Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Covers and Interview with a Designer

Let's face it, there are a lot of decisions that indie authors are faced with that traditionally published authors might not need to grapple with as much.  Cover art or design is probably one of the must crucial decisions an indie author must take into consideration.  It's one of the first things your reader sees and it's likely what caught their eye or sparked their interest in the book in the first place.  We've all heard that you can't judge a book by it's cover, but the cover is exactly what leads a reader to pick up (or download) a book in the first place.  

There are plenty of self-published authors out there who've taken on the task of creating their own cover and found success.  Some are either very artistically inclined, while others have a solid grasp of computer-aided art design.  For those of us that don't fit into either category (read: yours truly), the next option is to seek professional help.  That's what I did  for "Of Murder and Monsters," and my designer, Mabel Iriberri of Nickel Design, was able to deliver exactly what I was looking for:

In working with Mabel, we opted to go with a stock photo and then got down to work fleshing out the specifics for the cover.  Here's what Mabel had to say about the design process and her background:

R.Q.G.:  How long have you been a graphic designer? 

M.I.: I’ve been a graphic designer since 1998.

R.Q.G.:  Did you pursue formal training/school or is has all of your training been on the job experience? 

M.I.: I do have a college degree in Graphic Design, however, that only helped from a creative standpoint. Everything else that I learned about the business came from on-the-job-experience. I graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a Bachelors in Fine Arts. However, in our very first year, we were not allowed to use computers to design. Everything was made by hand-drawing, tracing and pasting.

R.Q.G.: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a graphic designer? 

M.I.: I knew that I always wanted to do something artistic when I grew up. Graphic Design became my major when I looked through the school catalog and realized that it was one of the few majors that didn’t require me to take Speech classes. Ironically, every single class required me to present my work to the class on a daily basis and withstand critiques.

R.Q.G.: When taking on a project, where do you look for inspiration? 

M.I.: I’ve been subscribing to Print Magazine since 1996. It is a constant source of inspiration for creativity. It also keeps me up-to-date on what is current in the field. Another good graphic design magazine that I turn to is Communication Arts.

R.Q.G.:  Was that also helpful when you worked on the cover design for "Of Murder and Monsters"? 

M.I.: Absolutely, I always start a new project by brainstorming for new ideas. I then take on the task of research by going online and seeing what other authors have used for their book covers in that genre.

R.Q.G.: Other than working with the author, what was the hardest aspect of selecting and designing the cover art for "Of Murder and Monsters"? 

M.I.: First of all, working with the author was a breeze. Secondly, the hardest part is finding the right image. When you’re designing something within a budget, you’re very limited on photographic resources. The budget isn’t big enough to hire a photographer, models, makeup and hair stylists,… let alone scenery, props and costumes. Most stock photography consists of business images for brochures, not characters from a horror novel.

R.Q.G.: When it comes to designing a book cover, how much does the title of the book influence your design decisions? 

M.I.: I would approximate that the title influences about 25% of the design. The title is a very important design element. It has to not only grab the reader’s attention by working with the artwork, but it has to convey both what the book is about and the author’s vision of what they’d like the cover to look like. Also, the size and length of the title can make or break a design. 

R.Q.G.: Other than the client you're designing for, do you have anyone else critique your work before finalizing it? 

M.I.: I usually have a good idea of whether something works or not. Once in a while, I do run it by my husband, he has a marketing background and a keen eye for design. Plus, it always helps to have a second pair of eyes. If you’ve been staring at the same design all day, it’s difficult to look at it objectively.

R.Q.G.: What design projects, other than book cover art, have you created? 

M.I.: I specialize in print design – logos, brochures, stationary, invitations… However, my main focus lately has been invitations and party favors that I sell on my Etsy site. 

R.Q.G.: What types of books (genres) do you enjoy reading? 

M.I.: I love fiction about other people’s lives. For example, one of my favorites is “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. I also enjoy the classics – “Wuthering Heights” is my favorite book. Not to mention, biographies and autobiographies – I really enjoy those.

