Thursday, April 5, 2012

Terra Incognita: The Abyss

Author: Joshua Mays
Genre: Dark Fantasy
How long it's been on sale: 10 months
Current price: $.99
Marketing: I've connected with people on Facebook. Given out 50 copies at dragoncon. Sent various emails to review sites.
Total sold so far: 100
Link to book on Amazon: Terra Incognita: The Abyss

Product Description:

Benjamin Harking is an independent teenager who often comes home from his boarding school to an empty house. During one lonely Christmas vacation, he finds a hidden room, secreted away beneath the stairwell. Inside is an ancient book that opens a doorway into a dark world of myth and magic. Forced on a quest for four magical items, Ben will face danger at every turn, meet new allies, and do whatever it takes to complete his goals before the evil Azothothus has a chance to exact his plans -the awakening of the primeval beings known only as the Hollow. 

First 300 Words:

Benjamin Harking stood on the threshold of his home and knocked on the half-open door, reluctant to enter. The hollow sound was amplified by the size of the foyer and the lack of furniture. He felt awkward coming back to this place; even after almost two years it hadn’t yet become home to him. The sudden change in lifestyle had come so quickly that he still wasn’t used to the idea of being rich. His dad had been offered a major promotion and the next thing Ben knew, they had moved into this oversized house and he was off to boarding school to get a “proper” education. The house was so large that his family had once gone a full day at home without seeing each other. It was over a hundred years old, which made it a little creepy on late nights when everything was still and quiet. The creaks and groans were loud enough to stir them from a deep sleep.

The Victorian-style mansion was located in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, near Morgantown.  They were miles from their nearest neighbor and even farther from any semblance of civilization. Ben missed his friends from Papillion, Nebraska, but he understood his father couldn’t turn down that promotion. He knew that he couldn’t blame his family for this, but it didn’t change how he felt. He wondered if they realized what they had asked of him, to give up his entire life in an instant, just to be dropped into a new and unfamiliar one. Did they understand what it felt like for him to have everything he loved taken from him and replaced with something new and unwelcoming?

As his suitcase hit the hard marble floor, he called out, “Is anyone here?” The sound of his voice had a slight echo in the vastness of the hallways and corridors, but no one replied.

Vicki's Comments: First, I like some aspects of the cover. I like the symbol, and I think the weathered/grunge look is good. There are some things I don't like about the cover. I don't think the overall design is working. In order to explain what I mean, I'm going to break the cover down into a few simplistic shapes.

Here you can see the basic design of the book cover. The cover is divided *almost* in half by the top of the paper that the title is on. It's not quite in half, but it's close enough. When you're dividing up your space, it's best not to divide right in half. It's a design thing.

The top of the paper is also at a slight angle, which creates an uncomfortable feeling for me. It's not enough of an angle to create an interesting shape, but just slightly off, like it was meant to be straight but someone bumped it. The edge of the paper is too close to both sides, running off the edge on the one side, creating another uncomfortable element.

I rather like the symbol on top, but it's closer to the bottom paper thing than it is to the top of the page, which again makes me uncomfortable.

Now, let's look at the basic design on another fantasy novel, one that was traditionally published.

This book has the same round symbol element, however they broke up the type to the top and bottom and used a very linear font to create rectangular shapes, rather than using a font that created more organic or curvy shapes. Basically, all they did was "frame" the middle with type on top and bottom, and they broke up the space into thirds rather than in half.

Now, I'm not suggesting you copy this cover exactly, however, there's nothing wrong with creating a similar design. There's also nothing wrong with moving things around and trying something new. Just be aware of some of the basic design rules. Here's a great video talking about composition.

On to the description. I think there are many things in the description that could be applied to a lot of fantasy novels. I'd like to know more about what sets this book apart from the rest. A magic book. A quest. A world to save. These things are pretty universal. I'd rather find the unique things about this book and put a different spin on the description. But don't just take my word for it, because I'm much better at graphic design than I am at nit-picking blurbs. And I'm not much of a fantasy fan, so my opinion means even less.

