Saturday, 22 December 2012

Moving on ...

I was hoping to have my new thriller Paying the Piper out for Christmas. Sadly that's not going to be the case - way too much editing work required, but I want it to be the best it can possibly be, so I'm not rushing; it will be out just as soon as it's ready and I can move on. I'm living in a weird literary limbo right now and I can't quite bring myself to drop this particular ball - I'm not a good enough juggler to manage several projects at once.

But it's given me time to reflect on other stuff. After over 17 years in our lovely Cheshire cottage, we're thinking of selling up next year and moving on. I've never lived this long in one place before and I'll be sad to leave, but it's the right time to downsize, especially if we want to fund daughter's continued stage career! I'm open to anything property-wise and the internet is an amazing tool - where would we be without rightmove.com? Last time we did all this, it was paper-based, getting sent house details in the post and buying property newspapers. I think we'll stay local but whether it will be old house or new build, estate or not, project or ready-to-live-in, I have no idea. Exciting times! So long as I have a study of sorts, I'll be fine.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Heart and Soul


As I've said before - on this blog and others - it's not write what you know but know what you write. And to do that, you have to live your story, engage with your characters, become the people in whose lives you are interfering when you drop crises on them like bombs and expect them to deal with it. So don't you owe it to your characters to suffer with them?

A big 6 editor once told me that my street-kid Lee sounded way too educated. In reality, she said, he'd be at best poorly-educated with a limited vocabulary and wouldn't necessarily have the words or emotional maturity to deal with situations the way I'd written. She had a point. When I stepped back, I realised that Lee was speaking with my voice and while I'd tried to dumb his dialogue down a bit, it clearly wasn't working. It took me a long time to get inside his head and put his own words into his mouth rather than mine. And once you step inside somebody else's skin, even in fiction, you become that person.

As a reader or a writer, to get that emotional connection requires some effort on your own part. It makes you vulnerable when you walk in someone else's shoes, feel what they feel - the good and the bad. It can make for an amazing experience. But you leave something of yourself behind every time.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Guest Post: MA McRae


Not a Man is the first of my books that I considered good enough to be published. But there are so few agents and publishers in Australia, and of those there are, there are even fewer who admit to looking at unsolicited manuscripts.  While I tried them, one by one, each taking months to reply, I wrote a second book in the series, and then a third. Three full-length books – big books.

My family were never interested in my writing, so it was only after I joined the writers’ site run by Harper Collins, Authonomy, that other people read what I had written. To begin with, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, comments such as ‘Elegant and touchingly surreal,’  ‘Absolutely fabulous writing and story,’  ‘writing of the finest quality,’  and  ‘Absolutely compelling, utterly original.’

But then it was attacked, viciously, as pornography. The comment had me feeling ill and considering taking it down, never to see the light of day again. There were more like that in the next days.  There was even one person who reported it to Harper Collins as ‘abuse.’ 

My story is set in a slum city of a Arabia. It is about a child of the slums, taken to be a bed-boy, and castrated in order that he would ‘stay beautiful.’ Shuki leaves that life at the age of fifteen, but for the early part of the book, sex with his master is a part of his life, the inevitable background to his life.  I only found out about that complaint by accident, as Harper Collins looked at it and dismissed it. 

But there were also those readers who enjoyed Not a Man sufficient that they read it through,  then the second and the third story. People fall in love with Shuki. He is an unusual hero - a person courageous, intelligent and compassionate.

In due course, ‘Not a Man’ gained its position on the Editor’s Desk, winning itself a review. By that time, there were nearly 400 comments. While the Harper Collins review made suggestions for improvement, it was more positive than not. This is an excerpt:

Not a Man is an ambitious and insightful novel; it tells the story of Shuki, a young boy from the slums of Elbarada, a fictional area of Arabia, who is castrated against his will at the age of 10. Shuki’s journey is one of great trial but also incredible strength, courage, and determination, and as a hero, he is fantastic, evoking not only sympathy, but aspiration and reverence. I loved the fact that the operation which is supposed to prevent him from reaching manhood is the very thing that makes him strong and mature. The novel is written in a pared down manner; the narrative reminded me of the prose styling of Paulo Coelho: unaffected and matter-of-fact.

