Friday, April 30, 2010

eBook Experiment - Sudden Burst of Sales

I just got home from work to discover that I have had a sudden rash sales in the last couple hours on The Wife of Freedom. Nothing to pay the mortgage with, but definitely a jump.

I have been more active for the past couple of days in reading and commenting on blogs, but I haven't mentioned the book. I have four new followers for this blog, and eight sudden book sales. I joined Twitter and I have a grand total of four followers there.

So did every one of my new followers purchase a book? Or did somebody mention the book on a forum or blog somewhere that I didn't know about? Or do I just need to do more close analysis of scenes with Daniel Craig and Carol Burnett them? (Oh! That would be an interesting casting combo. I hear Judi Dench is looking to retire from Bond movies, so ... Carol Burnett as M?)

To quote Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare In Love: It's a Mystery!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

With Courage, You Don't Need A Reputation

Today we went to see Gone With The Wind in a real theater. (Not a movie palace, unfortunately, just a multiplex that shows a few art films and classics in off hours - and the print was badly digitized, so that the shadows were oddly posterized and sometimes kinda freaky looking.) It was a great, if very long, experience. Four hours, but so full of great moments (and great quotes like the title of this post) you hardly notice it.

In watching it, several thoughts occurred to me in relation to the posts I've made in the last few days:

1. Inescapable Context.

Context for something Gone With The Wind is inescapable. There is no putting a lollipop around anything in it. We just can't escape what we know about that movie, especially if you are at least fifty years old.

Today, when the audience saw this....

Everybody in the whole audience chuckled because they were thinking of this....

For those of you who might be too young to remember: The Carol Burnet Show did wonderful satires of old movies, and the most classic one was "Went With The Wind." The curtain rod dress was one of the THE classic moments in TV history. For blurry video of the entire sketch (which is in two nine-minute parts) "Went With the Wind" Part1 and Part 2 (the part with the dress happens a minute or two into Part 2.) And here is a one and a half minute clip of just the famous entrance.

The other contextual issue is the political incorrectness of this tale of the South (especially in the moments when it tries to be more correct and just makes the moment worse).

2. Scarlet Overhears People Saying Nasty Things About Her.

Scarlet O'Hara, of course, is one of the classic unrepentant jerks of cinema. But she's also one of the most famously appealing ones. And right there, early on, what happens but ... she overhears a number ladies talking about her. It isn't used the same way as the clip I played the other day, but I had to smile after the post I wrote on Tuesday.

The big technique they use to make the story and Scarlet appealing is illustrated in that bit though: As Scarlet listens to the angry, mean (and accurate) things the other ladies say, Melanie defends her. Melanie is the sweetest and nicest person in the world, and thus hated by Scarlet, but she never gives up on Scarlet. Melanie's deluded faith shames Scarlet and keeps her somewhat in check throughout the movie.

In some ways, I think Scarlet is the object of the movie rather than the protagonist, the real conflict is between Melanie's unfailing faith in her, and Rhett's fond cynicism about her. Or perhaps between Scarlet and those two forces which keep her in check.

3. Jerking the Tears

One other kind of technique (not related to making jerks appealing) in Gone With The Wind was when they veiled tragedy so we could get closer to it. Sure, a lot of that movie was quite blunt about the horrors or war. (I swear they violated some Hays commission rules about display of bodies, for instance.) But one of the most affecting scenes is a scene we don't see, but only hear about. When Bonny Blue dies, they cut away, and we don't see the effect on Rhett. Instead, Mammy tells the story of what happened to Melanie. It's a major tear jerker.

I was once told by a writing instructor that the best way to get the audience to cry is to not let your characters cry. Bring them up to the edge of crying, give them every reason, but have them hold back and the audience will cry for them. After seeing this scene, I think that it can work just as well - or even better - to have other characters weep for them.

Tomorrow I'll be talking about Alpha Readers.

Yesterday's Clip, Context and Speculation

Regarding yesterday's post and video clip: there was a reason I didn't talk about the third scene in that clip. I think that's a scene that really needs context.

But, of course, my Alpha Reader (who is the el primo Elephant-in-the-Room spotter of all time) zeroed in on that part, and we had an interesting discussion about cliches, interpretations and what will and won't attract the reader.

Alpha Reader reported her reaction to the last scene thusly (and I am paraphrasing to heighten the drama): "Oh shoot, he's moving closer. They're not going to use the old forceful kiss cliche, are they? Nooooooo! They did! Crap!"

The thing that bothered her most, though, seemed to be not the use of the cliche, but that the end of the scene seemed artificially staged to set up that dramatic turn.

She could be absolutely right. In the absense of context (and sometimes even with context) you can't tell if something is stupid staging, or a mistake or a completely intentional clue to the real truth.

So I went back and looked at the clip again, and tried to figure out why that ending didn't seem particularly artificial to me.

In the absense of context, we bring context with us, and part of that context is genre expectations. Since a mystery overlaps with nearly every kind of story out there - from mainstream, to romance, to horror - it's not easy to tell out of context what to expect.

So which genre? Two people sniping at each other, getting closer, and then a sudden kiss. Most commonly used in romance or women's fiction. How the woman reacts determines which - will she make a passionate and false denial or will she be offended and frightened and shoot him or call her lawyer? (Third cliche option is men's action adventure, in which case she'd fall straight into bed with him - but he wouldn't back off and ask timidly if she's going to report him, so I think that's out of the picture.)

In either case, she should have reacted before the kiss - she should have either moved closer because of her own passion, or fended him off when he invaded her space. She shouldn't have waited like an obedient actor for him to hit his mark so the dramatic turn could be accomplished.

Either that bit was bad staging, or an oversight... or they weren't actually going for that cliche. Maybe it wasn't romance or women's fiction. There is a third possibility.

It could be Noir.

It could be that the woman didn't react because she doesn't care. She's playing a game, and though it went differently than she expected, she doesn't take the result personally. She could be evil, although I just interpret her as a well-armored cynic who expects her sparring partner to be as sophisticated and armored as she is.

I think this because her behavior is consistent. Her reaction to the kiss is very much like her reaction to when he barges into her sitting room. She points out his legal situation, but she doesn't actually take action.