The beginning isn't terrible, but I would like less back story and more of the scene. I'd like the back story to be given to me in little bits. But that's just me. Others might feel differently. I do think it's well written. And I like that your main character has conflict right away - coming home to an old creepy house with no one inside. Good job on that.

I think with a cover re-design, tightening up the blurb, and possibly cutting the back story from the beginning, the book will be much improved. What do you guys think?


  1. The cover is a problem-- it has two competing styles, and really doesn't seem to connect me in any way to the blurb and sample.

    I feel as if the "thing he is battling" is buried at the end of the blurb. I'm intrigued to know about this stairway, book, and a quest. But what IS the quest, and WHY is he questing? I "sorta" get that at the end... but it's at the END and very vague.

    The first 300 section? Too many extra words, way too much tell vs. show. Exposition at the very opening has to be so riveting I can't stop reading, or it loses me from the get-go. The solution would be ACTION or DIALOGUE... or much more rich description... which is harder to pull off.

  2. The typography on the cover had a real pirate feel to me -- maybe it was the background, too, that gave it a texture of old treasure maps? That then clashed with the description which is never a good thing. Immediately, I'm not sure what I'd be getting. I like the cover, but I'm not sure it's right for the book. Also, on covers, the most important aspect is that it pop visually when it's thumbnail-sized. I recommend using an image editing tool to put a thumbnail of your cover into a screenshot of an Amazon "people who bought this" list or an Amazon best-seller list. Under those circumstances, does your cover stand out or does it get lost? Brown is not typically a good color for catching people's eyes in a mix of other products.

    On your description...well, it's really generic. (Sorry if that sounds harsh -- I tried to think of a nicer way to say it, but nothing else sounded any better.) I'd want to know what makes the story unique, why I ought to care about your character and instead I'm thinking, big house, Christmas vacation, are we sure that hidden room isn't really a wardrobe? That's not to say that a Narnia knock-off might not be interesting, but it's not compelling enough that I would want to invest my time into it. I'd work on bringing character into the blurb.

  3. I just wanted to pipe up that I think culling down the product description would be helpful, too. I started skimming right around the second line, which is a shame, because when I forced myself through, I am TOTALLY the target market for this book. I cut out everything that wasn't important from the description and this is what was left:

    "One lonely Christmas vacation, Benjamin Harking finds a secret room beneath a stairwell. Inside is an ancient book that opens a doorway into a world of myth and magic. Facing danger at every turn,he must stop the awakening of the Hollow."

    The cover caught my eye. It doesn't tell me anything about the story, but it is cool.

    I think that the biggest problem comes with the first 300 words. Exposition is tough. MAN, it is tough to write and make it interesting... Right now, this exposition has almost a "summary" tone. It could almost be a wiki article. I would love this information to be revealed as the story unfolds instead of just having it plunked down on my plate like the veggies I have to eat before I can have dessert. Is it too late to tweak? Can we start with the dessert and maybe have some apple slices slipped in while I'm not looking?

  4. Chime in say that:

    a-Victorine's right about the cover.

    b-Just bought it. I've been looking for young adult portal fantasies all over. This looks like it fits the bill. Can't wait to read!

  5. The title is a problem for me - made me think of pirates rather than fantasy. The cover doesn't help much either.

    Reading the blurb, I immediately thought "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". How is this story different? How is it BETTER?

    The first 300 words did not hook me at all. If I picked up the story, it would not be to read about the protagonist's father's career prospects. How is that even relevant to the main story? Take us through the house instead? show us the main characters fear and unease. Allow his imagination to speculate on some of the terrible people who might have lived there. Something like that maybe?

  6. I agree a hundred percent about the blurb and the backstory/exposition. Both are just too weighty to engage.

  7. I absolutely love the cover, but it does not say fantasy to me at all. I was thinking of some historical, epic journey to a new land.

    The blurb is very generic for fantasy. It definitely needs to grab the reader and it doesn't.

    I don't mind the backstory in the beginning. It gives me a sense of what Benjamin is feeling as he stands in the foyer of this empty, echoing old house. It's well-written and it draws me right in to the main character. I can feel all his frustration, unhappiness, and even loneliness right in the first few paragraphs. Well-done.

