In this series of interviews, I’m talking to a bunch of people who are the lifeblood of the #indieauthor. Their hard work and time, their enthusiasm and commitment, enables the #selfpublishing community to thrive. Simply put, if they didn’t review and promote our books, no one would know about us. Which is why I thought it was time to turn the tables and ask them the questions.
My guest today is Michael from Track of Words. Michael’s site is a regular treasure trove of useful topics for readers and writers of speculative fiction: apart from reviews there are author interviews, articles, resources for writers and lots more. Plus, Michael reads a wide variety of books not always covered in more traditional circles. Let’s find out more about him.
1. Tell us about yourself, Michael.
Hi Phil, thanks for having me. It’s a little strange being on this side of the interview, but fun! My name is Michael Dodd, and I run a website called Track of Words where I write book reviews, interview authors, and generally talk about the sort of books (mostly SFF) that I love. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now, with over 1,900 posts on the site, which is hard to believe really. In my day job I’m a technical writer for a software company, and I live in London in a flat that’s nowhere near big enough for all my books (and guitars).
2. What prompted you to start blogging and reviewing?
It’s a bit of an odd story, really. I was made redundant at the very end of 2013, so in early 2014 I was looking for something to take my mind off the painful tedium of applying for jobs. Living in London is expensive at the best of times, and without a job there wasn’t a lot that I could afford to do other than read. A friend had bought me a ‘Book Lover’s Journal’ for Christmas, so I thought I’d use that to keep track of the books I read that year, and challenge myself to write down some thoughts about each one. Worried that I’d get bored partway through the year and give up, I decided to start a website as a way of trying to keep myself accountable. I honestly wasn’t planning on becoming a blogger, I just wanted something to concentrate on.
I got about 40 views on the site in the first month, then by the end of 2014 I’d somehow hit 13k for the year - by that point I had the bug, and didn’t want to stop! It was a couple of years before I did my first author interview, and really I spent the first few years figuring out what I wanted the site to be. I started off reviewing pretty much everything I read - my first review was for a middle grade book called Knightley & Son by Rohan Gavin - before gradually starting to focus on SFF books. For a couple of years I mostly reviewed Warhammer fiction, which I used to read a lot of, but these days I try to cover a reasonably wide range from across fantasy and science fiction, and occasionally horror.
3. How do you support #indieauthors, and indie publishing?
If I’m honest, I feel a little like the odd one out in this great series of interviews you’re running, as I don’t really think of myself as an indie and self publishing advocate in the way bloggers like Nick and Jodie are. I haven’t read or reviewed much from self-published authors (although I’m a fan of SPFBO winner Sofie Tholin’s Primaterre series), and I do cover quite a lot of trad-published books, although I have always tried to support smaller, indie publishers where I can. That might be reviewing short fiction from indie presses like Shortwave Books and 18th Wall Productions, and magazines like Clarkesworld and Grimdark Magazine, or covering tie-in fiction from Black Library, Aconyte Books or Rebellion.
Like I said, I used to read a lot of Warhammer fiction (published by Black Library), and there’s a whole host of BL-related content available on Track of Words, while in recent years I’ve been really impressed by the books that Aconyte are putting out. IP or tie-in fiction has tended to get a bad rep in the past, but I think that’s largely unfounded, and with nerd culture becoming ever more mainstream I think more people are giving these books a go. Obviously there’s still a big difference between IPs like Warhammer, Star Wars and Marvel - owned by huge corporations - and actual indie publishers, but there aren’t that many people reviewing and blogging about IP fiction so I’m happy to support this sort of thing.
But yeah, indie publishing in particular is a fascinating element of the industry and the community, and something I’m increasingly interested in…as well as something I should definitely do more to support. Following reviewers like all the great folks you’ve been interviewing, and getting to know indie and self-published authors, has been a really interesting experience over the last couple of years, I just need to take the plunge and read more!
4. In a typical week, how much time do you spend reading and blogging?
This has definitely changed over the years, as my enthusiasm and energy levels have waxed and waned. For the first few years I averaged maybe two or three posts per week, before hitting my peak in 2018 when I published something almost every day - 348 posts - and then, exhausted, swore I’d never do anything so stupid again. Since then I’ve gradually reduced the amount of writing I do, trying to find the right balance at any given time. These days I aim for two posts per week, whether those be reviews, interviews, articles or whatever. At the moment I probably spend at least an hour or two reading most days, sometimes a lot more, and maybe an hour or so either writing or doing some other kind of work towards the website.
