Saturday, December 21, 2013

We Three Cats - A Cat-mas Carol

Long ago I wrote songs for my cats' website. I haven't done it in quite a while, but this is one of the more popular tunes.

At the time I had three Siamese cats (you know "cats of Orient"?) whom I nicknamed "The Good, The Bad and The Fluffy." They had a three-way pecking order going, but they all knew how to cooperate at Christmas....

We Three Cats
(sung to the tune of "We Three Kings")

We three cats of Orient do
help our mom wrap presents for you.
Paper crinkles oh so beautifully.
Give us some stuff to chew.

Sit on paper, sit on bows.
Get the tape stuck on your nose.
Wrap your tail all up in ribbons.
Don't let scissors cut your toes.

We three cats just love to explore
right where mommy's doing her chores.
Lay right there and shred the paper.
Knock presents on the floor.

Sit on paper, sit on bows.
Get the tape stuck on your nose.
Wrap your tail all up in ribbons.
Don't let scissors cut your toes.

We three cats shut out of the room,
howling like we're meeting our doom.
Mommy scorns our help, what's wrong with her?
Guess we'll just sit and fume.

Sit on paper, sit on bows.
Get the tape stuck on your nose.
Wrap your tail all up in ribbons.
Don't let scissors cut your toes.

Happy holidays, everyone.  May your catnip be strong, and your door latches weak, and may you have plenty of time to play in the cardboard boxes before they get recycled....

* This silliness was brought to you by...*

You can find wonderful organizations like Mid-Michigan Cat Rescue at PetFinders on the web. Don't forget to help the needy pets in this cold holiday season!

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Update and Fun With Pictures at the Library of Congress

My goodness, I guess I'm already in  holiday mode.  I forgot my update.

Things have been busy chez Camille this week.  The usual kerfuffle in friends and family and cats and traffic and weather.....  But also I've been busy doing some cover work, in particular subcontracting a back cover and spine.  (I enjoy this very much and it brings in cash!)

Plus a month or so ago I was arguing with people who were wrong on the internet. Someone scoffed at this photo posted by @History_Pics and swore that the picture was too high quality to have been photographed in 1922.  I tried to explain to him that photos back then were MUCH higher rez than now, especially when it's a glass negative.  Film negatives never caught up to that quality and digital has only just barely got to that state. (Astronomers were still using glass plates up until ten years or so ago -- because they needed the high-resolution and sensitivity.)

The fellow who was wrong on the internet, though, declared (and I'm paraphrasing): "That picture was never taken in 1922, and too bad neither of us can prove it!"

So I proved it.

(The picture had a Shorpy water mark, and Shropy always names the source of their images.   Library of Congress.  "Taken between 1921 and 1923.")

It took very little time or effort to find it.  Unfortunately, escaping the LOC collections will take a lifetime.  Oh, I love archives.

That particular picture came from the Harris and Ewing Collection, high end art and photojournalism photographers, and the whole collection is on glass negatives -- basically top of the line stuff.  So all the photos are spiffy, and I've been browsing them for a while now.

However, just this week I found what I consider my pot of gold: the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection.  Yeah, those pictures taken by photographers hired by government agencies to document life in the U.S. in the 1930s and  1940s.  They're mostly on film, not glass,  and in many cases damaged film.  It looks to me like the original editor used a hole punch on a lot of the negative to indicate which ones not to print.  (Sometimes to really funny effect.)

Oy, vey, it's fun to hang out on this site.  Even with the damaged pix, there are lots of great images for reference drawings. 

Also, it's almost all in the public domain (because they are government photographs), however some rights are still in question because if the people depicted are still alive, they have "life rights" to the image.  You can still used people pictures editorially (i.e. as in this blog post about the LOC collection -- news stories) but not commercially, say, for a book cover or t-shirt.

However, if there is no person in it, there are "no known restrictions." (Here is the link to the Rights and Restrictions for the FSA Collection in general - however, you should check the Rights Advisory for each image, in the "about this item" page.)

Also note that the Library of Congress has a lot of material that ISN'T in the public domain. Always check the Rights Advisory.  Always.

And aside from the art factor.... History!  The collection is just so cool to browse through.  There are photos documenting slum conditions, and also places people are relocated to.

And lots of people just doing stuff.  Like this young lady showing us her bloomers?  That's from the 1930s.  She's in costume, and clearly thinks the costume is quaint. I believe these were taken at a fair in Vermont.  There are lots of images of folks in costume, and this girl appears a couple of times... always flashing her pantaloons at us.  (For shame, young hussy!)

So that is just cool.

In the meantime....

Ideas have been flowing like wine at a Bacchanalia (or like whine in a writer's forum.)  Winter is a very productive time for me, if I don't give myself typing injuries or catch cold.

I am pulling together the updated game materials for those who want to test out the story game.  I hope to send them out Monday or Tuesday.  (Anyone who wants to play around with this early version of the game, email my cat at maudecat at with "Game Tester" in the subject line. )

In the meantime, I will post a little holiday fluffery sometime this week, and then not until Jan 3, when we get back to the game and a fuller posting schedule again.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Story Game - Having Fun, Looking for Game Testers

I have been rolling a story a day since I posted the "Let's Play" post.  As of this writing, that's 21 story situations, including the one I rolled for that post.

I haven't been playing full out and writing stories from them (yet), just rolling numbers, filling out the forms and doing enough brainstorming to test whether I can come up with a viable idea that interests me.

The goal here was to:

  • Test the game, see what needs adjusting.  (And nearly all of it does need adjusting.)
  • See how much fun I can have with it.  (Which is "lots.")

But the surprise is how well it has been working as a creativity tool.  It's actually working.  For work.

This game has been great in helping me come up with viable, robust ideas that excite me -- and this even though this is not really my main genre.  If I needed to become a pulp writer who turned out a novelette or novella a week, this game certainly does give me the material.  At least half of these stories excite me.  All of them, so far, are something I could write with reasonable interest. (They are books I would be interested in reading, anyway.)

The game really wasn't intended to be that kind of production tool, though, and I have no idea if this flavor of Romantic Suspense is of any commercial value.  But you know, there are two parts to productivity.  One is marketability, but the other is enjoying what you are doing enough to keep doing it.

I still have two big questions:

Will it work for other genres and types of stories?

What I have found so far is that the stories it generates vary.  Some of them really seem more suited to Romantic Comedy (no mystery or suspense) and others seem especially suited to Mystery Suspense with a romantic subplot.

Also, a big part of the Woman in Jeopardy suspsense story has to do with where the plot goes.  And if you choose not to head for a Happily Ever After ending, you could have an outright thriller on your hands. (And sometimes even with an HEA ending.)

So even though I think this Situation/Character Structure part of the game should be changed for other genres and types of story.... I also think that it's easy enough to simply do that in the plotting end.

The biggest problem, though, is that this game really is suited for stand alone stories.  Not for series.  That is, I can't use it to come up with a murder plot for George and Karla or even Mick and Casey.  (At least, not yet.  I've got ideas I'm working on for that....)

This makes it great for short stories, though.  And it also is surprisingly good for coming up with... the first book in a series.  I have learned this the hard way.  As I write In Flight, I find myself thinking "Oh, that would be a fun continuing character.... Oh, and that would work for a series...."  (Like I need yet another series.  I don't think so...)

Will it work for other people?

If other people do as I do and adjust the game to suit their tastes and needs, sure, it could work for them.  But could this be a package?  An actual game or workbook that people could use to have fun, develop skills and develop stories?  I mean, would the game I'm writing work for people who don't want to write their own game?

I honestly don't know yet.  I would like to publish it.  I think it could at least be fun.  In the meantime, I'm still testing.

I would like to find some people who would be interested in playing with it.  I'd send a pdf (and maybe an ebook version) of the updated forms and wheels/lists.  I wouldn't require anybody to do anything in particular with it -- just play with it and let me know what parts are fun or productive, and which parts are frustrating (or which you simply ignore).

