Monthly Archives: September 2009

Deconstruction … The Ultimate Writers Tool?

Like many of you, I’ve written a novel. Well, several novels, but I have one in an extremely marketable genre with all the bells and whistles. The query letter knocks agents’ socks off and most I query ask for the manuscript … and it hasn’t gone any further than that so far. Sigh …

The problem with the process is that agents simply don’t have the time (or the responsibility) to tell us why our work is rejected, short of the standard comments. “Not right for our agency” or “Not interested at this time” is absolutely no help. Of course, I understand how overworked and pressed these people are to find only the most profitable possibilities where taking on an author is concerned. But all too often the discouragement can be devastating.

Nope, this isn’t a blog about sticking it out and never giving up. It’s an entry about finding a solution.

I watch Top Chef. Being a retired chef, I love the show for a variety of reasons, but oddly enough, last night’s show crossed over into a new and different look at my novel. The contestants were challenged with taking a traditional recipe and deconstructing it. The goal is that the diner tours the various ingredients on the plate and when they’ve eaten it all, they get the flavor and emotion evoked by the original, calssic recipe. That made me wonder; is it time to deconstruct and rebuild my novel? In pondering this concept, I realized that I have already explored several possible tools to do just that, all I need to do is put them to work.

Here’s what I mean …

  1. Get a Mentor. Seriously. If you don’t have a mentor you really are floundering in the dark. Get a mentor but not just any mentor, a great mentor! Someone who knows not only how to write very, very well and sell their work, but also understands your genre. Having a mentor and using that mentor are two different things. Listening means nothing unless you put the advice into action. Yes it takes a little time to trust someone, especially if they tell you something that directly contradicts what you imagine was important and vital to the story. My best advice? Bite the bullet, swallow your ego and try. You always keep your original work, so where’s the harm in testing a suggestion? You’re no worse for the attempt and chances are, your work will be far better for it. Everything I learned from my mentor falls under the category of Deconstruction and Rebuilding.
  2. Back Story. Maybe you have a prolog or perhaps your book starts with something you feel sets the tone or tells a part of the story a reader may not understand. In many cases, opening a novel with back story simply slows it to a crawl. Not a good thing if your goal is to trap a reader in your imaginative lair and hold them there through 300+ pages. Remove the back story and plant it carefully within the text of your story, preferably within action/dialog scenes.
  3. The Dreaded Head Hopping Curse. Good gravy, I learned so much about this in one simple statement from my mentor, it made my own head spin. It’s one thing to have a sharp eye against incorrectly shifting POV, but head hopping is another nasty animal all together. It’s not something a writer should never do, but it is something a writer must do carefully. The key is to be inside the RIGHT head. It’s far simpler than I originally thought and here’s the trick. An event should always come from inside the head of the character who has the most to lose in that scene. Well DUH. If you’re anything like me, you have several scenes that should be rewritten this way to create a far more powerful story, scene by scene.
  4. Twenty-five Reasons, All in a Row. When starting a novel, everyone, even Dan Brown, gets caught up with the exciting energy of writing. Somewhere in the process we all step back and ask, “Where are we going? What was the point again?” Many authors have no issues working blind; they have an inner compass that pulls them from A to Z. Many of us aren’t quite like that. Some of us outline, some mind map, some make charts and graphs. All that is way too time consuming for me. Then someone told me an easy trick to getting started. (After all, getting started is the point, right? Can’t finish without beginning.) Here’s the coolest tool I’ve learned in a long time. Sit down and write twenty-five sentences on separate lines that basically tell your story from beginning to end. It may only take ten, it may take thirty, but get from start to finish in simple statements. There. Now you have a prompt for each and every chapter, in order and clearly guiding you through the conflicts and climax of your novel. Neat, huh?
  5. Co-Stars and Supporting Cast. Do you have a habit of falling in love with your supporting characters too? Sometimes a character is so much fun to write we tend to float that way, making the character more important than s/he needs to be and unfortunately, throwing the story off keel. I have a few I should seriously back off with, but there are also a few who are planned for the next book in the series, so approaching the supporting characters thoughtfully is major. If my reader falls in love with a secondary character because I unintentionally led them that way and that character has no real importance … the story suffers. I think this falls under the category of “kill your babies”. Painful but necessary.
  6. Get Readers and Listen to Them. Again, listening and doing something about what’s being said is two different things. In my mind, if a reader (friend, family member or crit buddy) asks a question about a character or event and I have to give a ten minute explanation … something just isn’t right with the manuscript. I do have a policy though, I wait until the reader has read and made notes on the whole manuscript before I begin addressing those questions. It saves me a little anguish during the process. It helps more to hear “you foreshadowed, “or “this came out of left field” than, “where’s this going?” before they’ve read the next page. Either way, it’s vital to hear what readers find cumbersome or misleading and do something about it.
  7. Set a Timeline. Yes, you need all the input you can get in order to begin a deconstruction and rebuilding process, but set a time limit for gathering that information. Continually thinking that one more reader or one more mentor should be found before you begin the work falls under that bad category of Procrastination. We writers are real good at that. Procrastination evolves into writers block then we’re screwed, big time. So determine a finite deadline for collecting as many well focused comments as you can gather then just do it. Put your head down and fingers to the keyboard, dismantle the entire book and make the changes.
  8. After the Rebuilding? Exactly, what happens next? It seems it will depend on the writer. For me, I’ll go back to my mentor and readers for a review of the changes. If it seems positive, I’ll begin the query process again.  It’ll be finger-crossing and nail-biting time here in my little home office but that’s what it’s all about. And in the process of deconstructing and rebuilding, I will have become a sharper writer. I’m game, D-day for the Deconstruct is tomorrow.
  9. Setting the Goal. One month is my goal. November 1, 2009. The rebuilding will be finished and polished by then and I’ll be moving ahead.