5. Do you have a favourite type of book? Or genre? Can we tempt you to list some favourite authors?
I’m a bit of a reading magpie to be honest, and I don’t think I could say there was one type of book that I prefer over all others. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved SFF though, so from a genre perspective that’s certainly where I’m most comfortable, but I don’t think I could confidently say that I prefer fantasy or science fiction; it’s more about individual books and authors really. Outside of SFF I do also read quite a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, and more recently I’ve been turning to nature writing for a lot of my comfort reads. There’s something really calming about exploring the natural world through books, especially in audio.
In terms of favourite authors, if I absolutely had to choose just one then it would be Terry Pratchett. I get that he isn’t for everyone, but I adore his writing. Other SFF favourites would be authors like Ben Aaronovitch, Susanna Clarke, P. Djèlí Clark, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Peter McLean, Martha Wells, Peter Fehervari, Tasha Suri, Josh Reynolds, Tamsyn Muir…I’ll stop there, otherwise I’ll just keep going for ages! In terms of crime and thrillers, I’ve recently been really enjoying LJ Ross’ DCI Ryan series (what a self-publishing success story - 8 million copies sold to date!), and I’m a big fan of James Swallow’s fast-paced technothrillers.
6. Reviewing and blogging requires energy and commitment. What sustains you?
It really does, and over the years I had plenty of ups and downs. Generally speaking, what keeps me wanting to put in the work is just reading great books and needing an outlet to talk about them. The sense of reading something brilliant and wanting to talk about it, I think that’s a big part of what drives a lot of bloggers and reviewers. That, and the relationships that come about off the back of the blogging - over the years I’ve got to know all sorts of amazing people from doing this, some of whom are now great friends. But even a one-off conversation with an online stranger can be incredibly rewarding, and can go a long way towards refilling the tank.
Plus, if I’m honest, there’s a little bit of inertia involved. I can’t really remember what life was like before Track of Words (what did I do with all my free time back then?), and working on the site has just become a fundamental part of my life. It’s probably not very healthy to allow something that you do for free to accrue so much importance, but I think it’s easy to accidentally let it happen. One thing I do to try and mitigate this, though, is to separate out books that I’m going to read to review and books I want to read just for fun. This way I can switch the reviewer part of my brain off some of the time, and make sure I still enjoy reading purely for the sake of reading. Sometimes that means choosing books from genres I don’t usually review, but sometimes it just means picking up an SFF book and telling myself it’s ok not to review it!
Of course sometimes those books end up so damn good that I can’t help wanting to write a review, but that’s ok too.
7. Conversely, what annoys you about this job?
Honestly, I wouldn’t say there’s much that genuinely annoys me about it. There are frustrations of course - it can be disappointing if something you’ve worked on for ages doesn’t get many views, certain publishers are harder to work with than others, sometimes it’s just really hard to find the motivation to write a review…that sort of thing. But I find these are transitory, and I always find myself coming back, writing another review or putting together another interview. It’s a little different now compared to when I first started, but these days I get sent a lot of books to review, and have all sorts of great opportunities to talk to authors - it’s a privilege, really.
One thing I will say, however, is that there’s a lot of nonsense out there on the internet and it can be easy to get caught up in the latest drama. I make a point of curating my online spaces to cut out as much negativity as I can, because I just don’t enjoy arguing with people online and I’d much rather concentrate on the positives. I would probably get a lot more annoyed if I wasn’t quite so ruthless with this sort of curation!
8. What “ingredients” does a book need to have to really get you excited. I’m not talking generic things like world building or character either. More specific things.
Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a book magpie, like I mentioned earlier, but I don’t think there are many things that a book absolutely has to have in order for me to really enjoy it. I’m not trying to dodge the question, I promise, but I’m generally happy as long as a book is entertaining. I’m always looking for positives, so in some respects I’m quite easily pleased. What I will say though is that I choose what I read quite carefully, to try and make sure I pick books I’m confident I’ll like - and that can be anything from something pulpy and fun to something deeply thought-provoking with beautiful prose. It doesn’t always work out, but it usually does.
