Friday, May 9, 2014

What Writers Can Learn From a Deranged Four Year Old.

When we write a novel or a screenplay we are basically imagining things. I know that a very basic statement, but I feel this is often forgotten when our brains are so consumed with other things that aren’t creating: grammar, craft, and the worry of reviews that don’t yet exist.

Not only are these things not imagining, they take away from our ability to fully immerse ourselves in the world of our characters, and, instead of experiencing their emotions, our own fears and doubts creep in. This leaves us with one foot in our world and one in the world we are trying to call into existence when we should leap into our worlds with both feet.

I’ve brought a very special teacher here today to assist you with this problem. I would guess he’s about four years old and maybe a little deranged. His name is Tom. I know this because I heard his mother say, “Tom, stay where I can see you.” She’s said this about eight times because Tom keeps easing away from her.

You see, Tom seeks adventure. He’s tired of this mundane world where his mother sits with her friends on a coffee shop patio, and her friend’s comment about how cute he is and ask him stupid questions. “Tom, did you like that shirt I got for your birthday.”

It’s clear from Tom’s face he has no idea what shirt the woman is talking about. In fact, I get the distinct impression that if you wanted Tom to regard the gift of a shirt with anything other than indifference it would have to be made of chainmail. He gives her a nod to appease her.

Tom turns his back to the table of ladies, and they disappear. The whole boring world disappears and is replaced by another, a world that is filled with monsters and Tom is going to kill them all with his sword.

Okay, he doesn’t really have a sword. It’s a stick he’s picked up off the ground. Still, one has to respect how much young Tom has committed to his role of Tom, the Destroyer of Monsters.

He flails around with a violence and passion that has caused many of my fellow coffee shop patrons to lean away from him. The boy is not some dainty fencer. He is a deranged berserker, powered by an extreme hatred for monsters. I don’t know what got Tom into killing monsters, but, from the looks of him, it seems personal.

As I wait for the stick to fly from Tom’s hand and embed itself in some unsuspecting coffee-drinker’s eye, I hear Tom mumble as he slays, and I realize Tom is not fighting monsters alone. He has a partner in his war on monster kind. Twist! It’s a good monster, and these two have each other’s back. If a monster tries to sneak up on Tom, the good monster leaps to his aid and scratches out the bad monsters’ eyes. If the bad monsters team up on the good monster, Tom rushes to his side and chops off all of their ‘dirty monster heads’.

I’m curious how this alliance formed. What turned Tom’s monster against his own kind? Why do this Berserker and Monster trust each other so unconditionally? Are they the only thing keeping each other alive or are they truly friends?

I wish I could tell you I found out. But, unfortunately, Tom didn’t act out any flashbacks showing how this alliance formed. Nope. Once all the bad monsters lay dead on the coffee shop patio, Tom would walk back to where his mother sat and start the whole scene over…and over…and over. I was impressed by how little variation took place in his reenactments, but after about the third time through, I found myself rooting for the bad monsters.

But, that’s okay. Tom’s not here to teach us the craft of good storytelling (remember that part about him being four). He’s here to teach us how to pretend. Scratch that. He’s here to teach us how to pretend intensely.

Tom is able to pretend intensely because he doesn’t give a shit that I’m not impressed with his storytelling. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks (He doesn’t even care he might injure some innocent bystander just trying to get caffeinated). Tom is having too much fun. Tom is so good at not giving a shit it’s become like a super power. It allows him to be standing next to his mother and her boring friends one moment and standing shoulder to shoulder with his monster partner the next as they take on a squad of bad monsters. Tom is the walker of worlds.

This might have been a superpower we all possessed at one time but we traded it for the concern of what others might think of us. How sad is that?

Stephen King’s first rule of writing is to write for yourself. Whether you’re a fan of King or not, you have to admit it seems to have worked out for him.

So, the next time you’re writing. Stop writing, start pretending on the page, pretend intensely. Fill your work with passion and fun. Be like Tom the Destroyer of Monsters and don’t give a shit what others think. Jump into your world with both feet. Canon Baaaall!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why is a 25 year old book $9.99

There was recently a discussion on about the pricing of books that had been out for a long time. Here’s the link if you want to follow the whole conversation.

Here’s the original question from the Redditor: 

I have read all of the great reviews for the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series by Tad Williams. I was interested in reading it, but I refuse to pay $9.99 on Nook and $7.99 on Kindle. Why is a 25 year old book as much money digitally as it is for a print version. I am really starting to get turned off by this practice and am considering only reading digital books under $3. It makes me feel like I am being ripped off.