Um … pray for me, everyone. Now, where did I put those work gloves?

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Lights, Camera, Action!

I belong to several wonderful writing groups, a few of them very focused on marketing. For some reason last week, the subject rolled around to book videos. 

Yes, aren’t they the coolest? But as I perused the many book videos floating on the web and connected to author’s sites, even though my “writer” self was dazzled, I found my “marketing” self cringe. Like many potentially successful marketing tools, I fear most book videos are mis-conceptualized, misdirected and mismanaged. 

I look at book videos (or Book Trailers) a lot because like everyone else; I want to make them for my books. Some of my favorite book videos are at http://www.expandedbooks.com/video/view/551 

The majority of them (in several genres) are 30 seconds and some are less. The purpose of these videos is to keep the viewers attention and entice them to buy the book. It’s about getting sales. 

Now, I completely understand the excitement and attraction to having a promotional video for our book. After all, we’re storytellers and love to tell our story any way we can. Book videos can serve as wonderful marketing vehicles if handled correctly … but I think we should explore a few things about communicating in this particular format. 

So before we fire up our handy-dandy moviemaker computer programs, I seriously think we need to keep in mind what a trailer really is.  

1) A book promotional video is a direct imitation of a movie trailer. AND a movie trailer is a direct application to reaching television viewers. When we watch television, unless it is a paid programming promo, the commercial is no longer than 30 seconds. It’s a pattern we’re conditioned to and that may be why most viewers of book trailers (including me) tend to get bored after 30 seconds. We’re programmed for 30 second clips. 

2) This 30 second format is the reason many children (and adults), no matter the subject or product, will suddenly still and pay attention to a good commercial. (I LOVE the new Mac/PC spots!) A 30 second space of time requires quick impact and clean images to reach the viewer. Some commercials are far better produced than most television shows we watch! 

3) As writers we’re always told to cut back, get more concise, tell the story efficiently. What’s the hardest thing we’re told to do? Write our elevator pitch! 25 words that encapsulate our story, clean, neat, polished. I strongly suggest it’s the same with promotional book videos. 

