Musings on user reviews

Reviews are the lifeblood of e-commerce. Without the ability to actually examine the product for themselves consumers are forced to make a judgement based partly on the description of the product, the reputation of the vendor, and the reviews of the item. Yet often these reviews are rife with ideological crusaders, reviews for sale, and odd design choices in the review systems themselves.

As an indy author this is painfully obvious for me at the moment. I have to solicit reviews on amazon because most people who read my work prefer to review it on Goodreads. I have even been tarred and feathered by fake reviewers looking to lower their average score in order to seem legitimate when they give 5 star ratings to their clients. The review system is annoying, and yet I need it to move books and reach potential readers.

The first and largest problem in the review system is that it often reads like any other comment section anywhere else in the internet. I am not popular enough to have this problem yet, but it does annoy the heck out of me when I am reading reviews of games or books and people are using the review system for popular products to push their personal views rather than actually review the product. This can be a fine line, to be sure: should Lovecraft be docked stars because he is racist? for example. Mind you in most cases it is not. I’m sure you have all seen reviews like this, if not go look at the reviews on your favorite (non classic) popular computer game or book. Some are legit, some are lazy, and some people are there to make a point that has little to do with the product itself. I’m not sure how to fix this, yet.

Fake reviews are more sensational. There is a thriving cottage industry in selling fake reviews of all sorts of products, as well as companies putting up their own fake reviews of their products. Since reviews still help drive sales, there is a real economic incentive to cheat if you can get away with it. As I noted these ‘reviewers’ often give crap ratings to low profile indy authors in order to even out all of the five star reviews they give to their clients so that they look like a tough reviewer.

The review systems themselves are sometimes even more of a problem. Amazon, the most important reviewer for my career, has some quirks that annoy the crap out of me. They do not amalgamate reviews from all of their secondary sites on my book, even though the product is exactly the same on amazon.com as it is on amazon.ca or amazon.uk. People who have written reviews for me sometimes do not get them approved from various reasons (some are legitimate I suppose, sorry mom!). Even worse is that Amazon owns Goodreads and could easily show the goodreads reviews on a particular title, like Steam shows the metacritic score, but they do not and thus compete with themselves for reviews. I don’t know too many people who are willing to review a product on multiple sites without prodding. This is not to mention the problems with the scoring systems themselves and even how ratings drive searches.

One solution is professional reviewers, people whose job it is to review a product for a trusted third party. Unfortunately in many arenas Professional reviews are missing in action, or lost in the noise. Even if they are easy to find, a professional reviewer often wants different things than the average reader. This can lead to authors skewing their work to solicit favourable opinions from elite reviewers. This is nothing new, but it is still annoying; authors should be free to write for their intended audience, ideally, rather than jump through hoops for publishers and reviewers. Still, hunting down high profile reviewers who will like your work has been a piece of advice that many of my peers have given me.

For now, I rely on fans and organic growth while examining other possibilities.

The Rune: Wrap Up Musings/Links

Last week I finished my Rune short story, and before I transition back to the third Shadow Wolf Tale I would like to share a few thoughts.

Here are links to the collected chapters of the Rune

Rune One, Rune Two, Rune Three, Rune Four, Rune Five, Rune Six, Rune Six part 2 , Rune Seven, Rune Eight, and Rune Nine.

My first comment is an oops. As you can see from the list above I used 1.6 twice… so sloppy.

In no particular order:

  • I’m getting better at writing in first person. I think it is fair to say that these little exercises are paying off.
  • I like the ending to The Rune. I felt having him return to the cell, rewound, worked very well. It should leave most readers wondering. For bonus points. it is a flexible ending: I could pick it up from there as a longer story or I could leave it as is.
  • I like the nomenclature of ‘Amy with the Gun’, it is an interesting way to delineate a character and conveys a lot of personality.
  • My modern action scenes need a little bit of work. I wonder if it comes from the way early RPGs treated guns, which caused me to shy away from them most of the time and then mess up with them when gaming. Come to think of it, the action in my Shadowrun game might suffer from the same problem. Regardless, I think I need to work on gunplay descriptions. I write a decent action scene with other forms of weaponry, but I may need to sit down and really research guns or invent my own gun analogue.