The whole review can still be seen on Authonomy.

By the time of the Harper Collins review, I had an offer from a UK publisher, which I was happy to accept.  Not a Man was published late last year. The sequel, The King’s Favourite followed in June, 2012, and I hope that the third in the series will be ready for publication by June 2013.

The Shuki books have not so far been big sellers, yet, each week, there seem to be a few more sales. So far, the reviews have been overwhelmingly 5-stars, with comments such as this: Outstanding for its originality and depth, M.A. McRae’s Not a Man is an amazing work that will transport you to a foreign world. It will let you experience a lifestyle and culture that is most likely vastly different from any with which you are familiar’ and Shuki's story and the stories of the characters whose lives touch his are still clear in my mind a year later. That's quite a book!’

Does it contain too much sex? Sex is a part of life, and sometimes, for whatever reason, it is needed as a part of the story. Not a Man is not close to pornography – the Harper Collins editor reviewed it as Literary Fiction, but all the same, when I started a different book, I put the sex firmly off-screen.

The Penwinnard Stories: Two of my Penwinnard stories have been published so far – Angel No More  and You Gotta Have Manners.  These stories are set in a Boys’ Home, one that its manager claims to be the best institution of its type in the UK and possibly the world. Its residents are welfare kids, orphans or victims of poor parenting, but the stories are not of faceless victims - they are of Jay and Bob and Sid and Gerry – lively boys full of personality, sometimes of mischief. The stories are much lighter in nature than the Shuki series, shorter, each less than 100,000 words, and the sex is firmly placed behind a veil. 

Which is my best book?  Not a Man is my best book, without question. I made no compromise with Not a Man. It is an emotional journey, not easy to forget.
 

Friday, 9 November 2012

Roots of a Writer?


I'm feeling like some fantasy right now after months of gritty crime stuff. Time, I think, to go back to where I started, maybe?

I used to edit British Fantasy Society publications. Lots of them. For a long, long time. The BFS website used to have pages of covers from past publications (all lovingly scanned in by us oldies who have huge collections going back to the year dot) and a store where you could buy them. When I went to look for them for this blog post, those pages no longer seem to exist, which is a shame as they are not only part of BFS history, but also had some amazing artwork commissioned for the covers, and the books launched (or played a part in launching) the careers of many of the fantasy and horror writers around today. The delightful Nina Allan even mentioned me in her interview in the BFS’ latest journal – things like that make all the hard work worthwhile.

But there used to be an occasional column called Roots of a Writer, where different authors gave their take on writing and how they started out. It was interesting to read what inspired their love of fantasy fiction and what made them start writing it.

So my own personal roots began at university when the small paperback library was obviously stocked by fantasy fans and I devoured such things as Stephen Donaldson and other doorstep trilogies whose names I forget now. I’d grown up reading Heinlein and Wyndham, so it was an easy transition into the fantastic. Then I met a guy called Sean – we were never boy-and-girlfriend, but I can say that apart from my husband (and father/brother of course), he was probably the most influential male in my life as he introduced me to the whole fantasy sub-genre – all the books and the people who loved them. The wargames crowd at university, D&D, live role-playing and everything that fired my imagination from there on in and made me the person I am today. From there it was a simple step into the British Fantasy Society, where I was deeply involved for many years.

I read and write a lot more mainstream now. Since the BFS has aligned more to the darker side of fantasy and horror these days, I have less in common with it, although I remain a member. But I do still write fantasy. I have an almost-completed sequel to YA Edge of Dreams which I think I might go back to, and an adult fantasy I started writing with input from an editor at Orion many years ago. What do you think?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Paying the Piper

Coming very soon to an ebook store near you - well near to your computer anyway ...