4) When a book video moves too slowly and tells me nothing for a long time, I tend to imagine that the book is the same. Slow, boring and dragging. This isn’t the impression we want to get across at all. 

My suggestions are: 

A) Treat your promotional book video the way you wrote your book. If it’s fast paced, make the trailer fast paced. If it’s emotional, say that clearly and right away. If the book has twists and turns, let the viewer know that visually and within 30 to 40 seconds

B) Keep it brief and powerful, within 30 to 40 seconds. I do understand that many subscribe to the idea that book videos are targeted to the music video audience, requiring 2 to 3 minutes of entertainment. If your book is paced to be an exciting book video that long, and you know how to create a 2 to 3 minute music video, by all means do it. Remember, it’s all about holding a viewers attention. My attention span for videos is usually 30 seconds and I move on to something else. If your video is going to be 2 to 3 minutes long … make sure the viewer is totally hooked in the first 30 seconds. 

C) Be careful with the slow dissolve full screen verbiage. Think in terms of a movie trailer. They’ve got 30 seconds to excite the viewer about a 2 hour film and gain success at the box office. Like the open of your book, your trailer shouldn’t start as a snoozer. 

D) I have no issues with showing faces or using actors, as long as it gives the feeling of being professionally acted and videoed. 

E) Be careful with voiceover narration. Hire a professional or make sure it sounds professional. Write a narrator script as sharp and tight as your book. 

F) Be very, very careful of the music and images you use in your video. Just because something is on the worldwide web does not mean it’s ours to use. Familiarize yourself with licensing and the appropriate sites where images and music can be used or purchased as well as the limitations for that usage. 

G) The author’s website and the publisher’s website should be clearly shown at the end of a book video. Don’t forget a pocture of the book cover and a line stating where the book can be purchased. You’d be surprised how many book videos forget these critical elements! 

Yup. Done well, these book promotional videos are the greatest! 

And now for the bad news. 

So far, there’s no real proof or way to gauge whether having a book video actually helps sales. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t, it simply means no one has figured out how to track sales in relation to book video viewership.  

I see book videos as just another vehicle for marketing. No matter how wonderful it is or how much time and/or money is spent on it, just popping them on YouTube isn’t all that effective. 

I don’t think every author and every book requires a book video, but having one may be very effective providing you create it well and promote it aggressively. It’s a new toy and until we all discover how to make it a viable moneymaker, it may never become super important to an author’s success. In fact, it has the threat of being a distraction from other, more efficient ways to gain sales. 

But hoh, man, they are so cool and I want one for Cold in California! I can just see it! Flaming torches, hot sex scenes, desperate vampire moments! So someone, anyone, chime in with book video success stories!

 


Pixie Pandemonium

The best part of writing fantasy is the making up stuff part. Of course everything is based on some sort of fable or mythology, something someone somewhere said or wrote or in Disney’s case, animated, so we all just accept it as fantasy fact. Like most writers, I absolutely LOVE breaking the accepted rules and building worlds based on my own concepts. Post-divorce superpowers I suppose, but controlling what happens inside my fantastical environments is more fun than hitting the lottery. (Not like I’d know.) 

Take my paranormal romance, Cold in California. The vampire/hero/protagonist and all around handsome dude is Gabriel Strickland. For a vampire, he seems not too unusual, right? But my vampire is dead. Really and truly dead. Staked-and-gonzo-for-the-final-time dead. So how can I be telling his story if he’s dead? Because I LOVE to break the rules. My double-dead vampire has been chosen for one last chance to earn heaven. 

Aside from his lovely heroine, I needed a cast of characters. I wanted a particular character who could sustain behind the scenes and come forward to play a big role in the slam bang ending. I wanted a character the reader would be looking around the corners of the story to get a glimpse of and anxious to see again. An extremely fun and interesting character among the other dead supernaturals living in a West Hollywood warehouse and working to earn a ticket through the pearly gates. I chose a pixie. 

