On Writing: “Anatomy of a Writer”

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

“Because a real writer pours every inch of energy into his words. Because when he writes, he doesn’t only lay words down on paper; he becomes the page. He goes beyond the grounded reality and bends it, his illusions so strong that they would fool anyone into believing they are real; the emotions he exposes so true that readers instinctively recognize them as more fundamentally honest and true than any of the words they might read on a newspaper.”

Every so often, particularly if I’m returning to a project I haven’t developed in a while, it helps to have the “reset Button” pushed on one’s perspective and expectations. This article pushed it for me.

As they say, “Writers write.”

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On Writing: Motivating Characters (and their Author)

What is it that will drive a character to take an action?

By this, I mean to ask “What, in the character’s mind/worldview is the rationale that will cause them to do one thing instead of another? For the Author, this includes considering the underlying goal of driving the story in a believable way, consistent with the character’s behaviour as the reader understands it at that point in the story. An Author pulls a lot of strings and balances a lot of balls in order to get these goals to mesh.

For me, this requires either research into the elements that form a character: lifestyle, health issues, career or technical skills, values and religion, speech/vernacular and attitudes.

It sounds like a lot when I lay it all down at once here, but realistically, I only have to focus on one of those categories/areas at a time. In many cases, I can use my own experience to answer questions and narrow down the scope of research. Subjective elements (a character’s personal opinion, for example) is much easier to write – it requires little qualification via research.

Basically, whether I can immerse the reader in my character’s world by virtue of objective-seeming realism, or by using compelling and rich subjective “opinion” based on my own experience, it all boils down to creating an experience that the reader accepts and in which they want to immerse themself.

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On Writing: Visualization and Collage in Storytelling…

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning. I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts.

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning.

I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts. The relationships that are created by placing elements next to each other create new contexts and meanings that each element did not originally possess individually.

As I write, I’m transcribing visual scenes in my head into words. Sometimes, I’m acting like a court reporter sitting in a movie theatre, watching my characters speak, smelling what they smell, listening to the sounds of their surroundings, and feeling their emotions. In my head, I’ve already shot the scene as a movie, and now the challenge is to get that scene down on paper in a way that will be powerful and will resonate in my reader’s mind.

Many scenes can be drawn out of snippets of personal experience, opinions, current events, and one’s own worldview or inner monologue. Each of these elements is a small scrap of paper with an image on it, waiting to be pasted down on a board along with other scraps, to contribute a piece to an overall theme.

I often think up the elements or “little scraps” first: an intriguing personality, a moment of tension, despair, or heroism, or a mysterious moment or place. A story is made up of many such individual scenes, each of which must have its own internal logic, beginning, middle and end, and each of which must work within the context of the greater story or plot.

If I can’t see how to use them, a lot of these elements get filed away somewhere for later use. It’s tough to know which elements to bring out of the drawer and place on the table, and which ones need to be kept in the file. Every little scrap is a piece of life experience.

We all have experiences, and some of us have had similar experiences. The challenge for me as a storyteller is to find and create the scraps that will seem familiar to someone else (because I want to know that I can reach my audience emotionally and culturally), and to combine the scraps into a collage of pieces that says these things to my reader: you may know this story, my friend. You’ve read it many times before in different guises. Some things are universal to human experience. You may have heard the story before, but you haven’t heard it from this storyteller in this way before.

Universal things happen to all of us, but come to each of us in a different way. That’s why the story is interesting, and why the collection of parts makes a unique picture on the page.

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On Research and Digging Deep: Setting the Tone for Believability

The raw material of a story or any creative work probably comes from at least two kinds of sources: the Subjective, and the Objective. Somewhere between these two seemingly opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either approach, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

(This is a brief followup on the theme of researching for my next novel, “The Two Sisters”.)

I’ve probably stated this before in previous posts, but factual research is a big deal to me. I don’t claim to be the most tenacious digger of facts, but if, as a Reader, I can’t relate to some level of realism in a story or its characters, the author will easily lose me.

The raw material of a story or any creative work comes from two categories of sources: the Subjective and the Objective. Subjective material includes events, memories and things of with which you have a direct personal involvement and/or memory. They can also be fuzzy, under-defined, elusive or prone to contradiction – after all, they are your memories – and from my experience, human memory is fragile and subject to change without notice. But, still, it’s yours and you own it, and it’s there to be utilized.

Objective material means, to me, information that has been documented, and hopefully verified, by third parties, associations, papers or contains some testament as to its proof, like scientific research.

Somewhere between these two opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either side, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

For example, I remember an article by James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, who advised writers that when creating a thriller novel the author must include enough realism to provide a solid base upon which the more fantastic elements of the story can stand. In other words, Fleming said that if you can initially establish believability and credibility in the known and possible elements of your story (the recognizable places, personalities and objects), the reader would be more likely to accept and engage in any unknown or seemingly impossible elements.