In summary, working with a professional designer can help give your book what it needs to stand out.  Working with a designer is a give and take and we went through several different design ideas.  What's been your experience, whether working with a designer or creating your own cover?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Winning the Marathon: 90 Minutes at a Time

This is a marathon, not a race.  A simple enough phrase, and one that has become my personal mantra over the past few months.  For most of us, there are a lot of things in life that compete for our time and attention (i.e. take away from writing): work; family life; friends; food; drink; and other daily necessities (read hygiene related). Few writers are able to give up their day job to pay the bills while they continue to write.  No writer should give up on any of the remaining items on the above list (especially hygiene, please).  In April, I blogged about dealing with writer's block and distractions and the need to be selfish when it comes to writing.  I still stand behind that statement, though with the following observations.

Spending, or trying to spend, the entire day writing will often prove fruitless and wasteful.  First, people generally begin to lose focus after the first 45 minutes.  By the time you get to the 90 minute mark, most people will have lost complete focus.  Don't believe me?  Think about the last time you were at "the job" this past week.  Did you notice how you started thinking about lunch around 10:30 a.m. (and already start trying to make your lunch plans)?  Did you end up taking a break to get coffee, water or chat with another coworker around the 9-9:30 a.m. mark?  Each off those are examples of signs that we've lost focus after having been working on a task for for to long.  The point is, people need to take breaks.  Its the same for writers.  

Whether you are writing the first draft of your manuscript, polishing a subsequent draft, or finalizing your formatting for publication, it's important to pace yourself.  None of the above are moments when you would want to lose your focus.  When I started working in increments of 90 minutes or less, my productivity went up and I was making a great more progress in terms of writing.  I also felt far more satisfied when I stepped back from the laptop after those 90 minutes were over.  If anything, I was excited about getting back to writing and picking up where I had left off.  There were other, equally important benefits to writing this way.

I started using the above technique while on a vacation with my family to St. Augustine, Florida.  We'd go on tours and site seeing during the day, and come back to the house we rented for meals or when it just got too hot.  While the wife and kids were cooling off or otherwise occupied, I'd take 60 to 90 minutes to write.  Afterwards, we were back out and enjoying the city.  As I'm a bit of a night owl, after everyone went to bed for the evening, I'd put in another 90 minutes.  After our week long vacation was over, I had substantially completed the first draft for "Of Murder and Monsters."  I continued writing in this manner and went through two more drafts of the book before having the finalized version that was just recently sent off for copy editing.  Prior to taking the 90 minutes or less approach, the "Of Murder and Monsters" manuscript had been languishing for two years.  After I switched gears on my approach to writing, the first draft of the manuscript was completely finished in six months.  Following the same method, the final version of the book was ready for copy editing about five months later (including time allotted to allow for feedback from my beta readers).  

The other significant advantage to this approach is that while it allows me to selfishly carve out some writing time, I can do so without sacrificing my marriage, job, or time with the kids.  You have to be selfish if you're going to finish your book; however, that does not mean that you have to lose all of the important people in your life in the process.  They'll support you, but you have to support them too and that means actually taking some time away from the writing (for a bit).  Otherwise, who will be there standing beside you should your work become the next bestseller?  

This may not be a "one size fits all solution," there rarely is one answer to any particular problem.  Some writers will find that they do better burning the midnight hour and others get more out of shorter blocks of time.  Feel free to share your experience, in the comments section, in terms of what has worked best for you.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Formatting an eBook: The Value and Vulnerability of DIY

I took a short, but necessary break from the blog to begin formatting my book for publication as an ebook.  What was supposed to just be a weekend long break ended up with me sick and feeling rundown by Sunday.  It probably has something to do with the early mornings and late nights I spent working out all of the kinks for formatting the book.  Probably. Even so, I can't admit that my wife is right and that I've worked myself into the ground.  Again.  Note: as you read this post, I am probably sleeping on the couch tonight.  I'll likely delude myself into believing that I'm sacrificing for the sake of my craft. I can live with that.