After the kiss, he has to ask if she's going to report him. She says yes, but she's not reaching for the phone. I get this odd vibe off of her. The look on her face mirrors the one earlier in the scene when he has that odd spell of weakness. There was this "whoops, I think I went too far" look. She's not thinking about his misjudgment, she's thinking about her own.

And given that, here is why I think the staging of the end of that scene was intentional and not a violation of character:

(begin wild speculation) I don't think the kiss was romantic or even necessarily sexual. When he says he doesn't know why he did it, he's not just in denial about being attracted to her. I think the trigger was something else.

Everything she says and does draws blood, and he can't seem to even scratch her armor. He tries everything in the policeman's third-degree handbook to push her outside her comfort zone, and he just can't do it. The questions about the condoms lead to her to smirking derision. Raising his voice just gets calm reasonable answers. He ends up debating with her rather than questioning her. He finally invades her physical space, getting right up in her face like they're in an interrogation room... and that has no effect on her at all. Instead, she invades his psychological space. So in frustration he escalates the invasion of her space to physical contact. He could have physically threatened her, but he's an old-fashioned guy and that's not what you do to girls. And besides, he is attracted to her, and the decision was spontaneous.

And she didn't react because none of it was personal: not the kiss, the physical contact, or the shouting. She's well armored against that. The only thing that seems to affect her is his inability to handle the game. He's just not as sophisticated as she is. (end wild speculation)

I think the thing that actually intrigues me here is her: What is her motivation? Is she just playing games but still sympathetic, or is she evil, or is she playing some more desperate game where it won't matter if she is sympathetic or not?

She may be Barbara Stanwyck, or she may be Lauren Bacall, but which ever flavor she is, she looks like a femme fatale to me.

Anyway, the writing lesson learned: The audience will notice if you manipulate your characters for convenience. But if you have a solid reason for creating an apparent anomaly in the character, you must use context to set up a pattern so you don't pop the audience out of the story.

We'll see if my wild speculation fits once I've seen the whole story, which will probably be next week.

(And check out on context in tomorrow's post about my viewing of Gone With The Wind in a real theater. "With Courage, You Don't Need a Reputation.")

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Close-up on Character Technique - the Sympathetic Jerk

This post will examine a couple of scene fragments taken intentionally out of context. Therefore if you've read the book or seen the TV show, do not be alarmed to see that the characters and storyline are interpreted wrong. This is not about the story, but about the technique and its effect on the audience. Therefore I'm taking isolated scenes I found on YouTube, and analyzing them without benefit of having seen the whole thing or reading the book.

(See yesterday's post to understand why I think this is a good idea.)

The clip is from the BBC adaptation of The Ice House by Minette Warner. Daniel Craig plays the sidekick detective, and it appears this was put together by one of his fans, so it's chopped up and disjointed. It consists of approximately three scenes, and it's the first two I'm mainly going to talk about - first four minutes.

Skip watching it if you are offended by frank insults and sexual references. (It is a gritty police procedural.) I'll explain enough so you can follow anyway.

In Scene One, we meet Detective Sergeant McLoughlan, obnoxious sidekick. A common type in a police procedural, there to provide opposition, represent social attitudes like bigotry and power, and maybe to play "bad cop" to make another cop look better. Without our knowing anything except what is said in the first scene, he seems to represent the attitude of the whole town toward the women.

The first technique in making him more sympathetic than most is right there in that first scene: He didn't actually start the fight. He just didn't sufficiently cover his discomfort in shaking hands with the first two women, so that the third called him on it. At which point he revealed he wasn't ashamed of his arrogance or bigotry.

Scene Two, though, is more interesting, as the Detective Sergeant happens upon an open door and overhears two of the women talking... and he realizes they are talking about him.

They're not saying nice things. They are things he could handle if said to his face, but they're not saying it to his face. They don't know he's there, which should make them vulnerable, but in this case it makes him vulnerable. He's eavesdropping, and can't make an obnoxious reply. Not without making an awkward entrance that puts him at a disadvantage.

Which is The Key Technique in gaining empathy. We all cringe at being in an awkward spot. Alfred Hitchcock used this to great effect: he would force the viewer to empathize with the most evil villains by putting his villains in a spot. Even though you have no sympathy for the killer, even though you'd be cheering for him to be caught, you'd still tense up for him when the key he absolutely needs to escape would fall down behind the dresser just as the cops were coming down the hall. You can't help but think "Oh no! What's he gonna do?"

This is called empathy - you feel for the character's situation even if you don't care about the character. If you have that, you don't actually need sympathy.

But you can also take the empathy deeper by showing how the character deals with the awkward spot. We all want to be able to deal with awkwardness well ourselves. We pull away from people who don't deal with it well, we stay with people who do.

In the old silent and post-silent comedies, the moustache-twirling villain would get a pie in the face and either he would stand there gawping like a fish, or he would not recognize that he had lost his dignity, and he would declaim about what an outrage it was. We do not feel sympathy, and we stop empathizing with him fast. We are happy to see him get hit by more pies.

That is an alternative to sympathy. You can make him less sympathetic and then give him everything he deserves. But once we stop empathizing or sympathizing, the only think interesting about him is his comeuppance. So those kinds of characters need to stay in the background, or they need to become comic relief and get what's coming to them regularly.

While there is certainly a pie-in-the-face pleasure to dealing with Detective Sergeant MacCloughlan - at least if you are sympathizing with the women who want to wipe that smirk off his face - he does prove himself to less of a twit than he seems. You can see he would like to storm in and declaim like Sig Ruman (the heavy in many great Marx Brother's flicks), but instead he decides not to make a pie-target of himself, and he goes back out so he can make a proper entrance and have an official leg to stand on.

Which is partly effective, except when his suspect tells him a bald-faced lie, and he can't admit that he knows it's a lie. He's stuck. But he's got just enough Sig Ruman in him that he can't slink away defeated. So he barges in to catch her in the lie, except it's too late....

Every mistake me makes, he recovers and moves on (to the next mistake, unfortunately). By the end of the second scene it's pretty clear he's outclassed, and the thing that makes it work is because he knows it - but he's still on his feet.

And that's really the third technique: You can't help but like a fighter. Fighters are vulnerable. They take punches. They stagger. Sometimes they go down for the count, but until that happens, they keep going. (Although if you watch the final scene, he's definitely staggering and possibly down for the count by the end of that one.)

