Book Launch: Werecockroach – Science Fantasy Novella

It’s launch day for my new novella! Werecockroach is a tale of aliens and werecockroaches. I’ll talk a little bit about the book, including a few story notes with background on some of the themes. But first, here are some quick links if you want to skip all that. The book is available at Amazon US, Amazon UK and Smashwords. Other retailers are listed on the official book page. The page also has links to cover merchandise and a brief content guide.

 

Book Description

Rin moves into a new flat on the day the aliens arrive. Their new flatmates are laid-back Sanjay and conspiracy theorist Pete. It doesn’t take long to notice some oddities about the pair, like hoarding cardboard and hissing at people when they’re angry. Something strange is going on, but it’s not all due to the aliens.

The book also includes a bonus short story, from the perspective of one of the supporting characters from the novella.

 Werecockroach  Cover

 

On Cockroaches

The idea for the book came from having hissing cockroaches as pets. One of the biggest misconceptions when people find out about my pets is that they’re like the cockroaches that invade people’s kitchens. There are a lot of different species of cockroaches. Hissers aren’t one of the ones that people will see in their homes (outside of being pets).

They’re from the forests of Madagascar and eat things that have fallen to the forest floor. Pet cockroaches are fed mainly on fruit and vegetables, with a little meat protein here and there. They don’t smell strongly, they don’t fly, and they tame easily. All round, they’re very hardy and easy to keep.

They hiss in various different ways. The one people typical know is the loud disturbance hiss, but they make a number of other hisses. A common one is a soft hiss that accompanies normal daily activities. They’ll sometimes hiss to themselves and sometimes they’ll hiss back and forth with another cockroach. Some are more vocal than others. I’ve had some that hardly ever hiss to some that hiss softly for most of the time they’re awake.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt from keeping them is how much personality they have. Each cockroach is different. They like different foods and they react in different ways. They learn and remember, which is why they soon get to know that I’m not a dangerous predator who wants to eat them. They’re funny little critters, and if they could turn into humans, I’d be happy to invite them round for tea.

 

On Identity and Time

The characters in the novella share aspects of my identity, though it doesn’t mean that they have identical life experiences. One thing I had to consider was how age would change things. When I was younger, being androgynous was the only way that I’d heard to describe being non-binary, long before I’d ever heard the term non-binary. It also wasn’t uncommon for anyone who didn’t quite fit in a gay/straight divide to end up in the bisexual community, so that was primarily how I described myself when I was younger, rather than aromantic and asexual.

Rin wouldn’t have grown up with those experiences. Information has been much more available since the internet, as well as giving people better access to communities. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a different thing, so the book was partly an exercise in considering how things might have gone differently if I’d been born a little bit later. Would I have chosen agender instead of androgyne to describe my gender? Would I have gone directly to aroace? I won’t ever really know, but it was likely enough to say that’s how it went for Rin.

My experiences of dyslexia (Rin) and sensory processing disorder (Pete) were also influenced by age. There was some awareness of dyslexia when I was younger, though it mostly didn’t go beyond maybe giving someone a bit of extra time in tests. I didn’t know SPD existed until I was well into adulthood. Before that, I was treated as being picky, because no one really acknowledged that those sensory things caused a lot of discomfort and pain.

Hidden hearing loss is probably the most influenced by time, as the studies that identified it were only in the 21st century. Even Rin would have been born before anyone knew about that. But I liked the idea of them knowing what was going on. It would have helped me to know a lot earlier than I did (I was obviously aware that I had tinnitus once I was old enough to realise that not everyone had loud sounds in their ears, but hidden hearing loss was a later thing).

What has stayed about the same is my experience of race, because people react much the same way now as they did when I was younger. Not everything is progress.

Thunderbird Strike

Thunderbird Strike LogoDeveloper: Elizabeth LaPensée
First Release: October, 2017
Version Played: iPad and PC
Available: Apple iOS | Android | PC (Direct Download)

A thunderbird uses lightning to destroy a snake (an oil pipeline) consuming the land.