So yeah, I don’t think I can pinpoint specific things without talking about specific books, but I guess generally speaking it’s probably just down to voice. That’s something intangible, right? You just know whether a book is speaking to you or not - sometimes you click with the books you least expect, and can’t get on with the books you expected to love.
9. If you were a character in a fantasy story, what kind of role would you play? And would you survive to the final page?!
This is a great question. I guess it depends on the type of fantasy story, so let’s say it’s a classic secondary world, epic fantasy. Now I’m perfectly happy being out of the spotlight so I don’t necessarily think I’d be a main character, certainly not in the traditional heroic mould. Also while I did take taijutsu classes for six months or so about 25 years ago, I don’t imagine much of what I learned has stuck, so I suspect I wouldn’t be much of a fighter!
So yeah, I suspect I’d probably be an old librarian in a castle somewhere - I legitimately think I’d love that! I always kinda wanted to be a librarian, and I reckon it’s more fun being a fictional librarian than a real-world one (especially if the library involves L-Space, interdimensional portals and/or cool magical grimoires), so let’s go with that. I’d hope I would survive to the end of the book, but it might depend on how dark and bloody the setting was. If it’s grimdark fantasy then probably not, but otherwise yeah I reckon so
10. You’re going on holiday and you’re going to have lots of time to relax (so without the family!) What five books would you take with you?
Another great question. For me a relaxing reading holiday would involve spending time by the sea tucked away in some kind of cabin or cottage, and I’d have a hard time narrowing things down to just five books. If pressed though, let’s go with these:
An old favourite: for pure comfort I’d say basically any Terry Pratchett novel. Right now, probably The Light Fantastic, as I reread The Colour of Magic a while ago and have been meaning to embark on a Discworld reread ever since.
A new Warhammer book: I don’t read so many of these any more, but they’re still my go-to for easy reads. Looking at my TBR pile, at the moment I’d probably pick The Vorbis Conspiracy, which is an anthology of Warhammer Crime short stories.
Something I’ve been meaning to read for ages: I have a load of SFF books on the shelf just waiting for me to find ‘the right time’ to read them, so I’d grab at least one of these to finally get around to. My first pick would be The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri.
A nature book: sitting by the sea, reading about nature…could it get any more relaxing? Ideally I’d choose something set in or around where I’m staying, so assuming I’m somewhere along the south coast of England I’d go with The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn (her first book, The Salt Path, is spectacularly good).
A detective story: to finish off, I’d choose a good old mystery novel, something that’s a real page turner. I’ve been looking forward to reading Grave Expectations by Alice Bell (a medium and a ghost investigating a murder together? Yes please!), so let’s add that to the pile.
That sounds like a good collection of books to keep me occupied for a few days! If I was reading purely to relax then I would probably approach all of these as books to read just for fun, but even so I think it’s likely I’d find something to write about among them, even unplanned.
11. You help authors in lots of ways. Tell us how.
That’s kind of you to say, thanks. There are all sorts of interesting things you can do as a blogger to support authors, and I’m sure I only scratch the surface compared to what some people do. Of course writing reviews is a big part of it, and as well as novels I also enjoy reviewing short fiction, which I think deserves a lot more attention than what it often gets. I’m not a specialist, in-depth reviewer of short fiction like some folks, but I think it’s good to pick out individual stories and spend some time talking about them. There are so many amazing short stories being published all the time, whether in magazines or anthologies or as standalone e-shorts, and sometimes they can maybe get a bit lost. Short story reviews are a great way of highlighting some of these, and supporting authors. You can find all my short story reviews here.
Aside from reviews I enjoy running author interviews, and I think these are great ways of drawing readers’ attention towards authors they might not have come across before. I’ve mostly done fairly short Q&A-style interviews focusing on new releases, but there are loads of ways to tailor interviews to different purposes. I like a good ‘Author Spotlight’, talking more about the author themselves and their background, routines, approach to writing, etc., and I’ve also done a few which look at a whole series (usually once the final book comes out) as a sort of retrospective. Once in a while I’ll do a really in-depth interview digging into a particular series or topic (like this one) - these take a while to put together, but are a lot of fun.