If you're interested, email my cat, maudecat at, with a header that says Game Tester, and when things are ready, I'll send the materials out.

In the meantime, I will likely post an update on Sunday (the 15th) but then not again until January 3 -- when I'll begin a the Plotting section of the game.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

New Book - A Free Holiday Short Story

I just published a new ebook today -- currently only available at Smashwords (see below).

"Midwinter Freedom" is a short story in my Mary Alwyn series.

This series takes place in one of my dream story worlds: in this case a world a little bit like Revolutionary America.  And as with all my dream stories, it isn't about history so much as about our popular culture views of history.

The main series is really a melodrama, (albeit a very anarchist melodrama, where the heroes are puritans and atheists and one feral woman trying to find her own way).

But this story is really just a simple little holiday romance.  I think it stands alone, but it's especially for those fans of Wife of Freedom:

Jackie and Mary have settled down again -- still wild and troublesome, but not suffering troubles at the moment.  It's winter, and time for warm fires and mulled flip, and gifts ... and gossip.

However, this time the gossip is about Jackie.  Jackie is a man who can't keep secrets, but apparently this time he has one.  So what's he been up to with that strange woman?

Midwinter Freedom is currently available only as an eBook and only from Smashwords.  But it's FREE.

UPDATE: this book is now free at most major vendors (at least in the U.S.):

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Diesel

Smashwords carries most formats, and also will distribute the book to most other ebook vendors, including Barnes and Noble, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Diesel and others.

It will be available at Amazon next week (though you can get a mobi file for you Kindle from Smashwords now).

I am delaying the upload to Amazon, because Amazon seems to have stopped matching the free price on books.  I am hoping that if the book is free everywhere when it is first uploaded there, Amazon may still match the price and  offer it free.  If not, the book will be 99 cents, and you can still get the book at Smashwords.

(Once again, here's the link:  Midwinter Freedom at Smashwords. )

UPDATE: this book is now free at most major vendors (at least in the U.S.):
Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Diesel

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Update, and 33 Years Ago Today

I may be coming down with a cold.  (A friend of mine has a bad cold right now.)

Or it may be just too freaking cold outside.

Or it may be the effects of biological change on women of a certain age.

But that short story I was hoping to have uploaded by now really hasn't even been edited yet. And the cover I did... I need to revise that too.  I think you'll enjoy it when I get all formatted and ready to read.  If that happens to be too late to get Amazon to treat it as a freebie for the holiday, I will have free versions on Smashwords and maybe a file on my website. (It's too long for a blog story -- about 5k.)

I'm thinking I'd kind of like to have a new holiday story every year.  I didn't get Six-Gun Santa sorted out in time, and I realize that I'd like to submit that to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine first, anyway.  If EQ doesn't take it, that will be next year's holiday story.

Thirty-Three Years Ago Today

It was a Monday night.  Everybody else in the house was asleep.  I was watching Johnny Carson, when a news crawl started across the bottom of the screen.  I didn't quite catch it.  Or maybe I just didn't quite believe what it said.  Somebody had been shot.   The name had scrolled out of sight, but ... did that say John Lennon?

This was in the days before cable and the 24-hour breaking news cycle.  Long before Twitter.

I flipped on the radio.

They were playing The Ballad of John and Yoko.

If I remember right, every station was playing it.  Twist the dial, and there it was again on the next station up.

And that said it all. It confirmed what happened, and also commented on it. The life (and likely/inevitable death) of a superstar in the modern world.

"Last night the wife said 'oh, boy when you're dead, you don't take nothing with you but your soul. Think!'"

So I am torn at the moment. I was going to embed a video of Imagine, a great atheist's message in the spirit of the holiday season.

But I think there is also a seasonally appropriate message underneath the anger in Ballad.  I mean, what is The Ballad of John and Yoko about? It's about the media circus surrounding their marriage and their decision to turn it into a message for Peace.  How, no matter how high your celebrity takes you, you still don't leave life with anything but your soul, so live with that in mind.

Since I can't make up my mind, I guess I'll give you both, and you can choose what you want to listen to.

The Ballad of John and Yoko (looks like fan edited video from the news events behind the song):

And a very nice version of Imagine (an HD version of the official music video):

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Story Game: A Preview on Plotting

I lost the post I wrote about what I've learned messing around with the game this week. Maybe I'll post that next week.  In the meantime, here is an off-the-cuff post about plotting, which can serve as a teaser for what we'll be talking about here in January:

I'll let you in on a little secret:

The reason I started writing mysteries with a western twist wasn't because I used to watch that many westerns.  It was because I happened to be watching a particular western which was in reruns on TV Land, when I finally figured out how to plot a mystery.

The problem I'd had up to that point is that I tried to write mysteries the way I read them:  You just start telling this story and let all these mysterious clues mount up and.... uh, then you get stuck.

I was pondering Agatha Christie and couldn't quite figure out how she managed to turn the story upside down with a revelation, and then flip it around with another, and then send it spinning off into space at the end.  And I got the idea of the revelations. What I didn't get was how to handle the front story -- that is, how they worked together.

And what was playing on my TV in the background but... Maverick.  You know that old slightly silly western staring James Garner (and sometimes Jack Kelly and/or James Bond... I mean Roger Moore).  It pushed it's way into my consciousness, and I realized. OMG!  That holds all the answers!

You see Maverick had a kind of pattern to the plot -- at least the ones with James Garner.

Act 1: Maverick would ride into town with a purpose.  He'd be looking for an old friend who owed him money which he needed to get into a high-stakes poker game, or something like that.  And there would be stuff going on, but he didn't give a rip, because he was James Garner.  Eye rolling was sufficient reaction to even the worst disaster that might happen to somebody else.

But something would prevent him from doing what he wanted.  So he'd work out a deal with someone who could help him, and.... just before the ad break he'd discover that someone had lied to him, and he'd find himself with a handful of trouble instead of the money he was owed.

Ad Break.

Act 2: So, Maverick would change his course to suit what he now knew was the truth, and he'd go after his money/friend/whatever with renewed vigor.  He'd overcome some obstacles and usually ignore a few weird things going on (because he didn't care), but by golly, by the end of the second act, he'd find out he'd been told another lie. A bigger lie!  And he'd find he was in trouble.

Ad Break

Act 3:  Okay, now Maverick is pissed off.  He breaks some noses, cuts through some crap, and stomps his way to the truth, just in time to find out.... yep. There was yet another layer of lies, and now, all of a sudden, he was in really Deep Doo Doo.  I mean, no-water-in-the-desert-while-a-lynch-mob-hunts-you deep trouble.

Ad Break

Act 4: And now, knowing the truth, Maverick is able to put his disinterested but really quite agile brain to good use, and also really kick some ass of the people who pulled the wool over his eyes, and resolve both the mystery and his own problem.

What I've just described is a pretty standard pulp formula - only here played for laughs most of the time.  As a matter of fact, recently I was reading through Lester Dent's famous Master Plot for pulp short stories.

Dent's formula starts thusly: "...introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble...the hero pitches in to cope with this fistful of trouble... near the end of the (first act) there is a complete surprise twist...."  Next act is to shovel more grief on the hero, he struggles, another surprising twist, and this happens again, until the hero "really gets it in the neck bad" and is buried in trouble... and he digs himself out.

I laughed when I first read this, because it is so much like the pattern I noticed in Maverick.   And for that matter the part about the twists at the end of every act is a lot like Christie.

But this isn't a mystery plot, it's an adventure plot -- specifically a men's pulp adventure plot.  Nothing to do with little old lady detectives and clues left among the daisies and lying butlers (well, except for the lying part.)

So how did this help me with mystery plotting?