What I can't live with is mediocrity.  No one should.  This is especially true when it comes to publishing one's own book.  Whether you view your carefully crafted manuscript as your child or just another beloved possession, at the end of the day it's something you created after a lot of hard work.  Regardless, there's still plenty of hard work ahead of you in order to put your story in front of your readers.  If you're planning to publish your book for a digital audience, that means your manuscript is going to have to be formatted.  There are two trains of thought when it comes to formatting: do it yourself (DIY), or pay someone else (i.e. a professional) to do it for you.

The value behind anything that's a DIY is threefold: the internal satisfaction of having accomplished something yourself; the new skill sets and/or knowledge you inevitably acquire (usually from making mistakes); and the potential savings in terms of costs and/or labor.  Fixing or building something yourself is a rewarding experience in itself and, let's face it, tends to instill a sense of pride in one's work.  Think about anytime you've built that deck addition to your back porch, sewed a costume for Halloween, or were able to make a major repair to something in the house.  You may have hated it while you were in the thick of the project, yet felt great about having accomplished it in the end.  It's the same thing with formatting an ebook.  It's not fun, it can be very frustrating, but looking at that first "preview" of the formatted text feels amazing.

Another thing to keep in mind if you decide to go DIY with ebook formatting is that you will learn a lot about the process.  For some folks, especially those with a background in HTML coding, the process will likely come a bit more easily than those of us (read: me) who've barely got a rudimentary background in coding.  Fortunately and unfortunately, there's a wealth of information online about how to format an ebook for the various platforms (i.e. Kindle and non-Kindle) for those writing their manuscript in Word.  For example, just about every blog and resource out there drives home the message that extra "hard returns" and failing to use page breaks will play havoc with the formatting.  However, when it comes to figuring out how to properly format the indentation for the first line of a new paragraphs, things can get very confusing very fast.  After following a few online blogs on the subject, I thought everything was formatted perfectly: wrong.  My first line (left side) indents were running into the middle of the page when I checked the formatted manuscript through the previewer.  After some trial and error, I realized the following: highlight the text you're currently working with; select "Normal" for styles to strip all of the extra formatting in Word; right click and select "Paragraph"; leave the alignment to "left"; under "indentation," leave left and right at zero, under "special" select "first line."  At this point you'll want to play around with the numbers: generally something between .3 and .4 seem to work fine.   If you add numbers to the "left" field immediately underneath "indentation," your indents will run halfway across the page.

By formatting your ebook yourself, you will likely save yourself several hundred dollars.  Formatting ebooks for indie authors has become a thriving business over the years and there are several great companies out there.  Most of the companies do a good job of giving you an upfront idea of how much formatting will cost.  If you're running on a small budget or none at all, professional ebook formatting might not be an option.  This means, then, that you'll have to be committed to learning the ins and outs of formatting and put in the time and effort to ensure your book is properly formatted.  If you're on a limited budget, you'll have to make the call: spend the money on copy editing or formatting?

The question is, then, what is the real benefit to using a professional formatting service?  Arguably it gives you peace of mind in knowing that the job was done right.  My wife would probably argue that it: would have freed up my Saturday and Sunday; kept me from getting sick; guaranteed that I would have had more posts on the blog; started working on the framework to the sequel for "Of Murder and Monsters," and taken her out to dinner.  She's probably right.  The fact that she says this all with a wink and a smile is reassurance enough that she gets what I'm trying to do.  Prior to trying to tacking the formatting myself, going with a professional formatting service seemed like the only way to go.  Now I realize that it's an option that is available, which means I get to make the choice on which way to go with a particular project.  Maybe next time I'm under a serious time crunch and just can't put in the time to format the next book myself.  Then a professional service would absolutely make sense.  Otherwise, if you've got the time and feel comfortable enough to hold back publishing until you're convinced you've formatted your book properly, the DIY route can be a rewarding project.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Beta Readers: Why You Need Them More Than They Need You

I am not perfect: never have been and I never will be.  The fact that I couldn't figure out how to avoid ending that first sentence with a preposition likely proves my point.  Sure, I could likely spend five to ten minutes rewriting the sentence to fix it; however, I like the way it reads and I believe that it fully captures my point in a succinct way.  The question is, will that first sentence feel like a bur in the reader's shoe (i.e. sure they can keep reading along, but is that phrase an annoying distraction)?  That's where beta readers come in handy.