This is a follow-on from Hamelin's Child, and is set six months later on Michael's 18th birthday.

Michael is piecing his life back together. But it's hard and sometimes other people's troubles can seem easier to deal with. When he meets Amanda at the cashpoint, it's a chance to focus on someone other than himself, and finding Amanda's missing husband and baby may just be his salvation.

But the shadows of his past won't let him go. The bank account they've set up for him is full of easy cash and Eddie's old boss Carl can help Amanda. And suddenly Michael is in deeper than he ever imagined possible.


If you'd like me to let you know as soon it's available, leave a comment or drop me an email.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Changing Distribution

If you're here because you're thinking of buying one of my books - apologies! I'm in the middle of changing my distribution to sites other than amazon, so some books may be unavailable on other platforms. They will all be back for sale as soon as possible! In the meantime you can continue to buy from amazon (in kindle format) and smashwords (in all formats).

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Enemy of My Enemy

I was going to title this post Shades of Grey, but I reckon we're all a bit sick of grey, aren't we? Although it would be just as apt a title.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Allegedly. Or in other words if you are working towards a common cause - or taken in its literal sense, to defeat a common enemy - you must both be on the same side. But what if there are shades of evil? What if you align yourself with the lesser of evils to defeat the greater of evils? What if you're not sure which is which anyway?

I've done it again with my current WIP Paying the Piper. Yet again, what starts out as black and white soon dissolves into shades of grey, when the bad guys start exhibiting good qualities and the good guys decide that actually the police aren't really going to be of much help here, and annoying little details like the Police and Criminal Evidence Act just get in the way. The police have to make sure that an arrested person gets proper meals and sleep and legal advice. The bad guys just beat the shit out of them and get their information much quicker. Now if you're running out of time and you have a choice, which option are you going to go for?

So Amanda has to decide. Let correct legal proceedings dictate the time it takes to get account information from an internet forum, or ally herself with the charismatic Lenny, who may be more interested in the large sums of money at stake and possibly preventing a star witness from turning up at a drugs trial that's been twelve months in the making. And Michael may just be stuck in the middle.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Of Gods and Machines

Deus Ex Machina - "God from the machine". As wikipedia says, when a plot device comes out of nowhere to solve the mystery/rescue the heroine/save the day. The classic example, for those of you old enough to remember, is the long-running tv soap Dallas in the late 1970s where the entire ninth season was revealed to be all a dream!


In the best novels, the resolution is a gradual build up of what has come before. The actions of the characters determine the path they follow, and everything builds towards a logical climax where all the loose ends come together and the reader thinks Oh, yes, of course. Things that maybe didn't make sense earlier on are explained and the twist, if there is one, makes complete sense in the re-interpretation of the story.

So you can't have the murderer being the identical twin brother of the suspect - unless you've set up the premise early on and sibling rivalry, or whatever, is an integral part of the story. You can't have your character waking up and finding that the whole story was a dream - and you've got to be pretty clever to get away with the viewpoint character being dead.

But for me - as a reader - the resolution of a story also has to evolve from the actions of the main characters. Nothing annoys me more than reading a book where the main character sits around passively while things happen to him or her, and then the story ends after somebody else has made everything right again. Passive characters in themselves are fine - not everyone is an action hero - but they shouldn't be your main characters. Elizabeth Bennet doesn't sit around waiting to be married off - she works out what she wants and goes for it. So does Harry Potter.

Whether there's a happy ending or not doesn't really matter. It's the journey that counts. And a journey where the main character is driving is the best journey to take.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Indie v Trad – The Battle Rages On

I don’t get this indie/trad warfare. Traditional books are better because they are edited. Er – no. Indies have editors too. Indie books are better because they are cheaper. Amazon is often selling best-sellers at 20p these days. Trad writers can write better books because they don’t have a day job to distract them. Nope – a lot of trad authors have day jobs – advances are less, and sometimes non-existent for debut and even mid-list authors in some smaller houses. All the myths on both sides can be debunked with little or no effort.