It told me what the front story is.  It told me how you handle what's going on when you are hiding what's really going on.

The front story is that the protagonist thinks he knows what's going on, and he is acting on that.

It is not a case of the protagonist knowing nothing and then slowly and gradually gathering evidence until he knows everything.  No.

A mystery -- and any kind of story based on investigation (even historian stories) -- is about theories.  The character believes something, and he acts on his beliefs.  When obstacles are thrown in his path, he may dodge, but he doesn't actually change course until something big at the end of each act  proves to him that his basic theory is wrong.

Yes, sure, he's learning stuff all along between those big revelations, but everything he learns he fits into his existing theory.  He believes the pretty lady is in distress.  All the clues seem to be about who is menacing her. Then Maverick learns that the pretty lady actually isn't in distress at all, she's a thief.  Then all of a sudden, all the clues have a different meaning.  He moves into the second act with a whole different understanding of what's going on.

So now, when I sit down and try to figure out a plot, the question I ask myself is not "what's the truth behind these lies?" but "where is the protagonist going, and what will be the big thing that changes that direction?"

The Graceful Arc of the Story

In spite of what I learned from Maverick and Lester Dent, however, I really think that stories have a natural progression that is more than just "it gets worse" or "the protag changes direction."

I love the four-act plot structure.  I really think it follows a psychological pattern, where each act has a flavor all it's own. It progresses like a human progresses through the psychological stages of grief.

But that I will leave until January, when I'll start in on a series of posts and games related to plotting.  I don't know exactly how many posts -- probably an introduction, and a separate post about each of the four acts and their special character.  I don't know if I'm going to do separate posts for playing plotting games. We'll see when we get there.

In the meantime, I'll do a few sporatic posts during December, but we won't get back to anything major until January.

(Oh, and watch Sunday for a book announcement. I found a romantic little holiday short story in my files about Jackie and Mary Alwyn -- of The Wife of Freedom.  It's a lot of fun and I hope to have it polished and uploaded before the weekend is done.)

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Update - Games and Sprints

I am actually writing a lot right now.

I'm writing so much I hurt myself. (Well, technically, it wasn't the writing that did it -- it was a combination of an old shoulder injury, freaky weather, not keeping up on exercise, AND writing too much.)

Therefore I don't really want to work on anything else right now -- in particular, not blogging.  So.. no posting this week other than today, and the Friday Story Game post.

What I've been doing:

Rolling Game Stories

Every day since I posted the previous Friday's game post (the "Let's Play" post), I've been rolling a story with the game.  I haven't gone further than minimal brainstorming on each one -- but I have gone far enough to tweak the game a little.  I will likely post this Friday on the things I've learned.

However, I'm also figuring out ways to adapt the game (or create a new game) for other genres and types of stories.  If I'm far enough along on one of those, I'll talk about that.

I have a nice stack of story ideas that intrigue me.  And I'm considering using these "situations" to brainstorm different kinds of stories. That is, I created this with the idea that they would be right for novellas or novels.  However, I'm wondering if they could be inspiration for short stories. Could I do even flash or micro-fiction riffing of these elaborate situations?

Furthermore.... could they inspire, say, a mystery story for Mick and Casey to solve?

#Writeclub's Friday Night Writes

The other thing I've been doing is writing sprints.  I've mentioned before how I sometimes work with a timer to keep me concentrated on what I'm doing. This may be anything from cleaning the bathroom to writing.

There are groups on Twitter who do something like this as a group activiity.  They announce a start time, and how long, and people join in.  They may or may not announce how many words they wrote during the session.

It's kind of like an instant writing dare.  The point is not really productivity, but concentration.

I usually do 15 minutes, but the Friday Night Writes group does 30 minutes on and 10 minutes off. (They go from like 2pm EST to 2am on Fridays -- look for the #writeclub hashtag.)

I decided on Monday I wanted to do some sprints, so I announced 20-on/10-off bouts.  Shorter works better for me.

And boy did it work better!  I usually, when working in longer increments, write about 700 words an hour.  With these, I was writing about 1100 an hour. I did about 2600 words in a three hour period with a 40 minute break in the middle (and ten minute breaks between bouts).

Part of this speed was do to the method, but part of it was because I was working on Game stories.

Unfortunately, the next day my shoulder gave out.  This was only partly due to the rapid typing.  (I normally type a lot every day.)

So even though I've learned a lot from this, and I'd like to tell you about it, I have to save my typing time.  I hope to tell you about it next week.

In the meantime, see you in the funny papers.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Update: Art and Stuff

I'm late on my Sunday update today.  I forgot that Saturday is the day before Sunday and therefore I needed to do an update post last night. (Which is okay, I needed the sleep.)

Also since I'm not posting anything else until next Sunday, I suppose being on time with this post doesn't matter so much.

It Started With A Line

Earlier this week I did another illustration for a short story of mine: my Noir holiday story "Deadmen Don't Eat Fruitcake."

I was incredibly jazzed about this image. I have always wanted to be better at that cartoon end of illustration.  This is the sort of illustration I'd like to be doing.  But something usually goes wrong.  It's like my brain gets caught between life drawing (trying to be as realistic as possible) and abstraction, and suddenly it gets all awkward and goofy.

So I've been thinking about base sketches, and look at images online where other artists post images that "show their work."  Both fine artists and cartoonists often start with the same kinds of rough sketching of lines -- some basic geometric shapes.  The difference, though is that in life drawing, you look closely at the model and adjust the geometric shapes to fit the model.  You're concentrating on and drawing the model.

With cartooning, you're not drawing reality, you're drawing what's in your head.  And I finally got the hook that helps me see that: you're drawing the abstract shape.  You're adapting life to fit the shape.  So in that sense, you're not looking at and concentrating on a model.  You're looking at and concentrating on the shape on your paper.

It's sort of how I work with the silhouettes: I start with a blob and then start sclupting it; adding something here and erasing something there; watching the shape itself and building on what's good about it.  (The unfortunate side effect of this is that it comes out rather different than I intend.  Such as Rozinshura -- who is a great bear of a man -- who comes out looking kind of like a pencil-necked geek in the illustrations.)

Anyway, the illustration above started with a line. I'd been looking at a lot of abstractions and I had this vision in my head of a kind of cubist gangster, made out of angles and shapes. I drew a line for the plane of his face, and then the triangle nose, and then a rounded lower lip and a jutting chin....  And suddenly I found myself sketching a character rather than just an abstraction.  All in straight sketched lines.  I rounded the angles when I did the final image so it became a cartoon rather than a design.

Okay, that was cool. What could I use it for?  I thought about the Noir fruitcake story (the only story where I had a classic thug that I could remember).  There were two thugs in that story, so I made a duplicate.  Fussed over how they would line up and be a different color, etc.

But when it came to doing Granny Arbuckle, I found myself doing the awkward child-drawing thing again.  Until I told myself "just do her with the same straight lines and angles you did with the thugs."

And she came out better than they did.

So this has jazzed me out to no end.  But it's also done that rebound thing - where I get so excited that I end up doing my happy dance too long rather than actually sitting down and working.

BTW, that story is in my mini-collection 5 Twists.  It is currently free everywhere but Amazon (It's only 99 cents at Amazon).  Amazon just won't price match it.  This annoys me because the formatting is better at Amazon than the simplified conversion they do at Smashwords. (They might finally make it free if someone complains about it via the "tell us about a lower price" link, but I wouldn't count on it.)

Edit: Now this collection is FREE at Amazon US too. (Don't know about the international stores.) It will remain so until at least January 6,  2014. I may keep it free longer as it works as a "sample" of some of my writing styles. (Amazon international stores: UK, DE, FR, IT, ES, IN, CA, JP, BR, MX, AU.)
Barnes and Noble, Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, Smashwords

More Covers

In the meantime, I did two new covers for Self-Pub Book covers.  This first one is a retro gothic romantic suspense cover.  I've actually been working on that for a long time. I was inspired by an old book cover -- the impressed image on cloth hardback cover you find under the dust jacket -- of a book about camping.  I think it looked down through some trees on a camp fire.

