Monday, August 25, 2014

Write in the Thick takes on the X-Files

Our lives are starting to feel like episodes of the X-Files -- minus the guns.

It all started with our investigations into UFOs as research for the first book in the Silverville Saga, Little Greed Men. Like any serious writers, we jumped into that research with a vengeance, taking the training and becoming field investigators for MUFON to see firsthand what motivates people to believe.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

It quickly became apparent that the roles we assumed even mimicked Mulder and Scully. Mark definitely fit the bill for an "I Want to Believe" investigator, while Kym maintained the distance of a rational skeptic. In the 35 or so field investigations we've now conducted, we've come across our share of the inexplicable as well as the expected stonewalling by assorted government officials (who were nonetheless polite if not exactly helpful, we might add).

But we've also we've been able to determine less-than-extraterrestrial solutions for most of the sightings and encounters we looked into: weather balloons, mis-ID'd stars or meteors, sightings of the International Space Station, etc. Definitely the sorts of explanations that wouldn't have made for compelling X-Files episodes.

Over the past couple of years, we've nonetheless interviewed folks who make extraordinary claims and even some who produce intriguing (though not conclusive) evidence for events that defy rationale explanation.

All of these activities have tended to move Mark closer toward Scully and Kym not as far from Mulder . Let's just say we're now both optimistic skeptics.

So it comes as little surprise to us that our latest writing project, which is all about hauntings, has plunged us into a whole other realm of the paranormal. It began as research into the fourth book for the Silverville Saga series, but now it's taken on a life of its own, and its own "nonfiction" book.

And we feel like we're back in the X-Files once again.

We've decided to use our blog for this WIP to report excerpts from our findings and experiences as we research and investigate. Why not share the fun and the perplexing?

Stay tuned ...

[cue X-Files theme song and fade]

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Our newest book project, a paranormal "nonfiction"

We used to be more skeptical about the supernatural -- at least, we were before we lived in a haunted house for nine years. Because we can't explain the many creepy events that occurred in that old two-story log cabin, our time there managed to make us a bit more open-minded to paranormal possibilities.

It's also the reason we agreed to make our next book a sort of "nonfiction" for our publisher, Raspberry Creek Books.

We were having dinner with press owner Larry Meredith and his wife Alice last fall, and conversation naturally turned to the paranormal since our whole Silverville Saga series is paranormal fantasy. It took a couple glasses of wine before we confessed our experiences with the ghost who inhabited our former home, and we mentioned we'd always planned to write a book about such encounters (well, maybe others' rather than our own) but just hadn't gotten around to it.

A week later, Larry contacted us with a proposition we change gears and write that book for his press. Writerly sluts that we are, of course we said yes.

The book we decided on is a travelogue of haunted hotels in Western Colorado. And we just conducted our first on-site investigation and "stake-out."

After all, we've been both free-lance and staff journalists for years. Plus we'd received additional forensic training when we became field investigators for MUFON (another story altogether). So here was a chance to apply our trade craft to a whole other realm, so to speak. First, we spent weeks researching locales in the region with a history of anomalous incidents and developed a list of candidates for the project. Then we narrowed it down to 13 (of course) sites we wanted to visit. Finally, we started making contacts and setting up appointments.

Last weekend, we finally started the field research, visiting our first haunted hotel, the hundred-year-old Bross Hotel, Bed and Breakfast in Paonia, which is about three hours away.

We showed up with an assortment of recorders, still cameras, videocams, EM meters and, something new, our "spirit box." (The theory is that ghosts can use words transmitted over the airways, and the spirit box continuously scans frequencies to record and capture random words that are manipulated by the other-worldly as a means of communication. What a great toy -- er, tool.)

We conducted interviews (with the Innkeeper as well as purported inivisible occupants), collected accounts from former visitors, and then staked out the (in)famous bedroom in the hotel.

Was it scary? No. (Maybe because we spent so much time setting up gear and taking various readings.)

Did we come away with a paranormal experience. Actually, yes, several. (Which was a relief: What if you gave a party and no ghosts came?)

Did those experiences prove the existence of the paranormal? Maybe, maybe not. That wasn't the point: We're not trying to be ghostbusters; we're writing a "nonfiction" book about haunted hotels!

Let's just say we're still optimistic skeptics. Besides, we're still having fun as writers.

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

IWSG - "Channeling" your characters

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Even as children, we were bossy: We were both eldest children and used to ordering around our younger siblings.

But somehow that doesn't work with our characters, who somehow manage to develop minds of their own when we get to know them.

 * * *
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:

Channeling Your Characters

The first week of June we completed the third in a once-a-month three-part guest series for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) blog, and we chose the topic of collaborative writing -- something we're always asked about when we do readings.