But why do we have to compare?  Why differentiate at all? From the reader’s perspective, he or she doesn’t care how the book came to market. The reader looks at the cover and the blurb; maybe a sample or a few reviews if they exist. Then it might be the price. Indie authors have less overheads so can price ebooks lower – true. But amazon can fight back with their 20p promotional sales of the big names, so that argument goes out of the window too.

I guess the only time a reader might care how the book got to market is if they have been burned by poorly-edited indie books in the past and have now decided to boycott anything that smacks of self-publishing.  That’s down to the author. Trad writers have editors, yes, but indie writers can too – you might have to buy in editing services (and cover design and anything else you don’t have the skills for), but if you want to be a professional writer, that’s the price you have to pay. And that’s what all writers should be aiming for, surely? However you publish a book, there is no excuse at all for spelling errors, grammatical mistakes or just bad editing.

I would prefer to bring all writers together, not talk about their differences and make allowances. I want to be treated by a reader the same way he or she would treat any other writer - with the same expectations of professionalism and a quality product. Is that too much to ask?

Friday, 7 September 2012

Pond Life

There were big fish and little fish, but Amanda couldn’t make Lenny out at all. He acted like he was in charge of the pond and yet he was way too young to be anything like as high up the food chain as he liked to think he was. Was that good or bad? Amanda didn’t know. But he did seem to have something of a code of ethics which made him a considerably better prospect than psycho Mal.

“Now, if you want to leave, that’s fine. I’m not going to stop you. But I could really use your help to find Michael first. You seem to know what you’re doing with that computer. And you might be a good influence on Caro here. The silly cow’s clearly not going to listen to me.”

“I said I’d go and talk to Mal,” said Caro sulkily, “but I’m not going to let you torture him, Lenny.”

“Why not? It’d do the little shit some good.”

“I love him!” Caro wailed, but Lenny wasn’t falling for that one.

“You don’t love him; you didn’t love me. You just like sex. Have some self-respect, Caroline. If you want to bang someone’s brains out, at least make sure he’s got some first. Either brains or money, anyway.” Lenny stood up. “Go and talk to lover-boy, then. Tell him from me that unless I have Michael back in one piece in the next 12 hours, I’ll give the local drug squad the names and addresses of all the people he supplies, and I’ll make sure everyone knows where the information came from. And if you’re not back here within a couple of hours you can go make your own deals, as you won’t be getting any more from me.”

Monday, 27 August 2012

Jumping On the Bandwagon


What do you type into google when you’re looking for something? The whole thing, or just what you consider to be the key words of whatever it is you’re searching for?

Take Twilight. Yes, I’ve read it and if I’m completely honest, I did rather enjoy it. That’s my guilty secret for the day. I even wrote a blog about it a while back. So if you were looking for all things Twilight online (films, books, T shirts, fake tan, anti-sparkle powder, vegetarian meals for vampires, central heating for werewolves made easy  – I’ll stop now, shall I?), you’d probably just type Twilight into a search engine, wouldn’t you? Or Hunger Games or whatever you’re into.

What else might you get?

How about Fifty Shades of Twilight? Lots of – well, you’ll have to go see for yourself. Or Twilight 2 New Moon parody (What if Edward Hooked Up With Jacob...?) which kind of speaks for itself.

Or maybe Fifty Shades Of Sparkling Vampires With Dragon Tattoos That Play Starvation Games, which defines itself as “a short parody of a spoof wrapped in a wet blanket of irreverence”. I’m not entirely sure how typing Twilight into amazon’s search engine produces that one, but there you go.