I thought it could be kind of spooky, so I created the tree frame -- dark green with a yellow background glowing through that gaping middle.  I had to redo it a few times as I made mistakes. There's a lot of detail in those leaves, so resizing or trying to change a color using the paintbucket (which is the only way to change black to a color -- you can swap one color for another, but black sticks to black) means a whole lot of clean up.

Anyway, I liked putting a running figure in there, becuase there are three suspenseful interpretations.  One: A fugitive, hidden in the dark, gives her location away because of the bright sky behind her.  Two: she's running from the dark forest into an eery bright light area.  Three: she could be running from the light into the scary dark forest.

This other image is another case of going with the shape and then deciding what it looks like: I was inspired to do that sky by a WWI recruiting poster.  The sky was orange and yellow (very close to two of the colors Self-Pub Book Covers allows for fonts -- but lots duller) with streaks of one across the other.  And a slope of the ground in green.  There was a column of caissons and soldiers across the middle of the poster.

But once I'd done that sky in colors that matched Self-Pub Book Covers font colors, I thought I had something more futuristic. Well, retro futuristic.  So I made the ground red (because I didn't like the other color choices there) and added a space ship.

I actually really like this.  I don't read or write many of the kind of sf stories it is suited for, but I think I'll do more covers in this style.  (And just hope somebody else is interested in them.

Both these covers have yet to go through the approval process, but they should show up on SPBC next week some time.  I think they're better than my other covers there, but who knows. You can see my portfolio there at DaringNovelist's Covers.   

In the meantime, have a great holiday.  We'll be back next Sunday with an update, at which time I'll tell you what's coming that first week of December.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Story Game - Let's Play!

At last! We get to the moment we've all been waiting for: we get to just play the game.  It's a lot quicker to play the game than create it.  Once you have the story materials in hand, you can play it over and over again -- adding to it, tweaking it or just using it at is.

To review: The series starts with an Introduction and an explanation of the concept of "Character Structure" which we use to create the game.  This game works better with a formulaic story, so we've created a game around the "Woman-in-Jeopardy" type of Romantic Suspense.   (We also talked a little about Erle Stanley Gardener's Plot Wheels, which inspired the game.)

But if you want to get down to the game itself, start with these posts:

*The Situation Worksheet - which we'll fill in using the story wheels.
*Heroine and Hero Wheels
*Villain and Nature of the Crime Wheels
*Titles and Title Words

Today, I'm just going to play the game from scratch, and show you how it works for me.  I will tell you a little about how I solve various issues as they come up.

I rolled a story just before sitting down to write this post -- what follows is real-time brainstorming.  (As it happened, the rolls came out easy -- they don't always do so.)

So here we go... Let's Play!

Here are the Story Wheel results

Title Words: Kept, Melody, Justice, Scorch, Crossfire, Guitar, Duet, Breathless, Night, Know.
Theme: Insiders
Heroine Type: On a Secret Mission (such as: revenge; needs to retrieve something; investigative reporter; must prove someone innocent; etc.)
Hero Type: Mysterious Background Figure - Undercover Cop
Villain Cover Type: Authority Figure - Cop
Crime Type: Blackmail, Version 3 (person being blackmailed is the bad guy, third party the primary victim)

Wow, this is the most consistent roll I've done with this game.  Insider theme; multiple cops; and a heroine on an undercover mission -- this screams "Police Procedural."

And yes, there is a brand of Woman-in-Jeopardy Romantic Suspense which overlaps with police procedural (although it tends toward military right now I think) - but it's one I don't happen to read.  Furthermore, though I love to read regular police procedurals, especially regional ones, I don't feel adequate in writing them.

But that works for this blog series because I'm unlikely to write this story -- and that means I don't have to hold back for fear of spoilers or anything like that.  I can do this as a "writing in public" exercise.

(NOTE TO EVERYONE: if this roll and the ideas for it I come up with in this post excite you, feel free to write it.  Consider it an "Open Source" story idea.  We can all play with it if we like. Note also: I do mention some other stories I am actually writing -- such as "Hours of Need." If those idea inspire you, please change them enough so they don't seem like the same story I'm writing.)

Pushing Boundaries

An ideal story roll will push you a little bit where you don't want to go.  That's why we include some contrary choices and things we don't like on our wheels.  But it's also why you have Full Veto Power over any roll in the game. However, my rule is that you can't ditch or re-roll any element until after you have worked through the choices and found what actually is a stumbling block.

Since pushing boundaries is important though, I believe the best place to start is to glance over the worksheet to see where those most difficult spots will be, and then to really dig in and think about that.  Spend a little time to see if you can find a way to make the problems work for you.  You may not find it at once, though, so if you can't find a solution right off, look to the other elements to see if they have any hooks to help you out with this.

For example: The first roll I ever made with this game came up with an element I had thrown in to give myself trouble:  The heroine type came up "Secret Baby."  Ugh!  That element just does NOT click with me.  I don't empathize with the emotions involved in keeping a baby a secret.  However, when I'd rolled all the other items I found a hook into the concept that really worked for me.  The Theme was "self-sacrifice" and the hero type was "Mr. Perfect she runs away from." And a title words gave me "Hours of Need."  And the crime type was related to a clandestine affair.

All those elements pushed me to stick with the "secret baby" trope -- and so I pushed until I had a variation I could work with:  A young woman who runs away from Mr. Perfect because she has to take care of her dysfunctional family, a family where someone is always in their "hour of need."  The secret child is her wild younger sister's child -- and nobody knows who the father is.

And that gave me a character I could empathize with, so that story is on the shelf "in development" to actually write.

Fro this story, I'm going to start by thinking about the police procedural element:  How could I actually write a cop-centered story?  And even if I can't think of a hook that works for me up front, I'll keep a watch for options as I go through the rest of the items too.

My first thought is that two police characters doesn't a police procedural make.  I can make this a small town psychodrama (that is, a soap opera of the individuals in their personal lives, not about the police elements).  This is especially possible since the hero is the Mysterious Background Figure, so we don't have to be privy to his investigation.

I don't have to stick to that if I find another hook in the other elements, but as I look at my title words, I'm thinking there may be a hook that helps me along with this....

The Title Words

We've got no less than THREE music-oriented words in our title word choices: Melody, Guitar and Duet.  The rest are mostly evocative suspense or romance words which will work with the genre.  Great!  Unfortunately, after pausing to generate some titles with these words, I didn't come up with anything exciting.

My top three ideas were pretty simple combinations:  "Crossfire Duet," "Breathless Duet" or "Breathless Melody." But I'll hold out hope for something more resonant after I come up with the story.  (The Night Guitar, Keep to the Melody, Justice in the Night....)

But even if I don't have a title yet, the idea of "Music"gives me a hook into the subject of the story:  Instead of the story surrounding cop culture, it could be surrounding something to do with music.

The heroine could be a musician, the hero's undercover identity could be a musician.  The heroine's secret mission could be to clear the name of a musician friend/relative, or to find out what happened to a missing or dead musician friend/relative. Or she could be an investigative reporter, out to get the straight dope on a famous musician's dark past.  Or maybe there was a mishap covered up, when the "Singin' With The Stars" TV show came to town, and she's investigating.

The mystery/crime could surround a local night spot -- a tavern where there is live music or an open mic.  It could be the center of a local music community.  This could be a community of professional musicians, or just a community of enthusiastic fans.

So the hero and heroine could both be undercover as musicians, hanging out at this tavern.  And that fits with the "insider" theme.

Blackmail #3

Next problem: the villian is a cop who is being blackmailed, and the primary victim is the "third party" (the person the blackmailer threatens to tell), that's a tricky one.  That means the blackmailer is not the most relevant person.