This kind of social realism is a core approach that I took in my first novel, Owe Nothing, where I tried to create a detailed, recognizable, and somewhat gritty  portrait of my home town of Vancouver, BC. I tried to kind of iconify settings such as rusted, rotting motels, junk-strewn alleys and fast food drive-thrus. I’ve read some novels which, in my opinion, have almost no scenic descriptions at all; everything is described in between a character’s ears, but almost nowhere else (“The Boys From Brazil”, I’m looking at you).

By contrast, thriller/detective authors like Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler, have a way of bringing places to life and almost transforming them into characters in their own right. In “The Lady in the Lake”, Chandler makes you taste the dust inside the deserted lakeside cabins in a little town. In “Live and Let Die”, Fleming evokes the neon sights, blues and jazz music, speech patterns and emotions of Harlem in the mid-50s (at least from the perspective of a middle-aged Englishman). Rich settings like this help to involve the reader in the world to a greater degree, and to legitimize and contextualize the characters.

Subjective work can be more elusive and difficult to feel confident about. I have a major character in “The Two Sisters”, Rose, who in her teen years suffered a horrific personal assault – the kind that I’ve never experienced personally. To create this event for Rose, I had to dig down into a few scared, sad moments from my own youth (as well as read testimonies from other sources) and synthesize the character’s physical and emotional responses, layering them with the in-the-moment sights and sounds that add a level of irony, symbolism and drama, all while relating to larger plot line and themes of the story.

Often, the subjective and objective aspects are intermingled. In her later years, Rose becomes a long-term resident of a psychiatric hospital. I began to describe her appearance and behaviour quite easily, since I based her on my late mother, who was a 14 year resident of BC’s provincial mental health facility, Riverview Hospital.

However, describing the specific medication or intimate details of the day-to-day life of a Riverview resident are much more difficult, and require research to be accurate. Few people will ever try to refute your subjective personal experiences or opinions, but things that are objective, verifiable matters of record are certainly more vulnerable to scrutiny.

It’s the Author’s job to set the terms for believability and plausibility inside the worlds and the characters they create. I haven’t become skilled enough to let my characters push the bounds of believability within their own worlds (i.e. to bust through that invisible wall to the audience, as it were), and use the voice of an incredulous reader (“that doesn’t seem real to me”, etc.) but perhaps one day…

At the end of the day, no work can be perfect. I think that most readers are willing to forgive minor inconsistencies or errors, so long as they believe that the author has made their best effort to get the facts straight and to present an entertaining and believable story.

Related: http://ejohnlovebooks.com/2010/08/research-photos-from-riverview/

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Preview Owe Nothing Free, on Google Books

In the spirit of “try before you buy”, I invite you to read a preview of my novel, Owe Nothing, on Google Books.

Owe Nothing is my non-mainstream look at Vancouver: an adventure novel based upon real people and places that I knew when my family lived in dodgy Kingsway Motels for over a year. The names of the people in Owe Nothing are fictionalized, but the people and events are inspired by reality…

All ow me to introduce a few of the main characters…

Jack Owen
A young guy looking for adventure, and an escape from his lower-class rut. By accepting a bizarre job offer, he soon discovers that the back alleys and rooftops of East Vancouver hold more mysteries than he may be able to hide from his Dad or his Sister.

Parminder Singh
Jack’s buddy from work, and his companion through some bizarre surveillance tasks that they’ve been recruited to do for a man they’ve never even met. Parm’s not sure if this is on the up and up, but he’ll do it for the money.

Mike and Chris Coffey
Brothers, and friends of Jack from the neighbourhood. They’ve got to find a way to get rid of their violent alcoholic step-father Ted, without their mother Regina finding out. Maybe Jack can help them…?

Check out the rest of Owe Nothing, on Google Books.

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Are Video Book Trailers a Good Idea?

Are video book trailers a good idea? I actually debated this question while I pondered the progress of my online book marketing campaign. In retrospect, it seemed funny that I actually pondered this at all.

When I first envisioned the kinds of activities it would take to market a novel, I imagined things like press releases, printed interviews, serialization, or an email campaign. I was thinking in textual terms, for a textual medium.

It seemed rational, but in truth, it was a limited, literal approach, and it ignored a key aspect of modern life: we live in a multimedia, multi-modal world. Reading text is only one of the modes of apprehension that we use in any given day. We also listen to radio, podcasts and music, we watch TV and video, and we interact with others remotely through telephone, text messages and online, through email and a myriad of other channels.

In one way or another, I’ve been involved with the production of graphics, video, animation and interactive media since graduating from art college in 1989. I think I had a stereotypical mindset about the written word; perhaps I assumed that novels, a traditionally linear, text-only medium, must be marketed in a linear, text-only manner. This seems odd, since it’s in my nature to take a multi-disciplinary approach – to think laterally, and to jump any conceptual fences that present themselves.

I remembered a lecture by Dr. Tom Hudson, one-time Dean Emeritus at Emily Carr College of Art and Design, and a man who was a major influence on my education. Tom Hudson cited philosopher Bertrand Russel, who claimed that about 65% of all knowledge was achieved visually. Tom Hudson went on to say that with the advent of television and the explosion of information systems, the percentage was probably now closer to 80%.

He said that before 1990, in an ancient and wondrous time about 5 years before the first web browsers come onto the scene and before the World Wide Web came into people’s lives.

Now, in 2010, you can watch (and record) video clips on your cell phone. Media is becoming small, more portable, less expensive, and more integrated. Video and interactive media are being distributed everywhere today. Tom’s words brought modern multi-media marketing approach into focus.

So the question is are video book trailers a good idea for independent book marketers and authors? I’m answering with a tentative Yes.

Here’s a couple of discussion threads on the topic:

http://bookmarket.ning.com/forum/topics/how-effective-are-video-book

http://bookmarket.ning.com/forum/topics/the-impact-of-book-trailers-on

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Book Trailer Video: Owe Nothing

Check out the new book trailer video for Owe Nothing:

http://ejohnlovebooks.com/books/owe-nothing/owe-nothing-video-trailers/

This captures a bit of the humour and intrigue of Owe Nothing. I think I definitely see more video trailers in my future…

(Apex Reviews, and GhostWriter Extraordinare)

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How do you set a price for an eBook edition?

What’s the right price, relative to the cover price of the printed edition, or relative to the expectations of the eReader market?

This is something I must resolve for myself: when I publish “Owe Nothing” in eBook format (which I am going to do fairly soon), what is the best price? I’ve seen eBooks on sale for $0.00, $0.99, $2.99, $4.99 and so on.

Aside from resolving this particular quandry, I’m beginning to see that eBooks represent a huge benefit to the author-seller: no shipping costs, no inventory, and no re-ordering from the publisher. Admittedly, the burgeoning growth of eBooks, eReaders  and a new author-based publishing market (compared to some noticeable declines in sales for traditional publishers)  is an exciting prospect.

http://www.secure-ebook.com/blog/post/2006/12/12/3-ebook-pricing

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Writing as a Form of Cocoon…

I tend to write the most and the best when the process is driven by a personal memory or feeling – something that might have been evoked by a unexpected sound or smell, or a memory triggered by that. Sometimes, a new perspective or pattern of thought evolves, which was brought on by a recurrence of events during the day.

I tend to write the most and the best when the process is driven by a personal memory or feeling – something that might have been evoked by a unexpected sound or smell, or a memory triggered by that. Sometimes, a new perspective or pattern of thought evolves, which was brought on by a recurrence of events during the day.

When I start digging into this raw material – often unconnected or disjointed – it takes shape as things that one of my fictionalized alter-egos, Jack, Jim, or maybe Mike – might say, do or have a strong opinion about.

Writing from the Gut?

In short, it’s a chain reaction: gut, sensory experience evokes a thought or a theme, which finds resonance inside my current cast of characters, until one or more scenarios begins to form.

This whole process happens in my skull, with often little or no input from outside parties. It’s like writing inside of a cocoon. Research comes later, when I realize that I’ve painted myself into a corner – when I don’t understand a particular aspect of what I’m describing – or if I’m dealing with things and places, rather than people.

Working this way is largely solitary, and I wonder if or how this process may limit me.

Most of my favourite writers are dead.

I’m largely ignorant of “the book market” or popular writers, save for a have dozen of the biggest, most famous names. I’m not up on new fiction, period. Most of my favourite writers are dead. Raymond Chandler. Dashiell Hammett. John Steinbeck. O. Henry.  Ernest Hemingway. All dead.

A few writers I like are still kicking.

Canadian crime/adventure author, Brad Smith. I love his blue-collar humour and crime tales. His voice sounds so familiar to me.

Douglas Coupland. I loved Generation X, and I loved Microserfs even more. I relived my own tech bubble meltdowns reading Microserfs. Life After God was pretty good too. (I’m puzzled as to why Coupland needs his own Roots clothing line. Oh well…)

Elmore Leonard. His is a tough, contemporary voice, that reminds me of how much of our cop/crime fiction we get from TV shows like Law and Order.

But, here’s the thing… I’m selfish.

I read often – almost all the time, but I’m really much more interested in writing my own stuff than in reading someone else’s stuff. What does that mean? Does that mean I’m insensitive to readers and writers who aren’t me? Is it Art School all over again, where no project is as fascinating to you as the one you’re currently working on? It’s taken about 14 readings for me to see my own novel, Owe Nothing, in anything resembling an objective light.

I don’t really know. I suppose all I can say is that in time, I will see my audience more clearly, and when I do, I should listen to them as carefully as I can.

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To Blog, or To Blog More Often…

It’s not even a question, but, it’s a lesson that I need to take to heart and to practice, if I’m going to increase the visibility of my novels in the online world.

Blogging is the one of the easiest ways to create new web content, and blogs are often better designed for search engine optimization and linking.

Bottom Line: To help improve your traffic, you need to blog meaningfully, and frequently.

This article from HubSpot describes some adhoc research that bears out the concept:
HubSpot.com: Want More Web Traffic? Blog More Often!

Some of the reader’s comments in this article remind you that Twitter can be a useful promo method as well (e.g. Post a blog article, and then tweet about it to help draw traffic to it).

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