Clearly there’s a market for something that instantly captures the zeitgeist and provides alternative viewpoints or satirises the original. Sometimes I wonder how close to the line these authors walk – there are dozens of of Potter parodies and spoofs: Harry Putter and the Chamber of Cheesecakes anyone? And yet JK Rowling’s lawyers are quick to jump onto anything illegal concerning the HP brand, so parodies are presumably perfectly OK, if somewhat dubious in taste at times. To be fair, the blurb for Cheesecakes suggests an innocent romp through Potter-land and it all looks completely tasteful and rather a good read.

If Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction, then maybe trying to be original isn’t the way to sell lots of books. Clearly the more raunchy you can make your parody, the more books you are going to sell, which makes me wonder if erotica really is the next Big Thing. 

Maybe that’s where I'm going wrong. I should be exploring Katniss’ sex life instead, or working out what kind of creature a vampire-and-werewolf liaison would produce.

Ho hum.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Hello Followers!

Somehow I seem to have 82 followers. I don't know where you've all come from recently as I'm sure I only had about 20 last month. I'm really not that interesting, you know. But you are all very welcome here. So tell me what made you visit my little corner of cyberspace. Are you fellow-writers, readers or both? Are you (gulp) fans of my writing? And if so - are you more interested in my dark and nasty thrillers or my YA fantasy series? I'm working on a follow-up to my thriller Hamelin's Child at the moment, called Paying the Piper, but if there are people interested in fantasy Edge of Dreams, I'll also get moving on the sequel Flashpoint, which is nearing completion.

And here? What do you want me to write about? Snippets from works-in-progress? Thoughts on how/what/where/when I write? Or general musings on my weird and wonderful life?

Do let me know! Or just say hello.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Dreaming (is free)

Have you ever listened to somebody tell you about the amazing dream they had last night? No matter how exciting and vivid it was to them, it's utterly boring to everybody else. How do you capture that elusive quality of a dream that made it so compelling while you were living it?


I remember my daughter - aged about three or four - who used to delight in telling me about her dreams. She once spent an entire car journey of over half an hour relating the adventures she and her friends had inside a vacuum cleaner (or Noo-Noo as I believe she called it at the time, in homage to the Teletubbies). More than thirty minutes without repeating herself - I was rather impressed!

But what do your dreams tell you? There are many books and websites that claim to help you interpret your dreams and decipher what it is your subconscious is trying to tell you. I'm not entirely convinced. For example, dreaming of teeth is supposed to signify concerns about your appearance to others, particularly in the case of menopausal women. I dream about teeth a lot (and I'm coming up on the dreaded 5-0 rather too rapidly for my liking), but I strongly suspect my dreams are the result of a childhood accident, and my dental hygienist actually went so far as to say she thought I might be suffering from a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder!

I dream about "escape" a great deal. I'm always in the middle of some all-action adventure, usually involving bad guys. Being chased is supposed to mean I'm running away from something in my life, rather than confronting it and I should face up to my fears. Maybe - I don't know. But they are exciting dreams, if sometimes scary. Perhaps that's why my writing generally has a theme running through it - as I discussed in an Authors Electric blog last year, there's a dark thread that pervades all of my writing, whether it's fantasy or mainstream thriller, there's always an edge: by accident or design, people are never where they are supposed to be.

The first novel I ever wrote was as a result of a dream. Back in my early teenage years, I was able to lucid-dream, to be dreaming and yet be aware of the fact. I got into the habit of stage-managing my dreams, being both director and actor, and playing out different scenarios in an environment that was as good as real. Sadly, I've lost this ability, but I can sometimes still re-enter the same dream and carry on where I left off.

I think all writers do this to some extent. Certainly many of my writer friends write out their dreams or are at least inspired by an event or character in a dream - whether they are exorcising ghosts in the process, I don't know. It'd be nice to think that the act of writing in some way promotes a better state of mental health. In fact writing is recommended as a method of stress-release by many psychologists. Maybe that's why we dream? And that's why we write?


Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Google's Author Information

Came across an article tucked in the back of this month's Writers' News. To be honest, I don't really understand it, but in the hopes that some of you more internet-savvy people might get a grip on it, I thought I'd explain a bit.