Before I begin discussing this, let me be clear that publishers and/or authors can charge whatever they want for a book, and it’s up to readers to decide whether that pricing is fair. So, again, if you own the rights to something charge whatever you like. It is after all, literally, your business. 

Now that we’ve got that disclaimer out of the way, let’s discuss the actual issue. 

I think the answer to the question is quite simple. 
The book’s publisher is DAW/Penguin, and their logic for selling a 25 year old book in digital format for $9.99 is two-fold. 
Penguin has a lot of new releases that are also about $9.99, and they don’t want these new releases competing with older books that are priced around $3.00. 
Penguin and other large publishers do not want to condition readers to such a low price point. 

Both points are reasonable from the publisher’s perspective as they are a for profit organization. 

However, it can be debated if this is the best overall business model and it’s highly debatable if this is the best thing for the author. 

Tad Williams will soon be releasing The Last King of Osten Ard, a sequel trilogy to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Would it be such a poor idea to at least lower the first book in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn to $2.99 or what about packaging all 3 books for $12.00? As the book is 25 years old and a lot of fantasy readers are less than 25 years old, it might not be a bad idea to try to get a new audience into the books. 

That’s just my thoughts on the matter and what I would do if I was in charge over at DAW. 

It’s curious though that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is currently number 15,645 in the kindle store and a self-published author by the name of Will Wight is number 4 in fantasy with his novel City of Light. 

I don’t know what that translates to in sales, but I think we can safely assume that not only is Wight making more money (at least in digital) but he is actively building a base of readers for his next book. 

Full disclosure, I haven’t read either book that I’m mentioning, so I cannot speak to their qualities, but it seems like that $2.99 price point is working to Mr. Wight’s advantage.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Promotion

My book is being featured Monday at The Fussy Librarian, a new website that offers personalized ebook recommendations. You choose from 40 genres and indicate preferences about content and then the computers work their magic. It's pretty cool -- check it out!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Covers

People say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I say a cover is part of a book. It’s true that its main job is to protect the juicy ideas that lie inside like a blurb covered bit of plate-armor, but it can be so much more.

A cover should make the reader a promise. Inside lies adventure or romance or lots of both. There’s a whole new world beneath this millimeter of glossy paper. You need only to open it (or give it a tap your kindle/iPad).

What it shouldn’t be is boring or forgettable. And, it should never be bad. Whether the book is digital or paper, it serves as a souvenir for the person who reads the book. While the story may be fictitious, peoples’ experience of the book, their memories of the world and characters you created are as real as any other memory. 

This is how people are affected so greatly by books. As George R. R. Martin says, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Are there brilliant books that have horrible covers? Sure, but I don’t like this. For a great story to be wrapped in a boring cover is akin to touching up the final browns on a Rembrandt with a bit of dog shit. It just isn’t right. 

My personal goal as a professional liar is not to serve up an adequately professional book, but rather to create something that will burn off peoples’ faces with its sheer awesomeness. This includes the cover. Your faces have been duly warned.

How to create a face-melting cover.

I have no idea. I could no sooner tell you how to write a great novel. These are things you have to do yourself. If someone is telling you they can teach you these things, they’re probably trying to pinch you for a couple bucks.

Wait, let’s be clear about something. I didn’t draw the cover for Black Redneck vs. Space Zombies. I draw horribly. So, when I say I did it myself, I mean I found someone who could draw and told them exactly what to draw. 

There seems to be some confusion about how covers come into being. Does the artist read the book then draw the cover? Do they read the book and then give you a few sketches to choose from? Does the writer just tell them what to draw?

I guess it could happen in any of these ways, but I’m going to give you my personal opinion on the best way to get the most out of an artist without having them want to jab a fancy pencil into your brain. 
First, don’t ask them to read the book. That’s hours of their time which they should get paid for and, even if they take the time to read the book, do they know it better than the writer? No. They don’t.
Don’t let this be something you push off on someone else because you haven’t done it before. You know everything that happens in the book. You wrote it, so the cover should make your promise as to what follows in the hundred thousand words to come.

You can do this in very detailed descriptions, but this still leaves room for interpretation which can lead to you getting something you didn’t want or the artist having to do unnecessary adjustments. How is this avoided? Through crappy sketches, that’s how.

Ah, here it is. It’s a bit embarrassing (okay, it’s really embarrassing), but this is the original sketch I sent to Brian (that’s the artist).

