Owe Nothing: Taking Writing and Marketing to the Next Level…

Ah, Spring. A time for growth, renewal, and positive change. And spring cleaning.

My personal web presence at www.ejohnlove.com has been in play since 1998, and over the years, it has been the home of all of my online personal shrines and pet projects, not the least of these is “True Life”, my personal family memoirs project.

Creating Characters, and a world…

In 2002, during a particularly bleak period of unemployment, I reacted to my frustration and lack of control with a familiar and comfortable escape into fiction. However, instead of reading spy novels, comics or graphic novels, I began my first attempts at writing fiction. Scribbling in my notebook on the edge of my bed during the late nights and early morning hours, I created a cast of characters and a world through which I could tell stories that spoke about the events and values of my personal life.

I created a mythical family and friends – composites based upon real people. Jack Owen and his family, friends, his motel home, and his fictionalized Vancouver-Kingsway neighbourhood all resulted from this. After seven years, countless Starbucks runs, and seemingly endless paragraph-by-paragraph writing and editing sessions, my first novel, Owe Nothing, finally came into being in April 2009.

September through October of 2002 turned out to be an incredibly productive time for me. Not only then did I begin writing the first scenes of Owe Nothing, but I also developed basic outlines for many of the characters who appear in the novel, and a few who don’t.  This burst of activity, seemingly automatic in nature, spurred further ideas for related stories, all of which could occur at different times within the same world as Owe Nothing. I was sketching out a new world inside my dog-eared, spiral-bound notebook.

My second novel, The Two Sisters (currently in progress towards a first draft), was originally sketched out as a short story outline in 2002. Not long after Owe Nothing launched online with Trafford in April 2009, I revisited my notes for Two Sisters and started trying to flesh out the story. It was around this time that I realized that I might actually have a second novel in me, and maybe even a third one after that. I realized that this fiction writing thing was starting to become a major preoccupation, and that perhaps I should consider developing it into more of an occupation.

Taking my book marketing to a new level…

In the first year since the publication of Owe Nothing, I’ve confined my marketing and sales efforts to anything I can accomplish online, particularly in some sort of semi-automatic manner. From this came a Facebook page, AdWords ads, one hundred Twitter tweets, and promoting and linking my old fiction page (http://fiction.ejohnlove.com) in directories, blogs and message boards all over the web. I tried a number of tactics. While these may have helped somewhat to get me web visitors, none of them seemed to result in any actual sales (if Trafford’s records are to be believed, anyway). I began to feel as if I were flailing around ineffectually, so I decided to find myself some good advice.

Nowadays, I’m taking counsel from a book marketing pro, and thinking more about the future of Jack Owen, the character, and of E. John Love, his official biographer. It has become the right time to move Jack and the “Owe Nothing Universe” off of my personal hobby site, and to develop a separate new web presence – one that gives Owe Nothing and any related stories the focuses they need and deserve.

It’s time…

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Process: Meditatng on Personal Freedom…

In recent weeks, I’ve been researching mental health – manic depression (now called bipolar disorder). In my second novel, The Two Sisters, one character (one of the Sisters) has struggled with manic depression most of her life, and has been in and out of hospitals and halfway houses over the years. Her name is Rose, and by the time her nephew (and the novel’s main character) Jack Owen meets her, she is a long-term resident of British Columbia’s provincial mental health hospital.

Rose is based, to some degree, on my experiences with my mother, Angela Huntley Love (nee Clarke), who struggled with manic depression, depression, and alcoholism continually through her life. Mum seemed to always be somewhere in the middle of extremes of behaviour: happy, laughing, loving and normal sometimes, and loud, loopy, drunken or depressed at other times. As a kid, it was difficult to know who she was, or how to feel around her.

Mum was an enigma to me. I can honestly say that I cannot remember having more than one or two actual conversations with her in the 12 years she lived with me. Perhaps it is unfair of me to think that way. Kids’ perceptions are often very subjective and skewed. I wish I could have known the lovely, charming and talented musical performer that Mum’s friends and family got to know. Anyway, water under the bridge…

After bouncing in and out of a few private hospitals over the course of a year or two, Mum finally landed in the Burnaby Psychiatric Centre on Wilingdon. Dad explained that this facility was essentially a “holding pen” for patients who were bound for Riverview.

