Thumbs up from Piers Anthony

Posted on June 7, 2009 (Subscribe to Blog)

A few weeks ago I sent an email to Piers Anthony, the successful sci-fi/fantasy author best known for his magical Xanth series. A quick potted history: I started reading Piers Anthony's books way back in 1986, when I was sixteen and actively looking for a new author to "collect." I found book #9 of his Xanth series, Golem in the Gears, which at the time was the latest. Today there are 34 books and more to come! For the next ten years I was hooked on Xanth and anything else by the author, including his Incarnations of Immortality, Bio of a Space Tyrant, and Adept series, plus many one-off novels like Shade of the Tree, Macroscope, and Total Recall (the novelization of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie). To date, Piers has 139 books to his name.

Around 1995 or so, having collected many of his books available at the time, I somehow moved on. 1995 was when I met Vanessa, so maybe I had other things on my mind! (We were married the following year.) Anyway, somehow or another my Piers Anthony collection, along with many other books, sidled away to make room for other things. I don't even know where those books went, which now seems a great shame. At some point in the last few years I "reconnected" with Piers Anthony, but have yet to re-build my collection. I've started, and those original Xanth books are fantastic to re-read... but I have yet to acquire and read many of the later ones.

To get to my point, when I finished Island of Fog and self-published it, I always planned to send the book to Piers on the off-chance that he might a) find time to read it, and b) like it enough to mention it in his monthly column. So, a few weeks ago I emailed him (via his website) to ask if it would be okay to send it. I don't like to assume anything; I'm sure he gets whole slews of books sent to him for review.

Piers kindly said yes, by all means send it. He was frank and honest in his response, as I would expect, saying that he would read just enough to "get its measure" and if it was "hopelessly amateur" he'd let me know. I like that he didn't dress up his words with flowery politeness; I don't want to be patted on the head and told "your book is very good, now run along." I want to be told the truth, so frankness is important.

So I sent my book in the mail and went about my business, carrying (as usual) the nagging doubt that my book is just not good enough for the professional market. Even though I've had positive reviews so far, including one from a professional editor and several from smart people who I specifically requested should be brutally honest rather than polite, for me the ultimate test was sending the book to a successful author who has had many New York Times Bestsellers.

After a few days, he wrote:

Dear Keith Robinson,

This is to let you know that I received Island of Fog on May 30, 2009. I was jammed at the moment, clearing my decks for my long June Column and Survey update, so didn't start reading until yesterday.

Now I'm through the first 7 chapters, and have to say that this is an interesting, well-written story. I will surely finish it and review it in my next – July – column. I had not expected to find twelve year old children exciting, but these are. Thanks for showing me this, and more anon.

Piers Anthony

Of course I beamed, printed off the email, and shoved it under Nessa's nose to prove how brilliant I am. I tried to be nonchalant and humble, but it didn't really come off. Anyway, after a few more days I received a new email:

Now I have finished reading Island of Fog. I love it! The story is interesting throughout, and builds nicely to a reasonable explanation for all mysteries. Normally I don't find children's fiction all that interesting; this was an exception.

This is a clean copy, but I did spot a few typos.

[three typos listed]

Congratulations on a fine juvenile novel.

Piers Anthony

It was particularly decent of him to take the time to list those three typos. Every typo I correct in my manuscript makes it that much cleaner.

I asked if I could quote him for promotional and general bragging purposes, and he said yes – hence this post. I'm also very much looking forward to a mention in his long monthly column on his website. But most of all, I like the idea of having a "blurb" on the book cover, a quote something like:

"... interesting, well-written ... builds nicely to a reasonable explanation for all mysteries ... Normally I don't find children's fiction all that interesting; this was an exception ... I love it!" –Piers Anthony

It amuses me that Piers said he doesn't find juvenile fiction all that interesting, when the entire Xanth series probably suits juveniles and young adults more than anyone else. He may argue that the series is written for adults, judging by all the Carry On-style naughtiness! – but, as well as adult characters, there are plenty of young central characters as well, including 12-year-old Dor and 3-year-old Ivy. So the target audience of the series is curious in that respect – perhaps for adults who like to guffaw, or juveniles who like to read "adult" material disguised as innocent fantasy. For me it's a lorra lorra fun with some very serious moments. Many of the earlier books have remained firmly stuck in my mind.

Going off on a tangent a little, Piers mentioned in his June column that he was re-reading and editing some of his old manuscripts for re-publishing. Even books by successful authors can go out of print (look at Enid Blyton!) but in this day and age it's not too difficult to get those books back into print. While his Xanth books, and others, continue to be published "traditionally," Piers is self-publishing many of his old books as well as new ones. I've gotta check those out!

Something that sets Piers Anthony apart from other authors is the way he includes a chapter-long Author's Note in the back of each book, at least with his Xanth series, in which he thanks readers for ideas and proceeds to sum up important events in his life since the last book. I always loved these Author's Notes, and often found myself reading them before the novel itself! I always wanted to do that myself – assuming I was successful enough for anyone to care what was going on in my life. Maybe one day... but if and when an Author's Note appears in the back of my book, blame Piers Anthony for inspiring me. In fact, blame Piers Anthony for making me like fantasy in the first place – because I find most high fantasy incredibly tedious. I liked the Lord of the Rings movies, but could never read the books. I read Terry Brooks' original Sword of Shannara trilogy around the same time as I started Xanth, and while Terry Brooks is an excellent author, by the time I was through I felt that I'd read enough "serious fantasy" to last me a lifetime. Xanth appeals to me because it's light-hearted – and full of puns.