This is a short sidescrolling game, focusing on the theme of oil pipelines being built on Indigenous land. There are three levels, one of which is a boss fight. Each level has a brief animation to introduce it. I initially tried the iPad version, but that was too glitchy to play. It crashed either at the end of the first level or the end of the second level introduction animation. This was consistent, so I couldn’t play beyond the first level on the iPad. I didn’t experience any crashes on the PC version, which is the one I played to the end.

I liked the general concept of the levels. The thunderbird flies into the clouds to gather lightning. The lightning can then be fired to destroy industrial items or to restore living things. There’s no damage or death for the thunderbird, so it doesn’t matter how well the player does. This is a good feature for a gamer who wants to experience it, but may not be too good at controlling the bird.

However, there were elements I didn’t like in the gameplay. There’s no charge meter for the lightning, which makes it difficult to tell when the bird needs more lightning. There is a sound when it runs out completely, but that doesn’t help much for players who don’t use sound. There is a crackling visual, but it’s subtle, and isn’t really usable on devices with touchscreens where fingers cover the bird. It is also hard sometimes to see if the lightning has hit, which was particularly an issue in the boss level where I didn’t appear to be able to do any damage at the start, and I have no idea why it wasn’t working.

I do wish there’d been a few more levels. It felt like I was just getting going when it ended (and the points on the snake map suggest this might have been the intention, as there are more points than levels).

A scene from Thunderbird Strike

Image Caption: A blue thunderbird fires lightning at an industrial vehicle. Rain clouds are above a bleak landscape with mountains in the distance. The art is 2D with outlines on the main subjects and textured fills and backgrounds.

The strongest element is the art. It’s a beautiful style, with clear outlines and textured fills. As the outline moves, the texture stays in place, which is a nice effect. The destroyable items are industrial machines and pipes. Activatable items include animal skeletons and pipeline protestors. Each level has a distinct visual theme.

The weakest area is the sound, which doesn’t fit very well with the rest of it. The spoken words are more like a retro fighting game, with announcements of “fatal strike” and similar. The music doesn’t match where it appears. For example, the first level has a stirring boss fight feel to the music. Added to this, there are no options to turn sound elements off or down.

Overall, it’s a good concept for a game. I really liked being able to repair the damage with the lightning, as well as destroy the industrial things. The artwork and animation were good. But it is a little rough around the edges, particularly when it comes to the sound design and the crashing issues with the iPad version.

Everything

Everything Game LogoDeveloper: David OReilly
First Release: 21st March, 2017
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

You are everything and everything is nothing.

This is a simulator where you can become any of the things in the game. You start as an animal (I was a sheep). Wandering around will yield guidance on how it works and new abilities will be unlocked. Alternatively, you can leave the controls and let the game play itself, because the game doesn’t need the player to guide it. This would be an odd choice in most games, but it fits the themes well. Nothing is more essential than anything else, and that includes the player.

The art and animation choices are immediately apparent. The models are low detail and the land animals don’t animate. Instead, they either roll over end to end or skitter along, like they were toy animals being pushed by a child. Some things do have basic animations, such as birds flapping their wings and plants growing. I mostly didn’t have a problem with the animations, but the blur when ascending/descending into things did cause some motion sickness. I did like that the thunder storms didn’t have bright flashes of light (I’d note for those with flash issues, some of the disasters are a bit flashy, but they can be disabled).

Once the ability to ascend/descend to different scales is unlocked, it gets a whole lot more interesting. You can descend into the grass and then the microscopic level. You can ascend to continents, planets and galaxies. As the game continues, you get abilities that mean being able to change the size and type of thing, should you want to do so. I released giant geckos on one continent and left miniature planets between cracks in a city pavement.

During all this, it’s possible to listen to the thoughts of some of the other things. These are collected and used to generate your own thoughts. Those generated thoughts range from nonsensical to the inadvertently profound.

verything Screenshot: Thoughtful Flats

Image Caption: I’m a block of flats framed against the sky and having a thought constructed from the thoughts I’ve heard. The thought reads: “Is ludicrous to go on forever, but sometimes we make them short. Remember that happens.”

The narration is from a series of lectures by the philosopher Alan Watts. They were recorded between 1965 and 1973. His lectures deal with the general nature of reality, and that divisions are something that people create, rather than an innate part of the universe. At the same time, there are also elements of the lectures that are dated. Despite talking about how divisions are culturally constructed, he still considers men and women to be inherently opposite and unknowable to each other. Trying to explain anxiety disorders in terms of a philosophical crisis also really doesn’t work. The lectures weren’t anything new to me in terms of basic concepts, but they were interesting from a historical perspective. He’s a good speaker who explains his ideas clearly.

There aren’t many set goals in the game, as it focuses more on being a sandbox. There is the tutorial to complete, though it’s somewhat more lengthy and involved than most things labelled as tutorials. I enjoyed the ending and the unique area for the tutorial. Broader goals are to complete the catalogue of different things and listen to all the narration. I hit a few issues with collecting all the things, as some of the things disappeared from my universe. This can be solved, as each area can be reset to its starting point, which brought them back.

Everything Screenshot: Rolling Unicorns

Image Caption: I’m a herd of rolling white unicorns on a purple alien world with giant bacteriophages. The white circle at the top is the game interface.

I enjoyed wandering around to find the things and listening to the lectures. It was interesting to see a game with world/universe simulator themes, but not from a perspective where the player is a deity looking down on the playing area. The player is an ordinary thing in the universe and manipulates it from that position. Time does not go faster or slower based on global game settings, but by becoming things with different perceptions of the passage of time. The exploration side appealed to my love of walking simulator games, as there were a number of environments to explore.

However, there are some weaknesses. The vehicle behaviour has some issues, which means cars get stuck running down the river instead of on the road. An area has train viaducts, but the trains run on the grass next to them. Also, some scales are a little sparse on things. This is particularly true of the larger scales. It would have been nice to see some gas giants and a wider range of stars. The range of options to customise the experience was mostly good, but an instant alternative to the ascend/descend blur would have been a useful accessibility feature.

This game will appeal to players looking for an experience to wander around in. It’s not a game for players looking for strong narratives or structure. Note that it does discuss themes like death, and some things have thoughts that are suicidal or self-hating, so it may not be the game to play when needing a break from that.

2017: Survival

Happy StarIt’s the end of a difficult year, which looks set to become many difficult years. There’s been a lot of bad stuff going on politically. Some of it impacts me directly. Other things impact friends. That made it difficult to work, because anytime I did, something else would go wrong. That doesn’t mean that I did nothing during the year, but it does mean I focused on things I was able to do without having complete focus.

Last year, I was looking at diversifying where I made money. This didn’t really work out, in the sense of the new things I tried didn’t generate money. I did see success in expanding some of the things that were already working. I’ll talk about that in detail, as well as a bit of background about some of my choices going forward. The quick summary version will be at the end, for those who don’t need the nitty gritty details.

A piece of good news from this year is I now have a set of softboxes. These are lights for photography. Lighting has been a constant issue with my photography, as can be seen by the lighting issues in the various photos I’ve posted over the years (including the ones in this post, which were before I got the lights). The lights will be particularly useful for photographing larger art pieces.

 

Writing

Writing was the area that suffered the most this year, as I need to be settled and able to concentrate to get things done. This is especially true for final edits. I had intended to publish Werecockroach, my science fantasy novella. But the struggle with the final editing meant it never quite got there.

The second book in my novel series, Conduit, had a much better fate. I wrote quite a bit and sorted some timeline issues. Knowing that next year will be tough, I don’t want to be overly optimistic on release dates. I’m going to say it will most likely be released at the end of 2018 or the start of 2019.

This means not a lot has changed since last year. I do intend to stick to a basic cycle of one standalone (either novella or novel) and one series book. My hope is that going for unusual concepts for the standalones might get people talking about them. In other words, I hope the gimmick makes people look. I don’t have a lot of hope for the current series, but I would like to have it fairly robust with a few books before moving on to a more marketable series.

I did release a few new short stories on my Patreon, which is part of writing for the next collection. I don’t have a pending date on that, as it’ll happen when I have enough stories.

 

Art On Demand

I have art stores on Zazzle and Society6. Towards the end of the year, I had my first and only sale on Society6. I’ll still maintain that store, but it’s really all about Zazzle when it comes to actually making money.

My aim for Zazzle was to reach a thousand products by the end of the year, which I hit sometime in autumn. Each design is on between ten to forty different products. I have seen results from this, with my sales going up overall. I was paid before the holidays and will be paid again in January. I expect quieter times at the beginning of the year, as people recover from holiday purchasing, but I’m generally optimistic about sales.

I also tried out Zazzle’s embroidery system. This takes some investment, as the initial stitch files cost money (someone has to convert the image into stitches for the embroidery machine). I had one success and one failure. My blue jay design made a nice stitch file. I did edit it a bit before submitting it, to remove some of the fine detail, and it converted just fine. I sold a few things with it on, which paid back the stitch file cost. I’d likely have sold more, but Zazzle halted embroidery product sales for a short time due to the company moving to new premises.

Blue Jay Stitch Preview

Image Caption: A preview of a stitch file, showing the stitch placement of an embroidered blue jay perched on a green vine.

The failure was my pixel art mushroom. The resulting design had smooth lines, so didn’t resemble the original at all. The money was refunded, so nothing lost. Once embroidery production is running again, I’ll likely convert a smooth-lined cartoon mushroom design.

Until the end of December, I was feeling stable about how things were going. Then the takedown notices started. The first was because I had textspeak that included u2 (as in “you too”) as part of the message. The concern was that it might look like merchandise for U2 the band. It’s over-cautious, but I could see they might be playing it safe. I deleted the couple of products with it on and went on with things. Then on Christmas, one of my pixel mushroom products was taken down for copyright/trademark infringement. This is an original design and has been picking up sales, so this was much more of a concern. I responded. A few days later the product was put back.

I’ll never know exactly what happened. I know some people do targeted reporting around holidays to attack people, so it’s possible that happened. It does have a feeling of someone mass reporting everything to see what would stick, especially with the timing. Needless to say, that was all pretty stressful, but I’m glad the pixel mushroom is back.

 

Reviews

Reviewing has stayed about the same this year. Views have gone up a bit. I’m seeing more review requests coming in, which is a good sign that the blog getting some wider attention. The money earnt from Amazon Associates is about the same.

What hasn’t been so good is the mainstream book problem. I picked a fair few mainstream books when requesting thing to review. This has logical reasons behind it, as these books are the ones that initially get people to the blog. I also found I could link up these books with smaller titles by running themed Twitter threads of reviews. This raised the views on reviews of those smaller titles.

All of that is fine, but the chances of disliking those mainstream books was a lot higher. Such books are often good at that one area that matches the author’s identity, but offers plenty of punches to the face to everyone else. The sort of work I’m really hoping for, with a wider intersectional perspective, is difficult to get in those big titles with all the hype.

It doesn’t help that books that get hyped in the online book communities often get aggressively defended. I’ve mostly got away with it because my reviews are often a bit after the release date, so things have calmed a little, but I won’t stay lucky forever (I’d note that this sort of attack is still peanuts to the whole death threat thing of my old blog content, but I’d still rather not have the drama). It means I’ve learnt to pay attention to some other book bloggers in the worst possible way: if they love a book, it’s one to avoid reviewing.

There’s a silver lining to all this though, because those popular mainstream titles continue to get views long after the initial review. So next year, I’m going to take a bit of a break from popular books, and rely on the views from my older reviews. I’ll continue reviewing titles that I’ve already agreed to review. Anything new I pick up will be titles I’ve chosen and titles that come through authors sending review requests. I’ll make exceptions for something on the hype train that looks totally my thing, but the odds of that are pretty low.

I’m open to suggestions of books that people think I’d enjoy and they’d like to see reviewed. I did a book bingo of things I’d like to see in representation, and I’d mostly like science fiction and fantasy where romance isn’t the main focus. Basically, it’d be nice if I could have a year where reading is fun.

 

Patreon

Patreon has continued at about the same level as before. I’m now a few pledges above my website bill, so there’s a little more safety. Until the end of the year approached, I’d have said it was stable. Then there was a sudden announcement of fee changes that would have forced a lot of my patrons out. Patreon did change it back, but it meant uncertainty about whether it would continue to be viable. It’s still possible some people will leave, due to losing trust in the platform.

