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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Yang Shen: The God from the West, Book I - Landfall, 1860


Author: James Lande
Genre: Historical Fiction
How long it's been on sale: Print edition on sale since Oct 15, 2011; Kindle/Nook since Jan 30, 2012
Current price: $2.99
Marketing: Facebook ads, giveaway on Goodreads, submission to reviewers, book website at www.yang-shen.info, publisher website at www.oldchinabooks.com, reviews and author page on Amazon, videos on YouTube, additional eBook formats at OmniLit, public library readings.
Total sold so far: 24 print; 8 eBook
Link to book on Amazon: Yang Shen: The God from the West, Book 1 - Landfall, 1860

Product Description:

When America's civil war began, China's civil war approached its horrific end. Late imperial China suffered severely from domestic disorder and foreign affliction - set upon by rebels within and Western "barbarians" without.

Into the midst of China's maelstrom came an American adventurer leading a ragtag army in defense of empire - a man from the West grateful Chinese made into a god, a "yang shen."

Yang Shen tells a story of the encounter, sometimes the clash, of Americans and Chinese. Based closely on primary and secondary source material from both the Chinese and Western record, Yang Shen draws on the work of hundreds of scholars of late imperial China whose insights inspired much of the story's abundant detail.

More than a historical adventure, Yang Shen recreates times long past, places long lost in China, and long-silent voices of people in America, China, and England who lived through cataclysmic events that echo still.

Find more information about Yang Shen, audio and video, and links to related sites at www yang-shen.info.

First 300 Words:

In Medias Res ...

(In the middle of things…)

Wednesday, April 18, 1860, 6:30pm

She was a weathered old Ningpo trader prowling in the China Sea, scudding over ocean the color of dried blood. Her grimy deck stretched aft eighty feet, from a low stem to a high, turret-like deckhouse perched above the stern. Bright blue eyes bulged under her bluff prow – one eye grafted to each side so she could find her way when her feckless pilots could not. Each huge oculus, hand-carved from camphor wood, had a stark white iris midst its lustrous blue orb. Her stern was painted blue with red facings – but without the lawful inscription for port of registry. A black-bordered red flag flew atop the tallest of her three ancient masts, and she displayed the rare extravagance of hand-carved teak railings. In the twilight, the junk's brown and yellow sails, tall and slender rectangles of woven rattan matting and bamboo battens, were silhouetted black against the orange afterglow of the sunset.

Two days earlier, she had slaughtered the passengers and crew of a lorcha in Blackwall Pass, west of Chushan Island, and now she thirsted for the blood of an American clipper ship departing Ningpo for Shanghai.

“晚上要小心 have a small heart tonight – be careful,” said the lodaai 老大 – the old-great, the junk master. “I smell seaweed rotting on rocks above the tide, over here, and over there I hear the crashing of surf.” He leaned out over the bow and whispered to the junk. “We are in dangerous water, and the sky will soon be black. Do you see what we search for? Look hard.” 

Comments: I honestly am not up on my Chinese Historical Fiction, so please take everything I say with a grain of salt. The cover looks very homemade to me. It doesn't say historical, although I do get the Chinese from it. It looks very much like a do-it-yourself cover, which to me looks amateurish and suggests the writing will be that way as well. I would suggest hiring a cover artist.

The description starts with a history lesson. Not a good start, in my opinion. I would start with the main character. The best descriptions I've read have captured a character and their voice in just a few short lines. I want to know who the book is about, and why I should care about them.

The beginning of the book didn't hook me. I got confused by the Chinese characters, too. Why not translate it? I'm not sure why there were some stuck in there. I would maybe get more opinions on the opening of the book, maybe join a critique group.

I would suggest hiring a cover artist, and working with the blurb. Maybe get more opinions on the opening, because as I said this genre is not what I read so I may be totally off on my opinion. What do you guys think?

25 comments:

  1. From the appearance and description, I'm getting a "history" and non-fiction vibe, not the adventure vibe. An image of a person and a description focusing on the main character would be more interesting to someone like me. / just my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm also no expert on historical fiction of any kind, let alone Chinese historical fiction, so my response is 100% opinion.

    Looking at that covers says "basic" to me, or suggests that it's some kind of non-fiction (like a Chinese cook book, for example). I'm also not getting historical fiction from it. I'd suggest maybe, if you can't afford a cover designer to work for you, have a look at the existing similar books on Amazon (e.g. link here: http://www.amazon.com/CHINA-Historical-Fiction-Essential-Reading/lm/R21MP87ONJVUP1), and try to draw inspiration from the best of them.