I’ve published a fair few author guest posts too, in which I’ll invite an author onto the site to talk about something they’re interested in. This could be anything from observations on the state of SFF publishing to deconstructing a successful short story pitch, and pretty much anything in between. In particular, the last few years I’ve run ‘Advent Calendar’ series each December, to which I’ve invited loads of authors to contribute. Here’s 2022’s Advent Calendar, if you’d like to take a look. I’m always intrigued by what authors choose to write about, and fascinated to read their articles! I also enjoy hearing about authors’ writing processes and journeys, and over the years I’ve put together a range of interesting writing resources. They’re largely focused on IP writing, but I think there’s lots in there that could be of value to anyone keen on writing more.
Other than that, I do an occasional cover reveal, I’ve published a few short stories (which I’m always delighted by) and novel extracts, and I’m always open to new ideas if there are things authors want to collaborate on. I particularly like working with newer writers, or authors whose books don’t always reach the audience I think they deserve, and it’s fun thinking of ways to get involved.
12. Tell us what qualities matter when you write a book review. Not everyone finds them easy to do so what do you comment on and why?
Funny you should say that - I certainly don’t find reviews easy to write either! You’d think after writing them for this long the process might have become easier, but I don’t think it has.
When I first started writing reviews I made a few key choices about the approach I would take: my reviews would be concise, spoiler free (as far as I can make them), in third person, and as fair and balanced as possible. I occasionally break some of those rules, but only very rarely.
My brain likes structure and patterns, so I usually follow a pretty similar outline when writing a review. I’ll start off by writing a 100-150 word synopsis of the book (spoiler-free, of course) in which I try to summarise the basics of the plot and the characters, and give a sense of what to expect from the book. I do this for my own benefit as much as for the reader, to really get clear in my head what I thought the story was about. It’s usually the hardest part of the review, and once I’ve got this right the rest of it tends to fall into place reasonably quickly. Most of the time.
For the main body of the review I’ll pick two or three (depending on length) key points to concentrate on - these might be interesting or unusual characters, key themes, particularly notable world building, connections to previous stories…could be all sorts of things. There’s often way too much to talk about, so I have to think carefully about what the most important or interesting points are, and then maybe just lightly touch on some of the others. I’ll always do my best to look for positives, because that’s just the approach I like to take, but at the same time I’ll be clear about any criticisms I have, to make sure I’m being as balanced as I can. Towards the end I’ll try to wrap up with a bit of a summary, or a concluding point that ends the review on a definitive note.
13. Which superhero would you be? (Marvel or DC!)
I love questions like this, although I have to be honest and admit that I’ve hardly ever read the comics so my answer is going to have to be completely based on films and TV shows. And I’m team Marvel all the way through, as other than the Batman movies I really haven’t been a fan of DC stories.
In terms of specific superheroes, I’m generally more of a fan of those who either don’t have any actual superpowers, or whose powers are on the subtler side. There’s just something more interesting to me about people who put their lives on the line despite the horrible danger, rather than the really powerful figures (although I’m generalising here, and I still like the really super superheroes).
So if I had to pick one to be, I think I’d probably be Phil Coulson. He’s just a regular guy, and a massive nerd, but he’s still cool, right? Although things don’t exactly go well for him, which is a downside.
14. When you read, do you listen to music? If so, what kind?
Very rarely these days. When I was younger I used to listen to music (sometimes very heavy music) doing virtually everything, from writing coursework to sleeping, and often reading too. I could probably still read and listen to instrumental music, but anything with lyrics tends to just distract me now. And recently the advent of cheap, convenient audiobooks has had an impact on how much I listen to music too. In the past I would usually have music playing while I was commuting, walking, doing housework, and so on, but now I generally have an audiobook going instead.
I do quite enjoy listening to music while writing, though, especially in my day job. It’s usually either classical music or film soundtracks (music with lyrics is, once again, a bit distracting), but I actually find certain really heavy bands quite good to work to. The ObZen album from Meshuggah, for example, is so heavy that it ends up feeling a bit like rhythmical white noise (also a bit like taking a chainsaw to your brain), and I find it surprisingly good background music while I work!
15. Finally, if our readers want to discover more reviewers/bloggers, who would you recommend?
There are so many brilliant bloggers out there, and previous interviewees have made a load of fantastic recommendations so definitely check those out (and a big thank you to Nick Borrelli at Out of This World SFF for mentioning me). I’ll inevitably duplicate a few of those suggestions, and I’m sure I’ll forget a load of great people so my apologies in advance for any I miss, but here are some that come to mind for various reasons: