August 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
Good information and inspiration from Roger Colby.
This week we have some very good information about self-publishing and two stories that are posted here simply for inspirational reasons. We all need that. I love these inspirational stories. Sometimes it’s the only thing I need to get back on the horse and dig the spurs in.
1. Alan Finder over at the New York Times writes a very informed and insightful article entitled “Ins and Outs of Publishing Your Book via the Web“. He runs down the current trends in e-publishing and has some very good warnings to share about the industry.
2. Kobo offers yet another way to publish to ePub and receive 80% profit without any cost to you. The self-publishing game just seems to get easier and easier to do.
3. Jeremy Greenfield over at Forbes busts a myth about the high prices of e-books being a damper on sales. Sell…
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August 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
A while back, I told you about the StumbleUpon Get Discovered Writers Contest. I entered the first 20 pages of my novel, Pangaea, and now voting has begun. I could use your help, and by that, I mean your vote. If you use StumbleUpon, please click here, read my 20 pages, and if you like it, click the “I like it!” button. If you don’t, I suppose you could thumbs-down it, but I’d take it as a kindness if you didn’t…
Yes, this is shameless self-promotion. No, it has nothing to do with kicking you in the writing pants. But it would be a real kick in the pants for me to win.
In the spirit of fair play, if you’ve entered the contest too, put a link in the comments and I promise to read your entry and vote for you if I like it. Deal?
And if you click over and can’t see my entry, please let me know that, too. I can’t see anyone’s entries right now, and I’ve asked the contest moderator about it. Note that you do have to be a StumbleUpon user to vote (but hey, it’s free!).
August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
That’s the first line of the sell copy on the back of Maureen McHugh’s powerful short story collection, After the Apocalypse, and it perfectly captures what the book contains. There are nine stories collected here, and each one takes place after some kind of apocalypse—zombie, plague, nuclear, economic, etc.
Rather than focus on the apocalypse itself, McHugh’s stories look at the effects of disaster on an individual level. These are character-centered stories with a very visceral, personal feel. “The Naturalist” is the story of an inmate trying to survive in the zombie-filled prison-city of Cleveland. “Special Economics” is the tale of a young Chinese girl trying to eke out a living in a post-plague Beijing. “Useless Things” is about a doll maker living alone in a mostly vacant New Mexico suburb after a catastrophic economic collapse. “The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large” tells the story of a boy who takes on a completely different personality following a dirty bomb attack on Baltimore.
Some of the stories aren’t about national or global disasters, but individual ones. People suddenly find themselves able to fly and are mysteriously drawn overseas in “Going to France.” A jilted bride picks up the pieces of her life by submitting to medical testing in “Honeymoon.” In “The Effect of Centrifugal Force,” the relatives of a dying woman must come to grips with the new disease that’s killing her—and may be killing them, too. “The Kingdom of the Blind” tells the story of a computer programmer struggling to communicate with what she suspects is the world’s first spontaneous AI before those up the chain of command pull the plug on it.
All are powerful stories and well told, but the best of the lot is the last—the title story—”After the Apocalypse.” In this tale, a woman and her teenage daughter are trying to escape the increasing violence and darkness (both figurative and literal) of a ruined America. They are on foot, carrying a few meager possessions, and facing daily danger from the other refugees they encounter. It’s a gritty, uncomfortable story about what people really do to survive. Forget the heroics of Hollywood; when faced with raw survival, saints are hard to find.
McHugh’s a powerful writer with a knack for creating characters we already know. We’ve met these people—worked with them, talked to them at parties, grew up with them, slept with them. McHugh shows us how they—how we—might act after the apocalypse. What we might do. Who we could become.
It’s clear that McHugh has thought a lot about the ways in which our comfortable world can end. The most frightening thing about the stories in After the Apocalypse is that each one of them could easily come true tomorrow, or in the very near future. Or they could be happening right now.
August 8, 2012 § 4 Comments
A few days ago, in my blogpost about getting to know your characters, I mentioned the concept of Goal-Motivation-Conflict (GMC). Today, I’d like to share an article not about your characters goals, but about yours as a writer.
We’ve always been told to have goals, right? “Keep your eyes on the prize,” the motivational speakers say. But here’s the thing: a new study shows those very goals may be what keeps us from achieving them.
What the what?
I know it sounds crazy-go-nuts, but the article, How Goals and Good Intentions Can Hold Us Back, makes a pretty convincing argument:
A new study by a pair of researchers at the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School shows that this approach has some benefits. Focusing on goals fires up your intentions to engage in the activities that will help you achieve those goals. But there’s a major downside. Stay focused on your goals and you spoil your experience of the activities you’ll need to pursue. In turn, that makes it far more likely that you’ll drop out early and fail to achieve the very goals that you’re so focused on.
Ayelet Fishbach and Jinhee Choi started out by recruiting over a hundred students at a university gym, just as they were about to start a session. Half were told to describe their goals – “I work out to lose weight,” said one. The other participants were told to think about and describe the workout experience: “I stretch first and then run on the treadmill” was one comment. Both groups of students were told to continue focusing on their goals or the experience, respectively, throughout their workout.