Apparently Google is trying to come up with a way that internet content such a blog posts can be verified and attributed back to an author. It uses an HTML tag rel=author to do this. This tag links your post to your verified Google+ profile.

Now this means you have to create a Google+ profile. I did one a while back, but never went any further with Google+ (Circles? What are they all about, then?)

Setting this feature up may mean that Google will rank anything by a verified profile higher in its search engine, which may mean your posts are more easily visible and your content more accessible.

Check the link out for more information on how to set it all up. I think I've done it, so will have to wait a bit and see if it works with Google searches.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Write what you know?

Well that's just plain wrong, isn't it? Write what you know? Personally, I've never been on a spaceship - does that mean I can't write science fiction? And I doubt whether Agatha Christie was a closet mass murderer or Tolkien had hobbits and elves at the bottom of his garden.

Flip it around. Know what you write. Now that sounds better. How can you write a convincing murder trial if you've never seen a court except in films or on tv? They only show you the interesting bits on television and not the hours of tedious apparently irrelevant questions designed to trip up a witness. I once spent an entire day giving evidence for the prosecution - it might sound exciting, but in reality it consisted of endlessly reciting serial numbers of pieces of computer equipment that I'd taken from a house somewhere during the course of an investigation. Presumably defence counsel hoped I'd get a number wrong at some point and they'd then try to convince the jury that all the rest of my evidence must be mistaken too.

But most courts are open to the public. You can sit in the gallery and watch the proceedings and hopefully write your novel with an edge of authenticity. The smell of the place, the tension, the expressions on the faces of the victims and witnesses. The old lady juror trying to stay awake, the coffee machine and the airport-style security.

So you can't find a local spaceship pilot to show you around? Then research. The internet is a marvellous tool - or cheat a little and see how other authors have done it. One of the best novels I know which describes spaceflight is Stephen Baxter's Ark. Although I was less than impressed with the shoddy formatting of this novel in its conversion to an e-book, the story itself is impressive in how Baxter describes spaceflight - both the physics and the more mundane aspects of actually living long-term in close confinement on a spacecraft.

Vampires? Or other paranormal creatures? They may not exist, but there is an accepted tradition now, certain tropes of the genre to describe their behaviour and habits. You can go with the flow and your readers will follow - or you can break out of the mould and take a new sparkly approach. You have a choice.

I've done some weird things in my life so far. I can accurately describe heroin down to texture, smell and taste. But I can do the same with horse manure and cow dung, having walked through the streets of Chester liberally coated in the stuff as a teenager (the Chester raft race still goes on. I participated as a teenager with the Wirral Sub Aqua Club).

And when all else fails, there's always imagination. Use it. Be there on that distant planet or that dark alleyway and your readesr will be there with you.

Friday, 1 June 2012

A Recent Review

I don't think I've ever posted one of my own reviews - but J Wilkin just so "got" what I was trying to achieve...

This novel, with its frightening plot of teenage sexual and drug abuse is taken to the limits. I admit, I was out of my comfort zone entirely; not my usual genre. And yet...I was drawn right down into the dark underbelly of the seedy side of the city. We know it's all there; the drugs and the rent boys, but what makes this book exceptional is the way the author has taken the victim - a nice middle class lad who could be anyone's son, brother, boyfriend - and thrust him into the worst case scenario one could imagine. My heart was thoroughly wrenched.

The author's personal criminal knowledge shines through, the characters are skillfully drawn and it is well paced, leading to a most dramatic finale. It is explicit, but it is real and very chilling.


Thank you!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Writers on the Web

If you're an indie and/or self-published writer, you may have heard such terms as authonomy, ywo, webook or bookcountry bandied around blogs and facebook posts. What are all these weird and wonderful things or places, what do they have in common and what use are they to you?