Which means the blackmailer will be a red herring of one kind or another.  He or she could be someone killed before the story opens, which incites the story.  Or he could be a real Red Herring, in that he or she is lurking and doing suspicious things.  He could even be the hero: The heroine's investigation puts pressure on the situation, and that gives the hero an opportunity to put the screws to the badguy (behind the scenes).  This could take on a swashbucklery cloak-and-dagger aspect as the heroine is caught in a deadly game between these two men.

I think the key to this one, though, might be the Victim.

The crime we rolled, Blackmail #3, means that our villain's leading motive is to keep the information from the victim.  What could our cop villain want to keep from someone such that he's willing to become a full blown Suspense Villain over it?  And WHO might he want to keep things from?

This motivation doesn't have to stem from him being a cop.  It could be something completely personal.  However, seeing that he is in law enforcement, two obvious things come to mind: He's an elected official (sheriff) and he wants to keep politically unpleasant facts about himself from the public (with the Public being the victim). OR ... He helped cover up the death of a young music star during a local festival, and this person's mother or grandmother wants to know the truth.

I like the second because that gives our heroine an undercover assignment.  The grandmother asked her to look into it, or the heroine is a relative who is upset about her own grandmother's grief over a dead cousin.  They don't suspect the cop.  They suspect the other musicians. (Hence, the hero.)

Well.... that's a story concept right there.  But there's one more issue that itches at the collar...

What About That Hero?

If the hero is an undercover cop, what is he investigating?  Is he a member of the same department as the villain?  Does the villain know he's a cop?

The simple answer is that he's investigating the death too, for the same reason the heroine is.  (That does not satisfy me.  Too repetitive.)  Also, if this is a small town, it is unlikely that he's a member of the local police, because everybody would know the local cops.  So, if he's undercover, he's got to be a state trooper, or on a task force, or a fed.

And I'm thinking that he wouldn't be investigating a closed case that everybody thinks is an accident.  (And if this is a crime that has been successfully covered up, it needs to appear to be an accident.)  So I'm thinking he's investigating something else.  Something that will turn out to be what lead to the starlet's death.

And maybe, given that the theme is "insiders," the starlet was an outsider who discovered something, or an insider who wanted out -- maybe even someone who fought to become an insider, only to discover something she wanted no part of it.  And she was killed as a part of the cover up.

So she might be the blackmailer after all.

Furthermore, that means our heroine is unwittingly headed down the exact same path.

Now I think I have a story.

It's Never This Easy

I swear to you, none of my other rolls this far have gone this easily.  On the other hand, we haven't done an actual plot yet.  I don't know why the starlet was killed. (I may yet decide that she had an accidental overdose and there is some other non-conspiracy thing going on -- like a rich kid or drunk senator caused an accident.) I don't know what is going on with that tavern, who the people are.  They will be red herrings and helpers.

However, I am glad I changed the game from my first version, and I now hold back on dealing with red herrings and helpers until I get the story concept nailed down.  Creating them can go more smoothly once I know where the holes in the story are.

Other Problems

In the past I've often found I have to tweak the choices to find a story that works for me.  I might have to swap some characters, for instance.

For instance, in "Hours of Need" the villain rolled out as a young woman.  And I kept getting stuck on that. But when I swapped her with another character, that gave me the chance to create the concept about a younger sister with a chiild.  And in the current story I'm working on, "In Flight," I had to dump the title (secrets and journeys) and the theme isn't working out.  (The title words might make a good theme, though.) Also, I think I'm swapping some characters.

That actually happens a lot with a mystery.  It helps to create a twist.  You build a story on one person being the villain, but as you write, you realise this other innocent person also has a motive and could be a great twist.

The changes were good for the story but... with every element I dropped or changed, I did it only after I pulled a story idea together.  I changed them not because they bored me or I didn't like them, but because they got in the way of something good that was taking shape.

Creating More Wheels

One thing that I did with In Flight is make up some mini-wheels to help me move beyond blank spots.  For instance, the hero rolled out as the "Authority Figure - Non-Cop" type -- a guy who gets dragged into the story with her.

That option sounded like a great idea when I put it on the list, but once I was face-to-face with it, I realized that that was a difficult one to make work on a practical level.  But I wanted to make it work, so I had to break out of my "box" in my thinking.

So I broke it down, and came up with a list of kinds of authority figures it could be -- lawyers, trustees, estate managers, bosses -- and rolled a random choice from that. Came up with Boss.  Then, because I still had the issue of how he would be dragged into the story, I broke that down into different kinds of work/romance relationships. (Ones with a vibe I liked.)  He's secretly in love with her, she with him, both secretly with the other, neither notices the other, both hate the other.  Different kinds of bosses.  When I rolled it, I ended up with the kind of boss who barely knows she exists: the suit from the main office.

(I think I'll keep that wheel, by the way. It was a fun way to throw in more variations.)

After I finally decided those things, I was able to start playing with ideas of how he could be dragged into the story, and I decided that it was in his nature to get involved.  My imagination took off, and I realized the guy had a very interesting back story.

Moving from Concept to Story

Right now, I could take the concept of our musicians and cops and cover ups and make it a novelette, or a full novel.  I could make it serious or funny.  Though the hero is supposed to be a mysterious background figure, I could make it very romantic or more a mystery with a romance ending.

It will take another brainstorming session for me to get started.  I wouldn't have to do a whole plot before then...

However, I could also play this into a next game: a Potting Game.  Something like the one Erle Stanley Gardner created.

So over December, I'll be creating a new game, maybe even with Plot Wheels.  I might post one or two interim things in the meantime, but I don't expect to get to plot until January.

In the meantime, a lot of what I'll be doing with plot will come from the Movie-of-the-Week plot structure I talked about this summer.  You can check it out if you want to roll some stories and try outlining a plot.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Story Game Bonus: Theme

This is a bonus post for The Story Game.  It's long, and not fully proofed.  It's just that theme is a really big subject, so I wanted to go into it in more depth. But I also want to finish up the Situation Worksheet before Thanksgiving, so... here goes:

Theme is a very tricky thing -- a very personal thing.  For some people, it's best to not think about it at all and just let your readers discover it.  (This is why I have put the option, in the Story Game, of not using Theme, but using "Subject" or "Prompt" instead.)

Frankly, theme isn't something you impose on a story anyway -- it happens organically, and if you are the sort of person who does think about theme, odds are that you just discover it as you write.

And yet, I have found it incredibly useful in brainstorming.  It can work a lot like a prompt -- you take it up, play with it, if magic happens, you keep it.  If not you adjust it or discard it.  (Which is true of all the elements of this Story Game. We'll talk about that tomorrow when we get to the brainstorming phase.)

What Is Theme?

Theme is the larger subject that a story is about.  It's not a moral.  It's just a personal quality or emotion which the story explores.  In the end, the story may take a stance on it -- and that would be a "moral" -- but the theme is not that stance. It's just the subject of that stance.

It's really hard to write something without a theme.  It just sort of happens.  Usually, though, you can tell a story that has a stronger theme, becuase it ties together in a more satisfying way. Sometimes when the plot itself doesn't hang together too well, but the story seems to work anyway? That's because of theme.

And some genres have specific themes of their own which you write variations into.  Romance is always about finding that "happily ever after." Crime fiction explores justice (or lack thereof).  Within these big themes, the author will have his or her own themes, and a particular series may have it's own theme, and an indivicual story may have it's own variation.

So, for instance, while crime fiction might be about justice, a particular series might be about couples finding their happily-ever-after (mystery/romance), or about a damaged hero struggling to live up to his own standards (many hard-boiled and police procedurals), or about trusting in the genious of a miracle worker (Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, etc.), or it might be about the arrogance of crime (Columbo).  And the individual stories may be about self-sacrifice, or fear, or paying your dues.