Overall, I enjoyed writing the story, but I think it needs work, especially in the middle.

Stay tuned for The Shadow Wolf Sagas next week.

 

Tuesday Teaser

This week’s teaser comes from Bloodlust: Red Glory, the fourth book in the Domains of the Chosen.

Red_Glory_5_Final

This week I’d like to introduce Melia, a businesswoman who lives in the Capitol with her Husband, Darius, and her Daughter Rose. Melia originated in The Great Games, my short story about a night at the games.

To us Melia seems normal and reasonable. Her attitudes are modern and having been raised in a place with no Arena, she sees the games as violent and degenerate, an attitude that most of us would share. In the Domains, however, Melia’s views on the Games are considered odd and unpatriotic, almost insane.

Melia watched as the miniature Gladiatrix jerked to a halt. The idea of a woman the size of her little girl competing against some of the monstrosities that she had seen today turned her stomach. The Ogress with the filed teeth and the leering man with the shadow tricks were somehow even more disturbing than the two fighters strutting through the streets naked.

 And yet Melia was filling her purse to the brim, and more, with gold Krassics, all because of the Great Games. Ancestors curse her, Melia was a hypocrite. She wondered if she had sold some vital part of her spirit today, to secure a better future for her family or even just to watch people enjoying her wares.

“Are you alright, love?” asked Darius from beside the food cart.

“I’m tired from all of the running around, Darius,” said Melia, forcing a smile, skirting the truth. I don’t want to ruin this day for my husband and daughter too, she thought. What is wrong with me?

Darius looked at Melia with knowing eyes, but did not call her out. Melia felt a stab of guilt: Darius was a good man, grounded in the realities of the Empire and not given to railing against what he could not change.

<>

Then she saw Sapphire Kiss talking to Rose while Darius fumbled with a piece of fish. The woman was fully exposed like some brazen whore. Her ‘armour’ was a joke. Anger shot through Melia and she pushed forward.

“Get away from her you skank!” growled Melia, pushing through the crowd, her triumph forgotten.

The Gladiatrix straightened up. Melia was not a small woman, but Sapphire Kiss towered over her. The Gladiatrix’s strange weapons were peace-bonded, but those restraints looked rather pathetic up close. Nonetheless Melia steeled herself and stepped between her and Rose. The crowded street was suddenly silent. Two Grey-Robes were nearby, thank the ancestors.

“How dare you dress like that and talk to my child!” said Melia. “Prostitutes and dancers at least have the decency to cover themselves in public places. Have you no shame?”

“I’m sorry,” said Sapphire Kiss, hanging her head for just a moment.

“Sorry?” said Melia, stepping closer to the woman. “Is it an accident that you are strutting around naked? Did you forget to put on clothes? Did you not notice the breeze between your legs?”

I like the juxtaposition between the two in this obligatory Godiva scene and also between the very moral Melia, and the immoral people she encounters.

Hello and Goodbye: A Memorable Weekend

I don’t usually write about personal stuff on this blog. This weekend, however, offered an such impressive juxtaposition of real world events that I am driven to muse about and share it.

The first event is my son’s first birthday. The first picture (blue) was taken a couple of weeks ago, and the red one was from a few days after his birth. The difference is tremendous, of course, just look at the relative sizes of our heads for the sake of comparison.

It has been an interesting year, watching my little man grow. It has seeped its way into everything, including my writing. The Seeds of Ruin was completed about a month ago, and written while he was learning to crawl. The themes dance with his presence and my reaction to his birth.

His birthday was fun, but not too overwhelming, as a one year old’s party should be. We took him on a train ride and to a carousel and watched him eat ice cream by the fistful. It was a profoundly happy day for us and spilled over into the rest of the weekend.

The second event was less sweet, but still profound.

Gordon Downie last show 8 20 2016

On the same day that we were celebrating the first year of Ronan’s life, we were also shedding tears over the end of an Era. The Tragically Hip, Canada’s Band, played the last show of their latest tour and possibly their last show ever. The lead singer, Gordon Downie, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer well before the tour was even announced.

