Monday, June 30, 2014

First and Foremost: Why Are You Writing?

The topic of audience selection comes up frequently enough that most writers likely have an idea or concept about whom they believe might decide to read their book.  It's an important topic, as every writer wants to feel a connection with their readers and, hopefully, the readers feel the same way.  With that in mind, it's easy to lose sight of why you started to write in the first place.  When that happens, there's a disconnect that takes place and something gets lost between the pages.  It's not so much a question of improperly gauging your audience.  It's something deeper and far more personal.

What went through your mind the first time you put pen to paper, or set the cursor on your screen dancing as the words flowed into your fingertips?  Did you feel the kind of nervous excitement after finishing a carefully crafted plot arc that could only be likened to your very first date?  Have you ever shed tears while daydreaming or plotting the scene where one of the characters you created dies?  These questions are all about an emotional response triggered from the act of writing.  What we're talking about here, then, is really passion for the craft.  Whether your passion for writing burns like a smoldering flame or like a bonfire, it's personal and unique to every writer.  Yet, fire can be contained, directed and re-directed, just like any tool.  So, if we aren't careful, we end up molding our passion to suit the needs/wants of our readers, our publishers (for those going the small publisher or legacy route), our time commitments (read: constraints), etc. 

None of this is to say that the writer shouldn't be mindful of his or her audience.  Quite the opposite.  Like stage directors running a full company of actors, orchestra, and stage hands, writers absolutely must play to the readers/audience.  That comes down to understanding their needs versus wants: give them what they need, but tease them with what they want.  Through it all, however, you have to let them see your passion for writing.  That's why they came in the first place to see the theater that is your book.  Whether the story is a critically acclaimed success, hardly noticed among the crowd, or belittled by the curmudgeons: there are bound to be those who are intrigued by the passion and fire you've injected into your tale. 

That's what writing is for me.  It's about following the desire to create something from nothing and then turning that into a tale that I hope entertains, educates, and engages the reader.  It's impossible to write something that will please every single reader in the exact same way.  Attempting to do so waters down the experience of whatever it is I'm trying to create.  Strangely enough, I actually do believe that constructive negative feedback, serves several purposes.  One, it reinforces my point above that you can't write something that will please everyone.  Two, it likely may give me food for thought on things I hadn't considered or another viewpoint for analyzing whatever the topic may be (i.e. story arc, character development, etc.).  And three, it just stokes my fire to get me back to brainstorming, outlining, planning and writing. 

What is writing for you?  Just as important, what does it do for you?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Storytelling: It's All About Perspective

There are plenty of tough choices that go into transforming an idea into an actual book.  Among those decisions is figuring out how you want to tell your story.  This means picking between either first person or third person perspective as the method for telling your tale.  Really, it comes down to presentation style.  Do you want the reader to see the world you've created through the eyes of one or more key characters, or are you looking to give them more of a bird's eye view?

In "Of Murder and Monsters," I decided to go with a first person perspective style of narration.  About 99% of the book is told from the perspective of Sean Valdez, the book's protagonist.  This means that readers not only sees what Sean sees, they get a front row seat to how he thinks and interprets the world around him.  As his life takes on more and more confusing twists and turns, some of that confusion translates into what the reader experiences along with Sean.  Then again, Sean's not a perfect person and, like all of us, he sometimes can't see the forest from the trees.

First person perspective, then, is also an excellent tool for creating tension and controlling the pace and distribution of information.  This makes sense since the character is limited on how much information he or she is aware of as the story progresses.  Likewise, they either aren't aware or aren't fully aware of the intentions or motivations of the other characters with whom they interact.  As in real life, sometimes we just don't know who we can really trust or when we're being led astray.  What makes writing in the first person difficult over the length of a novel is that the writer has to stay "in character" for the duration.  Even when you're introducing the narrating character to other characters and setting the scene to do so, it's important to remember that the non-narrating character is being introduced to the reader through the filter that is your narrating character.  In other words, the reader is getting someone else's interpretation of the characteristic's of the non-narrating character.  Confusing, yes.  Resolvable, absolutely.

If your readers feel like they can trust that the narrator is being honest and straightforward, then they're likely to accept what's being relayed to them by the narrator. This becomes important later on if your narrator suffers some sort of break with reality or is recovering some sort of psychological shock or assault.  At some point, the reader, in those scenarios, has to be able to believe that the narrator has worked through the issue/hallucination and is now interpreting things logically/accurately again.  Under some scenarios, you might intentionally want to have your reader question/doubt the narrator's veracity.  As with all things, however, too much of a good thing can go awry.