Just about everyone has a good grasp of grammar and punctuation to the point where they can catch a quarter to half of the mistakes made in a first draft.  Likewise, the average reader knows dialogue that works, and doesn't, when they see it.  Most readers pick up on continuity issues and can spot plot holes like the old gumshoe detectives from the 1910's.  Readers are good at spotting things that we writers miss.  Sometimes this is wonderfully beneficial, like when they find a deeper significance or theme in a story arc or character development.  Other times, they catch our spelling errors or gaping flaws in the plot.  Catching these issues before publication can mean the difference between the success or failure of your book.  This is especially true for self-publishing (or "indie") writers.  While the initial stigma of self-publishing is falling by the wayside, an error ridden book comes across as unpolished, unprofessional, and ultimately unmarketable.  Authors already working with a publisher won't encounter this issue, as their publisher will use a copy editor (and foot the bill for the proofing).

Beta readers can help you find the flaws and show you where you may need to polish your writing.  This may mean tightening up a dialogue scene, or cutting out exposition that doesn't drive the story forward, or adding elements that strengthen some of the plot hooks.  One of the first critiques I got from my beta readers was that the book's original title had to go.  As it was a working title at the time, I happily chucked it aside.  Unfortunately, the second title didn't work either.  Eventually, "Of Murder and Monsters" struck me like a rubber mallet to the back of the head.  More importantly, the beta readers fell in love with it as well.  With all that being said, unless your beta readers are English majors/teachers, you'll still want to consider having your manuscript professionally copy edited or proof read.

Where do you find beta readers and who are mine?  First of all, my wife is one of my beta readers.  Aside from being able to give me helpful constructive feedback, she's not a fan of the genres in which I write.  This is helpful because if your reader is not a fan, yet still likes the material, it's a decent indicator that you may be on the right track.  Another beta reader that I've used is a fellow author who writes in similar genres.  Having another writer as a beta reader is also helpful because they bring a different perspective to the equation.  A fellow author as a beta reader will likely go the extra mile and offer suggestions to help you fix the flaws and refine the better aspects of your book.  And that's what writers need, more than anything else, from their beta readers: feed back.  While anyone can be a beta reader, you'll want to use people who you trust to: actually read your manuscript in a timely manner; not steal your work; not share your work without permission; and provide you with meaningful, constructive feedback.  The best beta readers are the ones who'll write down their feedback and provide you with a short summary that covers their thoughts on: the title; main characters; character development; dialogue; plot development; and continuity issues.

Thank you to all of the folks who were kind enough to be my beta readers for "Of Murder and Monsters."  I especially want to thank my wife for being brutally honest about what worked and didn't, as well as for her unwavering patience and support.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Excerpt from Chapter Four

As promised in my Facebook post over the weekend, I'm uploading another free excerpt from "Of Murder and Monsters."  This one is part of a scene from Chapter Four.  It highlights that, sometimes, having a good day in court is just a matter of good luck and good timing.  Likewise, knowing when to just shut up and let the judge speak is an invaluable tool of the trade.  I hope you enjoy.  

“Thank you for deciding to join us today, Mr. Valdez.”  Judge Sarah Andolette chimed as I hustled into the courtroom the next morning.  I braced myself for a withering follow up, given that I was twenty minutes late for court.  Judge Andolette was in her late fifties, yet she still dyed her hair to match the same strawberry blonde in the photos of when she first took the bench over twenty years ago.  She was far from slender, despite the appearance that her black robes implied.  The woman had become a fixture of the Osceola County court system and no one ever dared run against her. 

     “Your counterpart at the State Attorney’s office decided to call in sick today, apparently. She seemed fine during her hour and a half long closing argument at yesterday’s trial.”  Judge Andolette’s smile was anything but pleasant. 