So in recap: Step One is to be fair to the jerk - let others take some blame too. Step two is to put him in a situation we can empathize with, and Step Three is to give him some gumption.

I'm not real fond of Minette Warner's other stories. They are much much too gruesome for me. (I don't mind dark, I do mind creepy.) However, on the basis of seeing this out-of-context clip I looked up some reviews. The Ice House does not appear to be gruesome as the other stories, and that it appears Detective Sergeant McLoughlin is not a secondary character in a minor subplot, but rather has a nice long learning curve ahead of him. So I went to the trouble of getting my hands on the video on eBay. I'll let you know if it turns out to interesting or gruesome or what....

(In the meantime, my alpha reader had some reactions to the clip. Read a follow up post on context and speculation.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Characterization Technique - Lollipops and Context

When you look at a a photograph, even a black and white photograph, it can be very hard to tell relative brightness and darkness. If you put a gray object against black, it will look lighter than the very same object set against white. It's worse with color.

In the old days, before Photoshop's sampling tool (eyedropper), we had a little tool we called a "lollipop." It was a circle of cardboard on a stick, with a hole in the middle. The cardboard was medium neutral gray. When you lay it over a photograph, you can isolate a spot from the nearby colors. And when you do that, you're often surprised at what you see.

Context changes everything. In a photograph of a face, the shadows may look like dark brown or gray, and yet when you try to replicate it in a painting, those colors look flat. Hold a lollipop up to the area, though, and you can see that the shadows are much richer than you thought - full of purples and blues, and sometimes even reds or greens.

In context of the whole photograph, you can't see just what technique created that vibrant shadow. When you isolate the shadow, though, you can see it and learn from it.

You have the same problem when trying to study characterization. Our image of a character depends on the overall context. Any story is a flood of information. And yes, taken as a whole it can be useful to study. For instance a recent post on Show Some Character discussed Dr. House, of House M.D., as an example of an interesting jerk. It's a good posting and gives a good overview of how such a jerk can be a popular character.

But House is a very complicated character and there has been six seasons of development to look at. It's hard to even find individual examples of technique in that show, because so many of the examples will depend on the knowledge we have of the characters and situation. For instance, one of House's great qualities is his ability to surprise us... but most of his surprises are based on the fact that we already know a lot about him and have expectations.

And once you know the character it's really hard to pretend you don't. It's hard to get a "lollipop" into your brain and block out what you know, so you can see things in isolation. Sometimes, though, it happens by accident.

The other day I came across a YouTube video made by some fan of Daniel Craig. She had cut together some choppy scenes from a subplot of an old TV show. The show is not available in the US at the moment, and though it was based on a book, I happened to hate the author's other books, so I never read it.

So the scenes were presented to me utterly without context. I could see nothing except was what presented to me in the hole of that lollipop. Cool.

Even better was that I was intrigued by what I saw and I looked up more about the TV show and book, and found that I might like it. That led me on a quest to find a Region 2 version of the video. Double cool. This is exactly that we want our small out-of-context details to do. We want people who happen to pick up a book and glance at a page to be interested in investigating further.

So even though the clip probably misled me about the character and story (just as seeing purple would never make you think of skin tone), the technique in that clip was interesting and worth study.

Tomorrow, I'm going to post a link to the clip, and analyze the effect of three basic character techniques on making a different kind of jerk character into someone sympathetic.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Brainstorming Day 10 - Playing Around

Today was sort of a day of rest in that I didn't try to do anything in particular. Even so:

*I read over chapter one of the W.I.P. and found it absolutely perfect except for a couple of rough spots which I suddenly realized how to fix.

*I put in a bid on eBay for a Brit mystery video that isn't available in the U.S., now that I've figured out how to get Region 2 stuff onto my iPod without changing the region on my computer. (It involves using an external DVD drive, which can't actually play video, but can see it as data....)

*I dreamed a strange Miss Marple meets a Gritty Police Procedural story that makes little sense but may spawn a character... or not.

*I ate dim sum. It was good.

*I wrote questions for authors. (Which is preparation for a new feature I'm going to add to this blog this summer - author interviews. I'm sticking mainly to indie authors, and probably some mystery authors who aren't indies, at first.)

*I foodled around on several ebook forums, and gleaned many more nuggets of wisdom, as well as finding a few books to read.


One of the nuggets of wisdom that I keep coming across is to give away as many books as possible. Therefore, I will give a way a copy of either of my two ebooks to anybody who reads this blog and comments on this post between now and the end of the month. I ask only that you actually read it. What a deal!

(See descriptions of the books on my website at

Brainstorming Day 9 - The Creative Zone and the W.I.P.

I've pretty much worn my poor tired brain out with all this brainstorming. When you're writing and creating, especially when you're working your unconscious as well as your conscious - getting your "dream brain" involved - you get into the Zone.

If you succeed well enough, the Zone is like a dream state, and it can make you downright groggy. It's like a painless migraine.

And so today I was standing in the grocery store, glaring at the lettuce because the voices in my head were having a really impassioned argument, when I realized I had no idea why I was there. Luckily the list in my hand said "celery" so I figured that was probably it, although how I came to this place from the 19th century resort hotel, where I had just moments ago discovered a body, I didn't know.

It was at this moment, I had a double-epiphany: One, don't write and drive. Two, wouldn't this be a good quality to give Karla, the slightly ditzy movie buff in my work in progress?

Karla is not a writer, other than blogging and movie analysis, but her life is pretty much devoted to thinking deeply about movies on a deep emotional and intellectual level. There is definitely an aspect of Walter Mitty to Karla.

This may be what Chapter 2 needs. At the moment it bounces too much without actually going anywhere. This may be the peg to hang it on. This could allow me to slow it down and develop something with it, the way I finally did for Chapter 1.

So, two weeks to go before I get back to working on The Man Who Did Too Much, but it's nice to see my mind easing its way back to the story.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Brainstorming Day 8 - Prewriting

As I mentioned yesterday, I am experimenting with writing a kind of omniscient first person narrator. I'm having fun with it, and I think it could actually work well... but I don't think I'm going to use it.

The issue is that the strongest and most fun element is also a detriment to other things. That's normal, I suppose. Everything is a trade off.