If you've visited our blog before (or gone to one of our readings), you already know the answer to how we write: We compose at the same time in front of the keyboard. (Since we use Mark's laptop and Kym hates the cursor touch pad, Mark keys in most of the story, which has led him to claim that he "writes" all of the novels -- technically true, but not a popular answer in Kym's eyes.)

Although our guest series covered many strategies to think about if authors want to collaborate on projects, we ended the piece straying onto the topic of how our characters usually take over our stories. Even though we've learned that we play nice together as collabowriters, our innate bossiness still marches to the front when it comes to letting someone else make suggestions.

What "write" do our characters have to tell us what to do? After all, they get the starring roles and deliver all the best lines. But the deeper we get into a tale, the more  they insist on where the story should go and -- the biggest affront of all -- often object to what we propose they do and say.

Talk about Frankenstein creations!

It took us a long time to learn we'd better curb our sarcasm when our characters come to the table with an alternative plan. (We'd never let on to them, but on the QT we're confessing to you that their ideas are always better. And when we ignore them, the stories are never as good.)

Okay, before you write us off as hoodoo practitioners, let's clarify how we've decided this actually makes sense -- even to our rational minds.

It's no secret the key to a good story is great characters. We seldom read a book or watch a movie where we say two weeks later, "Wow! What a great plot." But we often find ourselves entranced by well developed characters, returning again and again to discuss what made them so memorable.

That's the reason, of course, why authors spend so much time developing (hopefully) good characters, and learning to get to know them.

In our own experience, we don't really know them well until we're about halfway into a novel. By then, it's easy to finish the story because, no matter what we throw at them, they tell us how they'd react and how they'd grapple with the problems we devise. In some ways it takes a lot of pressure off us. Hey, don't blame the authors -- we were just writing what we were told.

Guess we should come clean and admit we'd still rather be in charge. But just because we're authors doesn't mean we're stupid. We know who we'd better listen to if we want stories someone else will want to read.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Writing, a *Taxing* Avocation -- Not!

In our profile, we write, "By day, Kym is a graphic artist, Mark a teacher. By night, we're caped crusa-- er, we're writers." And that's the way we like it.

We like the security of a paycheck, and it somehow helps the creative juices flow better when they're not submerged beneath the current of *needing* to make a buck through our writing

That doesn't mean we don't take our writing seriously -- particularly during tax time, which we've just finished preparing this past month as conscientious citizens in the US of A. Gotta play by the rules: We register our name, "Write in the Thick of Things," as an official entity, have letterhead stationary, biz cards, and all the other formal accoutrements. Plus, we maintain the requisite faces on blog, Twitter,  Facebook, and Goodreads -- all to legitimize our status, our alter egos.

Like any serious writers, we also cull through our receipts to find anything we can declare that has a bearing on our writing business for possible tax deductions. And just having finished that little exercise, we realize just how much fun we're having as avocational authors.

For the Silverville Saga Series, we wrote various scenes that take place in New York City, in the Yucatan, in Berlin -- not mention in Silverville. But the fun part was visiting those locales and consequently making those trips -- you guessed it -- largely tax-deductable.

And don't get us started on our book-buying expenses -- er, deductions. We almost (again, almost) feel guilty for calling our reading habits "research" expense. But we do. We never crack a book or touch-flip a screen (and how about those e-readers!) without adding our books to the tally. After all, ya gotta stay on top of the trends -- especially the escapist literature trends.

But there's other legitimate research we engage in to enhance our literary flourishes. Since a number of our (own) books involve either express or implied extra-terrestrials, we decided to embrace that culture, becoming trained Field Investigators for MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network). Okay, we've taken that job to heart and we never divulge confidences or specific accounts from our investigations, but we nonetheless use those investigations to fuel insights that range from bizarre sightings to the (sometimes) bizarre personalities involved in many such "encounters." Hey, it's all research for our writing.

And we don't stop there. Our deductibles have amassed inside categories that include telescopes, forensic tools, training seminars, field investigation expenses, training conferences, and trips to interview witnesses or investigate sites.

And yep, you better believe we make sure it's all on our little itemized expenses ledger under the title of "writing business research."

Our latest two writing projects have moved us in an entirely new direction involving the paranormal: ghostly apparitions: The fourth book in the Silverville Saga is a ghost story, but along the way, we've decided to work on a travelogue of area haunted hotels for our publisher. We're capturing two ghosts for the price of one research project.

Can't wait to start adding up the deductibles for the cool ghost-busting gadgets we're gonna start collecting!

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

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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.