Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Shape of Things to Come

To visit other IWSG postings, click here
One of the things we anguish over whenever we start a new novel is finding the right shape to tell our story. It's more than simply following the structure of a plot that develops rising action, builds toward an irresistible climax, and ends with satisfying resolution. The tale's got to unfold inside a shape that's organic, and one that fits the characters we want to talk about.

And therein lies the rub.
 * * *
First, though, this is the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop, hosted by our incomparable Ninja Captain, Alex J. Cavanaugh (thank ye, Cap'n!), postings shared on the first Wednesday of every month by a host of conspiratorial scribblers:

"Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!"

* * *
Now back to the promised topic:

The Shape of Things to Come

[A solo post by Mark]

When I teach undergrad fiction writing, which focuses on short forms from 100 to 7,500 words, I tell my students they need to think about the best shape for their stories, an initial form that can help guide them in deciding what their story needs to accomplish -- and when to stop. If they can figure out the right shape, the story itself can lead them along a trail of intrinsic breadcrumbs all the way to the end.

After all, we know there are only a limited number of plots (Georges Polti declared back in 1895 there are
only 36 "dramatic situations," and he wasn't far off the mark -- themes like "pursuit," "revolt," or "abduction"). And they've all been told over and over again. What makes them fresh, of course, is our own individual voices, how we reinvigorate the telling of those archetypal human themes.

But the shape I'm talking about is altogether different. One little gem I point my students to is Jerome Stern's book, Making Shapely Fiction, which offers advice on sculpting fiction into shapes like Visitation (where the main character arrives at a new setting) or Juggling (where the main character is struggling with conflicting personal agendas), or Iceberg (where the main character thinks or believes one thing but does another).

For example, Kym and I decided to use Visitation as the shape to unfold the story of Little Greed Men, where our protag, conman Billy Noble, arrives in Silverville and tries to cash in on a local UFO craze. Following the principles of a visitation -- where everything is new and unexpected for the main character -- helped guide us toward the right kinds of complications and, eventually, the right kind of resolution.

But shapes come in lots of different flavors. When it came time to craft the shape for the second book in the series, All Plucked Up, we decided to use an entirely different tack -- the Hero's Journey. In our version, that journey described protag Pleasance Pantiwicke and her descent into the dark (but still funny) "underworld" of black marketeering, only to have her world turned upside down and inside out before she figures out how to climb out of the abyss and triumph in the end like a hero.

And not wanting to tell the same song with a different verse, we opted for an entirely different "shape" when we crafted the third book in the series, The Magicke Outhouse. For this one, we decided to follow the Blake Snyder's advice in Save the Cat, which is really a blueprint for ensuring that screenplays don't sag in the middle. Our goal became one of shaping a story of cascading and entangling events that rushed into a series of irreversible consequences -- or so it seems to the characters (and the readers, we hope). Not so, of course.

It was still a kind of shape, one that told us when to move to shut up and move on.

What we've discovered is that it's not enough to have a good story, good characters, or even a good plot. The way we shape those elements into a good read has a lot to do with how we shape the reading experience. 

And that all starts with how we think about shape and stories as writers.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

IWSG - The Indy Publishing Revolution

To visit other IWSG postings, click here
Maybe we just weren't listening at the time, but we don't recall anybody telling us that the hardest part of being authors wasn't writing the book, and not even finding a publisher (which are both hard), but in promoting the thing once it hits the streets!

But all the promotion in the world won't keep readers from jilting you if you haven't first done your "homework."

 * * *
First, though, this is the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop, hosted by our incomparable Ninja Captain, Alex J. Cavanaugh (thanks, Cap'n!), postings shared on the first Wednesday of every month by a host of conspiratorial scribblers:

"Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!"

 * * *
Now back to the promised topic:

The Indy Publishing Revolution

We've been lucky enough to develop good relationships with several small presses who've published our books, and we're very grateful for this. But we've also experimented with the vibrant and intriguing world of independent publishing. (Actually, the author work load has been very similar -- more on that later).

We also try to do our part by supporting the initiatives of both author-friends and strangers who bravely stride into the ranks of the Indy publishing revolution: We buy works by new authors and spread the word about those books we like.

