Dissecting a Debut: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.


Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy
Page count: 431
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 9780802120205
Pub Date: 6/19/12
Agent: Warren Frazier
In Brief: Much has changed in the Persian Gulf since the fourteenth century, and even more since jinn and humans knowingly walked the same streets. Of course, the jinn still walk among the people, but as people are more concerned with their digital freedoms and the growing government efforts to crush them, the jinn go largely unseen. Alif, a young computer hacker, bridges the gap between myth and truth after a highborn girl breaks his heart. His typical teenage troubles lead to a national rebellion and a clash between worlds when he hires a Jinn vampire to protect him and the mysterious book his lover sent him.

A quote on the back cover noted that Alif is “a powerful reminder of how far fantasy has come since Tolkien.” — Jack Womack author of Random Acts of Senseless Violence.

Some of the best fantasy I’ve read in the past year has been set outside the familiar Middle Earth territory. At one time, I loved the harsh winds of the Nordic rugged terrains and the forests cursed or enchanted by ancient celtic mythical creatures. I embraced it because it took me to a world beyond my own, a world where anything was possible. While it’s still fun to read, it doesn’t have the same foreign appeal that it once did.

Wilson took the fantastic elements that I love — ancient myths, magic, a fine line between reality and imagination — and built them into an entirely new setting, a setting that’s real and contemporary, but so far from home that I could not imagine it without Alif as a guide. This book made me think about why a woman chooses to wear a veil and why Western people would immerse themselves in an Eastern culture. It included enough familiar references, like The Golden Compass and the story of Aladdin and the lamp, that encouraged me to find the common denominator between the cultures even though their mythical creatures were strange ethereal images flashing between beast, monster and man.

While the story takes on epic struggles, from a high security prison where criminals starve to death to a sideways world where demons lurk and wraiths have computer troubles, it all begins with a boy who loves a girl, but can’t have her. Alif is just another victim of unrequited love, a simple and true story. Perhaps, as in many fantasies with higher beings, that’s why the jinn decided to protect him.

The deft blending of familiar and foreign wrapped me up into this tale, and left me wanting more. Honestly, when left with the choice to read about orcs or a jinn called Vikram the Vampire, who wouldn’t be more curious about the latter?


Dissecting a Debut: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Genre: YA Fantasy
Page count: 451
Publisher: Random House Children’s
ISBN: 9780375866562
Pub Date: 7/10/12
Agent: Dan Lazar
In Brief: A shaky peace exists between humans and dragons in Seraphina’s medieval kingdom, where dragons walk the streets in human bodies, so as not to frighten people. Prohibiting dragons’ natural form is one of the many rules outlined in the treaty signed 50 years ago. But when a royal family member is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion, just days before the treaty anniversary celebration, Seraphina must be careful to hide the truth about herself, even as she comes to realize that she’s the only one who can help the village maintain its peace with dragons.

I had heard fantastic things about this book from other people in the publishing industry. I was expecting some awesome writing, the kind where you read a sentence and then pause to think, wow. What a beautifully crafted sentence. It’s hard for a book to live up to such high expectations, of course, and this one didn’t make that kind of impression on me. The writing is very good, but it’s not something you notice sentence to sentence. It’s in the world-building, which is crafted as well as any immaculate sentence, and strong world-building is on most SF/F editors’ wish lists.

The kingdom of Gorred in Seraphina is a strange medieval town, where knights have been banished and dragons walk around as people, with only a silver bell to distinguish them. An additional “garden” within Seraphina’s mind is even more complex with grotesques who each have unique talents that keep the garden clean and tidy. The outlying lands beyond Gorred, home to dragons or to foreign people of eastern cultures rather than the typical european that you see in SF/F, complete this fascinating worldview so unique in YA fantasies (with the exception of a few authors, like NK Jemison).

As unique as Seraphina’s world was, Rachel Hartman crafted it in a way that felt natural. (I mean, of COURSE there’s a secret speakeasy where rogue dragons and humans drink beer together!) This is something that takes time and understanding. It’s very similar to crafting a deeply character-driven novel. The author must get to know the characters and write them the way they demand to be written. In the same way, Hartman knew every inch of the kingdom, its politics, stereotypes, religion, and customs.

In an interview with The Enchanted Inkpot, Hartman said she had been writing in this world for eight years. She wrote a comic set in Gorred with different characters, so she has characters in the world that never made an appearance in this book, but she knew what they were doing, and what was happening in their kingdoms. This knowledge about every piece of the the society allowed her to show the world to the reader without explicitly explaining how things worked in Gorred. I encourage you to really think outside the plot as you’re writing. Develop minor characters to find out what their ticks are, build neighborhoods that your leading lady might get lost in down the road, and let your imagination, not your plotline, determine what happens as you explore the world you’ve created.