According to Encyclopedia Mythica: 

The term Pixie is derived from Picts, a well-known old race from Northern England and Scotland. Other name origins are obscure. As usual, the Little People were hostile to their conquerors. They stole cattle and destroyed crops, resented the fact that they were driven away from the best lands. But some friendships occurred too, sometimes even leading to marriages between the invaders and the larger of the Little People. 

Well nice, but not my pixie. Her name is Shirley and she’s a wild card. She’s beautiful with a streak of playful wickedness that both irritates and intrigues the other residents. She’s five feet tall and has long golden hair, smells of sweet caramel and serves as a sexual dynamo without much of a conscience. Exploring Shirley and her journey to the final end turned out to be a blast. Next week I’ll be posting Shirley’s background in the Cold in California character pages at my author’s site. Where she came from and where she’s going is part and parcel of creating the world I wanted to portray. This gal isn’t throwing pixie dust around, she’s finding self-pleasure and hoping final judgment doesn’t catch up with her. She’s a supporting character and I had fun writing her. I let her play and cause mischief, but I let her shine too. 

I’ve found that this technique of creating a different view of a character works well even in genres outside paranormal or urban fantasy. It’s a big question writers love to ask. The big WHAT IF

One cool exercise I enjoy when developing character is to simply jot down the obvious about that character as I originally see them. Is s/he average? A nerd? Stunning but evil? Does s/he have scruples or run on instinct? Does the character’s logic reflect his/her background or are they off the map? Once that list is made, I make a counter list, a WHAT IF list. 

What if my nerdy hero discovers he has serious bedroom eyes he never knew he had? Or better yet, what if he discovers the hidden strength of his nerdiness to win the hot girl or save the world he loves (even if that just means the corner coffee shop he frequents)? 

What if the mean boss is more than just a handsome dude with power to wield fire and brimstone over his staff? What if he’s deeply troubled? Likes to wear sequined shoes alone at night or only eats white food? What journey can he take toward discovering how to manage such things? What if he does an amazing out-of-character action that sets a whole new tone for the story? 

The big WHAT IF is all about telling a story in a way the reader doesn’t expect. Finding new paths to telling the same old tale is vital right now as every agent and publisher out there is looking for the illusive X-Factor – whatever that is. (I think it’s a secret code among the powers that be and it’s our job to unravel it with remarkable narrative and creative points of view.) 

I’ve always believed that creativity is plagiarism with a flair; a spark no one ever thought of before. If your hero, a mild-mannered bag boy at the local Piggly Wiggly, is also a master of Feng Shui and slightly psychic to boot, you might be getting somewhere. And if my pixie is a two million year old over-sexed trickster who never learned her lesson and suddenly finds her sense of right and wrong, something unique and magical happens to affect the whole story. 

Even with an amazingly original plot concept, if our characters aren’t just as original … it can all crash and burn. At least that’s this writer’s feelings on the subject. Never mind that I’m lost in the middle of pixie pandemonium. Viva la big WHAT IF!


A WordMaster Speaks! Guest blog by Marc Nash

One of my favorite writers in the world is new British author, Marc Nash. An experimental writer from the get-go, Marc can dazzle the eye and the mind with images and ideas that make a reader think and smile and even shudder at times. He excavates the language landscape to unearth ways of communication that dazzle and astound. I’m thrilled to have Marc as my first guest blogger. My prediction is that Marc Nash is and always will be … an admired ‘word master’!   

 

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” 

I believe this is what it says on the Statue of Liberty. I’m going to be really provocative and say contemporary literature needs to heed these words. I’m not talking about genre works, for they have to work largely within well-established tramlines. I’m talking about those books either deemed ‘Literary Fiction’, or are just filed in ‘Fiction, A-Z by author’ in the bookstores. 

1) ‘Your tired, your poor’ … Every workaday metaphor has probably already been written and published in a book somewhere. Have a look at any new work of fiction and see just how tired and lackluster its metaphorical language is. I bet you’ve heard it all before, or at least imagine that you have. Literary deja-vu. And yet our world is changing so rapidly, technological and scientific breakthroughs happening everyday, surely we should be expanding our creative palettes? Yet science is leading the way, because science has to think beyond the human scale; be it cosmological and planetary and infinite; or sub-atomic and quantum. Science has to invent metaphors to explain behaviors or origins of matter, because it can no longer prove the existence of these things, too great or too tiny for the naked/lensed eye. 