Third person perspective can be a much more liberating format for both the reader and the writer.  Granted, you can still limit the amount of information that the reader receives; however, they are usually still getting much more information than they would from the first person narrative form.  I like to think of either use of third person narration as an almost over-the-shoulder, documentary style, camera that follows the character or characters throughout the story.  Therefore, I've decided that both the prequel and sequel to "Of Murder and Monsters," will be told using the third person perspective to further reveal the dark world into which Sean Valdez has been thrown into.  As this narrative provides the reader with more information, it's far more useful when there are many more moving parts and character story lines.  

Which narrative style do you prefer to read?  For writers, which type of storytelling perspective do you enjoy working with more?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Hack: Character Continuity Shortcut

There's a lot to learn as you progress in writing a series.  More often than not, the lessons don't become very clear until you're well into the second book.  In my case, as the characters from "Of Murder and Monsters" are continuing to grow and develop, I found myself jumping back and forth between the current manuscript and my Kindle copy of Book One.  This wasn't terribly annoying until the sixth or seventh time I had to jump back into Book One.  The reason for all of the jumping back and forth was to make sure that not only was I staying consistent with the descriptions, but that character growth picked up where I left off.  Without keeping a certain level of familiarity, you'll lose that sense of continuity that gives your reader a platform from which they will accept the characters' development.  

As I've continued to make progress on Book Two, I've started creating character sheets.  These actually aren't that dissimilar from the kinds of character sheets you might find on a table top role playing game.  Role playing game character sheets can serve as a great template. Some are incredibly detailed and cover everything from physical descriptions to physical and mental attributes.  Of course, you'll want to input words and descriptions, rather than numbers - unless that's what works best for you.  I also created a "notes" section where I keep a bullet point running list of the major events of Book One that contributed to the character's growth, challenges they faced, or how they died.  Likewise, these bullet points also note the page where this happened on my final draft (just in case I still need to go back).  Not only did this put the information right at my fingertips, it also has saved me quite a bit of time.  Now, I no longer have to remember specific pages or chapters where something pivotal in the character's life happened.

The other helpful thing about putting together the character sheets is it has allowed me to make a better side-by-side comparison of multiple characters.  Most stories involve character interaction (i.e. dialogue).  It's one thing to have an idea of the personalities at play, it's another thing to be able to sit down and analytically look at your characters' quirks and traits in black and white.  The helpful thing about this is it forces me to see where a character might go against the grain of their personality - maybe they're not very confrontational, or perhaps they're giving something up to reach a much larger goal later in the story.  My point is, I've found this to be good for brainstorming when it comes to having the characters work with, or against, each other.  

Writers: what kinds of devices do you use to help maintain character continuity in your series?  Readers: how important is character continuity to you?

Friday, June 13, 2014

So You Published Your Book, Now What? (Part 2)

Earlier this week, I took an overview look at one of the more difficult phases to the self-publishing process: marketing.  As I said before, writing is the easy part.  It doesn't matter how good your material is, no one will buy your book if they don't even know it exists.  That's the real challenge of eBooks.  To put it in perspective, your book is a single stand/blade of hay that's in the middle of a much larger bale, in a field lined up of hundreds of other bales of hay.  Therefore, the goal should be to get to the top of your bale and worry about conquering the whole field once you get there.  

Farm analogies aside, the idea here is to just get the word out.  There are a ton of blogs and articles on the subject and a good number of them deal with SEO.  This post focuses on simple, no-budget, marketing that will help new indie published writers accomplish two important things: (A) get the word out about their book(s); and (B) make good contacts with other indie writers and readers along the way.  In order to accomplish A, let's start with B.

Long before you hit the "publish" button on whatever platform you are going to use to launch your eBook, you want to start marketing.  Wait, you're thinking, I thought we were starting with B.  We are, stay with me.  Making contact with other indie writers and readers IS marketing.  It's no different than going to a networking lunch, or taking the concepts of networking and using them more subtly.  Subtle is the key, because effective networking should never feel like networking.  More importantly, that's not what you're trying to do anyways.  What you want is to develop a give and take relationship with this other person.  Maybe you're looking for a beta reader and the other writer is looking for someone who knows a graphics designer who'll negotiate on prices for book covers.  If you're able to help each other out, it's a win-win for you both.  More importantly, this person will remember you weeks later when you're promoting your book.  Here's where the networking pays off: now you've got someone willing to help you spread the word about your eBook.  