Meanwhile... I've begun work on the second book in the Island of Fog trilogy. I've named it, but want to check out the title to make sure it's not been used recently. If it has, I may feel a need to alter it slightly. In any case I've written a chapter summary of the entire book and, once I've mulled over a few major plot points, I'll start writing very soon.

Comment by BRIAN B. on Sunday, June 7, 2009...

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

Congrats Keith, I've finished the book and it was very good. Very clean, well explained and exciting. I'm going to provide a little feedback which hopefully will not detract from the overall excellence of the book. I deliberately did not read the synopsis on the back cover, I tried my best not to glance at any "not read yet" pages just in case I ruined the story. Which leads me to a couple of small points: The title of one chapter "The Virus Strikes" gives away one of the main sub-plots if spotted in advance; the blurb on the back cover gives away that they were changing into Shape-Shifters -meaning if I had of seen that originally, the whole mystery of what was happening to them (which I enjoyed) would have been spoiled. The last sentence of the book stands out glaringly as a plot resolution and could have been better hidden from prying "thumbers". The last tiny irk was the use of the word "lawn"-somewhat incongruous in homes with the barest of essentials!

All in all though, a fine read.

Comment by MING on Wednesday, June 10, 2009...

Great to hear about Piers Anthony's review! I haven't finished Island of Fog yet but what I have read so far was amazing. I particularly like Abigail's character — more comments to come soon! :)

Comment by PHILIP MANNERING on Saturday, June 13, 2009...

Phew — what a great book! I totally enjoyed Island of Fog (having bought the PDF version for I have several doubts regarding the printed one), think it's amazing. (Will post a full review on the UnearthlyTales.com site soon.) The only thing I didn't like was that the "To be continued...." thing wasn't very satisfying. In mystery books, you have to know the end soon, so Keith, write the second book in the trilogy soon! And do tell us its title too.

When you have a new edition, maybe you could include a page in which there is praise for the book, both professional and reader reviews. I think this kind of thing helps in promoting.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Saturday, June 13, 2009...

Thank you all!

Brian, your comments about "spoilers" made me think. I both agree and disagree. On the one hand I agree that some of the chapter titles might give away a few things if you skim through the book, and the back cover blurb also reveals a major plot point. On the other hand, I deliberately didn't include a chapter list at the beginning for that very reason; anyone who skims through the book looking at chapter titles and back page text deserves to have the story spoilt!! The back page blurb... I've thought long and hard about what to include there. The thing about this type of story is that ANY information could be considered a spoiler. It would be great to say, "Here's a book — just dive in knowing nothing in advance." But people normally buy books after first finding out what it's about. If I give nothing away at all, then why on earth would someone be tempted to read it? It's a balancing act. Plus, someone might love a good creepy mystery but not like fantasy, so it could ruin things to find out halfway through that there are monsters. And the flip side is that other readers might be looking ONLY for books with monsters in, so the back cover blurb reassures them that there are some.

It's very difficult! Anyone else on this matter?

As for lawns... The houses on the island were always there, and always had lawns, so I'm not sure why that's a problem. Maybe "lawn" conjures an image of closely cropped grass, which is the dictionary definition, and maybe this is odd considering they have no gasoline or electric to run their lawn mowers. But to me, a lawn is a lawn whether it's mowed or not. Plus, there are plenty of mechanical mowers that do a fine job. The fact that they have the barest essentials to hand doesn't mean they can't keep their front lawns neat! (A goat would do a good job too, but I didn't mention those.)

Ming, everybody likes Abigail the best, and I have to admit I find her the most interesting and fun to write about. She's naughty but also very bright — almost like a Susie in the Secret Seven books.

Philip, the "To be continued" line was another thing I pondered over. I've had a few comments to say, "Hmm, so it's not a self-contained story?" Well, I think it IS — but there's also more to be told IF you want to read more in the next book. Saying that the story is "to be continued" reassures readers that I'm not planning to just leave it there. But at the same time, I think it finishes off to a reasonable degree.

Oh, and yes, I'll definitely include some testimonials in the next print, including Piers Anthony's words on the front cover!

Comment by BRIANB on Tuesday, June 16, 2009...

Thanks Keith, it was nice of you to come back on all those points. It's always interesting to see differing perspectives. I love the "to be continued" part. I felt the story could almost have ended with the rescue to the lake so the continued adventure was like a great epilogue, a bonus if you will. To know there is more forthcoming whets the appetite. I can assure you however, that my lawn shape shifts into a meadow, then a field with 2 feet high maples within a month of no cutting!

Comment by PHILIP MANNERING on Saturday, July 4, 2009...

Keith, a word on the redesign of the unearthlytales.com website. Though it is certainly professional and attractive looking, I would advise you to make the font size—the Georgia typeface 10pt may be bigger than Times New Roman 10pt but that does not mean it's very big—a bit larger. In fact, I would prefer a sans serif typeface like Arial (as previously), or this: Trebuchet MS, which is very good. Just one question: why have you made the outlines ragged? Doesn't look very good, that. All in all, though, the new look 'looks' great. A real author website!

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