     “I’m sorry for being late, your Honor.”  I apologized, trying to make my way to counsel table.  Several private attorneys were already sitting there and the seats behind counsel table on the defense side of the courtroom were likewise taken. 

     “Don’t apologize to me, Mr. Valdez.  Apologize to your client for making him have to wait so long for you.  I told him he had to wait for his lawyer to show up before I addressed his case.”  The judge continued. 

     “Judge?”  I stopped looking for a place to put down my files and looked over at Judge Andolette in confusion.  Of course my client had to wait for me.  Looks like a back to back trial week for me.

     “Because I’m ready to dismiss the case…”  The judge said as she learned back in her chair. 

     “Um, your Honor.  The State would ask that you just reset this case, as I’m sure that Miss…”  The lead prosecutor for our courtroom, Alfred Bell, spoke up hesitantly at first.

     “Isn’t here and doesn’t appear to be ready to go forward.”  Judge Andolette said politely, yet pointedly.

      “Yes, but as I mentioned, all we know is that she’s out sick and…”  Alfred stammered less as he started to gear up for a fight with the judge.  “…there are other cases, older cases, that either could be tried in a day or should take priority anyway.” 

     “I see.”  Judge Andolette looked down and ran her index finger over the side of her lip.  “And you’d like to get to those cases today, correct, Mr. Bell?”

     “Yes, your Honor.”  Alfred glanced over at me when he thought the Judge wasn’t looking at him.  I could not help but simmer at his smug, scrunched up little smile.

     “Fair enough, Mr. Bell.  Mr. Valdez, has Speedy Trial ever been waived in this case?”  The judge asked, turning to look at me.

     “No, ma’am.”  I replied.  “In fact, it already expired.”  I perked up, realizing that with everything else going on, I had almost forgotten that one of my trials had a Speedy Trial issue. 

     “The State is entitled to the recapture period, judge.  We get fifteen days to…”  Alfred spoke up, looking back over at me again.  I could see in his eyes that he still was playing catch up to what was unfolding in front of him.  I smiled back at Alfred and winked.

     “The State is correct, your Honor.  But the Defense would like to point out that we already had the hearing on my Notice of Expiration of Speedy trial…about two weeks ago, as a matter of fact.  So, I believe that today’s the last day of the recapture period.”  I said, walking to the podium since the judge was clearly addressing my case.

     “I see.  And are you ready for trial, Mr. Valdez?”  Judge Andolette asked.

     “Yes, your Honor.  The Defense is ready.”  I replied, forcing the smile off of my face. 

     “State ready?”  The judge turned over to Alfred. 

     “Judge, this isn’t my case…Miss…”  Alfred began to stammer again.

     “Isn’t here and seemed perfectly healthy all day yesterday.  Defense announced ready for trial, so are you ready to try this case?”  The judge leaned forward in her chair and stared down at Alfred. 

     He turned to the other two prosecutors, who were typing away on keyboards and going back and forth between their screens.

     “State?”  Judge Andolette barked after waiting for almost half a minute.

     “Judge, if the Court intends to call up this case, we can be ready to pick a jury after lunch?”  One of the other prosecutors, Nelson Brown, announced.

     “Thank you, Mr. Brown; however, I’m ready to call up a jury now.  Are any of you ready to try this case in Ms. Murray’s place?”  The judge asked incredulously.  There comes a point in every lawyer’s career, I believe, where you learn to just shut up and let the judge speak.  At this point, I resisted the urge to say something and decided to let the prosecutors keep burying their own cause and case.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

To Outline or Not to Outline?

When I first started writing, I believed that there were only two ways to tackle writing a book: outlining or stream of conscious writing.  An outline is not only useful to help you keep track of the direction your book is heading, it also can make it easier to maintain continuity throughout your story.  Certainly, outlining also helps you figure out how close you are to finishing too (which is great for morale).  The great thing about outlines is that they can be as detailed or as general as you want.  If maintaining the continuity of your main plot and subplots is your primary focus, an outline will keep you from painting yourself into a corner, or from making leaps of logic that are hard for your readers to believe.  Outlines, in my opinion, are great so that you don't lose site of the big picture of your story.  The problem that I have with outlines is that they tend to make me feel like I'm boxing in my characters, as well , as myself, to make the scenes fit the outline.  As a story progresses and characters grow and develop, they may outgrow the outline.  Now you run into continuity problems or start making those hard to follow leaps in logic.  Granted, you can always go back and the outline; however, I think that only sets the stage for frustration and may tempt some writers to decide to scrap the whole story.  