Social media is the new word of mouth.  That indie author you made a connection with might have several hundred followers on Twitter.  In my case, indie author Seeley James, was kind enough to offer to tweet and re-tweet news about my free, three day promotion of "Of Murder and Monsters."  Not only did this help get the word out, it also led to others picking up James' tweets and re-tweeting the information.  This, combined with my efforts to get the news out via several + Google communities and websites advertising eBook giveaways, led to an amazing first day day of the promotion.  The last two days of the free promotion posted respectable numbers, and has already helped generate more sales.  

You'll want to make effective use of social media in order to get the word out about your book.  This means either creating an author Facebook Page, blog, Twitter account, or your own website, or all four.  Regardless of which format you go with, you want to make sure you are involved. It doesn't cost a thing to use these resources, yet they can help you rally friends and family to help tell others about your book.  Again, it's about generating as much word of mouth discussion about your book, while at the same time reinforcing existing relationships and building new ones.  Join a discussion group/community and participate.  Help other authors in the group and you just may get some unexpected help that aids your marketing efforts.  Just remember to pay it forward.  

Monday, June 9, 2014

So You Published Your Book, Now What? (Part 1)

EBooks are different. Every writer knows this when they make the decision to self-publish.  There are no pages to "flip through."  OK, that's fine because I like computers.  They are typically less expensive than print.  Great!  Often, you'll read work from a writer you might have never heard of before, as they decided to self-publish.  Wonderful: I don't like others telling me what I should and shouldn't like.  As a self-published writer, you're going to have to do your own marketing.  Say what?

Writing the book is the easy part.  Let me repeat that: writing the book is the easy part.  The next hardest bit is going through the editing process.  Tying for that spot, depending on your level of tech know-how, is formatting your ebook.  The hardest part of self-publishing is marketing (read: selling your book).  If you've got a business or marketing degree: then you've got a leg up.  If you're a "think outside of the box" sort of person, that's great too.  However, unless you've mastered how to both read and change people's minds: marketing can be a tough hill to climb.

The most important thing to keep in mind, especially for new writers, is that exposure is critically important.  It doesn't matter if you write the greatest book of your time if the general public (beyond friends and family) have never heard of you.  Even if your book is still in manuscript form, now is the time to get your name out there.  If your book is already published and available to readers, now is the time to get creative.  

There is no set path to building a base of readers; however, you can't lose site of what helps to attract interested readers in the first place.  Good writing.  How do you let your readers know that you're book is full of good writing?  Therein lies the rub of marketing: you have to tell them, without you telling them.  Put another way, you've got to get the word out.  This may mean stepping out of your comfort zone when it comes to using social media, or even considering the help of a smaller marketing/promotional company.  Regardless of which general direction you decide to go, remember that, even in today's tech-filled world, word-of-mouth counts.

This week, I'll be looking at some of the ways to increase visibility, using no-budget marketing.  As part of this experiment, "Of Murder and Monsters" will be available for FREE for three days, from June 10th to June 12th.  After the promotion ends, I'll be discussing what worked and what didn't, as well as what I've been doing to get my name out there before and after publishing.  Check back on Friday for the update.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Character Creation: Developing Strong Women When You Know Nothing About Them

Let's get something out of the way from the beginning: I am not an expert when it comes to women.  Stay with me for a moment, it's actually a good thing. It means I spend less time focusing on a concept or idea and more time writing about the character as a person.  With that in mind, I want to make sure to set the record straight that I do, in fact, know a few women: I am the son of one, have represented several in various legal dilemmas, am married to one and am currently raising two.  My point is that these are all people that I've gotten to know and/or who are a part of my life.  As a male writer, I believe that is the key when writing about women characters: you cannot lose sight of the fact that you are writing about a person.  More importantly, all writers should want a character to resonate with other people, not just with one gender or the other.  Again, focusing on the character as a person is what's critical. Otherwise, you may come across as reinforcing certain stereotypes and alienate your readers.

Next, you'll have to decide what are the strengths that define this woman character who you've created. Very few of us know a single human being that embodies all of the "strong" qualities that we like to see in leading literary characters.  Usually these heroes or heroines have a number of qualities that strike positive chords with the reader.  In real life, the friends and family members who we look up to might only embody one or two attributes that would brand them as being a "strong" person.  Like all of us, even a strong leading lady in your cast should have some sort of flaw, quirk or shortcoming.  Real people aren't perfect, and the ones that seem that way are just very good at hiding skeletons in the closet.  Your characters shouldn't be perfect either.  If they are, create a secret they are afraid that everyone will find out.  Now, you've humanized your super hero and given the reader something to invest in (i.e. watching the flaw get overcome or damage control when the secret is discovered).  