Describing the goals of working out boosted the students’ intentions to exercise. They tended to say that they planned to run on the treadmill for longer than did the students who were focused on the workout experience. But here’s the thing: The students who focused on their goals actually ended up running on the treadmill for less time than the students focused on the experience (34 minutes versus 43 minutes).
Fishbach and Choi think that staying focused on our goals detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals. Consistent with this, they found that the students at the gym who stayed focused on their goals tended to say afterwards that the exercise felt more of an effort, as compared with the students who were focused on the experience itself.
The article goes on to offer more evidence, and it’s well worth reading. It also supports all those writers who say that you have to write for the joy of writing, as well as all of those “do what you love and the money will follow” folks.
I’ve always believed that passion shines through the work, no matter if you’re a writer, an artist, or a clockmaker. If you enjoy what you are doing, you’re going to do it better. Likewise, if you’re just doing it for the money, or the fame, or whatever, it’s not going to shine much at all. But I’ve also always believed that it’s important to stay focused on your goals—until today.
(And by the way, that article comes from a great website for creative people called 99u.com, which is sponsored by Behance. Check out some of their other articles, like Is An Inner Argument Holding Back Your Productivity? which dovetails nicely with the article above.)
What do you think? Are goals critical to your success, or do they hold you back?
August 5, 2012 § 2 Comments
If it comes to pass that the world really does end in December, I think I’ll be okay with it because I’ll have read so many awesome books by then. I’ve had a good run lately, and Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is the most recent addition to a list of really fantastic novels.
I’m not a horror fan. I’ve read a few of Stephen King’s novels (The Stand, Cujo, Christine, The Eyes of the Dragon) and while they didn’t really scare me, I found I just didn’t care for them. I think the scariest book I’ve read is Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (which I did find quite scary). I avoid most horror movies, and have no interest in slasher flicks nor torture porn. Part of the reason is that I tend to internalize the books I read and the movies I watch, and horror stories just aren’t something I want inside my head. Mostly, though, they just aren’t my cuppa.
So when my beautiful wife—who very much is a horror fan—told me I should read Heart-Shaped Box, I resisted. She told me that it wasn’t really horror, not really. She told me it was very good. But it wasn’t until she started telling me some of the things Joe Hill tweeted—his jokes, his golden nuggets about writing—that I started getting interested. I began following him on Twitter myself, found his humor ran much in the same vein as mine, and found his writing advice to be thought-provoking and solid. I became interested in the author, in other words, and that made me curious about the kinds of stories he wrote.
Like some kind of literary pusher, my wife offered me a taste—two of Hill’s short stories from his collection called 20th Century Ghosts. I read the wildly original (not a phrase I use much these days) “Pop Art,” and I read “The Cape.” I enjoyed them both, and willingly took the needle from my loving wife and shoved it deep into the vein when I opened the cover of Heart-Shaped Box.
And I found out my beautiful, loving wife—whom I would trust with my life—was a goddamn liar.
The first 100 or so pages of the book are definitely horror. Creepy as hell, the stuff nightmares are made of. I didn’t think I could finish it. I thought I wouldn’t sleep well the entire time I was reading it. And that first night, I really didn’t sleep well. But I was hooked, and I wanted to see how the story would end.
After that first 100 pages, I discovered that the book really wasn’t that scary. It was still tense, don’t get me wrong. It kept me up way too late for several nights because I just couldn’t stand not knowing what happened next. But that’s the kind of story I love.
What took me by surprise, however, was—well, several things. For one thing, Hill’s writing style reminds me of Elmore Leonard’s. It’s tight and lean, and the characters are unique enough that even if there were no attributions or hints about who was speaking, you’d still know because each character has a recognizable voice. That’s a tough trick to pull off, and Hill does it well.
Another thing that surprised me was the story under the ghost story—the real story, if you will. Yes, it’s about a guy trying to get rid of a dead guy, but it’s also about a metaphorically dead guy coming back to life. About becoming a human being again.
And honestly, it surprised me that I liked it as much as I did. I didn’t expect to. I expected it to be, at best, okay. Passable, but not great. But it is great, and I loved it with the same kind of unexpected joy I felt when I first read Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. Come to think of it, Judas Coyne and James Stark would probably get along pretty well. If you liked Sandman Slim, you should definitely read Heart-Shaped Box. And vice versa.
I’ll be reading the rest of 20th Century Ghosts, and then Horns, and then whatever else I can find by Joe Hill. I’ve found a new author to add to my favorites, and for that (and many, many other things) I owe a debt of gratitude to my wonderful wife.
August 4, 2012 § 6 Comments
I’ve been promising to post something about bringing your characters to life for a while now, and I apologize for the delay. Life gets in the way. In particular, searching for and then landing a new job ate up most of my free time, and what little was left I devoted to my writing. And writing is what I should be doing right now, but since I’m starting a new project, and since starting a new project involves getting to know my characters, I thought this would be an ideal time to take a few moments and talk about it here.