    I agree with the Victorine's comments on the description. While it's difficult to keep to showing and not telling in a description, we'll want to understand why we want to get into the shoes of the main character, and why their story matters, as opposed to just being told: "it's a journey".

    A lot of that opening is spent describing very clearly every minute detail of that ship from an omniscient point of view, so we're not spending any time in any character's head from the start. I really hope the Ningpo trader is central to the story, otherwise I'm going to wonder why we started there.

    Also, and this is possibly a personal thing, but I don't want to see the "in media res - in the middle of things" at the opening - I should be able to understand that after reading the first scene and then switching (as I imagine you will in the following scene).

    Again, that's all my opinion, and I'm no expert, just saying what springs to mind.

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  3. (1) The cover is very basic. It reminds me of real covers from 50 years ago. It's not engaging.

    (2) The description is very dry and sounds like nonfiction. Also, it does not contain any characters or a plot description, just notes about how it was researched. It's not engaging.

    (3) The introduction text is very dry and reads like nonfiction. It has one unnamed character. It's not engaging. Also, I don't see the point in using kanji in an English book, since no one will be able to read it or even recognize the difference between them.

    I recommend refocusing each aspect of this project on a person or a story.

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  4. I honest-to-God can't believe I'm about to say this, but I think the book starts in precisely the right place, with exactly the right character and exactly the right writing style. And while it is by no means a light read, I know there is an audience for this book.

    Right now, the cover and description are barring ANY audience from this book. I mistook the cover for a menu, and the description needs a very thorough edit by someone who understands this book's more selective audience.

    On a related note, I'm thinking this book will have to bring its own audience to Amazon rather than the other way around. This one will be tough going but please, please, please do not give in to pleas for revision.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Meg,

      Thanks for your opening remarks - exactly what I like to hear. I have always thought the YS audience was the same as that for Shogun.

      Clearly you are in agreement with our other respondents that the cover, blurb and opening are not about to entice a reader. "I think I better think it out again." (...sang Fagin)

      That YS might bring its own audience to Amazon instead of the other way around is a remarkable insight into the community of Amazon book-buyers.

      If you, or anyone else responding here, would care to read the eBook, please leave a note on the Old China Books site www.oldchinabooks.com and I'll send along a gift copy. I'd like to hear your opinions about other parts of the book as well.

      Thanks very much,
      James

      Delete
  5. Meg, I'm so glad for your opinion on this. I definitely am out of my element with this, so I'm glad someone who knows a bit about the style of this book came and left a comment. Thank you!

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  6. No need to be shy about offering your opinions, or about a historical set in China - your first impressions are very important, and reflect the feelings other readers get when they are confronted by the YS cover, and the book's preface. As for not reading much in the genre, YS obviously is not having much of an impression on folks who do read in the genre either.

    Others have offered similar views about the cover having no image of the hero or quick description to offset the strange Chinese characters.

    As for the preface, it sets the scene but does not introduce the hero - that happens on the first page of chapter one (see Look Inside) - and, as you all point out, it likely a mistake not to start with the hero to better engage the reader.

    Can you say specifically what characteristics of the cover appear home-made (which, of course, it is)?

    It would be interesting to see if a makeover of cover and opening would have an impact on the book's reception.

    Thanks to you all,
    James Lande

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    Replies
    1. Although I understand that gold on red is more acceptable in asia, as an American the flat yellow on bright flat red evokes a very negative reaction for me because of the tension between the two colors. My first thought was also Chinese menu as was stated above and without zooming, I thought maybe the characters down the sides would be the zodiac.

      It's wonderful that you can use the Chinese characters, is there a simple character or simple phrase that you can limit it to as the essence of the book?

      I was also confused by the characters inserted into the text. The prose is very heavy and dense and the characters seem to add more work to the reading experience.

      I wish you the best of luck.

      Delete
  7. Maybe have a sepia image of a Chinese civil war fighter for the cover? Being American, my knowledge of the history at that time is overshadowed by our own civil war...but I would find it intriguing if I saw what type of weapons, uniforms, and gear a Chinese grunt had.

    I commiserate with the boundaries the first 300 words has on a book. Look at the first 300 words of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"...he's just describing a small pool of water. I can also appreciate the ADD readers have today, and how important a hook is to make them stay.