The democratizing venues now available to aspiring and established authors are an exciting prospect, and ones that avoid traditional gatekeepers who, we suspect, may not always be in touch with readers' tastes. This trend seems more prevalent in the larger houses (Is it still the Big Six? Or is it now the Big Five, Four, Three, Two, One... countdown?), which select marketable titles based on the corporate modeling of rear-view book sales.

That's why we love small presses, where editors still love books and are more willing to take a chance on a new idea or a new story twist. The drawback, of course, is that more promotional work falls to the author represented by such smaller houses.

In fact, that extra work seems only a half-stride away from venturing into independent publishing since it's not that much more promotions work. Indy publishers who take their stories directly to the reading market can keep a bigger cut of the proceeds for all their efforts. And let's face it, writing is one part passion, one part craft, and one part business -- if you want to succeed.

However, in the past year, we've taken a step back from our initial reading enthusiasm for many indy publishers, reassessing our optimism for one reason:  
Too many writers are rushing to print before their books are ready.

Are there good Indy authors out there? Of course. But we've become more gun shy of late and now hesitate to click the download until we've researched the reader reviews (including the ratings-stingy two- and three-star critics). Or we might try a sample before we buy. And it's not so much a matter of price as it is a matter of our time and our reading tolerance.

Hey, we're authors, too, and we want our peers to succeed.

We all share a passion for words and  well-turned phrases. But we also expect other authors to apply the same serious rules of engagement, homing their craft, using a spell-checker, and weeding out those typos and hard-to-read grammatical errors.

After all, poor writing reflects on all authors -- Indy or otherwise. And when we read books that sling out  ideas (even good ones) with no attention to the tools of the trade, it makes us cringe.

Worse, it makes us hesitate to buy.

We suspect we're not alone in this sentiment, since sloppy writing and editing hurts everybody's image, but especially this newest trend in publishing. If that means hiring a copyeditor or a book doctor, then do it. You can always factor it into your production costs.

So Indy friends, please, please take the time to get it right before you offer your books to potential fans out there. Make sure we'll want to finish not only your first book but all the ones that come after that first one.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Go ahead - judge that book by its cover!



[Another solo post by Kym]

We recently attended a community-wide signing, where a number of authors displayed their books along a row of tables. Writers, of course, sat behind the tables, waiting for potential buyers to approach and pull out their wallets. Since Mark and I write as a team, I left the entrepreneurial details to him and wandered around browsing the merchandise. Didn’t take me long to realize whose covers were successful by the reaction of the customers. Finally, I sauntered over to our corner of the building just in time to observe a young father reaching for one of our books, Little Greed Men. He studied the intrusive and slightly caustic alien face monopolizing the cover. Then he turned it over and read the reviews.

“I like this. It’s funny.”

Success! Our potential buyer had grasped the meaning immediately – that our novel consisted of an irreverent comedy. He looked at the cover, walked away and, as we were getting up to leave, he returned to pick it up and read the back cover more closely. With two toddlers in tow, he told me he was going to go get his wife's wallet and come back to buy it – hopefully he did after we left, but who knows?

At another signing/reading, a woman purchased the second book of our series, one graced with an “in your face” chicken against a lovely mountain backdrop. I asked why she chose book two instead of book one. Her answer: “I don’t know. The cover just grabbed me.”

What pleased me about these two recent incidents was the attention the covers garnered. Each caught the eye, and both left no mistake about the contents of the pages. It’s what I strived to do when I created them – hinting at the essence without trying to tell too much of the story in images.

This becomes particularly vital if you intend to market your book to e-readers. Keep in mind, what might look good on a full-size paperback could be completely lost on the tiny thumbnails posted on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Simple and strong images offer insight and texture to the story and will help readers recognize the genre they are about to buy. 

Not long ago, I created a cover for a historical biography. With the topic already familiar, my gut instinctgravitated toward sepia colors and torn wallpaper, but the publisher envisioned different elements. His idea turned out lovely, but to me, the cover just didn’t represent the contents. I sent him a second option – sepia colors and torn wallpaper. In the end, we compromised on our two ideas until we were both happy with the results.

