Writing children’s books is different, and very difficult

Writing children’s books is different, and very difficult

How do you explain this to a five-year-old..?

I recently began writing the second book in the series about Valerius and Evander. Let’s be honest, it’s only really a series if you have more than one book, so duh, given that we called it a series, I needed to continue writing about the two princes whose love story was at the core of book one. I see Valerius and Evander as a way to use to “tool” of a fairy-tale to tell young kids (as a bedtime story) about diversity. Reception of the first book was really great, from both parents, librarians and some of the kids themselves. My son loves it (which is the most important praise.)

The second book deals with becoming parents. A challenging topic for every grown-up. I mean there has to be a reason we invented the stork, right? We use it because we feel uncomfortable talking about sex with children. And because it is difficult to explain the whole eggs and sperm concept to children.

To be honest without overwhelming children (or bore parents)

At first, I had this idea to explain all the various ways in which a gay couple (Valerius and Evander) could become dads. I introduced a Lesbian couple to explain the womb and IVF and surrogacy and suddenly I felt lost. I can barely grasp these concepts myself, from a medical point of view, even though I’ve done it myself in real life and wrote a book (primarily for my grown-up son, but also for adults interested in surrogacy and IVF) about it. However, this is all so very difficult and complex that I finally ended up abandoning the concept. The two queens are still in the manuscript (for now), but they might yet be bumped, as their presence fills no real “need” purely from a storytelling aspect.

Writing for kids, particularly very young children is challenging. As an author, you want to make it fun and exciting while at the same time tell the story and convey whatever lesson the book is meant to tell. Children’s books tend to be a bit on the educational side, and whenever I talk to schools and libraries, it’s what they tell me: we need this or that, we have no books on this or that.

Front cover of my coming children’s book The Dragon Princess, releasing September 20, 2018

Focusing on the child, the story, rather than the procedure

What I ended up doing was just writing. I subject Valerius and Evander to a challenge, or two, and then help them figure it out. In this particular case, it’s an orphanage. In the realm of the fairy-tale it’s workable, even though in our modern day and age, most societies don’t have orphanages anymore. We use foster care instead. To use children in an orphanage allowed me to talk about the plight of children who most commonly end up in LGBT families: orphans or abandoned kids.

To talk about why some parents can’t raise their own kids isn’t easy, and this is the most difficult aspect of re-writing and editing right now. I have enough text to fill the book, but is it the right text? The right words? It’s about teaching the kids new words, but also help them understand societal phenomenons and to enable a discussion between parent/teacher and child when reading the story together. In a way, I have to go back to being a teacher and use pedagogy all over again. Fun, yet difficult because in my daytime career, I used to work with adults. The irony…

So what is Valerius and Evander 2 all about?

The story highlights the wish of our Princes to be parents, that which we label as involuntary childlessness. While recognized and part of the medical profession’s arsenal when it comes to het parents, for gay couples, this is still a territory mired with discrimination and–frankly–lack of understanding and deeply rooted homophobia. That’s where the book starts. Easy, right? It then moves on to show how children are a natural part of society and how they are literally everywhere: in towns, on meadows and even in the forest. To use animals helps to keep things grounded for the kids.

That’s when the orphanage comes in and gives the two princes something to sink their teeth into, but as they busy themselves with helping those kids, their own needs are put on the backburner, which, eventually, leads to the big conclusion of the story, and a chance encounter… To find out what that is, you’ll have to wait for the book to be released.

I still feel that I’m a long way from being done with this. The first book in the series took almost three years to be done. Oddly, it’s so easy to write down the story in a rough draft, but incredibly hard to rewrite, to make sure it’s understandable, relatable and on par with the level of understanding we can expect from a four-, five-, or six-year-old child. Once the text is finalized, edited and proofed, I’ll contact Felicity for the illustrations. That’s when the real magic happens…

Are you looking forward to it? Any other topics you would like to see Valerius and Evander to tackle?

Author income: a difficult topic is becoming ever more complex

Author income: a difficult topic is becoming ever more complex

Throughout history, few authors were successful enough to be financially independent

As a resident of the Kingdom of Sweden, I am days away from receiving the “invitation” from my government to file my taxes for 2018. As for most of us, a somewhat sensitive topic. As a full-time author, I don’t have much to look forward to. With little to no income, I don’t really pay taxes and I never ever see tax returns, obviously. I don’t mind paying taxes, but these days, my financial “well-being” is on my mind. Income is so much more than just taxes. I’m lucky to live in a country where much of our social services are offered equally to everybody, regardless of income (or lack thereof.) But other things, such as my future pension, aren’t.