The element in question is "author intrusion." That's something we usually try to avoid, but it really depends on the voice. If you remember last fall, I was looking at opening lines for various books and I mentioned how Dickens opened A Christmas Carol with that wonderful opinionated author intrusion about just how dead Marley was and how important it was to remember that.

The reason it works is because it brings the voice of the narrator - the storyteller - to life. And that's what is fun about Lady Pauline as a narrator. She is lively and opinionated, and her intrusions could work very well.

For instance, last night I played with a pair of scenes that reflected one another. It's when they first meet Commander Zuzo, Pauline makes a disasterous attempt to charm him, and is booted out in a roar of anger. (Zuzo is channelling Tommy Lee Jones or Samuel L. Jackson here.) Lily realizes she has to repair the situation and though she is very timid, she womans-up and tries herself. She takes a different approach and has a very different result.

Now, Pauline was not there for the second scene, but she does a good job as any author in creating a vivid scene and telling the story like I might. But she is very much present in the voice, and has no fear of intrusion, so when Lily says exactly the right thing to Zuzo as her opening line, Pauline comments on it: "It was obvious. If I had been there I would have bashed my head against a tree for the idiot that I am."

Since I imagine the Pauline who tells the story to be elderly and much much wiser, I find I can get her to pull back on too much intrusion, and respect the story.... at least ninety-nine percent of the time. There are certain subplots that I have in mind where I feel as though Pauline's opinions, even kept to herself, would be intrusive. The awareness we have that the ghost is watching and interpeting might be too distracting, no matter how much she pulls back.

But I haven't tried yet.

I titled this entry "Prewriting" and here's the deal about that: Pauline is a difficult character to get right. She's a little annoying, and she doesn't let you see her vulnerabilities, at least until she has armored them up properly for public view. Having her narrate scenes she should be ignorant of gives me a chance to push her into a corner and see her better. To see what she really thinks.

And once you have really seen the things a character hides, you can much more easily display them, no matter what the technique you use. Forcing a character to tell stories they might not ordinarily tell is a great prewriting exercise. It's almost like one of those therapy or acting exercises in trust and all that. It gets you working together with the character.

So I'm going to push on with this experiment a little bit. I may end up with the perfect tone and voice for the story... or I may just know my heroine better.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Brainstorming Day 7 - A Narrative Experiment

Today, inspired by Elizabeth's post on setting the mood on her Mystery Writing is Murder blog, I played around with ideas about narrative voice.

Certain kinds of stories are just suited to first person, and I think my serial might be one of them. When I look at similar old-fashioned yarns I've written about people who tend to get themselves into trouble, they've all done well in first person.

The problem with this story is that it has a lot of characters and they are never all in the same place. There is no one person who experiences it all. Furthermore, as I think through this, ALL of the characters want to tell me their stories. Even those characters who barely speak English. (Or Hendish, as this world calls it.) They want to stammer out what happened in their own limited and severely ungrammatical words.

The one thing I do not want to do is write a multiple narrator story. It might work for some kinds of literary (or high-comedy with a psuedo-literary feel) but that's not right for this.

Now, there is an old technique that was used in the period quite a lot - one narrator, who violates point of view once in a while and tells things that didn't happen to him or her. It was very often an awkward convenience, and did the job for the story, but not well. Anthony Hope used it in Rupert of Hentzau, the sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda. Most of the story was told by sidekick, Fritz von Tarlenheim, who wasn't there at the story's climax. It was a weak, if necessary, device.

I'm thinking, though, that the problem was that Fritz really was a sidekick. He was neither the center of the story, nor really involved in the center of the story. He did not play the part of the mystified audience, as Watson does in the Sherlock Holmes stories. And the hero is a straight forward romantic action guy. Rudolph was no mysterious Holmes to be observed and explained by a Watson.

So Fritz wasn't the right narrator. He was just the one that was dictated by certain aspects of the plot.

But I can't help but think that this technique might work for my serial. Maybe. The key is that the person would have to be a comfortable storyteller who has no fear of going out of his or her point of view at any time. ("While I was at the store, Jenny was having a terrible time at home....") My first thought was that Lily, Pauline's companion and secretary, might be right, because she is a reporter. But I don't think she would blithely violate point of view like that, and Pauline is like Rudolph - not mysterious at all, but an action woman, and at times a bit of a fool.

I finally realized that Pauline herself might be an ideal narrator. She has the ego to tell it all freely, and to tell it quite vividly, and to have a busybody's interest in what happened when she wasn't there. Here, in her own words, is what she has to say on the matter:

There are large parts of this story that I did not, myself, experience, but I am going to tell it anyway. I am a reasonably intelligent person, I am blessed with a vivid imagination, and Lily and others have filled me in on the details over the years since. The fact that I did not know these details at the time of the incidents may make me seem like quite a fool, but we must be honest and admit it: I was at times quite a fool.

But I survived, and here is the story of how....

So I am going to experiment, and see how it goes. Whenever you do something experimental, you might find it hard to maintain - in which case, I'll probably discover which more standard point of view I slip into the most and have to stick with that.

eBook Experiment - Published the Swashbuckler!

I fixed a couple of things on the cover, and wrote the catalog copy. The Adventure of Anna the Great is now available on Smashwords, but Kindle takes longer to process.

Smashwords has a limit of 400 characters for the description, but here is the slightly longer one:

In the tiny nation of Lifbau in 1863, girls are not allowed to have adventures. Anna, though, is still young enough to pass for a boy, so she runs away to find her one and only chance at adventure. She gets a job as a stableboy in the royal stables, and there she is surrounded by intrigues and horses and kidnappings and more horses! And, unfortunately, an admirable but boring hero, and a villain who, though dead wrong, is a lot more fun. With only one chance at adventure, Anna has to find the right path between the two.

(This is a png version of the cover and I think it looks much better. Smashwords only takes jpegs and whatever algorithm they use to make the thumbnails is AWFUL. But at least Amazon allows tiffs, so I used a tiff there. We'll see how it comes out.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Important Warning for Self-Publishers and Indie Authors

I was lurking around the Kindle Authors forum on Amazon, and I came across a posting by an author who didn't understand intellectual property rights. She had found out too late (after she'd published) that she was using material she thought was fair use and public domain, and she was now open to possible lawsuits. She was scrambling to fix the problem.

If you design your own cover (or if you use your friend or cousin) be SURE you understand the ins and outs of copyright law. Free clip art (such as those that come with Microsoft or Adobe products) is often restricted to non-commercial use only. Sometimes the licensing is not clear on the package.

You can't just go grab anything from Google Images (most of those images are under copyright). Even if you use Wikimedia Commons - or other free use sites - many of those images have restrictions on their use. In some cases, the copyright holder may only want credit. In others they may restrict to non-commercial use. Others want to be contacted before permission is given. Read the fine print. If you don't understand it, move along, or contact the artist.

And whatever you do, don't use song lyrics in your work. "Fair use" with songs and poems is VERY restrictive, and the music industry is very strict on enforcement. Paraphrase. Describe. Don't quote. (I'm told that you can use up to seven words, but I am not a lawyer, so I cannot give this advice as fact.)

The advantage of traditional publishing is that you have professionals who won't make such mistakes themselves, and they may help you catch any stupid mistakes you make, from a legal standpoint. When you self-publish, you are on your own, and you need to pay attention to those factors.

Brainstorming Day 6 - 12 Things the Handsome Stranger Could Be Up To

The cold finally let up. I still have a cough but I was able to catch up with things.

In my brainstorming session, I decided that the male lead had to have his own mission. He's going to lurk and behave in suspicious ways. He may even be working with the badguys. So I did a session on different things he could be up to, and I got some possible winners.

In the meantime, I have just about finished prepping the swashbuckler for upload, and I have a good draft of the cover. Here it is. I have to pick a better back ground color (I was going for a leathery brown, but the internet changed it.) I also hate the way it went to jpeg. I wonder if Smashwords and Kindle will accept png files?

Now I have to do catalog copy. Here is the original query pitch.

"Anna von Halzig is an impetuous girl who dresses as a boy and sets out to find adventure in the small fictional nation of Lifbau. She finds her adventure in the mystery surrounding a kidnapping, and her true calling as a stableboy in the royal stables. But baron's daughter can't remain a stableboy for long, and adventure turns out to be confusing. The good guys, while admirable, are boring. The villain, on the other hand, is both dead wrong and a lot of fun. Anna has to figure out her own path between the two."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Still Got a Cold

The fever went away this afternoon, and the cold is much better, but I didn't get much done today other than sleeping.

I'm getting more excited about the idea of serialized adventures. Both the modern mystery series and the romantic suspense genre have a long history with serials. I like to work with characters in the long term, also. I am even beginning to wonder if Test of Freedom and League of Freedom (which are currently one long rough draft) aren't a serial rather than two books.

One of the reasons that serials are attractive is because I've been thinking about presenting serialized stories on a blog. It can be an interesting marketing tool. I do know that a lot of people have great success promoting their ebooks by giving them away free in different ways.

And besides, Amazon also lets you create subscriptions to blogs, for a monthly fee, so it could be a secondary revenue stream.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

eBook Experiment - Update

I have a cold, and it's turning into a bad cold, so I'm just going to do an eBook Experiment update tonight:

I have sold a total of 14 copies on Smashwords, and 4 on Kindle. Pretty much all of them attributable to marketing efforts. I haven't been at this long enough to declare it a failure, but it definitely appears that if I don't push, sales don't just drop, they drop to zero.

So the next phase of this experiment is to do two things: 1) Move on to books that are probably more suited to the ebook audience, that is more clear cut in terms of genre and tone. 2) Change the title on the book. I'm thinking that title was a Learning Experience (and the lesson learned was a provocative title isn't what you want in an ebook without publicity and a book tour behind it).

The new title will be THE WIFE OF FREEDOM and of course, now that I look at it, I realize that this actually fits thematically even better. Mary's husband is known a Jackie the Freedom and when Mary first meets her lover she puts him off by introducing herself as Mrs. Freedom.

I don't know how long it will take me to make the changes, and I want to get the new book up first, so that I can simply replace the promotions (such as the one in the sidebar here) with a link to the new book. Then after I get it all accomplished, I'll start the experiment all over again.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Brainstorming Day 5 - Beating out a Plot or Two

I started structuring out some plots today for the serial. Since I'm planning to use 100 page novelettes, I decided to use movie structure, which is really suited to that length and especially suited to the serial concept. Serials are great with formula, and movie structure is so flexible, it actually fits any type story you want anyway.

The overall book will be four novelettes, each with a complete story, but all tied together with a bigger story. Each novelette will have four acts - almost approximating a movie structure. Standard Hollywood movie structure is described as three acts, but the middle one is twice as big as the others, and has two parts, so really it's four acts. (The problem is that Syd Field, the first guru of movie structure, didn't recognize the importance of the mid-point, so the terminology in Hollywood is stuck with the original three-act terminology. When you say "third act" you mean the end, no matter how many acts you have in your screenplay structure.)

Luckily, I'm not writing a screenplay, so I don't have to mess around with "Act 2 part A" or anything silly like that. I can just have four acts. Or more if I want. For those who might find it interesting, here is a quick description of classic movie four-act structure. Some of this comes from my screenwriting hero, the late Blake Snyder, and some from observation of how the old TV show Maverick worked.

Act 1 - Set up characters and situation, and set the catalyst loose. The catalyst is whatever first throws the character's life out of balance and forces him to act. By the end of Act 1, the character has realized this is not a simple problem, and has committed to dealing with the problem.

Act 2 (or Act 2a) - Snyder has two names for this part, and I love them both. "Fun and Games" or "The Promise of the Premise." This is the place where the main idea of the story comes to fruition. It's where all the stuff you anticipate from the movie poster and the trailer happen. This is the part where the mismatched cops are forced to work together. This is the part where the crusading lawyer builds his case. This is the part where the broken down race horse goes into training for the big race.

Mid-point - Act 2 ends when a major event brings reality into that promise of the premise. I had a teacher who called this "The point of no return." The event may be terrible or wonderful, but it changes the dynamic and raises the stakes. This is the moment where the mismatched cops find out they have to get it in gear or the whole city will be wiped out by terrorists. Where the crusading lawyer finds out he'll be disbarred if he doesn't pull this off. Where the owner of the broken down race horse bets the farm on a win.

Act 3 (or Act 2b) is full of reversals. Everything goes wrong, but there are much needed resting points. If the mid-point was a great triumph, then you will immediately have a disaster to shut it down. If the midpoint is a disaster, then you will have a respite in a smaller victory that gives your characters breathing space. Two major things will happen in this slot, although exactly where and how varies by the story. One is that the characters will undergo what Blake Snyder calls "The Long Dark Night of the Soul." Things are at their darkest, the character is out of options, and often characters confess things to each other at this point. Which is related to the other major event of this section: "The Truth Will Be Revealed." This may not be the ultimate truth (as with a mystery) but it will be a revelation that changes everything and allows the character to see what he or she must do.

Act 4 (or Act 3 in Movie-speak) is usually glossed over by movie theorists, perhaps because if you do a good job with the beginning, you'll know what to do here. However, I like to call this part "Bearding the Lion in His Den." This is the part where the protagonist picks up the problem and delivers it back to the source - whether that source is the villain in an action movie, or something more ephemeral in a drama. (For instance, in a movie about alienation between family members, this is the point where the protagonist finally just insists on talking about the thing everybody won't talk about.)

So for me, I think this is a great way to get a handle on an old fashioned serial. Each act has three chapters (making for a 12 chapter novelette). Each act would also have a cliff-hanger. And possibly mini-cliffhangers in each chapter.

Brainstorming Day 4 - Yet More Character Generation

I decided today that this book will be an old-fashioned serial. Lady Pauline was named after Pearl White's famous "Perils of Pauline" - and I think that's part of why I keep picturing this in a WWI-like world. That's the period of many great serials both in film and in magazines.

I think, as with the original "perils" I will not use cliff-hangers, but rather finish the story in each episode and end with a call-to-action or revelation that leads to the next story.

To that end, I feel like I need to know Lady Pauline better, and so instead of just brainstorming lists, I spent my time filling out character forms and trying to figure out her driving force, and her strengths and weaknesses. I also have to figure out what style of stories these will be.

My favorite of the period's adventure stories are often driven by Dread Secrets. (They were precursors of the Romantic Suspense novel.) I'll probably brainstorm on those tomorrow. Or I might ponder on a list of other catalysts - calls for help, etc.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Brainstorming Day 3 - Character Generation

I actually didn't do all this today. I have a "dream story" brewing in the back of my head that I plan to work on next year. It's a high, swashbuckling adventure set in a fantasy world that has a lot of resemblance to eastern Europe during and just before WWI.

I decided to work on that today a little more. I've got a whole heck of a lot of world building to do, as I think the story may be a serial.

Cast of Characters:

Lady Paulina Trent-Wollsey-Beethingham - adventuress and interfering do-gooder.

Alex Mandrake - jilted swain and secret hero, as well as a daring photographer and map maker.

Lily Beeton - companion to Lady Pauline and master organizer and committed spinster.

Dr. Mason Filey - brilliant crackpot who wants to catch a Waelbeast, and who needs regular rescuing by Alex.

Waelbeasts - giant carnivorous roly-poly bugs.

Captain Akio Rozinshura - Charming, roguish but patriotic captain of the Awarshi regular army unit assigned to take care of Lady Pauline's charitable Civilian Aid Unit.

Commander Zuzo - gruff and short-tempered commander of the local Awarshi irregulars/partisans, sentimental goatherd, and the man who knows everything there is to know about Waelbeasts and the wilderness in which they roam.

The Awarshi - imagine displaced Bolsheviks with a really seriously bad case of being French. I mean seriously ... there is no tobacco in this universe, and yet every time I picture them, they're smoking.

(Now all I have to figure out is whether the bad guys are other Awarshis - since they tend to fight among themselves a lot - or aliens, or magic beings from another dimension, or something else. Also did the poor roly-poly bugs become monsters due to magic or pseudo-science?)

Yeah, I do have interesting dreams. Why do you ask?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Brainstorming Day 2 - 10 Thoughts on Disguised Victims

I like to come up with twists on classic stories for Mick and Casey to solve. Tonight I picked the trope of the Victim in Disguise. I came up with a few of them that I like, although each may need their own brainstorming session to take it further.

In preparing for this exercise, I first did some brainstorming for a list of a few classic mystery tropes from "The Butler Did It" to the whole story being a hoax by the detective to trap someone for another crime. I have about 14, but these are certainly far from comprehensive. I'll probably keep adding to that list.

Of course variations on the classics can be endless fun. I may sit down and brainstorm up a list on how differently the same idea would be for Mick and Casey as for George and Karla (the protagonists in my current work in progress). And, for that matter, could the trope be taken out of the genre altogether and used to enliven a pure adventure?

(Like, what if the charming, swashbuckling villain from my YA swashbuckler managed to return in the sequel, disguised as a butler?)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Brainstorming Day 1 - 12 Ideas for a Sequel

Today I worked on ideas for a sequel of the YA Swashbuckler I'm going to publish next week. I needed to figure out ways Anna (my rather troublesome heroine) could drag the straight-laced but heroic Marquis into the story.

Here is the value of this kind of pushing ideas. The first eleven were pretty obvious (and may be useful in minor ways) but the 12th was downright inspirational. If I hadn't had a long and hellish day at work, I might have forced myself on to at least 20 ideas. I will probably do another session just on variations on that 12th idea anyway.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Messiness Vindicated by the Queen of Crime!

Slate Magazine has a review of a book on Agatha Christie's notebooks. It appears Dame Agatha was just as disorganized as I am!

If only I could produce as much finished work as she did....

Monday, April 12, 2010

Brainstorm Dare - Goals

Every day, from tomorrow to May 7th I am going to brainstorm 10-20 ideas each day. I'll probably set a topic each day before each session - flash fiction ideas for a particular character or series, ideas for a better twist on the climax of this or that book, red herrings, interesting clues, odd subjects, random words.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to have a lot of raw material to work with when I want to run up the word counts later on. I especially want to have some short story ideas for my Mick and Casey mystery series.

I didn't start today, because I was brainstorming on something less quanitfiable - a sequence of scenes that may turn out to be the climax of that fantasy series I would like to work on next year.

I also did taxes. But I didn't finish them.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Musing - the Paradox of Reading and Writing

Usually you become a writer because you love to read. And if you are a writer, you need to read a lot anyway.

But what I find is that when I'm in the throes of a writing project, I become an impatient and inattentive reader. I don't even want to read other books because I want to read the book I'm writing.

This is ironic, because - as I have told so many aspiring writers - writing is NOT reading. When you are reading, you are being taken on a journey by someone who takes care of everything for you. It may feel like you discovered that wonderful little spot on your own, but really, your author planned it all out in advance; every emotion, every discovery.

When you're writing, you have to do all the planning and organizing, and it's tedious work. While you do make discoveries, those discoveries come from your own head, and while they can be satisfying, there are never any surprises. Not really. You can trick yourself into feeling surprised by getting deep into your character, but you also know what's waiting for that character.

And of course, you have to get deep into your character and be surprised (Ooo!! Ah!!) and then you have to do it again (Oo! Ah!) to get the timing right, or check the authenticity (Oo? Oooooo? Eek ah? OOO ah?) and finally again to get it down on paper. And then you do it again to edit it (Oo ah.) And then a few more polishes (Oo yadda yadda...) When you get to Ooo yawn, or Ooo whatever, it's time to set the scene aside, but you still may not be done with being surprised.

It helps to be obsessive compulsive.

I really think that this is the first element that sorts out those who will be writers from those who never get anywhere. It's the first barrier: The experience of writing is not like the experience of reading.

And some people even find, when you are first learning the mechanics of plotting and all that, it ruins the experience of reading. (Although I assure you, this will pass. Once you are fully aware of the mechanics of story, it will recede into the background again.)

Later, though, you will have a different problem that hampers your reading. This is what's plaguing me now. Ideas are way easier to come up with than writing them, so eventually everyone will end up with a backlog of ideas screaming to be written. Anything you read will simply remind you of something you need to write. And I've got YEARS of backlog to deal with right now.

And when you've got this problem, sometimes it turns out that reading is much easier when you make it a low priority. That is, it's easier to read if you've done your due diligence on something of your own first.

So, my reading dare was an utter disaster. I ended up reading less than I would have if I hadn't even tried. So back to the grind: writing first, reading after. I still need to keep away from The Man Who Did Too Much until the semester is over, but I have some decks to clear on other ideas and older stories. So I think I need to spend my time between now and the 8th of May getting the backlog in order.

I will spend the next night or two figuring out the goals, so I can get going.

Reading and Editing

I mainly read the rest of the next book for my eBook Experiment. Everything is polished and ready except for the last page. There is one dissatisfying note to the ending, but I think I have cleared that up - but the new material is raw, so I'll have to let it sit and polish it again in a couple of days.

Otherwise, I was mainly generating ideas and spending time with family. I may use tomorrow as a day of rest.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Um, 2244 words

Okay, I'm not on a writing dare right now - but I wrote over two thousand words just getting a scene down. It's for a fantasy book I'll probably start writing next year, but this scene was kind of critical to my world building and setting the theme. I didn't expect it to be that long.

In the meantime, I've polished up half of the next eBook offering. I'll probably finish that tomorrow. (And I sold another copy of the first one on Smashwords.)

I was supposed to be reading, which I didn't do. Oh well. It was a trying day at work, so I guess you can't have everything.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

eBook Experiment - First Week Report

I didn't set the world on fire in my first week. I sold four copies, at least two of which are to close friends and family. And one was to me. I also had sixteen downloads of the sample from Smashwords, but some of those will be repeats from the same person, because many people download more than one format.

But I haven't done much in the way of promotion, and it's early days yet, and it is a specialized title. And in this ebook adventure I have come across other people doing this, and they have confirmed three things for me. It takes time, it takes promotion, and you do indeed need more titles.

And just by pure coincidence I paused to look over my very first book today. I was interested in adding it to the experiment later, but I was putting it off because I was sure it needed extensive rewriting. But what ho?! It's ready! (Except for some pesky remaining typos.) I had forgotten that I had run it through the critique mill again a few years ago. I've already done the rewrites that I thought it needed. (And before those rewrites, it had got very good responses from the few editors who had deigned to actually read it - it was just really hard to get anybody to read a swashbuckler at the time.)

And that's the upside of this one - it's a straight swashbuckling YA adventure. It's horses, adventure, kidnappings, mystery, swordplay, and more horses. It should be easier to market. While YA isn't all that big in ebooks yet, I think it's growing, especially due to the iPad - since Apple has always been great at selling to schools.

So The Adventure of Anna the Great is up next. It needs a cover (which I already have a good start on), a polish, catalog copy and conversion. I will probably not do this too quickly, though, because I don't want to promote more than one book at a time, and I need to give the first book more of a shot.

Reading, and More On Theme

Very long and tiring couple of days at work. I did read, and I did actually some idea generation too. But I am much to tired to put my thoughts into words.

I think I can only say, in regards to my post about theme, that heavy-handed use of theme, especially when it is morally black and white, can hurt you, even when the story is excellent. For instance, when you are writing about, say, child molesters, your theme can't be about how bad they are. It can't even be about bringing such evil to justice (even if that's the plot).

Because the reader already knows that's what you need to do. It's is a no-brainer. You don't even have to engage your heart to know it.

The way theme works in black and white situations like that, is when it explores a side-effect. For instance, the trauma of evil makes its victims weak. A good story will acknowledge this, and we'll see the protagonist struggle with it. However, a great story will raise that struggle to a theme. The plot may be about getting justice, but the story is about overcoming victimhood.

Of course there are other themes you could use - dealing with guilt or anger, for instance. A former bully seeks out bigger bullies to take down as redemption. Someone with a deep anger about something less evil may deal with it by attacking evil.

And since everyone has small fragments of these emotions, you can reflect different versions of them in all the characters in the story. When you follow a less cut and dried theme, your story will be stronger and in the end, be of more use to your readers and what they may be struggling with on some level.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reading - A flash fiction recommendation

I just wanted to give a heads up to a flash fiction blog called Out of Order Alice.

The blogger posts odd little stories, fanciful and literary vignettes - but not TOO literary. I haven't read a lot of them yet, but even though they aren't mystery oriented, what I've read so far has been fun.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Reading - Premise and Theme

As I get into reading the longer stories, I find that premise matters more and more. The difference between a very good story and a great one often falls to Premise.

Premise has a couple of different meanings. A lot of people say premise when they mean concept or even "plot summary." But technically premise means "meaning" or "theme," especially in Hollywood. (Ever see the movie State and Main? The characters go around telling each other that the premise of their schlocky big budget Hollywood movie is "purity.")

There are even some who feel that the premise should be like a thesis statement, a well developed statement of the lesson of the story. That's a useful thing to have when you're taking a meeting with people about a script, but I think the real important aspect of premise is really the more vague meaning of Theme.

You know how when you're noodling around with an idea, and it's just a bunch of loose scenes and characters until this magic moment when it becomes a story and you can write it? I think that moment is when you've discovered the theme. I don't mean consciously. It's just that the story takes on meaning and you know the real struggle of the protagonist, and you may even have an idea of a good title for it.

A mystery might be about justice, but it might also be about courage, or loyalty. And different characters will represent different aspects of these. A character with great physical courage may be a moral coward. Someone who has never thought about courage may stand up at the right moment on a small thing and make a difference. Someone who is not meant to be courageous may be inspired to make a terrible mistake by following the example of a hero.

The premise doesn't have to be anything that big. It can be about the relationships between sisters, or pride in your work. Whatever it is, it can inform the overall story in so many ways. It can make the story deeper and give you more to work with. It can give you a focus for all the little details that you fill in around the main plot.

And it helps you find the RIGHT ending.

The movie Casablanca was scripted with four different endings. They didn't know which one they were going to go with right up until they shot the ending. But it was clear they had the right ending as soon as Bogie said, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

The whole of that movie was built on the theme of survivors. The sweep of history was destroying the lives of everyone. Nothing that mattered in an ordinary world mattered at all any more. Every moment of that movie was about the little people surviving and doing whatever they had to do, some positively, some negatively, and because of that, the real moral of the story was able to rise naturally from it. The survival of the world depends on us getting it together and putting our personal needs aside.

So when you find yourself losing direction, and you feel your story isn't driving along properly, think about premise. What ties these characters and their struggles together? Sometimes you can bring things back together by thinking about how a character or a scene reflects or contrasts the main character's problems or issues.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Reading and Judging

As I mentioned, I am a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and as such, I get to vote on the nominees for the Derringer awards. There are four lengths - flash fiction, short short stories, long short stories, and novelettes. There are five stories in each category.

I have been a judge in the past - reading ALL entries in a particular category and scoring them to help determine the finalists. I've done script reading, and judged scripts for competitions too - but there is nothing quite so eye opening as having to read and rate ALL of the entries in a competition. Because if you only have to read some of them, you never really know if you got an average sampling, if it was below or above normal.

If you read three stories, one will probably stand out. If you read ten, you may want to give credit to three of them. If you read a hundred, and they are all published fiction so they're all well written, and you know that only five can make the cut, then you start to realize that you need higher standards. You need to find a way to realistically score that top ten percent

It is a great exercise to force you to examine what makes up an exemplary story. What's the value difference between a perfectly executed but relatively easy plot, and an imperfect plot that may be trickier to pull off?

My answer to that is to say don't worry about how easy or hard it was to write - how successful was it for the reader? Does the imperfect plot actually touch the reader in some way that makes up for the imperfection? If not, it doesn't matter how much of a virtuoso the writer seems to be. But you have to choose your own criterion - and no matter what, there will questions that you did not anticipate.

So, I challenge everyone out there to start scoring the things you read. Not just an overall grade, but on plot, characterization, setting, meaning, voice, ending, and add a fudge factor ("overall storytelling" is a good one). If you want to get good at writing short mystery fiction, then get yourself a bunch of issues of Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Read through all the stories and pick the top five and rank them. Comb through the smaller magazines and web sites and judge them.

Don't critique them, judge them. And don't just pick the ones you happen to like - figure out which are most deserving on a more objective scale.

(And by the way, by the time you are done, you will have a good idea of what kind of fiction that magazine likes.)

Reading - and Dream Stories

I read and voted in the Flash fiction category. I'm reading the shorter short stories mainly tonight. The long short stories and the novellas will take more time.

I broke my promise about waiting on marketing for the eBook Experiment, and I did spend a lot of time today trolling various forums and posting announcements of my ebook publication. I gained one sale from it. (Although we'll see if more come along later.)

The thing that is really occupying my mind right now, though, is raw creativity. I'm dreaming new stories. I use dreams a lot for my basic idea generation. I have some very interesting dreams, with wild geography and swings of plot. These dreams sometimes feed into my stories, and then I intentionally feed aspects of my stories into my dreams, to see what comes out. Very often I will take my characters and push them into my dream world and make them deal with it.

Every now and then, though, one of these dream worlds will move beyond mere exercise and amusement, and compel me to want to develop it into a real story. Usually what happens is that a character from the dream world - who only existed before to push around or lure my main characters when they came for a visit - comes into full form, and wants his or her story told. And then I'm stuck, because these characters and their backgrounds are completely entwined in a world of nonsense

This is happening to one of my dream worlds right now. Luckily for my current projects, I'm going to have to do a lot of slow world-building before I can really write anything. So I'll just be note-taking on this, while I concentrate on existing stories.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Reading Dare and Ideas

I've got a lot of reading to do, so for now, a quick ten-day reading dare. Between now and Sunday April 11, I've got to read and vote on all the nominees for the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Derringer Awards. I've also got lots and lots of books piled around that I want to read and just haven't had the mindspace while I'm writing.

I'll be posting daily progress and thoughts on subjects that come to me while reading.

I'd also like to do some idea generation and raw writing, although I don't see that happening much this week, because I have family visits to deal with. So that will start on the 12th.

The reading will spark ideas, though. It always does. Watching commercials sparks ideas. Even the cover of a book, or a turn of phrase, when you're in the right mood. And since I've started this dare blog, I have been in the right mood almost continuously. And taking time out for the eBook Publishing Experiment has only ramped up my fevered brain.

So I expect to be posting a lot of thoughts on developing ideas and worlds and characters in their rawest form.

As for said eBook Publishing Experiment, I'll be making a weekly post on how it's going, for those who are curious.