Choosing a design for your book jacket may not be an option if you’ve sold your work to a publishing house, although some may be open to your ideas. For those who choose to self-publish, shop around for a designer who not only has experience in the field, but also someone you can work with comfortably when making revisions. For me, reading a synopsis helps me to “feel” the heart of the story, which in turn, translates into a narrative image.

For you, ending up with a great cover design translates into sales. Forget that your grandma told you not to judge a book by its cover. She was wrong when it comes to the literary world.

Feel free to stop by our website, writeinthethick.com, to see a few sample covers.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Dressing for Success -- choosing the right cover design for your book





[A solo post by Kym]

Whether you like it or not, strangers judge you all the time by your outward appearance. But does the same hold true for your book?

Apparently so. 

Let’s look at some of the numbers published from a 2010 survey. Verso Advertising found that 28 percent of Americans average more than five hours a week reading. More than half of those are females. About 62.4 million of us are considered “avid” readers who each buy more than ten books a year. Nearly one-fourth of those base their purchases on cover alone. 

Get the message? No matter what kind of dazzling words fill your pages, it’s essential your novel be dressed for success, whether you target print or e-reader audiences. Particularly if you’re a new author and find yourself short on spectacular reviews. Since our brains almost instantly process images and assign them meaning, the art on your jacket is the first impetus to picking it up and scanning the teaser blurb.

And you want that jacket to scream, “Pick me!”

Your cover makes a first impression on a reader. It not only conveys content, but also your style of writing. In a bookstore (real or online), customers have a huge selection of books to choose from. It helps if yours stands out from the crowd. The better the design, the more credibility you have as a writer. That said, you might take a psychological approach before you decide on its appearance. What type of audience will you try to reach? If it’s young adult, go with a jacket appealing to that market share. If you hope to target romance readers, well, you know the type of hunky guys and fem fatales who attract that kind of attention.

Give font some consideration, too. It should mesh with the overall design and your story. When I worked with author Bob Puglisi for his novel Railway Avenue, he explained that his story involves a murder but also leaves the reader with a sense of nostalgia. We hammered back and forth with possible design elements to tie them together. We finally settled on an old torn photograph and blood splatters. I chose Tosca Zero as the font because it complemented the theme and looked like scratched-in words against a concrete wall background.

Spines generally use the same font as the title on the cover. A nice touch is bleeding the art from the front of the book around on the spine and, if possible onto the back. Sometimes reviews, story summary and author bio prevent that if the art won’t allow easy visibility. In those cases, most designers will choose something that carries through with the theme, or they will simply use a solid color.

Cramming in loads of imagery can backfire. Too much can give your reader expectations the book can never live up to. A well-crafted jacket only hints at story rather than tells the whole tale. 

Getting it right is a huge task, but more on this next time.

Feel free to stop by our website, writeinthethick.com, to see other sample covers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Silverville's answer to the TARDIS, and IWSG

We have a two-part posting this time -- a bit of an homage to the 50th Anniversary for the BBC's Doctor Who series, and also our offering this month to the ongoing conversations in Cap'n Alex's marvelous "Insecure Writers Support Group" blog hop.

Silverville's Answer to the TARDIS

We couldn't help but notice this past week, when we watched the 50th Anniversary episode of Doctor Who, the uncanny resemblance of the TARDIS to our own Magicke Outhouse!

Both have roughly the same dimensions, both allow respective occupants to travel through space and time, and both result in a virtually endless array of unexpected encounters. From our side of the door, we suppose we shouldn't find these parallels all that surprising since the underlying principle of Silverville's world is synchonicitous meaningful coincidences. Might as well embrace it on and off the page.

What does surprise us is that, while we were immediately wary of avoiding parallels to the stateside early 90s television series, Quantum Leap, we hadn't noticed the obvious parallels of our mode of transport to The Doctor's -- and that's even allowing for the fact that we're devoted Whovians.

But guess we should clarify that last bold statement -- we've been fickle viewers of the show for years, but only devotees since Steven Moffat became showrunner/head writer. (We've been fans of his ever since his work on the earlier BBC rom-com series Couplings in the early 2000s.) Moffat's flair for story, character, and dialog are amazing, and his larger series story arcs are greenly enviable. Seldom predictable and often baffling for the first half of an episode, his Time Lord creations honor the traditions and mythologies of the earlier incarnations of the series while still offering decidedly 21st Century tales of his own.

