Monday, October 29, 2012

Getting the Word Out

Getting the Word Out

Traditional publishers have something great going for them: distribution. They can get your book out in stores across the nation...well, the stores that still exist. Plus online, of course, with Barnes and Noble and Amazon and so on. The indie publisher doesn't have that.

However, if you're publishing a POD* or an ebook, the problem isn't exactly distribution. Customers come to you, or your POD publisher, for the books. No, your problem is letting people know the books even exist.

So what's the best publicity? Writers use Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, for one thing, networking to let people know. And Goodreads and other sites. However, it's slow going. We're still in the shakedown part of the cruise to e-publishing, and the fact is there is no really influential review site for e-books, at least not in the way the New York Times Book Review is influential in the traditional publishing scene.

It will come, somehow, in some shape or form. It's just not here yet. One way that the word can get out, I think, is by encouraging your readers to "tell two others." Word of mouth can't be beat for effectiveness and economy!

If only readers who read and like an author would do that - simply email two friends and say, "Hey, I think you'll like this book" - look how exponentially that could possibly grow. Maybe you should keep it in mind, and when you read a book you like, email two friends and recommend. I wonder what would happen.
POD="print on demand," of course. I know you knew that, but possibly someone else didn't.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Review: Looking for a Fun Fantasy Novel?

Return of the Warrior (Sleag's Quest, #1) by G.K. Hayes 

G.K.Hayes has published short stories in the horror and fantasy fields, and with Return of the Warrior he brings us a short novel, the first installment in a longer quest. It's a good read, especially for those who like the kind of high-adventure-cum-humor that Fritz Leiber used to give us in tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Gren O'Doone left the Green Isle ages ago, when he was only fifteen, a conscript in an army that fought the wars leading to the establishment of the Three Kingdoms. It's not quite our world, but it has a nodding acquaintance with our reality. Gren's problem as he slips into middle age is that things are now a little boring, now that he's no longer a soldier but an innkeeper. And then one evening a tall stranger wrapped in animal skins comes in for a drink, and he turns out to be Sandovar Sleag, called "the Slayer," in search of local girl Lyndygell and her fatherless son. Only, it seems, a wizard-king is also on the lookout for them....

It's been many years and many pounds since Gren wielded a weapon, but he finds his boredom swept away as Sleag sets out to right a wrong and fight a foe who just may be unbeatable. There's a surface realism that nicely sets off the fantasy elements, but best of all, the characters are so well realized that they take on a life of their own. You can't help identifying with them. Check this one out!

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Busy-Ness of Writing

The Busy-Ness of Writing

There are times when writing and publishing can become time-devouring monsters. There's so much to do to see a book through the publication process that it's a wonder anybody working on it can get anything else done at all. 

If you're independently publishing, you have to see to the cover illustration, the interactive table of contents, the properly laid-out text of the book...not to mention reading through for typos. And you have to deal with converting the book to e-book format (or text, or print-on-demand). You have to assign an ISBN and register your copyright. Somewhere in there, too, you have to start working on the next one.

My advice: After you've been through the process once, sit down and write out the steps, noting the hardest one. Next time, pace yourself. Be careful to plan ahead and allow so many hours to each task. Little by little, you'll get it done, and sooner or later you'll wind up with a new book out there.

Mine, by the way, will be on Kindle on October 27 (tomorrow as I write this). Look for it, please!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Advice from a Cricket

Advice from a Cricket

You've probably never heard of Eddie Carroll, but odds are great that you've heard him. For nearly 40 years, Eddie was the voice of Disney's Jiminy Cricket (after the death of Cliff Edwards, who originated the role). He was a character actor, voiceover artist, and toured in a one-man show in which he acted the role of Jack Benny.

And despite the fact that he's not a household name, Eddie had a wonderfully rich and successful career. He used to give aspiring young voice artists a golden piece of advice that works for writers, too.

"Every day do three things to advance your career."

That's it. Every day, plot out a story. Do some writing. Blog or post on social media sites about your work. Review someone else's book. Get in touch with an editor or agent. Do some research. Write. Finish a story. Get someone to read a draft and discuss it with you. Write some more.

Keep at it. Three things a day add up.

Thanks, Eddie. Great advice.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?
(More thoughts on naming characters)

So anyway, I've been thinking about the question of finding exactly the right name for a character. I mentioned Pansy O'Hara already.