The Hip are to Canada as Springsteen is the US. They are my go-to band most of the time. I have always wanted to watch them live in their hometown (Kingston) on New Year’s eve with my Brother and Sister, and we frequently tried to plan how we could make it happen despite the miles and schedules that separate us.

The show has such great meaning for Canadians, young and old, that it was picked up and broadcast by the CBC, our public network, and preempted Olympic coverage.

The concert was great. At times Gord seemed frail and overwhelmed, ready to collapse or break down right there, and yet at others it seemed impossible that he was even sick, that someone of such energy and vitality could be so close to the end.

When they played my favourite song (Nautical Disaster) and then Viv’s favourite (Scared) it felt like a gift. When they ended the concert with one of their most positive tunes (Ahead by Century), in defiance of death and sorrow, it was simply incredible.

Add to that a long night of talk the night before with one of my oldest friends, who just lost his mother, and it has been an odd and memorable weekend, sad and sweet, far greater than the sum of its happenings.

Even now, I am left shaken and awed.

Teaser Tuesday

This week’s teaser is from Bloodlust: The Shield Maiden, the third book in the Domains of the Chosen series and the first where the reader is truly exposed to the world outside the Arena, following a former Gladiatrix as she joins the Legions on an expedition to a rediscovered continent.

Bloodlust TSM cover

Bosh smiled: today was going to be a good day. The Ninth Legion was nestled in between two immense formations of Kirif. The Kirif were not as heavily armoured as the Legionnaires, but they showed discipline at least. Their ranks were a rainbow, with each Spire identifying itself with bright colours. [Click]kith’s soldiers wore crimson and a deeper red.

The Kirifan Hoplites fought in phalanxes. The outer three rows on all sides used shields and seven foot hooked spears, while the middle four rows used long pikes. Turning one of these groups would normally be difficult, but the Kirifans divided them into small base units, no more than ten files across.

The Kirifan soldiers stood close enough for their shields to overlap, creating a formidable defence from the front. According to the veterans of the First Cohort, these shields left much to be desired. Their saving grace was that they were extremely light and easy to replace, made from a frame woven from tough wicker and covered in tough alchemically treated leather. These shield were not nearly as tough as those of the Legionnaires and would frequently break after the first few blows. Each Kirifan group had squires assigned to it who would carry replacement shields to the ranks. They supposedly drilled replacing shields in the midst of battle. Bosh would believe that when he saw it.

Battle Tactics: The Battle of the Bastards (TV version)

(SPOILERS for Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire)

I am not a huge fan of the later books in GRRM’s A song of ice and fire, so I have not really delved into the TV show, with the exception of when there is a major battle to watch. This most recent season had the famous battle of the Bastards which was one of the most visually spectacular and exciting battles out there. I loved it.

Mostly.

I have a serious problem with the way that Bolton’s spear wall is portrayed. Take a look at the following pictures:

BoB 1

Big shields and a wall of spears… a strong shield wall ha turned back many a barbarian horde hasn’t it? Note that men can easily fit between the spears and despite the length of the weapon it is only braced by two men.

BoB 3

Some unlucky Wilding gets too close to the shield wall and gets an ugly surprise. Note the long length of exposed wood on these spears.

BoB 2

The size of the forces involved. What happens if all of the Wildlings, fearing death, push in one direction?

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BoB 4

Another view showing the relative size of the forces involved. The reaction of any force being squeezed like this is to push back at some point in a desperate attempt to survive.

So the Bolton Spearwall is an odd duck.

  • The shields are enormous individually, but do not gain the strength that a smaller shield overlapping with a neighbors shield would.
  • The spears are a long as some pikes but only have one set of extra hands bracing them and absolutely no support from spears further back in the formation. The main deterrent from pushing into a phalanx is that one is always exposed to more rows of spears, there is no safe channel for men to flow through to get to the shields.
  • Several of the Wildlings are shown making it to the shields. One opens up and delivers a swords thrust to keep the man back. This is great TV, but terrible tactics for a spearwall where it would be far better to ward the front rank with more spears. The sword thrust appears to come from the man in the second rank, which is a pretty long lunge, and that oversize shield looks awful clumsyand hard to get back into place.