And here's an awful confession that will likely risk the ire of most other Whovians: We never cared for the Daleks or the Cybermen. We know, we know -- artifacts of decades gone by (and perhaps earlier, cheaper budgets). But the more recent foes embodied in The Silence and (shudder) the Weeping Angels have been truly archetypal and creepy. Love them! And we love Doctor No. Eleven. Matt Smith's interpretation has been delightful, and his companions have added a dimension seldom (if ever?) rivaled by earlier versions of the series.

The one thing we have emulated from Moffat's Dr. Who of series five through seven (so far) -- albeit unconsciously, we hope -- for our own The Magicke Outhouse is that we didn't really want the story to be about time travel. That was only the premise to launch into a story in its own right. In our case, it's more about a group of entrepreneurs who try to capitalize on a technology they little understand rather than time travel per se. Big, big mistake on the part of our characters -- and a delight to us when we wrote the book.

We guess we've really been fans of the Eleventh Doctor's series, and we'll certainly give Moffat a chance next season, but we're already mourning the loss of Smith. But wow, what a marvelous three-series story arc.

Kudos, kudos.

The Other Side of the Mountain

To visit other IWSG postings, click here
Maybe we just weren't listening at the time, but we don't recall anybody telling us that the hardest part of being authors wasn't writing the book, and not even finding a publisher (which are both hard), but in promoting the thing once it hits the streets!
 * * *
But first, this is the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop, hosted by our incomparable Ninja Captain, Alex J. Cavanaugh (thanks, Cap'n!), postings shared on the first Wednesday of every month by a host of conspiratorial scribblers:

"Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!"

 * * *
We're in the middle of The Silverille Magicke Tour right now, offering a combination of ca. 20 real and virtual tour stops along the way between now and this spring. And our sponsors and hosts have and continue to be supportive and generous to us. (THANK YOU ALL!)

But the time commitment to keep our writing darlings on track -- sheesh! Don't get us wrong: This is a great problem to have, and we wish it on every aspiring and established author. But now that Write in the Thick of Things has six books on the ground and deadlines for two (maybe three...) on the way in the next couple of years, we've discovered that each book already on the shelves still clamors for its piece of the promotion pie ("Don't you love us anymore?" "When is it my turn?" etc.,  etc., etc., like baby birds with their mouths wide open and constantly screeching).

With bookings for readings and media kits and press releases and blog posts and Facebook updates and Twitter tweats and telephone queries and e-mail blasts and newsletters and, oh yeah, fulltime jobs -- Well! It's hard to find time to write something creative along the way. Okay, we suppose we did write 75,000 creative words last year, but we also wrote 25,000 promotional words.

The skinny: It's time consuming once a book gets into print. And not that we don't have a handle on time-management skills -- that's why we call our writing enterprise Write in the Thick of Things.

 Again, it's not that we're complaining about the success we've had, but it does seem a bit overwhelming at times.







Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why the obsession with time travel stories?

We admit it -- we're both sluts for time-travel stories.

It probably started with the old 1960 movie version of The Time Machine, based on H.G. Wells's novel. As little kids, our imaginations surrendered into the futurescape struggle between the Eloi and the Morlocks. And our obsession only intensified through the years by scenes from episodes of  Dr. Who, by the entire  Terminator franchise, by 12 Monkies, Donnie Darko, Source Code, Midnight in Paris and, yes, even by Hot Tub Time Machine.

If it's got time travel, we can't resist.

And that's not even mentioning the marvelous series of books by our friend Connie Willis -- To say Nothing of the Dog, The Doomsday Book, Black Out, and All Clear. We equally love the intellectual conundrums of Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe and the page-turning suspense of Stephen King's 11/22/63.

We outed our obsession in two of our novels this past year -- Mark's Strange Attractors: A Story About Roswell and our just-released co-written third book in the Silverville Saga Series, The Magicke Outhouse.

Funny how different they turned out.