  8. This is my opinion, take what works for you and ignore the rest. All comments are a reflection of the presented information and not a commentary on you or the whole of the book which I have not read.

    The Cover - Not bad, but like another person said, it gives off a treasure map vibe. Nothing screams fantasy here. See what Victorine said.

    The Blurb - Generic. Off the top of my head I can think of a half dozen similar stories that I've already done. Stories that were written by authors I know and love - they are your competition here. Your blurb needs to convince me that you have written something different than they have. I need to know from the blurb that you are not another spam-pub author with a virus-infested kindle manuscript (they exist and they scare me).

    What really bothers me is "forced on a quest" - instantly, I call shenanigans and roll my eyes. "Forced? Really? No one made him open the magic cupboard."

    You never show the stakes in the blurb. Instead of telling me he's forced, lay it out and show me. I want to see the motive force for the plot in the blurb. What's pushing Ben to make this choice? Does he need to save someone? Is it his only way home? Is he poisoned and dying? Why does he need to go on this quest?

    If you don't have an answer for that, give up on the book and write your next one. BECAUSE is not an answer.

    The Opening - This is strike three. If you had a fabulous blurb I'd be a lot more forgiving, but you don't. You have an interesting but not stellar cover, a generic blurb, and spam-pub pricing (If you only have one novel out why is it selling for 99 cents? That's loss leader and short story pricing, but I digress). So you're coming into the opening 250 with nothing going for you, and this fumbles.

    I'm a cross-over reader. I read fantasy, but it's not my first choice, so when I skim I'm looking for something that really grabs me. I want a unique Voice, or a style that's very engaging when I read fantasy. Your style is neither.

    The opening reads like a Tolkien rip-off. I love Tolkien, I have multiple copies of all his books including the short stories and essays, and you aren't Tolkien. Don't write like him. Write like yourself and find your own Voice.

    If I were editing this, I'd start with "His suitcase hit the ground..." It's a strong action for the setting and leads right into a quick description of this vast and empty house. Fit the back story in elsewhere. It's called integrating, and if you have trouble with it I recommend grabbing some novellas for your weekend reading. The authors pack things in better (I particularly like Zoe Archer's style).

    If you're not a novella fan, check out Neil Gaiman (Good Omens or The Graveyard Book are both good) and see how he integrates everything in.

    Read, think, and then rewrite this opening so you have action and a minor hook within the sample pages. The worst mistake I've seen on ebooks is ending the sample without a hook. Maybe the book is amazing and we should all read it, but if your sample pages end with something like this where nothing has happened and I don't care about the character yet no one is going to click the buy button.

  9. Cover: I love the actual image, and am assuming it represents the old book the protagonist finds in the house. But at first glance, it looks like an uncentered photocopy or image scan of an actual book cover.

    Blurb: It does a good job of outlining the plot, but in doing so reads like a generic fantasy book. Good Guy, Discovery, Quest and/or Battle to stop Bad Guy.

    While the blurb does a good job of telling me about Benjamin, it tells me nothing about the supporting characters. It would help to know a little more about the allies.

    First 300 Words: It reads fine, but does not hook me whatsoever. All I learn is it's an large, old, empty house, and he's come back from boarding school.

    I would like to know more about Benjamin's life now, his friends (or lack thereof), his plans for this vacation (or lack thereof), something active and interesting.

    If your intention is to hint that this is no ordinary house, tie that into the sections that describe the house. Use foreshadowing, hint at the secrets the grand old house holds, and don't make the mistake of describing it as just an old Victorian house.

  10. Hey everyone, I'm the author of the book, and I've started taking your advice into consideration. Here's the blurb i reworked based on the things you've said.

    After moving into a creepy old house, Benjamin Harking finds an ancient book riddled with evil spells, stories of demons, and a gateway to another world. Journey with Ben to this unknown land, as he finds his way to Eden, Atlantis, and gets caught in the middle of a war to stop an ancient evil that has set out to reclaim this world as it own.

    What do you think?"