The future looks bleak

“Garantipension” is a thing here, it’s a minimum pension paid to those who haven’t saved enough to warrant a higher pension through contributions (by working.) Our current pension system relies heavily on employers diverting a certain amount of money every month. No employer, no savings. As an author, I’m my own employer and without an income (to speak of), I have little resources to save for the future. But this isn’t just about me. This is something a lot of artists share. But what income sources can we tap into?

Looking back in history

Historically, authors have relied on rich patrons, usually royalty. Every court that could, would employ a bard to entertain nobility at festivities. It’s how we were afforded the great plays, dramas and comedies alike from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and I have a hunch that circumstances were similar elsewhere in the world.

Patrons, these days in the re-invented Patreon-version, have always played a huge roll in the life of artists. Just look at how Italian and French nobility supported Leonardo, Machiavelli or Michelangelo. Many of these artists died in poverty despite their fame today. Nothing changed until books became a thing for a broad mass market. Suddenly you had authors who became celebrities, who sold books by the millions. Reclusive or not, they were famous and rich. But how many of them were there at any given time, globally?

Grants, stipends, crowd-funding or patrons

Few! Very few. But their visibility served like a beacon of light to the hundreds of thousands of authors who self-publish on platforms like KDP today. Of all those people, a handful per year, at the most, land a bestseller and a contract with one of the big houses who long ago abandoned niche literature for the benefit of celebrity literature, books they know will make them money.

So what do poets, authors do to pay their mortgage? Their utility bills? Groceries? Most of them work daytime and write at night. At my age, finding work is becoming increasingly difficult. My value on the job market is equal to the likelihood of global warming being a hoax. Some authors chase grants or stipends, spending many hours researching what is available and submitting proposals. For a shot at a few hundred dollars, these people spend days and weeks.

The advent of the Internet has not only changed publishing forever but also how we can earn money. Asking for donations online, Patreon (see above) or crowd-funding platforms are all ways to make a buck. One thing is certain: the only winners are the platforms… Oddly, the more famous you are, the more books you sell, the more likely you’ll attract money, whereas those who need the money most, they go without.

The Swedish Academy debate

In Sweden, we’ve recently had an interesting debate around income for poets and writers. With Katarina Frostensson offering to leave the Academy (her husband was convicted for raping women on two counts and has been suspected of using his relationship with her to gain financial benefits and access to many of the women he allegedly harassed sexually.) Frostensson refused to leave without financial compensation, having made millions on her “chair” every year. Most other poets make a tiny fraction of that money.

There is an interesting discussion going on in artist circles and in public access media about what an artist should make, what the value of a book is, etc. I think this is a valuable discussion. No doctor treats a patient without pay, the milkman won’t let you take his product for free, and no carpenter will make a table and chairs for you for free. Yet artists are often expected to give away their books, music for free. If nothing else, we expect to find them for free online.

Basic income

Sometimes, people suggest a basic income. This has recently been tested in Finland, but not to a specific group of people and the trial has yet to be evaluated. The general idea is to supply every citizen with a base income above the poverty limit and to remove all other subsidies instead (housing, social welfare etc.) Some claim that a base income would be less shameful and would free up a lot of resources from the government (as the entire administration of pensions, welfare, etc. would cease.) Others call it a socialist vanity project. Personally, I’m on the fence.

It would certainly help artists and it would remove the angst of having money for the most basic aspects of life. As long as it would also count toward our pensions, all the better. But is it fair to ask for the working population to support artists? Would people still work? Are artists necessary for society to work? Do we add value? Or are we simply lazy leeches? Interesting questions that deserve looking at in more detail.

How much did I sell last year? What will I sell this year?

Sadly, my book sales have dipped in recent years. The first half of 2015 was my best-selling year, and while I had “bestsellers” on various lists in Canada, Australia, and the UK over the years, those books weren’t on the list long enough or the country too insignificant to warrant any major income. I don’t know how many books I’ve sold last year. Like all authors, I always dream that “the next one” will be my breakthrough, will be the one to propel me to the NYT bestseller list and a steady income to allow me to pursue my writing without turning each penny. It’s a dream all artists share, most of us being aware that we’ll never get there.