Stream of conscious writing is very difficult and very rewarding at the same time.  It's as close to improv as you can get as a writer, because it puts the writer in the reader's seat as well.  When writing this way, I find myself pausing to consider the conversation or circumstance.  Often, when using this method of writing, I'll also act out the dialogue so I can hear the way that the dialogue is being delivered.  It makes it easier to describe the tones, facial expressions, and even emotions.  It also gives me a better opportunity to gauge whether or not I'm realistically capturing the reactions that one character would or should have towards another.  The goal, for me, with this form of writing is not reaching a preset destination as much as it is fully exploring the journey to wherever the characters decide they want to go.  The downside to stream of consciousness writing is that you are giving up a measure of control and handing it over to your characters or whatever fleeting whims you are feeling at a subconscious level.  Again, this could derail the plot or take you down roads you may not have wanted the story to travel.  Life is full of unexpected things and, to some extent, we want our stories to feel somewhat lifelike or believable.  Basically, stream of conscious writing could leave your readers feeling like there's too much randomness to your story.  More importantly, you may find that you've created a situation where the inmates are running the asylum.  With a character like Savannah Keller, I had to be extremely vigilant about this concern while writing "Of Murder and Monsters."  

As I've gotten older (but not necessarily wiser), I've been following a hybrid approach to the two methods.  I've got a general outline that helps me navigate the overall direction where I want the story to go and how I think it should end.  Meanwhile, I give my characters "free will" (not so much free reign) within the frame work that I've set up.  It's similar to the idea of having free will, yet still being bound to certain prophetic outcomes or immovable fixtures in time.  Otherwise, the hero would overcome every single obstacle, spot the traps before they were sprung, and crush all of the villains before they could become a challenge.  Or, even worse, the story takes on a formulaic feel and the characters never really become three dimensional.  

Everyone has a different approach for putting together their story.  Some folks just sit in front of the computer and hammer away.  I've done that before and, to some extent, also did that when I set out to write the first draft of "Of Murder and Monsters."  It probably made the writing process longer than it should have been, as trying to finish the book that way made it far more difficult to keep the continuity straight (i.e. plenty of re-reads, edits, revisions and complete chapter rewrites) before I finally got to the point where I could start working on a second draft.  Once you figure out the approach that suits your creative style, you'll make more progress towards finishing the first draft quickly.  From there you can move on to one of the other critical aspects of writing: polishing.  

Do any of you use outlines?  Is anyone following a pure stream of conscious style of writing?  How are those methods working out for you?  Have you had to make changes to the methods you follow, or are you following a completely different method/model for your writing?  Feel free to share in the comments section below.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Stop losing those great ideas

Six months ago I was taking a shower when I had an idea.  It was back story material that would solidify the major plot hook for a fantasy trilogy project that I've been working on for the past several years.  I was in love with the idea and couldn't stop wondering why it took me so long to figure it out.  I was proud of the idea as I dried off and got dressed.  I was patting myself on the back over breakfast.  I was confident that this would be the next "The Lord of the Rings" as I walked out the door and headed to work.  I have been trying to remember all of the details to that back story ever since.  While I didn't forget everything, I also didn't remember everything either.

There is no excuse for the above.  I have pens, pencils, paper, a few notebooks, a PC and a smartphone with a notepad app.  I had everything at my disposal to write down the ideas and every incentive to stop what I was doing to take the time to jot down those thoughts.  I'm always busy.  That's just the life of a lawyer.  Even so, there's no excuse for not taking one minute to write down those thoughts.  