It’s hard to review this book without giving too much away, because with each page, the reader learns something new about the plot. But I think I can say this much. Seraphina’s mother was a dragon and her father was human, which makes the girl’s very existence something immoral and illegal among both species. As the kingdom’s music mistress, she’s right in the thick of politics and fear when the royal prince is found dead without his head. She must hide her tell-tale scales, but a little bit of romance, and a lot of concern for her kingdom and its people prevents her from staying in the shadows. She’s a true heroine in a fantastic conflict between dragons and humans, emotions and logic, art and intellect, love and persecution.

Dissecting a Debut: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Genre: Historical Fiction
Page count: 320
Publisher: Riverhead (Penguin)
ISBN: 9781594488450
Pub Date: 9/4/12
Agent: Jenni Ferrari-Adler
In Brief: Elsa never felt a particular urge to leave her family’s homegrown theater in Door County, Wisconsin in the 1930s, but she does feel the urge to act. So when an opportunity to arises to marry an actor on his way to LA, Elsa takes it. She slowly sheds Elsa’s life as she takes on new roles and a new name, Laura Lamont. But the old Elsa continues to surface with people from her past, and Laura is torn between who she was and who she has become for Hollywood.

In an early scene of this book, Elsa accompanies her husband to a party that his studio is throwing. While he hurries off to join his actor pals, Elsa is left alone — about 7 months pregnant and wishing she could look more like the actresses walking by — while she contemplates the crowd and her own dream of becoming part of it. This moment, right before the studio owner walks up to her to say he’ll make her a star named Laura Lamont, that quiet, lonely moment stands out to me. Because every star starts there, don’t they? Every actress at an LA party, every writer at writing conference or book party, they all start in a room of successful people, wondering how to get there. This book focuses on the getting there … and then perhaps more humbling, the after.

Fame is an interesting choice for a debut novel. I attended the release party a couple weeks ago at BookCourt, where the author Emma Straub has worked for several years. If Straub had ever had a moment like Elsa’s, where she is standing alone in a crowd of fabulous strangers, it came long before the release party. Editors, journalists and friends of Straub crammed the room, weaving through cliques of literary elite, holding champagne bottles above their heads. In the middle of it all, Straub was beaming with a pink puff of feathers dancing on her head as she signed copies of the book held out by excited readers. It was every author’s dream release party.

Of course even authors in the spotlight struggle beneath the surface. The sales have only started to take off, and there’s always the question of how many will come back in returns, of whether the author can’t quit that day job after all. And an internal struggle; was this the book the author actually wanted to write? The one she dreamed of publishing in adolescent musings of future accomplishments? If Straub was struggling with these questions, she was keeping them at bay for her readers, giving them insight to Laura Lamont’s struggles instead.

Laura Lamont plays the part of an actress well, and she uses this mirage to face her father’s death, her husband’s death, betrayals by her friends and family, the growing scrutiny of the industry as she ages. She begins to lose sight of who she actually is, and tapers that worry with anxiety pills. Straub carefully builds the crescendo of Laura’s loss of self, as she mires into depths of drug and denial.

The book is beautiful in its vintage scenery: Hollywood, the home theater on the Wisconsin farm, the dazzling mid-century homes, but those places all feel like a mirage. A reviewer on Goodreads said that Straub glossed over Hollywood, that Elsa would have — in reality — slept with an executive to become Laura Lamont. I agree that Straub only dusted over the controversies of the industry, she depicted Hollywood through the rose-colored glasses of a fond memory. However, she did tackle the controversies of self, something that can be set in any time period and ring true.


Laura reaches her personal climax in a botched half-attempt at suicide, followed by a decision to take responsibility for those around her. She reconnects with her inner-Elsa in a stage performance, coming to an understanding, I think, that she and Elsa had always been the same self. It felt like a soothing harmonic tone at the end of the rising crescendo. I had been expecting a clash of cymbals. Laura Lamont’s fairy tale ending after all of her strife felt like a deeper lie to me than her rosy Hollywood.


Despite my disappointment in the ending, this book is a clear winner in terms of publishing potential. The vintage Hollywood details would catch the eye of any editor. The analysis of self — public vs. private, mother vs. actress, country girl vs. city star — is an obvious topic of discussion for reviews, book club gatherings, panels. On top of this, as a staffer at a prominent independent NYC bookstore, Straub has connections in publishing. Editors like to publish the work of people they know, not because they think it’s better or they want to keep their circles tight, but for the same reason that the average reader would buy a book written by someone from his hometown. It’s an interest in what’s familiar and a gesture of support.

Dissecting a Debut: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Genre: Adult Paranormal Romance
Page count: 592
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780670022410
Pub Date: 2/11/11
Agent: Sam Stoloff
In Brief: Diana Bishop, a witch who has shunned her magic to focus on her academic accomplishments as a historian, unlocks a hidden bewitched manuscript that all creatures — witches, vampires and demons — have been seeking. The manuscript’s secret is tied to her own magic and to her relationship with an ancient vampire, who protects her from the other creatures who start following her after she returns the manuscript. Diana has to learn how to use her magic and unravel the mystery of the manuscript.