This is my least favourite way of generating money, because producing masses of content each month is considered normal for the platform. I can’t work that quickly, especially when it comes to writing. Being dyslexic does slow me down, but it happens in a way that isn’t obvious to outsiders. They see that I can write fluently, so assume it isn’t like trying to float rocks with the power of my mind to get my writing to that state.

I did try some ideas this year to counter that. One was a few work-in-progress posts. These didn’t generate any interest, so I don’t intend to do more of those (they still take time to put together, which I could spend on other things). Another was to make a special reward for the end of the year, which was generally well-received. I painted a series of art cards and sent one to each patron. Given that I had seven patrons at the time, this sort of personal reward was viable to do (I wouldn’t be painting up a hundred individual art cards).

Patreon Art Cards

Image Caption: A set of art cards for Patreon, displayed on a white cloth with silver spots. The series has a central figure drawn in black ink. The figure is red with uneven white polka dots, painted with red watercolour. The background is white with red polka dots. The subjects are: a squid, a unicorn, an owl, an elephant, a leopard danio fish, oyster mushrooms, and a fly agaric mushroom. Click for a larger version of the image.

My general conclusion is that Patreon is not a good platform for me. I’m better at producing occasional big rewards, rather than multiple smaller rewards. My regular content is my reviews, but few people see the reviews as a reward. However, I don’t have a better alternative, so here I am.

 

Other Things

One thing I tried last year was a new wishlist. This went about as well as last time: only family bought things from the list. I removed most of the links to it, on the basis that a static wishlist is a lot like a news section that never updates. It creates the impression of being inactive. I know wishlists work well for some reviewers, as a way to get books that otherwise can’t be requested. It didn’t work out for me.

The list is still there and public, so I have it should there be a need for it sometime.

I’ve tried to keep my Twitter account on the light side this year. I figured people would see the news, so they didn’t need me to be the news. I posted my baking from Hallowe’en and the winter holidays, along with updates about the birds and pets.

 

Skip to the End

It’s been a difficult year for writing, as I need a calm environment to work on it. The novella Werecockroach will be out next year. The second book of the Bigfoot Mysteries, Conduit, is aimed for the end of 2018 / start of 2019. It was a good year for art, with my sales at Zazzle increasing. Patreon is about the same and I gave art cards to my patrons at the end of the year. I had a scare with both Patreon (with sudden fee change announcements) and Zazzle (multiple product takedowns), which demonstrates why I’m always looking for other sources of income to add to the mix.

The Foxfire Lights – Elizabeth O’Connell

Foxfire Lights CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #2
First Published: 26th August, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem and his brother Hal are called to break another curse. Lord Ransom’s youngest child is sick under strange circumstances.

The setup for this book is very similar to the first in the series. A child is cursed due to events in the family’s past. Jem and Hal have to uncover those events to understand the curse. It’s based on making deals with spirits, which is resolved in a similar way. It also repeats a fair bit of character development, as Hal goes back to not wanting to share his thoughts with Jem. This means there isn’t really any progress on the overall series story of figuring out what happened to Jem and Hal’s father.

There are some areas of improvement. In the first book, only magical disabilities were shown. In this, there is some sickness due to magic, but there’s also a disabled supporting character. Matthew, one of the sons of Lord Ransom, was born with a back injury and is non-neurotypical. There’s the suggestion that he doesn’t feel empathy (rather than just not showing empathy). It’s made very clear this isn’t magical, and a positive future is suggested for him.

Isabella, Lord Ransom’s wife, is from Argentina. She’s not particularly fleshed out as a character. I’d have liked more of her story, even if it wasn’t directly related to the local events.

A character is blinded in one eye towards the end, though it’s late enough that there’s not a lot to say about it in this book.

It isn’t a bad book and will appeal to people who enjoyed the first book. A lot of the things that stood out in the first are apparent here. The world is one where industrial magic is common. The curse breaking provides opportunities for interesting investigations. There’s folklore woven into the narrative. It just feels like it repeats too much from the first book, rather than building on that foundation.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]