Life is hectic.  Trust me, I know.  Between work, friends and family demands, there usually isn't a lot of time left to write.  This doesn't mean that the ideas have to stop flowing.  In fact, if you're like me, you're always thinking about ideas for the next story.  This makes it all the more important to write down your thoughts and ideas.  No matter what's going on you can stop for 30 seconds to jot down a few words and lines to capture your idea and jog your memory later.  There just isn't any good reason to lose the beginnings of what could be your next best seller (with the exceptions of sex, birth of your kid, BBQ'ing, or meeting Edward James Olmos in person).  In fact, as modern day writers we have every incentive to write down and capture all of our ideas because they, and the time to actually write, are so fleeting.  Chances are, like me, you work and write.  After working ten and twelve hour days five or six days a week, there is very little time left for writing.  Likewise, sitting back in a nice comfy chair and waiting for the ideas to materialize just isn't an option.  When the spare time to write is there, you have to take the opportunity to write.  Yet, if you didn't write your ideas down then you'll find that you just wasted a good chunk of your writing time by trying to figure out what to write about.  

Whether its keeping a note pad nearby or jotting notes into an app on your phone, just do it!  You'll thank yourself later, especially when it comes time to publish your story down the road.  Learn from my mistake.  It isn't my first and it won't be my last.  If this saves you from having to try and remember a really good book idea, then I'll be a happy writer.  If you've got a better idea, or just general tips for not losing your thoughts, feel free to share.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Breathing Life into Monsters

I love a good scary story.  It's not that I particularly like being scared.  There was nothing fun two months ago about the oncoming car that was driving in my lane, towards me, oblivious to the impending collision.  Sure, it got my heart pounding.  Yes, there was that moment of adrenaline where I realized I had to do something or bad things were about to happen.  Granted, I felt incredibly alive when honking my horn and flashing my headlights got the other driver's attention and he pulled into the correct lane.  My point is that none of that was enjoyable.  Yet a good horror story evokes some of those very same sensations without ever feeling like your life is in jeopardy.  Serial killer/slasher tales often can pull this off when the author lets the reader watch the depraved antagonist stalk his next victim.  It's more difficult when the story deals with a real monster.

First and foremost, we want monsters to be scary.  Big fangs.  Long sharp claws.  Horns.  Spikes.  You get the drill.  Tv and movies have given us all sorts of monsters and the special effects artists that have brought them to life.  Stan Winston was one of my all time favorite artists ("Jurassic Park," "Aliens" and "Predator," to name a few).  The challenge for the writer isn't so much to make these creatures look good as much as we have to make them believable.  There's no reason to fear something that doesn't feel real.  Take any classic monster from Dracula to the Yeti and you've got an instantly recognizable creature/antagonist to drive the tension and action for a story.  But the story will lose it's momentum rapidly if you don't answer the following three questions before you start writing.

1.  When does the monster's "big reveal" take place?
2.  How much of the monster do I want to show off before the "big reveal?"
3.  Why does this creature kill?

Planning the "big reveal."

Before you even begin to write the first chapter, you have to have the reveal scene of your monster in mind.  It honestly doesn't matter whether this happens in the beginning, middle, or end of your story.  Most reveals happen in either the middle or the end of the story.  Honestly, that doesn't matter, as it's more an issue of style than anything else.  What matters is that you treat the scene with the same level of effort and dedication as you do to the ending of the story.  This is your one opportunity to send a clear message to the reader that "this is my monster and this is why you should be very afraid."  This reveal not only sets the stage that leads up to the big discovery, it also sets the tone for everything that comes after it.  It should feel like  sitting out in the audience when the curtain is lifted up to reveal King Kong to the world for the first time.  

Pacing and spacing out the glimpses.