And in every case, the theme is also about the opposite.  You can't write about fear without writing about courage.  You can't write about trust without writing about mistrust. (Some people place their trust in Miss Marple, but so many dismiss her as unable to deal with anything serious.)

That's why you shouldn't mistake a theme for a moral. It doesn't work if you limit it to the final lesson.  A theme works best when it's open.  When it's about reflections and shadows.  If your main character is afraid and needs to learn to be brave, it's perfectly okay if there's a subplot where someone is too brave and has to learn to be more cautious.

Just having those two things in a story -- like a mirror image -- creates resonance.  It's like harmony -- two notes that are different and yet they work together.  It doesn't even have to be obvious or overt. You don't have to force it.  Just the fact that you have several people dealing with fear and courage in different ways creates these little notes.

Probably the very best example of using other characters and little subplots for theme is Casablanca.  The theme of Casablanca is survival.  It was made at a time when the world had gone mad, and nobody was really sure any we would survive.  And we see dozens of characters responding in different ways -- some being selfish, some foolish, some brave. 

Casablanca makes a good example of how a story can have both a moral and theme -- and they are not the same: Througout the story, people perish or thrive at random.  People die for doing the right thing and for doing the wrong thing too.  The lesson here isn't about how to survive.  The lesson is that, in a world gone mad, nobody cares about your problems, and maybe you shouldn't either.  You have the option of giving up on survival and just doing the right thing.

It's interesting that the writers and actors and director did not know how this movie was going to end until they wrote the ending.  They had planned four different endings.  But as soon as they filmed the first one, they knew it was right.  And it was right because it gave meaning to the whole story that went before.

That's what theme does -- it ties everything together and gives meaning.

But that's why you can't really impose it, and often have to discvoer it.  (So tomorrow I'm going talk about how that works in the Story Game.)

In the meantime, I'll give you a tip to help you find the theme -- and lesson both -- of a story:

How Does It End?

When I was writing screenplays, I did a "Pitch Festival." That's where you go to an event where there are a whole bunch of execs and agents and such in a room, and you sign up to make 5-10 minute pitch meetings.  The bell rings, you run to your assigned spot, and start pitching, they ask some questions, you answer, then the bell rings again and you run off to the next one.

Some of these execs were very good at pulling they needed out of flustered authors.  One guy finished up each session with one simple question -- he said it was how he know the whole flavor of your story: what is the very last thing that happens, the very last image before the credits roll?

The story I was pitching that day was The Scenic Route -- a story about a pair of directionally challenged robbers who get lost on their getaway.  And when I say lost, I mean really really lost. By the end of the first act, they aren't sure what state they are in.  By the end of the story, they've lost everything - even their cool sunglasses, but they've gained some friends -- something they've never had -- and a kind of family, and the first rudimentary sense of responsiblity.

But they have a long way to go, and the only thing they know how to do is steal, so the end I gave the exec was that they steal a car to take care of their friends, and as they make their getaway, they turn the wrong way.  Ha ha.  Funny ending.

The exec liked it, but didn't ask for the script.

But his question bothered me.  I realized that the ending was wrong.  The whole schtick about making wrong turns isn't a joke.  It's a theme.  The story is, overtly, about characters who struggle to find their way morally as well as directionally.  These guys have no point of reference for either thing, except for each other.  They have no compass.  And that's the theme.  It's not about being lost and making wrong turns. It's about struggling to find your way with out a compass. Because they DO struggle.

Having Luther (who isn't usually the driver, but now he wants to drive because he wants to find his own way) make a wrong turn is not thematic.  It's just random.  Furthermore, because they'd gained some members to the gang who aren't directoinally challenged, they do now have a kind of compass.

So I changed the ending.

Luther does indeed turn right when he's told to turn left, but then we hear the voice of one of his new companions saying "Your other left!"  And we see the car stop and turn around.

Now, when I did that, it wasn't because I had thought of my theme in words.  It was more something I felt.  But feeling it did help me make a right choice.

Themes in The Story Game

Themes are incredibly personal.  I often find other people's theme choices to be incredibly dissatisfying.

Therefore, I recommend that you start your own theme list the way you should collect your own title words.  It can, however help to start with someone else's lists -- to give you an idea of the kind of thing you might use.

When I started this game, I used the Brainstormer randomizer to pick a theme.  Half of their choices don't make sense to me, so I usually keep spinning the wheel until I get something that does.

Here are a few of the words I use myself: Courage, Greed, Mentor/Pupil relationships, Fear, Self-Sacrifice, Indulgence, Growth, Darkness, Fire, Reflection, Twins, Celebration, Exhaustion, Desperation, Survival, Loss, Competition, Secrecy, Taste, Love of Life, Caretaking, Duty, Honor, Dullness, Shyness, Outsiders/Insiders, Barriers, Doorways, Inebriation, Amnesia, Self-Promotion, Self-Sacrifice, Pride, Lust, Steadfastness, Rot, Authority...

Taking the items that speak to you, maybe a few that challenge you, but leave the rest.  Fill it in with your own.

I tend to focus on things that affect the choices a character makes.  Personal qualities, relationships.  However, I sometimes throw in something I see that sparks my imagination. I also like to put in words that have multiple meanings. ("Darkness" in a suspense can mean dark moods, evil motivations, ignorance, and the actual darkness of night or a dungeon.)

In the end, it can be anything that evokes a response in you.  Tweak your list as you go.

Tomorrow we finally Play The GameWe'll put all the elements together and brainstorm a story concept out of it. 

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Artisan Writers - Rewarding Loyal Readers vs. Luring New Ones

This fall I've stumbled across two pricing strategies which are the reverse of the Common Wisdom.  They both make a great deal of sense to me.

The first one makes sense to everyone, actually: And author of a regularly published serial had a particular problem. The serial episodes were a little too short to sell for $2.99 each, but when anything is priced lower than that at Amazon, your royalty is cut in half. Furthermore, customers tend to avoid every price point below 2.99 except 99 cents. So she's making 1/6th of the income on those books at 99 cents than she would at 2.99.

She came up with the idea of pricing the episodes at 99 cents only when they first come out.  Then once there are three episodes out, she collects them into a larger volume, which she can price high enough to get the better royalty. Once the collection is available, she raises the price of those individual episodes to 1.99 -- which is a fair price for the length.

This rewards the loyal readers who buy the episodes as they come out.  It allows new readers to catch up with the whole story at a price that's still a bargain.  And people still have the choice of buying the individual eps if they want to.

Of course, this strategy was design specifically for a serial -- something with frequent new publication and an audience which needs to actually catch up with the story in order to follow it at all.

Then I came across a blog post about reversing the common wisdom in pricing, and I realize it is kind of a variation on this technique.

The Common Wisdom

Traditional publishing has always done something we call "windowing" with prices.  You release something as a high-priced hardback, and maybe even let people pay extra for a special pre-release version.  The idea is to reward those who are willing to pay the most by letting them have the book first.  Then you release lower cost versions later, one at a time, filtering through your audience.

The idea is to get the most money possible out of each price point.  People want to pay the lowest price will have to wait the longest just to be sure that you got more money out of those ahead of them.

The problem with this is that it actually doesn't reward those loyal, eager, first readers -- it punishes them.  It rewards the people who don't care so much about your work.

Which is okay.  I mean this strategy works.  The people most eager and loyal want to support you.  The other folks feel good getting a bargain.

And yet, when readers acknowledge this strategy and talk about it, they often say they feel used by it.  They accept it, but it feels manipulative.

First Book Free

The other common strategy is what my friend calls the "first rock of crack is free" -- the idea that most of your books are at the full price you think is fair, but the first book in a series is free.