Riverview. That name was a caution to me back then, something to be feared. Dad used to warn Mum “Angela – behave yourself, or you’ll end up in Riverview!” I never took this to be an idle threat. Dad’s voice conveyed the worry and stress that told me Riverview was not a good place to go, and it also sounded like the kind of place that you didn’t come back from. These are the words that form stereotypes that stick with you. And they did.

Mum was admitted to Riverview in 1980. The first few visits were extremely difficult. Looking back, now that I am almost the same age Mum was when she was admitted, however sick and brain damaged she might have been, she knew what was happening to her, and she was scared to be left alone in that place. Once or twice, we had to leave her while she was crying and calling for us to take her home again. It was absolutely brutal, and I’ll never forget her face and voice in the little window in the centre of the door.

Back in 1977, not too long after her father, Ernest, died, Mum went into a prolonged depression, rarely rising from her bed or the couch, except to get up to eat, drink, or vomit. Eventually, she stopped eating altogether. We lived with this for a long time, and it was rarely ever acknowledged. Finally, one day, my little sister couldn’t wake her up, and her protests got Dad to call the Doctor. My few happy memories of my Mother are all I have, and my little sister has no personal memories at all.

Mum’s liver had quick, and she’d have died if she had been at home for 24 hours longer. She’d suffered permanent brain damage and a fair amount of recent memory loss. After she detoxed and received a transfusion, her personality had changed noticeably. Her personality was almost like a clean slate. She was much more direct and basic in her needs, and she never ever brought up the past anymore, the way some people do (raising old issues, or chuckling over old shared memories). The person she had been was changed forever, and now, it was almost like we had a new, different Angela to get to know.

Mum didn’t have a concept of how her own actions or inactions might have put her in that situation, and she didn’t seem to get that she’d never be able to live alone or independently again. How could we leave her alone in the house during the day? She never blamed anyone else though. There was no bitterness directed at her situation or towards anyone in particular either. She just wanted to come home. She cried for it.

The character of Rose is a bit like Angela, and shares an event which happened to Angela. In “The Two Sisters”, Rose’s meds are adjusted on the advice of a new Doctor, and she changes from her regular quiet, almost vegetative state, and becomes much more lively. During this time, Rose has slight episodes or mania, but otherwise seems quite normal. It’s during this time that Jack is able to ask her questions about her past, and about his late mother Barbara, who was Rose’s cousin.

Jack’s Aunt Rose becomes something of a surrogate mother figure for him, and has her own brand of road-worn wisdom and street smarts to impart. After a week or two, Rose has a particularly bad manic episode, complete with hallucinations and violence, and reluctantly, her Doctor is convinced by his peers to reinstate Rose’s original drug regime, which returns her to her passive, almost vegetative state. Jack feels as if he has lost Rose, but continues to visit her periodically, providing her with some companionship and care in his own way.

Rose’s “Awakening” episode is based on my Mother’s similar experience. Around 1991, late one evening, when I was thinking of going to visit Mum, I got a phone call from a Riverview Nurse, telling me that my mother wanted to talk to me! This had never happened before, and I listened with a pounding heart as this slightly excited, frantic-sounding yet familiar voice greeted me. I spoke to her for a few minutes, and told her how nice it was to hear her voice. I told her I loved her, and that I’d see her as soon as I could. Then she said goodbye, and immediately after I hung up, I phoned my sister and we laughed, cried, and were generally amazed by the whole thing.

However, when I went up to see Mum, she’d already been put back on her old regime of meds, so had returned to her non-communicative, vegged out state. So, that phone call is the only window I got into who my Mother might have become.

I decided that when I had Rose go through the same transformation, I would give Jack a few weeks’ worth of that wonderful awakening. I think he deserves it.

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Owe Nothing: Two Reviewer’s voices help me to listen to my own…

Read sample chapters or purchase Owe Nothing online

In January, I entered an excerpt from my novel, Owe Nothing, in the 2010 ABNA Amazon Fiction Contest. I held no expectations of success – at least that’s what I told myself going in. There were 5,000 entries along with me, in the General Fiction category – to me, it seemed like a big field.

In March, I learned that Owe Nothing had succeeded to the next round, along with 999 other contestants. I couldn’t pretend that I wasn’t happy about that!

The underlying question motivating me to enter a contest like this must have been ” How good is my book, really?” I spent years writing it, paragraph by paragraph, with little to no outside input as the first draft came together.

I finally started getting feedback in April 2008, after Owe Nothing was finally published. I would never disparage the opinions of the readers who’ve been kind enough to offer me their feedback on it. They went cover to cover, as far as I can tell, and seemed to enjoy the story, and I appreciate that. Most of the feedback I’ve received has been enthusiastic and positive, and I must say, gratifying or even comforting. But, my eyes are open – Steinbeck, I ain’t. I tell myself that I can see myself clearly, and that I’m a relative babe in the woods in the world of fiction.

All the same, I was a bit disappointed to learn in March that I’d not advanced to the next round in the ABNA contest. 500 writers advanced, and I was not among them. I shrugged this off, swallowing a tiny dose of disappointment.

To set the scene for the reviewer’s comments, the excerpt I submitted was from the second or third chapter, where the main character, Jack, and his pal, Parm, have been called into their boss’s office at the Paradise Car Wash. Their boss, Bill, wants to recruit them into a covert group of evening vigilantes called “The Insiders”, who are engaged in spying and courier operations all over greater Vancouver. Parm and Jack are not convinced by Bill’s offer, so Bill plays them a recording from a man called “Ed”, who explains their mission in idealistic, somewhat moralistic terms that resonate with Jack more than Parm.

After this, Bill takes them out to his storage shed behind the car wash and shows them the bullet-riddled car that belonged to the last operative – a man who’d recently left his employ very abruptly. Bill might have been trying to discourage them with this evidence.

Later, away from Bill’s office, Jack and Parm have a long discussion about the risks and benefits of joining the Insiders, and the possible motives of their handlers.

A few days after learning that I’d been eliminated from the ABNA competition, I received an email from the contest advising me that there were reviews written about my submission. I was curious to know what the judges or reviewers of the ABNA contests thought, so I went online to read them. Having been written by ‘Professional Reviewers’, I knew Iwould give their feedback some weight. Plus, I was waaaay curious to read what they had to say.

The first review from ABNA said that the “dialogue between the two individuals trying to figure out whether to take the vague offer to do the angel’s work ” was the strongest aspect of the piece, and that the weakest was “the recorded voice giving directions and reassuring the operatives that they’re doing good”, which was considered to be “very reminiscent of the TV show Charlie’s Angels”. This reviewer felt that Owe Nothing was “good, well-written” and “creates some tension, but I’m not quite sure where it is going at this point”.

The second review from ABNA said that the excerpt “has trite dialogue with phony dialect and inflection”, and felt that the story was unoriginal, too focused on the inner monologue of one character, and too derivative of “tough guy, private eye fiction”.

The reviewer that gave the more positive review seemed curious about how the story would progress. The other reviewer was turned off, and not interested in reading the rest of the story.

Now, some personal admissions of my own:

  • I have steeped myself in old-school “tough guy, private eye fiction” over the years, particularly the now dated, but undeniable masters of the genre, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
  • Contemporary writers like Brad Smith and Elmore Leonard have also been influential.
  • To a certain degree, I have consciously set out to write like them. Perhaps that’s just a symptom of a novice in a beloved genre. It’s fair to ask myself if this emulation serves the story or just serves my own personal enjoyment.
  • I do indeed write to amuse myself, first and foremost.

I must also admit that after I wrote that scene in Bill’s office, I did chuckle at the similarity to “Charlie’s Angels”. Looking back, maybe this was a kind of vague parody – a tongue-in-cheek homage to aspects of low-brow TV detective fiction that could have subliminally influenced me.

I’m fairly philosophical about this kind of feedback. Some people dislike low-brow dialogue (or perhaps more accurately, dated, or poorly-executed low-brow dialogue), and some accept it. I really don’t take myself all that seriously, but I’ll admit that the first few chapters of Owe Nothing are written with less confidence and more self-consciousness than the rest of the book. Maybe I shouldn’t try too hard to make characters (or the voice of the story) sound a certain way.

I pondered all this while watching “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, Steve Martin and Carl Reiner’s hilarious tribute to (and parody of) 40s tough guy detective movies. After I watched it, I did begin to notice that some of the idioms and colloquialisms uttered by Raymond Chandler’s character, “Philip Marlowe”, in his novels seemed a bit overdone, or too much of their time.

I think that all feedback can be potentially positive if you can learn something useful from it. I’m going to keep on studying, and keep on writing. Jack Owen has a few more stories to tell, and if he keeps at it, they will probably get better and better.

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Owe Nothing: a different look at life in Vancouver…

Recently, people from all over the world have been watching Vancouver, BC perform at its best, and there certainly is a lot to be proud of.

This city has many sides to it, and truly, no two people experience this town in the same way.

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

Meet a few of the 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…?

The Reviews are Good:

Readers have given me some very positive feedback:

“Awesome”, “Engaging, endearing… with a deft humorous touch”, “a great read!”, “A real coming-of-age story”, “Vancouver is a city without much appreciation for its history… you’ve rendered a great service with such a vivid picture of that time and place”

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Owe Nothing has Advanced in Amazon’s 2010 Breakthrough Novel Awards

A good start: I’m excited to report that Owe Nothing is now one of 1000 entries that has advanced to the second round in Amazon’s 2010 Breakthrough Novel Awards!

This fiction contest is sponsored by Amazon and Penguin USA. I’ll keep you posted…

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Owe Nothing, reviewed by Apex Reviews

On February 23rd, Owe Nothing received a great review from Apex Reviews:

You can download the full review here.

[callout title=”Reviews Callout”]”With an effective balance of wit and suspense, Owe Nothing is an equally compelling and entertaining read. In skillful fashion, author E. John Love has crafted an enjoyable tale of a lovable loser in search of a bit of adventure. In Jack, Love has created quite the sympathetic protagonist: a ne’er-do-well everyman with which readers from all backgrounds are sure to relate. An engaging, endearing tale with a deft humorous touch, Owe Nothing is a rewarding literary treat.”
– Renee Washburn, Apex Reviews[/callout]

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An excerpt from my next novel, “The Two Sisters”

The following little scene is from my second novel, a work in progress tentatively titled “The Two Sisters”.

This will be a sequel to my first novel, “Owe Nothing”. I hope you enjoy this little preview…

“Jack looked down at his plate, still preoccupied with thoughts of the Paradise Car Wash. He wondered what to eat next. The more he sat back and thought about the Paradise, the more crazy the whole thing seemed, as if the farther away he got from the place, the more different (and maybe more objective) his view of it became. The idea that a car wash could front for a secret operation which fed information to law enforcement (or god knows who else) sounded utterly fantastic and completely ridiculous. Car wash attendants acting as amateur field operatives – it was like something out of a bad novel, except it became all too real once he was hip-deep in some operation with Parm. As unlikely as it seemed, it had turned out to be financially rewarding and exciting work, and on more than one occasion, Jack had proven himself to be surprisingly adept at spying on people and appearing natural while recording the sights and sounds around him. Even though the idea of skulking around old warehouses or creeping down dirty alleys would never have appealed to him if anyone had suggested it, once he’d started doing the night-time work as one of Bill’s Insiders, he was amazed to learn that in practice, he got a huge rush when doing something that could be considered dangerous or even illegal. It was a weird thrill, and a guilty, secret pleasure.

Jim looked at his quiet son and wondered what was eating him, and why he was eating his dinner. Then Kelly noticed her Dad’s interest and looked over to Jack as well. “You’re not still working at that car wash, are you Jack?” she asked. Kelly had always tried to be supportive of her little brother, but it used to grate on him that she’d never thought very much of that job.”

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Real ink on paper? Where’s it going?

In my life, I wonder if ink on paper is slipping away from me, just a little bit. There’s something reassuring about a newspaper: you know what it is, it’s size and shape and depth are self-evident.

Yet, I now receive much more info each day on my Pre than I could ever read (or need to, for that matter). Online news text has replaced the newspaper for me. I have never subscribed to one of the local dailies, and rarely pick one up. I think that eventually, I’m going to do most of my reading on my handheld.

Podcasts (mostly the CBC) and MP3 music files have started to replace my radio. It seems like more motorists listen to the radio than others, these days. (I’m just guessing…)

The “convergence” that people have referred to in mass media is the tri-fold convergence of broadcast, print and computer technologies. At leat, that’s what I learned back in Media Class, back in 1988. Like Vannevar Bush’s idea of a “Universal Machine”, computers and digital tech have co-opted, transformed and consumed the roles of older analog media. Digital is a medium for media, or a medium about other media. A meta-media?

Now, is the “convergence” truly occurring between my mind and the Internet? It seems like that digital immediacy that I’ve become used to in the past 5 years is the kinds of convenience that’s most likely to change my perception of the world around me.

http://www.cs.sfu.ca/CC/365/mark/material/notes/Chap1/VBushArticle/vbush-all.html

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A Metaphor for the Creative Writing Process…? (Part 2)

So, finally, here’s an answer to one of the questions I posed earlier:

“Am I really writing more for myself, or more for my (hypothetical) reader?”

The answer to this is both.

I certainly write for myself, as a creative outlet (“I gotta be me”), a personal challenge (“Can it be done?”, or more to the point, “Is it any good?”), etc. That is my selfish personal development stuff, exorcising itself.

For my reader (you know who you are, and I look forward to finding a few more like you), I hope there are engaging-enough characters presented, in an interesting and sympathetic world that makes you want to return. I want the people, places, circumstances and imagery to resonate with you.

Actually, I want to visit these people and worlds again myself too.

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Process: Wiggle out of that corner, writer boy

Joseph Campbell wrote about “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”. I just had an image of my next novel having a few of its own faces too – maybe not a thousand, but perhaps half a dozen or so.

Okay – dynamics, not faces. (So much for that lousy metaphor. Maybe I just wanted to invoke Campbell.)

Okay… not six. three. I’ve got three dynamics to my storytelling.
Here they are:

1. Framework: The Laws of my Universe

My story has a skeleton, a framework, a basic structure upon which everything else is mounted. For me, this structure helps to define the “physics” of the world in which one or more events take place. My particular framework has a few premises, such as “you can’t fly or change the laws of physics”, “people are born, live, and die”, and many other premises that make the world of the story resemble my own reality to a large degree.

Psychologically, in some cases, dreams or imagination can be just as real or have as much impact on my characters as their waking experiences.

Real-life experience, or research that results in plausible actions and events – cause and effect – is what drives the creation of the framework, and helps to determine it’s structure.
Thank God for Google. I do not know how people researched things before it.

2. Believability: Dancing on the Edge

Once I’ve have established a plausible-sounding story framework, I feel that any fantastic-sounding elements which I introduce don’t need to be overly fantastic in order to surprise, or hopefully entertain, my reader. I think that this juxtaposition of expectations is similar to how the same middle-tone colour can appear to be darker or lighter in tone, when placed next to black of white. In other words, context is key. But how much unreality is tolerable? How much camp and wit is acceptable? How many cliffhangers can the reader stand? That kind of exciting stuff rarely happens to me. How much unbelievability is believable?

3. Dialogue and Characterization: “What are you lookin’ at, Bub?”

How should people talk and behave and react to the things that happen to them? Admittedly, this is largely subjective territory, although in some ways, this aspect, which encompasses things like culture, age, society, “life” experience, and strong plot-lines, is connected to and driven by (or perhaps just interacts with?) the “Framework” aspect and the essential laws of my world.

Sometimes, this aspect of writing becomes easy and almost automatic, and for me, occasionally emerges almost spontaneously, almost from within itself. Some dialogue or setup scenes emerge in a blur, like raw material forced through a die into an extrusion that seems to have just the exact profile that’s needed at the moment – a “Fuzzy Pumper Writing Factory”. This experience is a major high in the process for me, emotionally.

At other times, writing is like digging a well with your fingernails – a real tough claw through very hard and stubborn territory. That’s where I end up questioning myself as a writer, questioning my raw material – my past (that well that appears too dry to give me anything useful at the moment), and questioning my endurance as a writer. At these times, writing feels like a real elusive bitch-goddess… That’s when I find myself going back to do more research, or seeking inspiration from other writers or from stories in other media, or just dropping the project for a little while.

But man, when I can get it so I can see that character’s face, smell their hair, their cigarette smoke, and can see right through their skull into their minds, it feels like I know exactly what to say for them. When that happens, the well runneth over, and the paragraphs seem to grow and grow.

That’s when it’s fun to write.

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