Stephen Hawking’s books are literary masterpieces, look at his metaphors to explain abstruse things. String theory? C’mon, how rich is it to explain the dimensions of existence like a child playing cats’ cradle with her mother’s balls of darning wool? The Higgs Boson particle accelerator is like a giant pinball machine which we hope and pray doesn’t register ‘Tilt’ and suck us all into a game ending black hole. Now I don’t say we all have to start reading “Scientific American” or “Nature”, but ask yourselves why have the scientists suddenly taken over the role of coming up with new metaphors to help us humans understand the world around us? That’s our job as writers! Call our Union, Feckless Local 911. (Another event deemed too large scale for our tiny imaginations to cope with). 

2) ‘Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. I believe an unfortunate and unintended alliance of publishers and writers has left a section of the reading public starved for literature they yearn for to feed their mind. How many contemporary books (and would-be books in online writing groups), have you come across and said, yes competent, stylish even, but I’ve read better versions of the same. I read a book that was basically an updated version of Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Beautifully executed, updated to a 1980’s NY community, but basically, DONE BEFORE. I was not transported to anywhere I hadn’t already been and bought the T-shirt (or the dust jacket at least). This tendency is composed of a self-reinforcing cycle of books that prove their marketability, leading publishers to play it safe with commissioning more of the same, and authors seeing what gets published, also playing it safe and sticking to these formulas and subjects. Stop it, cease and desist right now! Give the readers something new to challenge them. Why did experiments with form and language seemingly expire in the 1960’s? That’s 40 years ago, the world has moved on, and makes even less sense to us morally and socially adrift. Maybe radical new insights through fiction might meet that raging hunger out there in the market. We won’t ever know if none of it ever gets published. Writers have to make the first move by writing this stuff. Then try and impress on the publishers that it will sell. Or publish it themselves and prove it sells … 

3) ‘The wretched refuse of your teeming shore’. I’ve been at this writing lark for 25 years now. Pretty much with the same centrality of vision as I started out with. I have stepped over the husks of many of my peers, far more creative than I, but ultimately worn down and vitiated by years of rejection and neglect for their work. Maybe I’m just thicker-skinned or more cussed. I have decorated the walls of my study with rejection letters. It drives me on. I receive heaps of criticism within online writing communities, because my work is ‘difficult’ or ‘demanding’. While I am happy to allow that reading a book and needing a dictionary or book of Classical Greek Myth to hand, may not be your chosen way of reading, when it is a peer writer who complains that “I don’t wish to have to keep referencing a dictionary when I read”, I ask myself why would any writer admit to this, that they have no interest in words? In expanding the palette of hues with which they can daub on their own canvas. So no, I refuse to compromise. I paint with words. My metaphors are impressionistic. My POV cubist. My references abstract, in that I am not tackling material reality head on. In short, I sculpt with words. I may riff off just one word and fill up a whole page with ambages brought about by that one word. I am convinced I have a constituency out there. It may not be sizeable. It may not be particularly profitable. But it is interested in literary form. In language. In ideas. In metaphor. In contemporaneity. In politics (not party politics, but politics behind the everyday). In being mentally stretched. In short, writing that makes them work a bit, but hopefully rewards them for their investment. A book life-changing, not in the way of a self-help book, but one that may leave them never viewing the world in quite the same way again. 

What say you my fellow scribes? You up for signing on for a literary Green Card? Come get with the program. Or at least help me establish such a program. 

 

Marc Nash’s novel “AB&E” is coming out before Christmas and will be available on Amazon. Visit him at http://sulcicollective.blogspot.com/ and be sure to take a look at the Video Bar and his amazing Guerilla Videos!

Thanks Marc!