By way of example, in "Of Murder and Monsters," Savannah Keller definitely is hiding a secret and the lawyer defending her, Sean Valdez, tries to uncover the mystery.  As the story unfolds, it becomes questionable as to whether Savannah's reluctance to divulge her secret is as much to protect Sean as it is herself.  Is she doing this for selfish or selfless reasons?  That's for the reader to decide and, in doing so, determine in what kind of light do they see Savannah.  

What I'm getting at is that you don't have to be an expert to create a strong woman character, you just have to be an observer of your own life and the women in it.  You can pick and choose from the myriad of qualities from the women you know.  

What kinds of qualities do you feel embody a strong woman character?  

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Benefits of Hybridizing Genres: Bringing Something New to Old Tables

When I set out to write "Of Murder and Monsters," I didn't want to write a legal drama that most would assume was a thinly veiled memoirs.  Likewise, I wasn't convinced that I wanted to go in the direction of a pure thriller either.  For those that have already read the book, "Of Murder and Monsters" also is not a straight horror tale.  It's a mix of all three: blending a legal drama, thriller and elements of horror.  Could the book survive on it's own if it just focused on only one of these genres?  Maybe.  Does it add something by blurring the lines between the other forms of storytelling?  I'd like to think so.

The reality is that the age old adage that "there are no new stories" is a fairly accurate statement.  The other part of the adage, of course, is that there are only new ways of telling old stories.  So it stands to reason that by taking the familiar and throwing it into foreign territory, you may walk away with something unique.  Mixing romance stories with horror is nothing new, as there are plenty of supernatural love tales (i.e. vampire, werewolf and ghost related stories).  Likewise, sci-fi thrillers have be done to great effect.  So there are plenty of examples of books that have mixed different genres and it's a trend that should continue.  Not only does it help push and expand the types of books that are out there, it helps expose readers to other genres that they otherwise might not try.

The key, I think, is in creating something that has something for everyone surrounding the core aspect of the book.  Essentially, this means that if you're setting out to write a thriller, wrapping it with a morsel of science fiction may end up attracting new readers like foodies to a bacon wrapped pork chop.  What could be better than introducing someone to a new genre that, but for your book, they would have never otherwise discovered?  More importantly, you were their "first."  And let's face it, no one forgets their first.

Have you written or read something that mixed multiple genres together?  What was it and what did you like best about that?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reader Invitational

Most of what I've blogged about so far has been either chronicling my thoughts and experiences on writing and self-publishing.  Hopefully, these posts have been either helpful or entertaining to other writers or readers who aspire to write and publish.  The greater question, however, is what about the pure reader - the ones who just want to enjoy good books?  What I mean is this: there are a lot of great blogs for writers by writers, or dedicated book review club blogs; but what about platforms for readers to share their advice to the writer?  Without the readers there would be no books, period.  The great thing about self-publishing and ebooks is the notion of being able to be more responsive to one's readers as a whole.  So why not acknowledge this advantage/freedom and embrace it?

So I thought to myself, why not create that platform for readers to share their thoughts on what THEY want from the types of books they read and authors they follow.  The goal is to share this information, on this blog and with fellow authors, to not only create a healthy dialogue between readers and writers, but also help writers deliver the kinds of stories our readers are seeking.  Literature is so subjective that two people reading the same book may walk away with differing opinions about the themes and key characters.  So, as a writer, it's helpful to get that kind of subjective feedback and see whether it meshes with the original intent behind the work.

Therefore, dear reader, the pleasure of your correspondence is hereby requested to share your thoughts and opinions for this Reader Invitational.  In short, I'm asking you to share your feedback on a variety of topics, including, but not limited to:

1. What draws you to an author's blog in the first place?  (i.e. Are you a writer, or aspiring writer, yourself?  Are you looking for tips and advice?)

2.  What are your thoughts on the indie author movement vs. traditional publishing?

3.  What areas do you wish writers would devote more time to: descriptive narrative; dialogue; plot development; or character development?

4.  What is your favorite genre and what types of innovations (i.e. new directions) do you wish authors would start taking?

5.  What is your favorite book?  If you could sit down with the author, what changes would you suggest to the author to make it an even better book?

6.  For those that enjoy horror books, what is it about the genre that attracts you to scary stories?  Which books have scared you the most?

7.  What do you think is lacking in villains of modern books?

These are just some topics.  The point is, writers want to hear from our readers.  So feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the Comments section below.  I'll be sharing this information with other authors and, hopefully, they'll extend the Invitational to the fans of their blogs.