How much you show of the monster before the "big reveal" completely depends on how you plan the reveal to take place.  Is your monster skulking in the shadows, attacking when least expected, or hiding in plain site.  These considerations are the next factors that you should think about when trying to create a believable beast.  If your monster is as elusive as Bigfoot/the Yeti, then you'll need to provide the reader with scant images of the monster.  This helps establish pacing and also creates reader investment.  At some point, the reader decides that they have to finish the story because now you've made them want to see what the creature looks like.  The same thing applies with monsters that are hiding in plain site.  Remember, it's a monster.  It's dangerous.  It kills people.  It's not normal and, therefore, may not know how to completely act "normal."  By leaving imperfections in this type of monster's camouflage, you create tension within the reader and increase their investment in the story.  They'll want to know when one of the other characters pick up on the abnormality or trigger the "big reveal."  With either type of monster (elusive or a social hunter), the pacing and spacing of the glimpses of the creature are import aspects for building and maintaining tension.

Bringing sense to the violence.

Establishing your monster's motivation for killing off the characters in your tale is critical.  Yes, bad things can happen to good people and there is such a thing as random acts of violence.  If those two notions are key components for the rising body count in your story, you may risk losing your reader's suspension of disbelief.  Are your characters being hunted because they've stumbled into your monster's feeding grounds?  Did they inadvertently disturb an ancient burial site?  Have they come too close to discovering your "monster's" real identity and now must be silenced?  Understanding the reason(s) behind the violence lends to making your beast all the more believable.  For example, if you are writing a tale involving a werewolf who is seeking revenge against the grown up high school kids who tormented him years ago, this will take you down interesting plot twists and themes dealing with the lingering effects of bullying.  It may also help explain, at some point, why your werewolf attacked some people and not others.  This creates a far more terrifying werewolf:  Instead of an unthinking marauder that kills everything in sight, now we're dealing with killings that are due to pent up, calculated rage.

These three topics are parts of the puzzle for putting together a good horror story.  Of course character development, dialogue and the other aspects that make up good writing are important as well.  Your monster is just as important as the hero and should be as well thought out and developed.  Like the hero, the monster is a plot device and should move the story and be the driving force behind the conflict.  Whether the beast or the hero wins at the end of the story is your decision.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dealing with Dialogue

We all know that books are full of pages and pages, in turn, are full of words.  But endless exposition, no matter how action packed, gets real dull fast.  Dialogue is often one of the key methods of advancing the plot, as well as revealing key or subtle details that help define character(s).  It can also be one of the more challenging aspects of writing.  Like people, dialogue is fluid and takes on a life of its own.  When used effectively, the reader should almost be able to hear the the characters speaking to each other.  If done poorly, it comes off as stiff and not very believable.  I struggle with dialogue.  It's not an easy aspect of writing.  Even after getting the conversation/scene down, I still tend to go back and keep picking at it like a scab.  Yeah, I was that kind of kid growing up.

The funny thing about writing dialogue is that you actually get the opportunity to practice and hone the craft on a daily basis.  Unless you live under a rock, you likely end up talking to another living person at some point during your day.  It doesn't matter whether it's on a telephone, through Skype, or in person.  What matters is that you're talking: you're having a dialogue.  Once you've realized that, the writer in you can start to pick up on the little nuances of other people's speech and conversational mannerisms.  Does the other person you're speaking with talk in a halting, deliberate fashion (i.e. Christopher Walken)?  More importantly, do you understand your own manner of speech?

That last question caught me by surprise when I started asking it myself about three and a half years ago.  I was preparing an appellate brief for a criminal case and was reading over the trial transcript.  At the time, I still recalled what I said in the courtroom very vividly.  Yet, when I reviewed the record of my direct, cross-examination and closing argument I noticed that there were little differences between what I recalled and what was written down.  Every time I said the word "going," the court reporter had typed "gonna."  Aside from making me think that I sound like I'm slurring my words, which I don't, this led to me understand that what the participant in the conversation hears (or doesn't) is just as important as what's said.  Basically, this means that you have to ensure that this is a two way conversation, warts and all.  Maybe one off the participants isn't really listening and gets the wrong information.  Maybe the speaker isn't really paying attention to what he's saying and goes off on some ridiculous tangent.  Maybe one of your characters does have a speech problem.

The point I make, is that we get to practice dialogue everyday.  Paying attention to the conversations we have, and the ones going on around us, seems like one of the best approaches for honing that aspect of writing.