    Maybe fire off a quick humanizing quirk of the boat, and a similar quirk of someone on the boat, and melt the two into what is going on in the first few hundred pages. So lose the symbols, but not the symbolism, and I wish you luck :)

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    Replies
    1. Hi JKelly,

      On the media page of the YS website you can see the back cover and a number of images from that era. Perhaps one or more of those might appeal to you as a sepia image on the front cover?

      James

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    2. Hi James,

      Sure, even just a stark outline of one of those boats, or maybe the title of your book on the transom, but that might be cliched. Good luck again!

      Delete
    3. James,

      Here are two titles that caught my eye on the KB:

      http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005FCAIDW/?tag=kindleboards-20

      and another by the same author..

      http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0081AI2C4/?tag=kindleboards-20

      Same time period as your book, different war.

      Delete
    4. Good examples of covers for that period.

      Thank you,
      James

      Delete
  8. I also like the beginning. I do suggest at least English spelling of the Chinese characters--and showing what they mean in context somehow. (I really don't like books that immediately translate foreign terms, I prefer to see them in action. e.g.
    She pointed. "Dame ese libro."
    He picked up the book and handed it to her.

    instead of "Dame ese libro. (Give me that book.)" (HATE that.)

    With this beautiful language being in what many readers will instantly pass over and become irritated with (damn chickenscratches! I can imagine them thinking), if you at least give Anglicized spellings like they do with Japanese terms, your English-speaking readers can digest it a little better but still get the exotic flavor. e.g. "妹妹," she called, "come here, it's time for lunch." vs. "Mei-mei," she called to her little sister, "come here, it's time for lunch."

    I totally agree the description and cover needs work. You don't need to hire models and photographers, but even something like Amy Tan's novels would be a simple, more attractive option than this. If price is an object, check the Microsoft Clip Art Gallery online where there have always been some beautiful Chinese and Asian inspired resizable vector art (very much like the stuff on the Amy Tan paperback covers I am seeing on my own bookshelf.) That and some very good typography will make a world of difference on the cover. Also, I know Red is an important good luck color in China, but it's kind of eye bleeding here, there's just too much of it. A red gradient that at least gives the eye a break, maybe creates a sensation of depth, something to think about.

    I hope that makes some sense. Good luck with the book!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Terry,

      Thanks muchly for your insights. Moving on now from the cover, blurb and intro, others here have also remarked about the Chinese language in YS not being translated, and I would like to say that all the Chinese language in the book (and, oh dear, there's quite a bit more) is accompanied by the English meaning, as in the example in the preface In Medias Res of “晚上要小心 have a small heart tonight – be careful,” said the lodaai 老大 – the old-great, the junk master.

      Not that this is any consolation for readers who for what ever reason do not like having the Chinese characters in the English text - YS has always expected having the Chinese language there will be a hard sell, and the objections found in this forum are not the first.

      Your suggestion of using romanization is quite to the point, and I have wrestled with this mightily. Mei-mei is a good example, however this approach is not suitable for 晚上要小心 - wan-shang yao hsiao (xiao) hsin (xin), or other even longer examples. Setting aside the problem of which romanization, I eventually concluded that any romanization was really superfluous and more of a distraction than just the Chinese
      characters alone, unless the words were repeated again in dialogue.

      For this particular book, the Chinese language is integral, much as Spanish is integral in much the same way to the story told in For Whom the Bell Tolls (I know, I know - some of you are thinking "I didn't like that
      either!").

      In the one eBook, YS has two versions; at the back there is the version without characters for readers who do not want to see the Chinese language or whose eDevices do not support the fonts.

      Thanks very much,
      James

      Delete
    2. James,

      It's not a matter of "liking" foreign language content in an English book. I usually like it quite a bit. And with transliterated Japanese, or any language using the Roman alphabet, I can at least sound out the words and tell them apart, and thus appreciate them a little bit.

      But hanzi/kanji characters are completely unrecognizable to me, so they add nothing to the reading experience. I skip over them completely and then have to use your explanatory text and hope that I'm putting the pieces together correctly.

      I think you're making the average reader work too hard to simply read the text.

      Sharon

      Delete
  9. "Can you say specifically what characteristics of the cover appear home-made (which, of course, it is)?"

    I would say that the design of the cover, placement of shapes, needs work. The colors too. I also agree that a photograph of some kind usually makes a book cover look more professional. I would suggest going to Amazon and trying to find some books that are similar, and studying their covers. What kinds of things do they have on there? What colors? What shapes? What fonts to they use? Try to do something similar to one you really like.

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  10. In my opinion, the cover and blurb are not doing it justice; and the front matter in the Amazon sample is a gauntlet one must get through before reaching what looks like a really good story.