Both  revel in conundrums and paradoxes, and both play the "What If?" game of confronting knowledge from both past and future that influences the present. But that's where the similarity of themes pretty much ends.

The Magicke Outhouse is comedy (the mixture of Kym and Mark's brains always tends to follow that path). And the story circumvents all the dither of physics and science by making the "time machine" a psychic experience -- an uncoupling of body and consciousness brought about by a combination of supercharged, intersecting ley lines and a whiff of mysterious fungi brewing from the cauldron (or maybe we should say, bowels) of a humble outhouse privy.

With a premise like that, the only "plausible" direction for a storyline is funny. No problem there. Our hapless characters stumble into experiences in Ancient Egypt, Puritan New England, the Wild West, and Medieval Germany, and with nary more than a backside splinter while characters sit perched atop the one-holer. Well, except for the clients who don't make it back alive. But c'mon, there are kinks in every new enterprise. It's not like the operators of Ka Catchers wouldn't refund the cost of the trip if those clients hadn't returned as near zombies.


On the other end of the spectrum is Mark's hard-science time-travel story, Strange Attractors. [Kym's aside: Mark did way too much research into Quantum Physics and Special Relativity for that project. Lighten up, for chrissakes!] This story braids threads of causality into a tale where the future influences the past and creates the present.

But at least it has a creepy little kid, a government conspiracy gone awry, and a neurotic but likeable protagonist who's trying, with the help of her shrink, to make things right in all three time-frames.

What both stories also have in common is a twist at the end that makes you think. If The Magicke Outhouse invites you to enjoy the ride and laugh all along the way to the surprise ending, Strange Attractors invites you to second-guess how Fractal Geometry, Jungian archetypes, Japanese Oragami, and the mystery of the Roswell Crash all fit together by the final page.

For us, both books were a way to indulge our ongoing fascination (now there's a more polite word for "obsession") for all things time travel.

And we're sure we're not the only ones. Who else out there loves time travel? And what are your fave stories in this ilk? We'd love to know.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THE MAGICKE OUTHOUSE -- loosed upon the world! (and acknowledgements)

Seems like it's been a long time coming, but The Magicke Outhouse (Silverville Saga, #3) has officially hit the streets today.

It's available on Amazon in paperback and e-reader formats, at Barnes & Noble, from Raspberry Creek Books, and shipping to an expanding array of bookstores starting this week.

And don't forget to sign up for the Goodreads Giveaway, ending on Nov. 25! (Enter in the right-hand column next to this post on our blog, or click here.)

Upcoming Events

We're also featured at three blog sites this week and giving three readings in the region during the first two weeks of December.

Here's the itinerary for spots we're visiting over the next four weeks (click here for the full itinerary):
  • Dec. 5, 6:30 p.m. -- The Book Haven, 135 F Street, Salida, CO, United States 81201
  • Dec. 6, 5 p.m. --  The Book Worm, 211 N Main St, Gunnison, CO, United States 81230-2401
  • Dec. 11, 5:30 p.m. -- Savage Library West Wing, 600 N. Adams St, Gunnison, CO, United States 81231

Get a free "Breakfast" (autographed bookplate, that is)

For those who attend f2f readings, we'll be providing bookplates featuring "autographs" by Breakfast, the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig who was the inspiration for the character by the same name in the story.

Can't make one of these or future readings? No worries. Pick up a copy of the book, and we'd be happy to send you the bookplate. Just e-mail us at writeinthethick@gmail.com.

If you're long-distance, you can pick up a copy at one of these sites right now:
Amazon
Barnes & Nobe
Raspberry Creek Books

With a little help...

...from our friends.

The authors wish to recognize several individuals who have contributed to the final version of this novel. We want to thank Alex J. Cavanaugh, Charlie Craig, and Stacia Deutsch – all authors whose work we admire and on whom we relied for thoughtful comments. A special thanks to Julie Leuk, T.L. Livermore, and Zac Thompson, who each agreed to read earlier drafts of the novel and offered insightful suggestions to strengthen the story’s character development and overarching continuity. And finally, our warm thanks to Larry Meredith and the folks at Raspberry Creek Books, who make it possible for us to share the continuing stories of the Silverville Saga.

Thanks, all!
Kym-n-Mark