How about Ormond Sacker? And his brilliant friend Sherrinford Holmes? I wonder if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have been such a success with those two. Holmes, probably. "My dear Holmes, this is fantastic!" "Not at all, Sacker."

No, I think Ormond wouldn't have cut it. 

Notoriously, John D. MacDonald had already written, if I recall correctly, three books in a series of Florida thrillers. If they went over, then he planned to continue the series. His beach-bum hero was Dallas McGee.

And as I have explained, on November 22, 1963, "Dallas" became too problematic. The story is that JDM then looked to U.S. Air Force bases for a good name and settled on Travis. It worked like a charm.

Philip Malory could be a detective, but it sounds as though he's from an English country-house mystery. When Raymond Chandler changed his moniker to Philip Marlowe, he scored a hit.

So where do you look for character names? "What to Name the Baby" books and websites help, especially if you have a particular ethnic background in mind. The last name, the family name, though...that can be tough.

Geographic origins are a possible source. Look at a large-scale map of, well, anywhere. You're apt to come up with place names that probably are derived from proper family names: Tackberry Corners. Christian Pass. Bolgeo, TN. Fredericksburg. Cantonville. Sometimes one will click.

Or literary inspiration. Chandler knew he wanted his detective to pay homage to the days of old when knighthood was in flower - Malory is from Sir Thomas Malory, author of Arthurian romances. Marlowe is from Christopher Marlowe, who was killed in either a brawl or a planned assassination (he was a spy).

John Bellairs loved to do that with his books. One features a magician named Prospero ("but not the one you're thinking about"). Another of his characters is Jonathan Van Olden Barnavelt, from the title of a play by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger ca. 1619. Another one: Anthony Monday is named for playwright Anthony Mundy, a contemporary of Shakespeare.

However, the name has to click. It just has to sound right, not almost right. Marion Wayne wouldn't be a great cowboy actor, but John Wayne might. Punchy. One-syllable names tend to have that kind of solid feel for a person of action. Freddie Porter isn't quite right for a successful businessman, nor is Fred, but maybe Frederic Porter would work - especially if he stuffily refuses to recognize any nickname.

Work at it until you're satisfied. As Old Possum told us, the naming of names really is a difficult matter.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Naming of Names

The Naming of Names

According to Old Possum T.S. Eliot, it's a difficult matter, not just one of your holiday games. And sometimes it's a struggle.

Coming up with names for your characters, that is. Ask fantasy novelists. Some of them apparently throw a dozen Scrabble tiles into a dice cup, give it a good shake, and then toss 'em and read 'em. And we get names like Wyzfhachtiz. Or Bazfazz. Or Mego.

But even if you're writing a realistic novel, sometimes the names come hard. Jim Dallas was pretty easy, though. Atlanta Bones was to feature a Florida adventurer/detective in the mold of the great John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee...who began life as Dallas McGee before the events in Dealey Plaza made JDM rethink the name.

Originally the protagonist of Atlanta Bones was going to be Dallas, no other name, but that got to feeling artificial. Jim is nice and short and fairly ordinary, so there you go.

Did you know that in the first draft of Gone With the Wind the heroine was Pansy O'Hara? Margaret Mitchell's editor hated the name and asked her to pick a more colorful one...hence Scarlett.

My rules for picking a name:

  • It ought to sound plausible.
  • Bad guys, especially, should have odd names so you won't offend too many people. So look for offbeat last names.
  • It ought to sound like a name someone actually would give his or her child. If the parents are Susie Mae and Jeb, the kid isn't likely to be Montmorency.
  • If you need to, you should be able to have a backstory. Sam Lyons is (or so he says) of Native American descent, and his name really is "Sam Two Lions." For business purposes, he made that Sam Lyons. However, I'm not sure Jim believes that. Not sure that I do, come right down to it.
  • Avoid the old-fashioned tag name (once all the rage), which is actually a kind of label, unless you're doing a funny bit or a period piece. Think of Charles Dickens's names for some of his characters: Mr. Gradgrind. Mr. M'Choakumchild. Mr. Smallweed. Or look at 18th-century plays: Mrs. Malaprop. Robert Acres (a landowner); Sir Lucius O'Trigger (he has a hair-trigger temper); Mrs. Squeamish...pace J.K. Rowling, it's not that funny a game any more.
  • Above all: If, in the process of writing, a better name occurs to you...change the original at once. Global search and replace is your friend.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ripped from the Headlines...

