Eagle’s Flight by Daniel Olesen, Faithless by Graham Austin-King, Darkstorm by ML Spencer, The Woven Ring by MD Presley

 

 

Fantasy Maps

Like a lot of fantasy series, especially those set in a secondary world, my books will include a map. It is a map of the continent of Dalriya, where the series is set. Above you can see the full version, designed by Streetlight Graphics. Maps and fantasy series go hand in hand—so much so, that for some it has become a cliché. Joe Abercrombie made something of a punk rock statement by not including maps in his First Law trilogy. You can read his opinion piece on the question of maps on his website, here. For Abercombie, it seems to boil down to maps ‘getting in the way’ of the characters and their immediate story. And it has to be said, Abercrombie does character and story extremely bloody well.

I, however, am in the pro-map camp. Here are my musings on it.

 

Maps and Readers

When I read a fantasy book, I like to have a map to refer to, certainly when the action takes place over a large area. When I read Lord of the Rings, I pored over the pull-out map. I remember vividly, too, the detailed maps in David Eddings’ Belgariad series. They made these worlds more alive and made the experience of reading the book more immersive. If I had got my ruler out and started measuring how far the characters walked each day, tabulating my findings into a spreadsheet, then yeah, maybe that would have been a distraction. But I didn’t do that. Honestly, I didn’t. But I like maps. I like historical maps. If I’m playing a boardgame, and the board is a map, you can be pretty sure I will be sitting there as happy as a pig in muck.

BUT. Some people don’t like maps. They might sneer, or at the very least raise an eyebrow. Thing is, people who think a map is horribly clichéd, probably aren’t going to like my series anyway. It’s a fantasy series, and has a good portion of that genre’s tropes in there somewhere. Ergo, I don’t have to worry about such people. For those who do enjoy the genre, chances are they’ll appreciate a map. And anyway, it comes free. You don’t HAVE to look at the bloody thing, do you?

 

Maps and Writers

Perhaps more important, is the use of a map for a writer. I have no doubt that Joe Abercrombie has a map or two in his draw somewhere, even if he chose not to feature them in his book. Why? Because the secondary world he created was so believable, he must have spent some time thinking about how it all worked. When a writer hasn’t given it much thought, it becomes all too obvious to the reader. That’s when a fantasy fan might sneer, or at least raise an eyebrow.

And that is the connection between fantasy and maps. The fantasy author has had to create a whole new world as a setting for their story. As well as great characters and plot, fantasy fans want to see great worldbuilding. Having a map in front of me, made me ask some questions of the world I had created.

How long will it take my characters to get from A to B? Will they have to cross a river, or go through rough terrain, to get there?

What kind of government does this country have? What kind of religion? How many people live there? How wealthy are they? What do people do for a living?

What kind of relationship does this country have with its neighbour?

What is the history of this continent? Presumably, three hundred years ago, the map would have looked different?

This can give your world the illusion of reality, and allow your reader to enjoy the story. Not that your reader wants to, or should be told ALL of these things. They need to have the sense that there are answers to these questions, without being told all the boring detail. That would certainly get in the way of the story.

 

On Writing and On Teaching

I did two weeks full time supply cover before the Xmas holidays. All writing projects had to be put on hold. It is very hard to do a full day’s teaching, plus the work you take home, and then have the creative energy to do anything else.

It reminded me of a reference to this by Stephen King in his book On Writing. If you haven’t come across it, this book is a great read on the writing process by one of the modern masters of fiction. There’s a lot of autobiography in there as well. King was an English teacher for two years before he hit the big time with his first bestseller, Carrie. He already had a family by this time as well. In this passage he captures the sense of self-doubt you can get in this situation. It’s certainly something I can relate to:

 

‘The bigger deal was that, for the first time, writing was hard. The problem was the teaching…by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer…And of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty.’

 

In the end, King got his book deal and never looked back. He went on to write The Shining, The Stand, It, The Green Mile, Misery, The Dark Tower series…and more and more. If you want to know how he did it, On Writing is a good place to look.

Fantasy and Politics

I set my website up on the day of the 2016 US election results. Being a Brit, I found the process fascinating, while perhaps enjoying a bit more detachment from the events than American voters themselves. Perhaps naturally, it got me to thinking about the links between politics and fantasy. Fantasy writing certainly doesn’t have to be overtly political, but there must be few fantasy novels out there with no politics in them whatsoever. Whether their characters are kings, queens, farmers or slaves, fantasy writers have to construct a political environment in which they interact. Political decline or disintegration, for example, can be seen as a central theme throughout the post WW2 era of fantasy writing.

Whatever your viewpoint, the politics of 2016 provide food for thought, if not inspiration, for writers of any genre. Fantasy has been accused of being pure escapism, offering nothing of value or relevance to the reader. I certainly disagree with this. Most readers of fantasy probably don’t want the political ideas of the author shoved down their throats. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there. One of the interesting stats that came out of the US elections was that readers of Harry Potter were significantly more likely to dislike Trump than the average American. Of course, there could be a number of reasons for this, least likely of which is that JK Rowling set out to brainwash her young readers. But it’s evidence to refute the ‘pure escapism’ charge that gets levelled at the fantasy genre.

The world of fantasy and the world of real life politics overlap. As writers and readers of fantasy, let’s be conscious of that.