The main thing that stood out to me about this book was that I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. Granted, it was a poor choice to experiment with an Audible edition. I kept wanting to read faster, but the narrator keeps up a nice slow and steady pace. With the length of A Discovery of Witches combined with the constant feeling of suspense it invokes on the reader, I spent an entire week carrying around my kindle and earbuds as I did the laundry, made dinner, and commuted back and forth to work.

Have you ever heard the comment from editors or agents that they know a manuscript is good when they miss their subway stop while reading it? That’s why this book got attention. There’s nothing particularly beautiful about the writing, and the characters feel like pieces of other characters we have read in other vampire, witch, demon, and other otherworldly stories. But from the moment Diana pulls out the bewitched manuscript, which she is holding in the very first sentence of the book, the reader is constantly aware that something is about to happen and must keep reading until it does (at which point, something else is about to happen).

Part of that is because Harkness uses two different genres of suspense. She deftly balances the suspense of unknown danger (a la Harry Potter series) and the suspense of romance (a la Fifty Shades). It’s hard to miss the similarities between Matthew, the ancient, wealthy vampire who is naturally protective and falling for Diana against the odds, and the Fifty Shades dom Christian with all his wealth and controlling habits. As sales have proven, this sort of passionate but dangerous romance catches a reader’s attention.

But even without the romance, the plot is captivating, and it follows a very clear line from rising action to climax and then denouement. Other witches are menacing, Diana’s magic is sparking, her aunts are worrying, and a vampire who hates witches is helping her. Diana starts to become more physically active, Matthew becomes more protective, witches send death threats. Diana escapes with Matthew only to be captured and tortured to the brink of death, wherein she discover’s a major piece of the secret.

Personally, I was wooed by the historical details, how Diana is related to Bridget Bishop, the first to die in the Salem Witch Trials, how Matthew has lived since 500 AD has known most historical figures since that time, how the manuscript is the otherworldly equivalent to Darwin’s Origin of Species. The historical details feel like bonus, but they’re what would make this book unique to me in a market flooded with vampire romances. They’re also what make this author stand out. Harkness is a historian with a doctorate from U.C. Davis. She has published a history book on alchemy (among others) and has won several awards for her research. Actually, aside from her character’s tenure at Yale, she sounds a little similar to Diana Bishop…although she clearly doesn’t avoid magic judging by this debut novel, which made it to No. 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

The second book in this series, Shadow of Night, released this summer, and I would argue that it is better. I definitely see improvement in the writing and I think Harkness was really in her element as a historian in the second book since it was set in 1591 rather than present day. Harkness’ work is an excellent example of a writer molding her academic or professional strengths to a commercial purpose.

Part 2. The Importance of Platform: Fiction

Last week, I posted about the importance of platform for a nonfiction author. But platform is leaking into fiction as well, albeit in a slightly different form. At the beginning, the quality of the writing, and whether the book will fit into the marketplace at the time, is what matters. Agents and editors looking for fiction usually do not care whether the author has an MFA from Missouri or is an engineer who writes on nights and weekends. After a publisher buys your book, however, editors expect you to connect with the readers leading up to the publication date. Book tours have fallen out of favor due to the effort and expense required for not a lot of sales in return. Twitter and blogs have crept up in their place along with flash promotions and online reviews.

Many novelists would prefer to stay home working on their next book and leave all the promotion to the publisher’s publicity department. While the publicists can book interviews for the author with the media, or send out press releases and review copies of the book to newspapers and magazines, reaching out to the actual readers is something that only authors can do best. Leah Scheier started a book review site before her debut took off, which probably gave her a few followers and a knack for blogging before she launched her author site: http://www.leahscheier.com/. On these sites, authors share updates on their writing progress, offer additional background information on the world they’ve created in their books, host give-away contests, and of course, link out to retail sites where people can buy the books. Some are personal, some are strictly informational, and some send visitors into the realm of the book. Search for a few of your favorite authors; chances are they have a website.

Building a website to promote your novel is a great start, and is practically required these days. To stand out among the other novelists out there, you’ve got to do a little more. Incidentally, Michael Hyatt, author of Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, posted on Friday his seven-step approach to How to Launch a Bestseller. Although he wrote a nonfiction book, he focuses on his actions leading up to publication, which all apply to fiction as well. He emphasizes the following:

  1. Set specific goals
  2. Assume personal responsibility (don’t completely depend on the publisher for promotion)
  3. If you have an existing following, ask for their input early, while your still working on the manuscript
  4. Secure endorsements
  5. Form a launch team
  6. Focus the promotion (to a particular time period or place)
  7. Offer incentives for buying/reviewing/buzz

Hyatt goes into a lot more detail on how he applied each of these steps in his post here,  if you’d like to read more. For those of you lamenting the disappearance of the traditional book tour, I would add that I’ve lately read a few author interviews on some popular book-review blogs. One author said the interview was part of his own virtual book tour, which struck me as a fantastic plan.

If you’re planning on publishing a book, you should consider your platform — do you have followers on a blog or Twitter? What comes up when you type your name into Google? Authors can’t hide behind their pen these days, and publishers expect more.