They are all writers' critique sites, peer-review systems variously sponsored by publishers, arts councils or other sources of funding. The idea is that you upload a portion of your work-in-progress and receive feedback, in return for which you offer feedback on other writers' work. The big shiny carrot is often the "chance of publication" by one means or another; although many may appear to be misleading and offering false hopes to writers, it's often more the case that writers view these sites through rose-tinted glasses and expect (or feel entitled to) a great deal more than is actually on offer. Having said that, some of the sites below may offer assisted publication of one sort or another, or links to CreateSpace and other print-on-demand suppliers.

So are they any good? I guess that depends on what you want to get out of them - and what you are prepared to put into them. And whether you want or need feedback or comments on your writing. Each site is subtly different in terms of user demographic, quality and quantity of feedback offered and operating rules.

I've been a member of all 4 above at different times with varying levels of participation. Bear in mind that these are just my opinions based on my own participation - sites change and evolve and you may have altogether different experiences.  

YouWriteOn started up in 2006 with Arts Council funding. It's a quid pro quo system - you review a randomly-assigned book and earn a "credit" which you can spend to get a review of your book. You read your assigned extract, write a review of a minimum length and then answer author-set questions (designed to "prove" that you have actually read the extract, although it's really very easy to fool the system by copying the text into word and searching for key terms). You also have to award stars for different elements of the book (characterisation, plot, dialogue etc). Pros: It's hard to game the system or mutually-inflate your mate's book, since you can't choose what you read. Cons: You can't choose what you read. Also, in the time I was there, there were dubious levels of consistency in the stars awarded. Carrot: Review of top-scoring books by leading publishers/agents. 

Authonomy started in late 2007 in beta with 100 users, then opened to all in 2008. Owned and run by HarperCollins UK. Here you can read, comment, vote and shelve what you like when you like - and others can do the same for you. Books move up the chart on a complex algorithm based on how often your book is on how many bookshelves and the "talent-spotter" rating of the shelf-owner! Pros: Feedback can be very detailed and constructive. Cons: Easy to game system, plus feedback can often be little more than variations of "Loved it. Shelved it. Can you please shelve my book too?"  Carrot: Review by HC editor for top books, and several books from site have been picked up by HC and other publishers for traditional publication.

Bookcountry is Penguin's offering. Similar in operation to authonomy, you can read and comment on whatever you wish. As an author you can set topics for feedback and get stars awarded for these topics. Books become buzz books and favourites and top-scoring books are featured on the site. Pros: A good place to maintain a presence to attract readers. And feedback can often be detailed and useful. Cons: No real "charts" to climb, if that's what you're after. Carrot: Various agents and editors allegedly scout the site.

Webook. I'm not entirely sure who owns and runs this. It's very different from the first three in that it consists of several rather-complex "rounds". You post a single page and people vote 5* (elevate to next round) down to 1* (toss in bin). Based on a length of time/number of votes, your piece may make it through to the next round, when you can post a chapter for the same fate. And so on. It's a bit like being an agent, I guess. And there's also a list of participating agents you can submit to via the system. Pros: Excellent lesson in what really does work in a first paragraph/first page. Rate 20 first pages in quick succession and you can see your own work in a new light. Cons: It costs $3.95 to enter each piece of writing and your work can score highly then bomb for no apparent reason. Carrot: You can "win", though I don't know what winning means...

Most of the above sites have forums of a sort. Authonomy is the only forum I've participated in to any extent. It's most definitely toxic at times (but then I'm seeing more and more internet flame-wars these days, particularly where writing is concerned), but I have to say I've made some wonderful friends there, many of whom I'm sure will remain friends for a long time. Many of them are also talented writers, whose work I have enjoyed reading.

And if you're a reader, but not a writer, these sites are still open to you. Feel free to look around and comment on other peoples' books. Pure readers are often like gold dust - they have no ulterior motives and nothing to gain by giving good or bad reviews so are often seen as far more honest than the writers.

You have nothing to lose except time!