The idea here is that you can lure in new readers with a free book.  Once they're hooked they will pay for your other books.  The fact that it's your oldest book makes it a variation on the "windowing" that other publishers do -- except no manipulation where your most eager readers pay more than your new readers.

This strategy rewards those who are willing to experiment.  But it does depend on having a large number of books in a series.  If you're giving your first book away free, permanently, then you need to have enough other books to make up for the income lost.

But the real down side of this strategy is that you are luring people in with your first book (or the first in a series): and your first book is likely to be your worst book.  You'll be more experienced, and have a better idea of what is most fun about your series later on.

Also, this strategy doesn't reward your loyal readers any.  They've already bought and read your first book.

Reverse Windowing

The idea here -- as proposed by Ed Robertson in his blog post -- is that you release every new book at a lower price: a bargain price. Then raise it to the price that you've set for the long term.  This sounds kinda like the "Free First Book" strategy, except with this strategy, it won't be the first book at the lowest price, it will be the latest book. Your first book will be at full price.

There are several reasons why this might be a good idea.  The Ed mentioned that it would give your first couple weeks of sales a bump and work the algorithms, and get you reviews, etc.  And those are good reasons.

However, too me, the very best reasons for doing this are these:

*It rewards your most loyal readers.  They're the ones who will buy right away.  Getting a deal on the book they've been waiting on will only make them happier, and all that much more eager for your next release.  Happiness will make them happier to talk about your book too.  More word-of-mouth. More reviews.

*It lures new readers to your most recent book.  Of all the books you've written, your latest book is the one you wrote with the most experience and understanding. It's likely to be the best book you've written so far.  Furthermore, it's going to be only book of yours that's on the "new books" list.  That old backlist book is not going to get on a "New and Hot Releases" list.  So why not have an alluring price on the book for the short time it's got that exposure?  Readers who look closer will notice that the price is discounted over the past books.

Plus you can combine this with your "Free First Book" strategy!

Your latest book is discounted, and it gets attention.  The new customer looks for your first book, and, hey, it's free! (Or also discounted.)  So they buy it.  Or maybe they buy both -- especially if they believe that your latest book is on special.

Loyal Readers Vs. New Readers

Word of mouth is important for all writers, but I think it's especially important for the artisan writer, and extra-especially for those who really are taking a path less traveled.  Reader loyalty and enthusiasm is something you have to build over time.

The best way to build it is to produce books they love on a regular schedule, but for some of us, our imaginations don't cooperate with that.  So it's best to reward them in every way you can.

This is one of the reasons I put off my experiment in higher prices. I'm waiting until I have enough books in a series so that I can use this "lower price on latest book" to reward my existing readers.  When I have that, I will raise the prices on my backlist -- the books they've already read.

Now, I can potentially use the strategy that serial writer uses -- raising the prices on short individual works after they are made available in a bundle for a bargain price.  You don't have to have a whole serial for that.  One more Mick and Casey novelette and I can bundle the trilogy.

I think this is also something to consider for those authors who have been selling at super low prices for a long time, and maybe want to start raising prices: both of those strategies are a good way to change your prices without punishing your customers or creating sticker shock.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Update - Using Art To Entice Readers

This week has been full of ups and downs on the personal front, but lots of creative stuff going on.  I'm still mostly on a visual kick, which I'll talk about below.  But first, what's coming up:

This week on the blog,

Monday: Rewarding Loyal Readers vs. Luring New Ones. I'll talk about a pricing strategy which flies in the face of common wisdom, but it sure makes a lot of sense to me -- at least in some circumstances.  I think it particularly makes sense for less commercial writers.

Thursday: A Bonus Story Game Post: Theme and Subject. This will be relatively short, but I want to pay full attention to this before I get to "putting it all together" with the Friday post. 

Friday, The Story Game: Putting it All Together.  We'll put all the pieces of the Situation Worksheet together, and talk about brainstorming from it.

In the meantime, an epiphany about art and images and feeding the readers....

Enticing Readers With Art

I'm finally getting my drawing skills back to the point where I feel I can do some illustration.  (What you've mostly seen from me, other than the occasional photo replication, is design, not illustration.)  I have a long way to go before I get where I want to be, but I have reached my minimum requirements.  Call it the "pre-professional" level; a level at which I feel comfortable showing off, but not ready to use my illustration skills in creating book covers or the like.

What I need to get to the next level is lots and lots of practice.

AND... I had an interesting epiphany on Twitter the other day.

I've noticed that a lot of people have taken to putting quotes on images and tweeting those images lately. Usually this is a picture and quote from some wise historical figure, a quote from a comedian, or a more outspoken political figure, or a mouthy cat.  They do this because people like pictures, but also because they aren't limited to 140 characters when it's on a picture.

The other thing that has been on my mind is that I've wanted to do more artwork for Twitter and Tumblr in general. Images are popular on both services and I'd like to start posting some illustrations there.

And, I mean, those poor writers who aren't artists can only post quotes from their stories, and they're limited to 140 characters or an image full of text.... wait.  Oh!

Then it hit me: I could create illustrations as if for the book, but post them with quotes.  Best of both worlds!

I personally really really like this idea, in spite of the fact that it is incredibly labor-intensive and not likely to gain me much.  However what it will gain me is something I was going for anyway: improved illustration skills.  And it might get people interested in my stories.

I've started already with The Man Who Did Too Much.  Here is a mostly finished one from the opening page. (It doesn't really look like George as I imagine him -- but it doesn't NOT look like George either.)  

Now here is the interesting thing: MW is close to the least suitable subjects for illustration.  It's a mystery, and though there is some action, it mostly involves static scenes of people talking and thinking.

So why did I start with it?

It's the quotes.

If the purpose is to illustrate the quotes (as opposed to having illustrations in a book), then this book immediately had a bunch of things that came to mind.  It can also be hard to quickly communicate the tone of this book.  With these characters, it's much more fun to show than tell.

So I've come to the conclusion that this is why all those old-time books had so many illustrations of people standing around and talking: they were there for the quotes that appeared with the illustrations.

And so often, that's what works about a great cartoon too: the image and the words come together and make something greater than each are separately.

I didn't quite fully realize that at first, though, and I went through the book, picking out sufficiently visual moments to illustrate -- and I found at least two per chapters.  Good.  But when I went hunting for quotes... I found even more.

The problem?  There are 32 chapters in that book.  With an average of three illos I want to do for each of them, that's almost 100 pictures.  Pictures which take hours to do.  And as I am practicing and learning, I'd like to do some of them over in a couple of different styles.  Futhermore, I would like to do illos for my other books too.  Also, I'd like to WRITE some other books.

This is looking less and less like a good idea.

So, I'm all for it!

(At least until I get tired of it.  We're chasing enthusiasm, after all.)

An unfinished sketch from the end of Chapter 1.

The goal for now is to write during the day, when I'm at my standing desk and it's harder to draw.  But then in the evening, I will put on some music or audio books or TV shows and start drawing, and draw until I'm bleery-eyed.

When the bloom is off the rose on doing that, I'm going to start putting 15-minute writing sprints in between drawing sessions.  Also, I'll be looking to find a stand up drafting desk that will work for digital art. (Need a place to put the small laptop that doesn't put the screen too far away, while still letting the tablet sit on a slanted surface at the right height.)

The creative goals for this Illustration Project are as follows:

*Use The Man Who Did Too Much to practice creating and rendering characters in the classic illustration style: four more elaborate illustrations (perhaps in color) as in the old days when there were four "plates" in an illustrated book; and 12-32 ink and wash or pencil drawings, which would be like the illos you find at the heads of chapters or embedded in the text.

*Also do some more abstract decorative style images -- for that or other books -- of the sort you might find in illustrated caps, or in the footer or header of any chapter.

*Since I plan to layout paper copies of my other books over summer, I have set the beginning of June 2014 as the time to assess whether I am ready to incorporate any of this into paper books.  And which books and how many illos and what type.