Every writer has his or her own way of fleshing out characters. Most use the Goal-Conflict-Motivation technique, which has been discussed to death. If you want to read more on it, however, let me point you to an excellent post over on Pub(lishing) Crawl. And for a handy dandy GMC form, click here (PDF).
GMC is a great way (possibly the best way) to get to know your characters. Once you work through it for each of your major characters, you’ll find the story almost writes itself. The downside is, sometimes it’s not the story you had in mind at the outset. It’s a Frankenstein conundrum, in a way; once your bring a character to life, she might not always do what you wanted her to do. But the story usually ends up being better, so my advice is to just follow where your characters lead.
If for whatever reason GMC just doesn’t work for you, or if you only want to wade through it for your major characters and need something quicker for the supporting roles, there are other ways to get to know your characters. Here’s a few of my favorites.
Fill Out an Application
When I was just starting out as a writer, someone told me to get to know my characters by having them fill out a job application. Having just filled out several applications in my recent job search, I can tell you that there are some incredibly detailed applications out there. Try to find a corporate employment application for some place like IBM. Or go to a site like Monster.com and create a resume for your character using the online forms. Why? Because like most average Americans, your characters are going to spend most of their lives at their jobs. What they choose to do for a living can tell you a lot about who they are. You’ll have to delve a little deeper than just filling out an application, but it’s a great start. You’ll learn where they went to high school and college, what they got a degree in (if they did), and where they’ve been employed.
Once you know this, start filling in the details. Interview your characters for the job. Ask why they chose that college, and what drew them to that field of study. Were they called to it? Is it a passion? A drive? If the latter, what drove them to it? Childhood tragedy? A mentor? Then ask the tough questions some interviewers like to ask. If you had a million dollars, what would you do? What are you passionate about, and why? What is your dream job?
This technique won’t tell you everything you need to know about your character, but it can fill in some blanks and lead you to surprising places.
Read a Biography
Filling out job applications can be great if your character’s career is one your familiar with, or one that can be easily researched. But what if your character’s job is a little off the beaten path? Try reading a biography of someone who had that job.
For some reason, I’m fascinated with stories about professional killers. I think it may have started when I saw Grosse Pointe Blank for the first time. I’ve watched dozens of films about professional killers, from The Professional to Red, but when I sat down to write my own assassin, I realized that I knew nothing about how that world really works. So I started looking for biographies of real hit men, and found Joey the Hitman: The Autobiography of a Mafia Killer. What a gold mine! Joey wasn’t the slick super killer I’d seen in the movies, but rather a warts-and-all real Mafia hitter. He made mistakes, he sometimes didn’t get his man, and he gave me an inside look that provided a wealth of great details for my story.
No matter what your character does, there’s probably a biography or autobiography out there about someone with the same job. And if not, there’s probably an magazine article or a TV news expose or something that you can crib from. It may take some digging, but in the Google Age, it’s rare that you can’t find a good, inside look at a profession…even if that profession is illegal. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the illegal jobs are the easiest to find dirt on. But you can find detailed looks at any job, from CERN researchers to Alaskan fishermen to professional dog walkers.
Get Inside Their Heads
Sometimes, though, it’s tough to get to know a character if they are so far outside the norm that they are practically unknowable. For example, say your villain is a serial rapist. You know everyone is the hero of their own story, but how can someone like that possibly see himself as a hero? How do you get to see the world from his point of view? Not many serial rapists write autobiographies.
You could read a psychology textbook or a true crime book about the hunt for a serial rapist. There are also books for writers about these people. My favorite is Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. There’s also the excellent The Writer’s Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. These two books break down dozens of mental illnesses into layman’s terms specifically for writers, saving you a lot of work while still giving you peek beneath the skullcap of some of the world’s worst people. And it doesn’t have to be just bad people, either. The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits details the adult personality types, child types, career traits, and lots more.
Cast the Movie
One final method I like to use is what I call “casting the movie.” If your story were made into a movie, who would you see playing the characters? I’ve found this amazingly helpful, especially for writing dialogue. If I can “hear” how a particular actor might say the lines I’m writing, it helps me keep the dialogue fresh and original. You don’t have to limit yourself to actors, either; I often cast my friends in my stories. I have the good fortune of knowing many colorful people, and several of them have become models for my characters.
Casting the movie also helps in writing descriptions of your characters. Instead of the generic tall, leggy blonde, perhaps your heroine has the whiplash smile of Ellen Barkin, or the elfin features of Carey Mulligan. Elmore Leonard blatantly does in his books, often having one character describe another with a comparison to someone famous.
Sometimes I’ll go as far as finding an image of the actor or actress I’m basing my character upon, printing it out, and posting it on the cork board above my desk. This has the dual benefit of helping me keep the actor’s mannerisms in mind as I’m writing, and having them stare at me, silently demanding that I finish the damn story so they can live.
Like Summer Glau is doing right now, asking why I’m blogging instead of working on her story. I guess I better get back to it …