  11. I don't have the problem with the cover that others do (which means zippety do dah). I do feel like your product description doesn't connect me with Ben and what he most wants/fears in the world that will be tested by the portal (which is a totally cool idea). I'm guessing his internal conflict has to do with not wanting to live his life on his own, since he comes home from boarding school to an empty house (the ultimate latchkey kid). On the other hand, he probably also wants to be completely self sufficient because he is a teen (and because his family obviously isn't there for him). Tell me what the exploration means to him (biggest fear, biggest hope), and I'll be there.

  12. Hi Joshua! I went and had a look at the book on Amazon itself, and I was struck by how TEENSY the description is. If you have an Author Central account, you can log in from there and edit your book description. (This overrides the KDP description.) You can add bold and italics to the description if you'd like, and you can also add some quotes from reviewers.

    Don't worry too much about making the description sound 100% concise and accurate. The blurb as you have it is a little dry for my interest, so I'd say add some flavor by mentioning one of the fantastic creatures or specific challenges.

    1. I wanted to add that you have great reviews and you should be proud of yourself for writing a book people have responded to so favourably!

      That being said, I'd recommend you tighten up your Author Central profile, just a bit, to show some confidence and convince readers that Book 2 will be out shortly and just as great. :-)

  13. I like parts of the cover, but I would strongly consider changing the text style of the words. It doesn't work very well with the overall design of the cover. I also agree with some of the other posters: play around with the design formatting. The block format looks awkward to me.

    The blurb for the back of the book is, frankly, uninspiring. I've read a few too many books that share a similar theme. The quest aspect is generic, and there's nothing in there that sends a chill up my spine or hooks me in. That's for your original hook. I also read your updated blurb. To be honest, it wouldn't draw me in either. It sounds more like a travelogue to me than anything else; there is adventure implied, but it's unfocused and indirect. Try reading the blurbs of other books that you enjoy and see how they handle it. There's no spice, no life in what you've written. Expand it, and hit the highlights of the book. Focus on the main plot line. We don't need to know where he'll go in this quest of his, but we need a better picture of what the stakes are. You need to draw us in--hook the reader. What makes you, the author, most excited about this book--and how might you capture that excitement on the page? What do we need to know about this character's journey? As far as I'm concerned, it still sounds like fairly generic fantasy.

    All for the first 300 words. My first impression is that you started this book in the wrong place. It's nicely descriptive, but why should we invest in this description of yours? We know nothing about his life besides the empty house and the fact that this is a fantasy of some kind--magic will ensue pretty quickly. I know next to nothing about the character, and the setting details aren't enough to grab my attention. If I picked this book up in a store and read the first page, I probably wouldn't read any further...or I'd skip to the end and see what happened there. I hate to say it, but I'd play around with where the book starts. Does anything strange happen before he finds the all-powerful book? If so, start there. Set the stage with the character doing something interesting, or hint at more than a lonely kid coming home from boarding school. You've got a lovely dose of back story that we don't need.

    Every scene that is written should move the plot and/or character arc forward. Ask yourself whether a given sequence of events is necessary to the story. If the answer to that question is 'yes', follow that up with: 'Do I need this now?' If something is distracting or unnecessary, cut it. There is no tension, no spark in your opening. It's not an in medias res start; there's nothing to make us care about the character. He strikes me as a sulky, typical teenager, and I'd expect a slow start from this novel. As a reader, I don't need flash and glitter...but I need more substance, more life than this.

  14. I got hit with a Harry Potter vibe, in addition to the standard fantasy "collect four magic items and advance to the next level to battle Big Evil" thing. I think it's the boarding school/neglected child/stairwell combination that did it.

    I agree with the others that you should seek out what sets your story apart within the fantasy quest genre, and make sure that's in the blurb.

    The opening is pure background, and IMHO better chopped. Start where the real action begins, the thing that changes Ben's boring, latchkey life, and use a few well-placed details along the adventure-filled way to hint at what his life was like before -- though, honestly, I suspect it doesn't matter to the story whether he's a newly rich kid being ignored by his parents when he comes home from boarding school or a happy-go-lucky farmer boy in a big, loving family or anything else.

    Good luck!


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