And I hope that before then I will have pushed my skills to the point where I can make use of them in cover design.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Story Game: Titles and Title Words

Just to review what we're doing with these Friday Story Game postings: We're creating a game for brainstorming a pretty detailed story idea and plot.  It's actually a set of little games or exercises which can be used together or separately.  The first step is to create the game itself to suit the kind of story you want to tell.

We're creating a specific kind of "Woman in Jeopardy" type Romantic Suspense story as an example.  You can have fun with this game as is, or adapt it to suit whatever kind of story you want to tell.

Last week we talked about the Villain and the Crime that drives the story -- which finishes up our Character Structure.  Now we're going to talk about a couple of things that will tie the various ideas together -- in particular, the Title.

What's In A Name?

A title can just be a tag we put on a story to identify it.  And sometimes we don't name a story until last -- after it's written and we've discovered what the story is like.  And that's fine.  As far as this Story Game is concerned, we're coming up with a working title, or even just title words, to help with the idea generation, but the final title will probably change.

All the same: In my opinion, title is the single most important element of a story.

It's more important than the cover.  More important than the first line.

Actually, the title IS the first line.

It's the very first text anyone sees of the story. And it may be the first or only thing they will see of the story.  Think about it: when people talk about the book to their friends, they don't draw a picture of the cover.  On a blog or a forum, most of the time they'll only mention title and author.  Only when they are writing more formally do they go to the trouble to post a cover.

People say the cover is the thing that gets people to look at the blurb, but very often the title is the thing that gets them to look at the cover.

And even when you see the cover of a book, the most prominent thing (especially at thumbnail size) is usually... the title.

Titles Can Sell a Story

Sometimes a spectacular title will sell the book all by itself.  I often like to say that my thriller play, Slayer of Clocks, played to sold out audiences at the Discovering New Mysteries drama festival... but I'll be honest, the reason they were sold out had nothing to do with how good it was.

When they reserved their tickets, the attendees knew nothing about my play except the title.  It had the same cast as all the other radio dramas at the festival, so it wasn't like there was a star attracting them.  And my name meant nothing at all to them.  There was no preview, no word-of-mouth.  No cover or poster.  Just a title.

But it was a cool title. Slayer of Clocks.

This title refers to the way the antagonist sarcastically signs his name. (People think he's crazy ever since his boss found him crouched in his driveway, in a dirty bathrobe, whaling away at a clock with a hammer.  It was just therapy, but he will never live it down, so he plays to it.)

In this case, the title didn't come before the story: I came up with Milo Banks and his time-killing activities before I came up with the title.  (You could say he came up with the title for me.)  If I'd come up with the title first, I doubt if it would have lead to Milo -- but I think it would have lead to an interesting story. 

A cool title raises my interest as a writer the same way it raises the interest of the reader -- and so starting with a title is a way to make sure we pay off on that anticipation.

Another reason I think titles are so important for selling a story: I've noticed a pattern in the successful writers who particularly adhere to the adage "the best promotion or one book is another book" tend to be good at titles.  In particular I'm talking about those who don't stick to one genre and don't market or promote -- they just write and write and write.  These authors tend to be good at titles.

And I've noticed that those who make a living at short fiction (aside from erotica writers) tend to be those who write magnificent titles.

This makes complete sense: Glance down a page of tweets or a list of books or any page of text, and you'll find that an interesting, provocative or evocative title will grab your attention.  It doesn't just work for blog posts. It works for books too.

So learning to create a great title is a really important skill.  If you don't play any other part of this game, playing games with titles will be useful to you.  Make it a hobby.  Make it a passion.  Get good at it.

Playing the Title Game

There are lots of games and exercises you can do with titles, but here are three common ones:

1.) Half-Titles: Dean Wesley Smith -- one of those people who does well by just writing stories -- often generates his stories from titles. He has lists of "half-titles" he's gleaned from pulp magazines and he puts two halves together to make a new whole.  Then writes a story to suit the title.

2.) Chapter Titles: on a similar note, I like to collect the Table of Contents of old books from Project Gutenberg.  These titles were written as teasers to keep people reading their way through the story, but they can also make provocative titles for a full story.  Sometimes they're weird or old-fashioned, sometimes ordinary but still evocative:  "Beggars Under the Bush" "Uncle Dick's Plan" "Picq Plays the Hero" "A Whisper From Afar" "A Strange Teasure" "The Warning"

Someday I want to take one of these old books, and write a flash or microfiction story to suit each title in the table of contents -- and publish them as a collection.

3.) Random Words:  Some people will use a dictionary or a book or some online "word generator" to come up with a couple of random words.  This often works better as a writing prompt  than as a title generator.  I mean, if the words are truly random, they are often boring.

But the concept is good, and since this Friday Story Game is about random choices, I have come up with an enhanced version of this random words game to use with The Situation Worksheet.

And it's a method I recommend you use for your real writing and titles.  But it takes a little work:

Your Personal Word Collection

Start collecting evocative words.  I look anywhere for them, but the best place to start is with lists of your favorite books.  And if you want to write commercial fiction in a particular genre, start with the best seller lists for that genre.

But go further than that.  You want your title to stand out.  You want your title to evoke something curious.  So collect some from other sources -- titles of other genres, old books, poems, non-fiction.  I've even collected them from my Twitter feed. (I just scanned through what was currently on my screen and grabbed up any words or phrases that sounded interesting.)

Collect these words and phrases, and keep them in a numbered list.  I keep them in a spread sheet so I can sort them alphabetically -- and thereby spot any duplicates.  (I have over a thousand.)  The row numbers work just fine for numbering the list, so I can use a random number generator to pick them at random.

Also, one more thing to do while you're collecting the words: Pay attention to patterns.  Are one-word titles in vogue with your genre right now?  Names, phrases, adjectives, verbs, nouns.  Pay attention to what sounds like a title in your genre.

Creating A Title For the Game

As I said above, the title I generate in the game isn't necessarily the title I'll end up with.  However, I think it's worth putting in a  little extra effort here -- if only to practice coming up with great titles.

For this game, randomly select ten words from your word list. Of these ten, you'll find that some of them are boring or don't match up in any interesting way with some of the things you rolled for the characters. But you should be able to choose a couple of words that evoke the right feeling.

Choose three (even if there aren't three good prospects -- pick the three best).  You can mess around with them. Change the tense and such. ("Fly" can by "Flying" or "Flyer" for instance -- but try to come up with something good for the original form of the word.)

Sit down and brainstorm as many variations as you can think of with the words individually or together.  Say your words were "fly," "dark" and "flame."

You'd start writing down: Flying though Darkness; Dark Flyer; Flame Flyer; Flight of Fire; Dark Flames; Fly to the Light; Fly in the Flames; etc.

You might even find yourself going a bit afield of the words -- that's okay.  Just keep pushing it.  Come up with a page of ideas.  If everything seems boring or doesn't evoke the feel you want, pull in one of the other words of the ten you rolled.

And if you just don't come up with anything that works, don't sweat it.  Just put in the three original words in the slot for "title" and move on to the brainstorming phase.  You can change the title, or you might find that the words help you form a story which has a more obvious title.

Sometimes I'll play a Title Generation Game outside of this bigger story game. If I do that, I'll only pick 1-3 words, and I have to stick with them.  And I'll see how far I can push it.  Come up with a crazy number of titles. Then when I'm done, I'll keep the best ones, and throw the rest away.

Next Week - Theme and Subject

These are the last items for the Situation Worksheet.  Then we'll take a break for Thanksgiving Weekend, but during December I'll talk about putting it all together -- maybe talk about the story "In Flight" that I'm writing from the game -- and maybe have a look at the Character structure of some Audrey Hepburn movies (Wait Until Dark and Charade).

Then in January, we'll talk about actual plotting games.

See you in the funny papers.

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