Ripped from the Headlines

Law and Order did it all the time on TV: take a story from the news, tweak it, and present it as fiction. Is that legit, or not?

Depends. If you have an original twist on the story, if your characters are clearly not the actual people involved, if your setting or the outcome are notably different, fair game. On the other hand, you can't use actual people as characters in your story. That opens the door to litigation.

To clarify: It's perfectly fine to let your characters mention a real character: "I mean, he's a popular singer, but he's no Justin Bieber, you know?" is okay. Having Mr. B. actually interact with your imaginary characters is a no-no.

Use your imagination if you're using elements of real life in your fiction. If you're writing a mystery thriller and you have in mind a real-life murder in which a husband drowned his wife, see how you can turn it around. Maybe the wife killed the husband. By, say, shoving him off a mountain trail instead of drowning him.

Or maybe, though the husband in real life was convicted of the killing, in your story a different husband is falsely convicted and instead someone else committed the murder. The butler. Or someone from his wife's past whom he doesn't even know. Or....

Law and Order knew its stuff. The show would sometimes have a disclaimer, something on the order of "Although there was an actual case bearing some resemblance to the story, this drama is an act of fiction and does not represent any real persons or events." They'd often even reference the real crime: If the detectives were on the trail of a serial killer,one might say, "This reminds me of the Son of Sam killings all those years ago."

Researching true stories is fine. It helps you get a sense of realism into your work. However, don't cross the line and begin using actual living people as your characters.

Ah...but historical, that's a different animal. More about that later.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Nine and Sixty Ways

The Nine and Sixty Ways

Not to harp on it too much, but sometimes I'm bemused by people who tell me definitely, "There are only eleven different plots." Sometimes it's nine. Sometimes it's seven. Sometimes it's three. One writer told me "There's only one plot: Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and has to get loose."

I don't know how many different variants of plot there are. I don't much care. In a poem called "In the Neolithic Age," Rudyard Kipling lets a would-be tribal poet (moved to violence by criticism of his work) learn the lesson "There are nine-and-sixty ways / Of constructing tribal lays, / And every single one of them is right."

What Mr. K. was saying is that each writer brings his or her own vision to the page, and within certain limits, anything goes. The limits? Comprehensibility. Cohesiveness. Communicative ability. The ability to touch a reader emotionally. If you can achieve these, your plot will serve.

Which means that your plot is a framework. It should hang together by cause and effect. You shouldn't bring in an enormous coincidence to wind things up (this is the deus ex machina ending, the "god from the machine," so called because some Greek tragic writers - I'm looking at you, Euripides - would wrap up messy plots by having an actor portraying a god lowered onto the stage by means of a machine, a windlass, and arbitrarily settle things: "He didn't kill the king, she did. Punish her, not him. Hmm. that makes him a widower. Okay, let's let him over there, she'll do. And, oh, yes, the kingdom is blessed now. 'Cause I'm a god, okay?").

Within the limits of being plausible and operating by cause and effect, the plot can work, can serve as the frame of your story. The timbers are the characters, their motivations, their personalities, their ability to be memorable and touching and strong.

However, a plot shouldn't have obvious holes in it (and when you get lost in your characters' lives, it's agonizingly easy to overlook a plot hole). Agatha Christie reportedly once read a mystery novel and observed that if the police had interviewed one character, someone they obviously would have questioned in real life, the mystery would have been solved in Chapter 1. She toyed with the idea and then wrote an entire novel, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? to give a plausible reason for such an oversight.

My advice? Don't worry about numbers and types of plot. Create a character. Get really interested in him or her. Give the character an enormous problem. Let the character try to solve it, only to wind up in deeper trouble.

Then go along for the ride.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The More Things Change...

The More Things Change....

Are we who we are because we were born that way, or did our environment shape us? That's the question of nature vs. nurture. We won't settle it here, but in writing it's important to find a story that lets your characters change in significant ways.

Because that's one reason we read stories: to learn how others act and react and what events shape and alter their lives. For that reason, find important stories to tell. Your characters should have something at stake, something to protect, and possibly something to lose - and the process should have an impact on the way they think and act.

It gets to be a problem with series books, of course. Unless you think of the entire series as revealing a very gradual process of growth and change, of loss and gain. Then it works like a charm.

Would A Christmas Carol be a classic if Scrooge had not changed? Don't think so. Would Pride and Prejudice be a classic if Mr. Darcy refused to unbend and Elizabeth refused to reconsider her initial judgments? Probably not. The best style in the world won't make up for characters who just refuse to change in any way.