I would argue that the Wildlinsg would push back against the shields of the Bolton men. The spear density is just too sparse to stop them and the enemy ranks are too thin to prevent a breakout. Once the mass of bodies is pushing against the shields (which is inevitable, one way or another) it is very hard for the front man to move his shield aside for the man behind him to thrust with a blade. The Romans used shorter, wider shields that they could thrust over.

Some would argue that the Bolton spearwall bears some similarities to medieval spear units, the Roman Legion, or even that the Bolton men are so good or the Wildlings are so unused to formation fighting that they could not get up to the shields to push back.

Fine. What then stops the Wildlings from doing exactly the first thing that leaps to mind when I look at that spearwall: What stops the Wildings from grabbing the spears or hacing the points off? In a true Phalanx the secondary spears could thrust out to prevent this. Nothing at all prevents it in the battle of the bastards. No matter how stupid and fearful the Wildlings are eventually someone is going to hack the head off of one of those spears, or, worse yet, grab them and pull. It would only take three men pulling to overpower the two men holding the spear in the Bolton formation.

The Macedonian Phalanx

The Macedonean Phalanx. One of the pinnacles of formation warfare. The pikes are braced by numerous men and defended by row after row of spear tips that could thrust forward to ward off anyone pushing into the formation. 

Even then a true fanboy could argue that I am wrong and it does not have to turn out that way. A particularly cynical chap might say that they were overawed or low on morale, ready to be slaughtered like animals.

Ok. So what then happens when those spears start pushing into the mass of men and getting weighed down by bodies. Each of those spears would rapidly become useless as it pushes into the packed Wildlings. After it impales a few it becomes a liability as the rest can easily surge over the encumbered weapon and get into the Bolton line before it reforms. In a true spearwall the additional spears could be used to push bodies off, but more importantly they provide immediate replacements when the front spear gets broken, pulled away, or becomes unwieldy due to impaled bodies, there are immediate replacements already in place.

I admit I am being picky. Fans loved the Battle of the Bastards. The problem is many of those fans, like my own stepson, will go on to write their own fantasy tales/shows/games and I do not want to see them compound on this error.

The Rune 1.9

After much soul-searching, I have decided to write a few short stories, unrelated to the other works, before continuing on with the next of the Shadow Wolf Sagas, just to keep it fresh. As always, this is raw and uncut; enjoy responsibly.

The Rune 1.1

The Rune 1.2

The Rune 1.3

The Rune 1.4

The Rune 1.5

The Rune 1.6

The Rune 1.7

The Rune 1.8

<>

I awake in a cell, a concrete tomb that has never seen the sun, a barren womb that emanates stillborn despair.

My head is heavy, my eyes are leaden. Sleep in this place is hard and my dreams are unquiet. It takes me time to situate myself in this forgotten place. I am a prisoner, taken for my secret knowledge of the runes. I am cogent, but something stirs beneath the surface of my thoughts. Flashes of deeds and hidden memories threaten move in the deeps of my unconscious mind. Something has happened.

I remember a girl; Andrea, Adrianna, Amy? or was it a man? Andrew, Daffyd, Mikael? There was a gun. Corridors much like the one outside the cell. Monsters in the dark. And Runes, always Runes. Wierder things that I cannot quite grasp. I push deeper, trying to remember, willing myself to recall. But the images confuse me, overwhelm me, like a child leafing through an entire library shelf of books all at once. I feel like I am drowning. I gasp for air and let it go. Something is wrong.

After some time, I gather my wits. I decide it is best not to plumb the depths of my mind in such a place. At least not right now, not in such a dire place.

I take stock of what I know for certain. The easy stuff. How long have I been here? It seems like forever, but I cannot remember more than three days. I know that I failed a test somehow. They know I can see the runes. How did I give myself away?

And, of course, I know that on the wall across the cell from me, like an old companion, sits a rune. Massive and powerful, waiting for me, always waiting for the answer that only I can provide.

<End, For Now>