I didn’t stop there. Since my drawings on the cover of the space zombies looked a bit like people with fish bowls on their heads. I felt the need to provide even more references for Brian to work with. I even sent him pictures of guns that were acceptable and provided a picture of the breed of horse I wanted.

Doing this makes life easy on your artist. He knew exactly what I wanted. He didn’t have to read. He got to do what he did best. Draw the hell out of some monsters.

These references all led to the final product.

As you can see, the difference between my cover and Brian’s is quite a large one, but, by giving him the references, I was able to make it easy on him and he was able to complete my cover quickly because we didn’t have to go back and forth.

It might feel like you’re being bossy, but I think most artist would prefer this to someone who needs a cover but has no idea what they want.

Some Side Notes:

Unless you’re a really good artist, let someone else draw it. This means you’ll probably have to pay someone to do it, and you’re probably going to get what you pay for. is a good place to look for up and coming artist and you can see if their style of art matches what you’re looking for.

That’s it: Now you know sometimes cool covers start with a super-crappy sketch.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

AFT-shadowing, using stuff as character development.

There’s an old story-telling maxim called Chekhov’s Gun that goes if you show a gun on the mantle someone better get shot with it shortly after. This is as good as any maxim and also known as foreshadowing.
Nope, not what I meant by Chekhov's gun.

But, why let the object just hint at what’s to come. Why not let an object tell you about a person’s past and/or character. I call this aft-shadowing, and I’ll explain how it works.

Humans have all sorts of weird tendencies. One of the many is to personalize or even personify objects. We name our cars and other important objects in our lives. We personalize to an excessive amount, and we often don’t give a thought to what this says about us.

If you have this truck you should think about it. Think hard.

Imagine for a moment that you met a young lady who drove a pink Mercedes with a personalized license plat that read “PRINCESS”. You might make assumptions about this young lady and even her past.

If you met a 40 year old man who drove the same car, you might also fill in some of this person’s personal history and lifestyle choices.

Another weird tendency of humans is that they jump to conclusions.

We can take advantage of this tendency to judge and use it like a dirty little trick in our writing.

Quentin Tarantino is one of the masters of this story telling technique.

Who can forget the yellow and pink eyesore from the first Kill Bill that was the Pussy-Wagon?

Any young ladies want to hang out with the man who drives this truck? Me either. We’ve both made assumptions based on an artifact. In this case a very poorly named truck.

Tarantino goes on to use this truck for a bit of humor when his protagonist has to drive this truck. Genius.

This artifact technique can also be used to establish characters who aren’t even in the story. 

Recently, the girlfriend and I were watching The Bling Ring. There’s a scene in which some young people break into Paris Hilton’s house. We see that Ms. Hilton (at least the film version) has her face on multiple pillows.

Even though Ms. Hilton never appears in the film, we all diagnose her with the same thing, clinical narcissism.

Whether we need to do some character development for a character who is not present or we just want to develop a character quickly, this is a great tool and we should use it.

The great thing about aft-shadowing is you let the reader make their own judgments about a character. This is what a great story does. It makes the reader a part of it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dance like nobody is watching, because no one’s watching.

There’s a lot of advice out there on the inter-webs about how to go about becoming a successful writer. Much of this is just common sense. (A writer should write.) Umm, okay. Much of this advice is eye-rolling nonsense. One of the things that make my eyes spin uncontrollably is when these “writing teachers” tell would-be writers to always consider their audience before writing a novel.

Here’s the thing. If you aren’t already a successful author you don’t have an audience. No one is watching you. You have the opportunity to cut loose. You can dance (flail around, twerk it, whatever) like no one is watching, because no one is, not yet anyway. Gasp! You can dare to bring something into the world that YOU want to exist. You can create a world from scratch. You don’t have to paint by the numbers and move around tired, olde troupe characters like elves and dwarves or even dragons.

Unless you really want to. Then by all means go for it. They can even team up and go on a quest. Don’t forget to pick up the chosen one. (I hear he’s working on a farm with his mysterious uncle).

The point I’m trying to make person-who-wants-to-be-a-writer is to write what you want to write because at this point no one cares. If this is your first, second, or even third novel it’s probably all practice anyway (I’m aware of counter examples).

So, don’t let anyone tell you what to write or even in what style. No one really knows what people want to read or what’s going to take off and become a mega-hit, but I’m going to guess the next big thing won’t be a cookie cutter novel. Don’t be in a hurry to follow tradition. Throw off the yoke of the past and make your own way, because no one is any less lost than you.