But we still hope. Thus I hope that 2019 will be a better year, with more sold books, ebooks, and audiobooks. Meanwhile, I enjoy the great reviews my books garner. They may not pay invoices, but they inspire me to work even harder on the next book.

How can you help?

If you are a reader, there are many things you can do to help an author you like. Apart from buying their books (thank you!), often at the cost of a large latte, you can help them at no cost:

  • Tell your friends and acquaintances about a book you enjoy, and why.
  • Write a short review. Tell people why you liked the book. Preferably not just on Amazon or GollumReads, but also on another site, e.g. Apple, Google, Smashwords et al. All those sites have sales, but very few reviews. Your review might make a big difference.
  • Follow, like and share social media posts. Unfortunately, many of the social media sites and their algorithms only care about those metrics and will promote (i.e. make more visible) posts that are “popular”.
  • Attend signings and readings. Often, those are instances where authors can sell books and/or are paid to attend.

Thank you.

From basketball to a book cover: how’s that possible?

From basketball to a book cover: how’s that possible?

The art of photoshop or how to get to a great book cover

Most authors will subscribe to the need for a great cover for their books. It attracts the eye of a potential buyer, gives a visual clue to the book’s genre, maybe even what the story is about. All in the blink of an eye. That’s what a great book cover does for you. I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing cover artists over the years, from Christopher Allen Poe to Natasha Snow. My latest cover which I want to talk about today, the one for Deceit, was both easy and difficult to get to.

The cover for my new novel Deceit, book two in The Golden One. Cover by Natasha Snow.

The cover for my new novel Deceit, book two in The Golden One. Cover by Natasha Snow.

I wish I could show you all the steps…

Alas, due to copyright questions, I can’t show you all the iterations from the very first concept that Natasha sent me to the final product shown here.

I love this cover, it’s almost exactly what I had envisioned in my mind. When I began writing books two and three, I ordered the two covers at the same time. I usually have an idea of where I want the cover to go. Sometimes, Natasha surprises me with something that completely blows my mind, sometimes we go through ideas I bring to her. Different from book to book.

For Deceit and the coming one, Reckoning, I had visions, with the one for Deceit more clearly formed in my mind than the one for Reckoning.

There was a dream…

In the book, there are a couple of dream sequences, where our hero, Jason, has a dream where he sees a couple of eyes approach from the background, coming closer and closer.

I wanted that on the cover. But to find the right image proved to be difficult. I have a friend in New York who’s an amazing photographer, and I knew that she had African models. I reached out to her, but we drew a blank. The images she had available didn’t have the right look, not evil, but inquisitive, peering, staring intently.

I began to look online, going through various sites for stock photography, as I often do to find material to visualize my ideas. I sent Natasha a bunch of pictures and she picked the three or four she liked the best. In the framework of the title and the color scheme she’d chosen, some just didn’t work out. The look–or stare–just felt wrong.

Back to stock photos…

A basketball player is holding a basketball and is looking intensely at the camera. Copyright: iStock by GettyImages

I was almost giving up, considering alternative scenarios, e.g. an “evil” cat that is also a part of the plot. But then I found a picture that I thought might work:

Can you see it? Yeah, he’s the guy on the cover, or at least his eyes. Thanks to the magic of Natasha, which included aging, removing the sweat and incorporating them into the cover, we finally had this amazing cover above.

It was funny because when I saw the photo with the basketball, the sweaty forehead, I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to pull it off, but I just knew that there was something in the way he looked into the camera that was perfect: determination, curiosity, but no malice or anger. Those were the exact qualities I was shooting for, pun intended.

I’m really happy about this cover, and early responses from my readers seem to prove me right.

Based on that book cover…

The book cover is important to the author and the publisher. We need it for advertising and marketing purposes. We create banners, use it for posts on social media etc.

I also love to create a short video trailer for my books, and I’m particularly proud of this one. Grant you, I’m an amateur, but I still like it. Given that I’m learning more about how to use various elements of the cover’s adobe files in my video program, I can create more visually appealing trailers.

To end this post, I leave you with this. Deceit will drop on March 14, and preorders for the ebook are available on all relevant sites. The paperback and audiobook will be available come release day, although no guarantees for the latter. ACX is always a bit of a hit and miss when it comes to release dates.

You think authors “kill” characters for fun? Think again.

You think authors “kill” characters for fun? Think again.

Authors are not unlike readers, we’re not Chucky (Exceptions probably apply)

When memes kill off your favorite conversations...

When memes kill off your favorite conversations…

I stumbled across this meme on a friend’s wall on Facebook the other day. I commented on it with a GIF because why not. Since we seem to be conversing with memes others make for us, why bother replying with words…

It’s a stupid meme for starters, exaggerating things beyond any measure of what could be considered appropriate given the topic we talk about: books. Words like “murder” and “hate” feel weirdly over the top. This is after all not your children or partners we talk about. I think most readers realize that unless they’re Annie Wilkes in Misery. I know for a fact that my friend is not. Alas, memes… Nuff said about that.

Let’s forget the stupid meme and focus on the topic it seeks to highlight:

  • – The loss of an important (main/secondary character in a book
  • – The reaction from the writer
  • – The reaction from the audience

As a rule of thumb: a book where no one dies isn’t fiction, it’s fantasy (not the genre)

As the writer of seventeen full-length books, I know a thing or two about writing. Books mirror life in general and as such, they have to relate to life. If you happen to write instruction manuals for self-sealing stem bolts, this does not apply to you. Death is the ultimate consequence of life, its culmination. If life were sex, death would be the orgasm. You just can’t have life without death. (Yeah, no, the sex metaphor just died a painful death here…) If you write a book that plays out during a very short period of time, e.g. a day or a week or two, maybe even as long as a year, you can get by without anyone dying within the framework of the book.

But more often than not, books look back, they look forward, they cross decades, span across generations and they get to the point where death becomes a necessity. In my first novel Family Ties, nobody actually dies in the book. It plays out in just twenty-four hours (plus the epilogue) yet death is omnipresent, as a funeral is the spark that ignites the story.

I have been criticized by some who strongly dislike (to avoid the term above) the epilogue in Jonathan’s Hope (don’t believe me? Head on over to GollumReads and check out the reviews… I dare you.) They claim that Dan’s death at the end of the book did nothing to further the plot (as we authors often claim) and that it was utterly unnecessary. They must’ve have read a different novel altogether. And that is fine. Allow me to explain the misunderstanding.

There’s a reason for everything authors do, particularly when they do away with an important character…

You can read a book in many different ways. You can apply feminist glasses, a hermeneutic approach, a biographical one, a queer one, etc. Or you can try and squeeze a book into a genre and read it as such. You can read Romeo & Juliet as a romance novel, but you’d be disappointed with its ending (as it defies the romance genre’s call for a happily ever after.) Or you can read it as the drama that Shakespeare intended it to be and work through all the heartache and get to contemplate the many layers of subtext and the social criticism the play is laced with. Far too many lessons in his play are valid to our days. Alas, since forbidden love is still a thing, the “unhappy ending” makes a lot more sense than that which might make us feel good for the moment but wouldn’t make us think about what the author is trying to say.

Escapism genres tend to be shallow, and there’s nothing wrong with that (you’re probably not escaping fluff on cloud number nine), but if a book, a story, shakes you to the core, chances are the author is trying to tell you something (and no, I’m not about to debate exceptions, because that’s what they are.) In Jonathan’s Hope, there is a very good reason for the epilogue. The book’s title alludes to it, hope. Four letters, but they fuel the very life we lead. Without hope, it is questionable if we’d be able to live in the first place. For Jonathan, the epilogue is hope materialized. The hope of finding love, the hope of building a family, being happy, living a fulfilled, meaningful life. That is what the seventeen-year-old dreams about as he faces what seems certain death in the early pages of the novel.

As an author, I try to provide hope in my writing as well, and the book, despite the “death” of a main character, does provide hope anew. Looking around himself, beholding his family standing all around him, fills Jonathan with renewed hope and the knowledge that life is still worth living.

The death of a character is not something we do easily, the pain is quite physical

Yes, we sometimes have to let a character die. Yes, the plot demands it. My novel Last Winter’s Snow would be utterly meaningless without Casper’s death, the very premise of the book, how do you survive the loss of your partner. It’s what the novel is about. There are countless examples in literature of death being at the very core of the plot. Allow me to mention two from the LGBT world: Death in Venice and A Single Man. Remove death from those stories and consider the truncated stories and the impact they would’ve had on world literature. None whatsoever.

No writing project has ever caused me such pain as the death of Jonathan.

No writing project has ever caused me such pain as the death of Jonathan.

When I began writing the sequel to Jonathan’s Hope, I promised (sic!) myself that the novel would end with Jonathan’s passing. I had one important reason: I didn’t want to write a series around him and Dan, and I thought (naïvely, I admit) that writing a novel about the autumn of Jonathan’s life would ensure that. Alas, what sounded like a great theory was quite a different thing when I finally got to that point in the novel, when I was sitting at my laptop (as I am now), writing the actual words.

I hadn’t really planned for how his passing would come about, had no idea how or when it would occur. Suddenly (probably nudged by the word counter and the setting of the previous scene), I realized that the premise of the book was fulfilled, and that final chapter began to magically pour onto the screen. I remember it all too well. It is one of those moments in my life I will always remember vividly, similar to 9/11 or the Challenger disaster. Before I was done, my view clouded and as the tears were flowing freely from my eyes and onto my glasses. I was barely able to finish it, and the book does end rather abruptly. Quite unusual for me (hope anyone?) I just couldn’t go on.

Now, this isn’t exactly something to brag about, but I suffered a nervous breakdown, sobbing for hours, curling up into a ball of misery in my writing corner. I was utterly devastated. Jonathan, as fictional as he may be, had been a very close companion of mine for two years, and he’d nestled himself into my heart in ways I had not anticipated. It took me hours to pick myself up from the gutter, after long discussions with both my publisher and my husband, before the realization dawned on me: I had to press on. I had to write another book. Not for my readers, just for me. I had to fix it. I had to make it right. I needed to provide closure. Jonathan’s Legacy is probably my ‘sappiest’ book, with the happiest ending ever. So much for us authors killing for fun!

What about readers? Don’t you care about them/us?

There is probably a difference between “artsy” authors and “crafty” writers (and this is not a qualitative distinction.) The latter write primarily for money, but I’d say even they care deeply for their readers, even if it may be for different reasons, aka “I can’t afford to piss them off or they won’t buy my next one…” Needless to say, such books tend to stay clear of the strongest emotional expressions, they won’t deal with the darkest aspects of humanity. Those topics just don’t lend themselves to the business of money-making.

This book strikes a special note with many readers, because as painful as it may be at first, it is strangely cathartic for many.

This book strikes a special note with many readers because as painful as it may be at first, it is strangely cathartic for many.

I’m definitely an “artsy” writer. While I like my books being bought (thanks to those who do!), that is not my driving force, or I would’ve taken that hint a long time ago and moved on to more lucrative pastures. Instead, I write the books that I have to write, I explore the topics I must because my brain is strangely wired, which is why I write about losing a child because I’m a parent, it’s a real-life fear of mine. Ask ANY parent. It’s why I wrote Disease because Alzheimer’s is a thing in my family, etc. It’s why I wrote that book about losing your partner, or love at old age or, or, or… Those were all questions that were on my mind in my very personal life at some point or another. Writing allows me to consider the pros and cons in a safe environment. Cynics might say I’m being paid for my own therapy sessions!

Am I aware that it might hurt readers? I’ll be honest, it’s not a concern when I write because I have to do what I have to do it in order to write the story that needs to be written. But I’m not some cold-hearted bastard who shrugs at the emotions felt by people who read my books. Quite the contrary. Readers’ tears are my silent applause. And since I’m not paid much…they keep me going, and I strongly believe that emotions are a good thing. However, and this is an important caveat: I will not allow anyone else’s emotions (or vision or views) influence my writing as it happens, at least not consciously. It is my story after all, and I will tell it the way I feel (strongly) it must be told. I hope that makes sense to you. If my subconscious picks up on stuff is a different thing entirely. Even the stupid meme here did–after all–prompt this blog post and much contemplation on my part.

I look forward to hearing your (side of the) story. Authors, how do you go about writing death? Readers, have I missed something? Let’s have it and please use your words… This is a writing blog after all.

Hans M Hirschi

After writing is before writing: that precious–scary–time

After writing is before writing: that precious–scary–time

With the manuscript sent to the publisher, it’s time to focus on the next project

In case you don’t know what a writer’s work entails, here’s a quick summary: we write a book, send it to our publisher, wait for edits to come back, then edit the edits, re-write what needs to be fixed and send it back. Follows proof-reading and publishing. If this isn’t your first book, you also spend time marketing previous book(s) and you work on a plan on how to market the new one and you do admin, just like any other job. This is, of course, a simplified view. Writing a book can take anything from a couple of weeks to a lifetime. But when you’re done, and before you embark on your next project is a scary time for some of us, filled with angst, but also joy.

Anxiety and Anticipation rolled up into one? How does that work?

My fantasy novel is the first book in a planned series of three. A story for youths and teens primarily dealing with the big threats our planet is dealing with today.

My fantasy novel is the first book in a planned series of three. A story for youths and teens primarily dealing with the big threats our planet is dealing with today.

I’m not sure I can adequately describe the emotion or the melange of feelings that fill me at a time like this. This is the second time in my short career (I’ve only been writing for six years) that I’ve been in this situation. I submitted book three of my Golden One series to the publisher last week. It’s not due until September, giving me ample time this year to write. There’s nothing that says that any other book of mine will see the markets this year. Two publications are what my publisher musters. So in all likelihood (unless it’s a small project), whatever I write next won’t be published until 2020.

My planned novel about a dystopian future world turned into the opposite: a story about hope and a utopian Earth, five centuries into the future.

My planned novel about a dystopian future world turned into the opposite: a story about hope and a utopian Earth, five centuries into the future.

That gives me time, which is a blessing, a boon. But it’s also scary, for more than one reason. The blessing is that I can go for a long walk in my island’s local forest and just enjoy myself. I can read the placards about stone-age cultures and dream about writing a novel about that or I can be inspired by a sci-fi book I read to write my own hard-core sci-fi novel with starships and aliens. While Willem of the Tafel is a beautiful story of a future Earth, and technically qualifies as sci-fi, it’s not the Star Trek / Wars sci-fi I grew up with. A challenge for sure.

On the other hand, there’s the anxiety of not making any money, not being productive, seeing my husband report for his daytime job every day while I do nothing? You have to actually live through that to understand just how frustrating and emotionally taxing it can be. This isn’t the first time I’m in this position. I recall a period three years ago, after finishing the Jonathan Trilogy when I felt the same way.

The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can be creative again

Only a mock-up, not the real cover, obviously. I should have that in a few weeks, as part of the build-up toward the release in March.

Only a mock-up, not the real cover, obviously. I should have that in a few weeks, as part of the build-up toward the release in March.

One thing I learned from my previous ‘stint’ with anxiety/anticipation is that the sooner I accepted the fact that the emotions were natural and that there was nothing I could do about them except accept them, the sooner I was able to move on and actually write again. I am very proud of the books that followed Jonathan’s Legacy: Last Winter’s Snow, Disease as well as Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm are books I am incredibly proud of. Very different in tone and style, they represent some of my best writing to date.

So while I’m always anxious about the next book (will it be good enough? Will I finally be ousted as the fraud/incompetent writer I am? etc.), I also feel less stressed about it than before. I know that I can continue to write, there isn’t really a lack of ideas, but obviously, some of those will require more research. I can write short stories and I have my children’s book series to work on. The question is more “what” then “when”. The anxiety… LOL

Meanwhile, I enjoy the limbo. I know it won’t last, because the hamster wheel that is a writer’s job (any job, really) implies that before I know it, my publisher will send me the edits to book two of The Golden One–Deceit, and I’ll be knee deep in work again: editing, proofing, marketing. The Golden One–Deceit will hit bookstores on March 17, 2019. That is sooner than I care for…

Review: M.D. Neu’s “Contact”: we’re not alone!

Review: M.D. Neu’s “Contact”: we’re not alone!

Book one in a promising new Sci-Fi series

“If he mentions his dislike of series one more time I’m going to vomit!”

The cover of Contact, book one in the A New World series.

The cover of Contact, book one in the A New World series.

Don’t worry, I won’t. I think it’s well known by now. I was unaware this was the first book of several when I agreed to read the ARC of Marvin’s new book Contact. I had read and reviewed M.D.’s previous book about vampires in San Jose, The Calling. It was a promising debut and I was genuinely curious about what would come next from Marvin. Contact is very different from The Calling. Here’s my take on it.

What’s the book about?

I’m sure we’ve all thought about what the day would look like when aliens make first contact with humanity. What place would they choose? Which people/country? Would they be peaceful? Hostile? Judging by the movies made on the theme, from Independence Day to Mars Attacks, we can safely say that two things apply: a) the U.S. is usually the country in the focus and b) they’re usually hostile.

I’ll try to stay clear of any sort of spoilers, but given that Marvin is American, it’s a safe bet that the book plays out in the U.S. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the blurb of the book:

A little blue world, the third planet from the sun. It’s home to seven billion people—with all manner of faiths, beliefs, and customs, divided by bigotry and misunderstanding—who will soon be told they are not alone in the universe. Anyone watching from the outside would pass by this fractured and tumultuous world, unless they had no other choice. Todd Landon is one of these people, living and working in a section of the world called the United States of America. His life is similar to those around him: home, family, work, friends, and a husband.

On the cusp of the greatest announcement humankind has ever witnessed, Todd’s personal world is thrown into turmoil when his estranged brother shows up on his front porch with news of ships heading for Earth’s orbit. The ships are holding the Nentraee, a humanoid race who have come to Earth in need of help after fleeing the destruction of their homeworld. How will one man bridge the gap for both the Humans and Nentraee, amongst mistrust, terrorist attacks, and personal loss? Will this be the start of a new age of man or will bigotry and miscommunication bring this small world to its knees and final end?

At the core is Todd, and as the blurb announces, there’s this gap: what happens between “Todd Landon being one of these people” to Todd “bridging the gap”? What’s this “mistrust, terrorist attacks, and personal loss?” I can’t say without spoiling things, but safe to say, it’s well constructed.

A slow start…

The book has a slow start. Unlike his previous work, it takes seven chapters for Marvin to establish the premise, introduce us to the Nantraee, Todd and his family etc. Had this been a standalone novel, I would have criticized this. But given that Contact is book one of several, it makes more sense. The storytelling flows more slowly and M.D. takes his time to introduce us to the world of the Nantraee. The story is told from both the human and alien perspective, switching between on-world and off-world view of the same happenings. I quite enjoyed that.

We also get to know Todd, his husband Jerry, his place of work in some detail. Given that Todd is the main character, that makes a lot of sense. The current political situation in the U.S. is also weaved into the story. Names are changed but you still get the impression that Trumpism is beginning to affect literary works in the States, with authors having to relate to the new reality. It’s virtually impossible to simply ignore it, particularly given the fact that an alien arrival necessarily will involve an administration at some point. Makes total sense.

An abrupt ending…

I found the ending of Contact harder to swallow. It simply ends with the promise of a continuation in a novel called Conviction. Yes, the initial contact is established, Todd is embarking on “bridging”, but that’s about it. In a stand-alone novel, we’d been frustrated. In the context of a series, it makes more sense, because Marvin will have plenty of time to tell his story. I do understand the challenges of telling a “big” story, one that can’t be told within the confines of one book. I’m currently doing the same. It is a fine line we’re walking. Allow me to use the original Star Wars movies as an example. When A New Hope was released, the story ends positively with the by now famous award ceremony. We realize that this is only the beginning, but had George Lucas not been able to secure additional funding, the film would have worked stand-alone. The second movie, Episode V, was different. By then, Lucas knew there would be an episode VI (not just in his mind, but financed!) and the ending, while it worked was much more open and we all knew we’d only have to wait a year or so for the next one.

Contact is different. I presume that Marvin knows that a continuation comes for sure and the story doesn’t end. Only the book does and he has us readers long for that continuation. I don’t know at this stage when it will be released. Given that his debut released a year ago, we might have to work until next January for Conviction to drop in bookstores

Who’s this book for?

Contact is sci-fi light. Yes, there are starships, there are aliens, but the story plays out in the now and mostly on Earth (and Earth’s orbit), so the amount of world-building is limited. Even if you’re not a huge sci-fi fan, this is a book you can enjoy. It is no different than a story of e.g. the first encounters between Europeans and Americans or Africans. What happens, how do the different cultures look at each other? How will they build trust? Communicate? How do you bridge the cultural differences? Personally, I found the latter aspects the most intriguing ones and I have a hunch that this will be Todd’s main challenge going forward. This isn’t a story with phasers and wars, at least I don’t think so.

The characters aren’t fully developed and some feel very square and sketched, but I’m confident that we’ll get to know them better in the coming books. There is no rush. I’m sure all will be answered in time. Personally, I’m looking forward to Conviction and the continuation of Todd’s struggle.

Contact is releasing today from Nine Star Press and is available on Amazon et al. as paperback and ebook.