So...ask yourself "How is my character wrong in his/her thinking and judgment and opinions? How will the character learn better?"

Pursue that. Readers like characters who are open to change. And the more difficult the process is, the more the readers like them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Getting to Know You

Getting to Know You: Character Backstories

Writing teachers and critics talk about flat characters and round characters.  Writers should have some grasp of the concept, too.

A flat character is one without many characteristics, one that can be easily summed up in a word or phrase: "Nosy." "Gruff but lonely." "Intimidating." Flat characters rarely surprise the reader.

A round character is a complex one with many characteristics, often contradictory ones. Round characters seem more real, and they can keep the reader in suspense when faced with important decisions or actions because they are not predictable.

There's a place for flat characters. They can be very vivid and memorable, and they populate the background of a story nicely. Even important characters can be flat - many of Charles Dickens's important characters never surprise us at all but linger in the memory. Raymond Chandler's Moose Malloy is flat, and yet he's easily pictured and has a major impact on the story.

Round characters are more useful as major or very important secondary characters. However, they have to be complex. A character who is naturally timid but who holds a strong value, for example, can decide to stand his or her ground and be brave, just this once. We can sense internal conflicts and complications inside such a character.

Huckleberry Finn, who has been convinced by his whole society that his helping Jim, a runaway slave, is wrong must balance that conviction against his increasing friendship with and respect for Jim. At a crucial point, when Huck has to decide what's best for Jim, remaining a prisoner in the Deep South or being returned home to his despised life as a slave, sweats over the dilemma.

However, being complex, he recognizes a third, unthinkable choice: helping Jim break out and remain free. He sincerely believes if he does that, he is committing the unpardonable sin and will be sent to hell.

Against all his training and assumptions, he says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." And the moment is believable because he is a round character.

In preparing to write a story, it helps to get inside the characters' minds and look at their biases, their beliefs, their agendas. What pushes their buttons? 

Try this: Make up a set of at least twenty questions. The early ones in the set should establish the basic appearance and surroundings of the character: hair and eye color, height and weight, place of birth, family, and so on.

The later ones delve into the character's mind: Biggest regret? Secret wish? Greatest fear? Most valued possession? Greatest need?

Out of those comes character. And out of character comes story.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Gleam in Your Eye

A Gleam in Your Eye: How Stories Get Started

Once at a book event I was chatting with an author whose name, I suppose, I should keep secret, though it was Stuart Woods. We were talking about agents and agencies and the tangled problem of sequel rights to a novel and what pernicious contract items writers should be wary of.

A nice lady hovered near us. Finally, she burst, out, "Oh, y'all are just talking about money. I thought authors would talk about truth and beauty."

And Mr. Woods said with great dignity, "Ma'am, money is truth and beauty."

However, another thing we chatted about was story germs. Those are the flickers of images - not even proper ideas - that stir an author's interest and make him or her wonder about the context in which they belong. Often exploring the context is the way you get into a story.

William Faulkner said that one day, unbidden, he saw a picture in his imagination: a little girl for some reason had climbed up a tree. Two boys beneath her were looking up and laughing because she was revealing her drawers, which were muddy.

Brooding about who the girl was and why she climbed up there, Faulkner eventually hatched the plot of The Sound and the Fury.

J.R.R. Tolkien began The Hobbit (and later by extension The Lord of the Rings) by picturing a burrow with a perfectly round door and idly scribbling "In a hole in the ground there lived a . . . " he paused and then wrote "Hobbit."

He wrote his masterpieces because he wanted to explore that hole and find out what the hell a "hobbit" was.

It isn't the way every writer gets started, but it can be a productive one. Daydream. Conjure up images. Look for the intriguing ones, the puzzling ones, the ones that make you wonder. A critical moment for me was when I pictured - as in a still photo - a man falling backward out of a window in a burning house.

He was falling shoulders-down, and he was on fire. And he was staring up at a woman in the broken-out window who was in an almost Sphinx-like pose, but who was enveloped in flame.

That became a central image in Atlanta Bones and one of the defining moments of Jim Dallas's life. 

In fact it existed before there was a Jim Dallas. 

Part of the reason I wrote the book was to find out who the man was, who the woman was, and what terrible event was in process.

That has netted me three complete books so far (two published, one on the way), with ten more lined up and knocking at the mind's door.