    COVER:
    The cover needs people, a battle scene, and/or some gorgeous Chinese countryside in rich, deep colors that convey the setting and tone of the story. Here are some images I just found on a stock website that are beautiful and evocative. I would go in this direction. (I’d still prefer battle scenes and faces, but this was what I found in a 1-minute search.)

    http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-73176856/stock-photo-sailboat-in-hong-kong-harbor.html

    http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-15891082/stock-photo-the-fishermen-and-rafts-fishing-in-the-misty-river-in-the-dusk-gui-lin-china.html

    http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-74350603/stock-photo-landscape-on-the-river-fenghuang-hunan-china.html

    http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-57889291/stock-photo-typical-fisherman-and-his-cormorants.html


    BLURB:
    The blurb needs more of this: "Into the midst of China's maelstrom came an American adventurer leading a ragtag army in defense of empire - a man from the West grateful Chinese made into a god, a 'yang shen'".

    Save all the research information for some author’s notes at the end, if you must.

    FRONT MATTER:
    I read about a page’s worth, and I liked the writing very much. I felt immediately immersed in that world and its atmosphere, but it was so hard to get there. I had to wade through a LOT of front matter. I would trim it down and move as most, if not all, of it to the back. I also agree with a previous suggestion to omit “In Media Res” and translate the Chinese characters to English.

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    Replies
    1. Hi J. L.,

      The river photos are especially appropriate, as so much of Book I takes place on the Yangtze.

      All your points are well taken.

      Thank you.
      James

      Delete
  11. The typography on the cover really turned me off. The yellow font on the red background does not contrast well, and given the font style and size, the English characters did not register to my eyes as anything meaningful.

    The only characters that had the size and/or contrast to register to my eyes were the Chinese characters in the yellow bars and on the flag.

    This left me wondering if the book was actually written in Chinese instead of English. It might look better at higher resolution or on the cover of the physical book, but at the size presented in this blog entry, it did not make me want to click through to see what it is.

    These days it's critical to remember what your cover text looks like at the thumbnail size.

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  12. Hi James,

    The closest thing to historical fiction that I read is Ken Follett and James Mitchner, both of whom I love very much. That certainly doesn't make me an expert, but I'm a reader, so here's my assessment.

    Cover:
    The cover and the blurb both suffer from the same problem. They don't connect with readers on an emotional level. As others have pointed out, you need something that showcases the setting or the major conflict. I wouldn't simply think about ways to improve this cover, you need to start from scratch. Others here have given you suggestions and ultimately, you MAY want to plunk down a couple hundred bucks and pay to get something that grabs readers by the throat and says, YOU NEED TO READ THIS!

    Description:
    As I already hinted at above, the blurb needs a lot of work. There may be bits and pieces you can sprinkle in from what you have, but ultimately, I'd suggest you start from scratch. Fiction is nothing without characters that readers can follow and root for. First thing I did after I saw your book was hit Amazon and try to look at it the way a customer might. The cover screamed historical non-fiction, then the blurb sealed the deal. It's a history lesson, then I started reader and saw something completely different. I also wonder if you don't give too much away in your blurb. Does the American become a God toward the end? If so, the description should be about his journey and obstacles. In a nutshell a blurb should answer four key questions. Who's your main character? What does he want? Who/what is standing in his way? What will happen if the main character fails (the stakes and perhaps the most important part).

    On another note, there was a lot of text on your Amazon page including two things I really wasn't crazy about. The first was the video you made. To me, that's something you include on your website for people who've read the book and want to learn more. It's really not a selling point until after someone's read the book. And to some it may be a turn off (like you're trying to hard).

    Second, and more importantly, I assumed this book was self-published and you mentioned earlier on that you made the cover. Why then is there a note "From the Publisher' on your book page? If you're the publisher, I'd strongly recommend you remove that bit. Of course, if this wasn't self-published and you do have a legitimate publisher then no problem, but I don't know any press that makes authors do their own covers.

    The first 300:
    This was my favorite part. I wondered for a moment if the description of the boat was overkill, but considering rivers etc. play a major role, the boat is one of your main characters, so I liked it. So great descriptions. Great atmosphere. Overall, I think it was bang on.

    I only had two small quibbles (surprised?). First the "In Medias Res ..." needs to go. This is telling instead of showing. If readers can't figure it out then the writing isn't doing its job. Second, the Chinese characters. I'm guessing they were included to add an air of authenticity to the story, but again, that's the job of the writing. Adding text no one can read isn't necessary and may alienate your readers.

    James I've spoken plainly here because I think you have a beautiful woman dressed to look like a stuffy librarian. All she needs is a make-over and a sit down with the folks from What Not to Wear and you'll have a dynamite product on your hands.

    Best of Luck!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Nony,

      Your comment is greatly appreciated. You put a lot of time and thought into this critique, and have many pertinent observations about the Amazon presentation as well as cover, blurb and opening.

      Not to quibble either, just FYI. The publisher Old China Books, exists in a limbo of sorts - not Random House, but a real entity still, even if just another face of the author.

      Your four key questions about what a blurb should say are a helpful guide, and the YS blurb is morphing in that direction as we write.

      Book trailers seemed to be everywhere, and I thought I could cobble together something engaging. The other two videos floating about, The Lower Reaches, and China in 1860, are as you say intended for readers after they have started the novel.

      For the makeover that may issue from all this discussion, In Medias Res will go back to being a mere Prelude and move the pricipals forward while trimming the verbosity. The actual first 300 should have started with Chapter 1, where the hero is featured. And a lot of the impedimentia from the print version will be retired so that an eBook reader can get to the text sooner.

      While the Chinese language is integral to the story, it seems less appropriate now for the eBook audience that creates Amazon bestsellers, so the makeover will probably have just the version without the Chinese.

      Glad that the writing at least makes muster. That will remain when a new YS eBook, retitled and madeover, comes to light.

      Thanks again,
      James

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  13. I've got a translation nitpick. "Yao xiao xin" would colloquially be translated as "be careful," and literally be translated as "want small heart," not "have small heart." ("You" - youmeiyou de you - would be "have.")

    You've also got a typo. Lao dai (or laodai), not lodaai. If you haven't had a native speaker with a strong background in both pinyin and fantizi proof the Chinese portions, you should do that. Otherwise, you're going to annoy both those who can understand the Chinese and those who can't. I sometimes read books with significant foreign content, and the authorial choice generally falls into the "provide sufficient context that the reader doesn't require a direct, immediate, translation to know what's going on" camp.

    I personally don't dislike the style of the cover, but I find it very difficult to read on screen. There's not enough contrast between the red and gold, and the font is too small.

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    Replies
    1. Having looked at the actual book, please substitute Wade-Giles for pinyin in my original comment. (I personally really dislike Wade-Giles, but it's less anachronistic, I guess.)

      I notice, though, that the characters sometimes come before the translation, and sometimes after. I would be helpful for the placement to be consistent.

      Delete
    2. Hi Phoebe,

      Thanks a bunch for taking such a close look at this novel. True, "yao" literally is "want," but much of the Chinese and corresponding English is treated idomatically.

      Lodaai is a Cantonese rendering, because Lay Wah-duk 李華德 (also a Cantonese rendering) is Cantonese. Mandarin speakers in the story have their dialogue rendered more conventionally.

      It will not difficult to nitpik about my "translations," as more often I "render" the English as what might be said by another character under similar circumstances, because literal translations are so problamatic.

      The text was arranged so that a non-reader of Chinese could just skip over the Chinese characters and lose nothing from the English meaning.

      Chinese characters come first when the person speaking is Chinese. Chinese language in the narrative usually follows the corresponding English. At least that's what I attempted. Wait until you come to lines that are entirely Chinese! Those occur when someone on deck follows with an interpretation, as would happen in real life.

      The difficulty of understandinjg one another was significant part of daily life then, as it is now - and a faithful depiction cannot be realistic if the characters always understand each other immediately and clearly.

      In the Underfoot, some of the rationale employed is explained, as in the case of Wade-Giles. The Underfoot section for In Medias Res ends with "Pinyin is the current standard, having won the battle on political merit if no other, but Pinyin is as much an obstacle for American speakers as is Wade-Giles. Wade-Giles has its own skewed pronunciation, but was in use at the time of the story and is consistent with sources, so it is used in the novel." I mention there also that Mr. Wade and Mr. Giles have a lot to answer for.

      Yang Shen will not appeal to many readers because of the amount of detail, the mix of cultures, and the idea that the difficulties encountered and the obstacles to be overcome by all involved, Westerners and Chinese, are part of the story.

      Glad to know you have a copy of the book, and I look forward to hearing more from you as you read along. I'm sure there are many more of my mistakes to be considered. Feel free to comment via the About page at the Old China Books site, www.oldchinabooks.com. Your insights will be very much appreciated.

      Best,
      James

      Delete

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