Choices

I was talking to a friend last night, and the conversation turned to storytelling. We have had versions of this conversation before, but something struck me as we were talking.

The topic: “What makes a story good?” We have batted this question back and forth before, and our conclusion is usually some variant of character choice. It was this time as well. But as we spoke about character choice, I realized how much that equates to the idea of conflict. Many creative writing courses, discussions, panels and whatnot have referenced the idea that conflict is, ultimately, what drives a story. Without conflict, nothing really happens, and the telling ceases to be a story and becomes instead just a recitation. I have heard argument against this idea, and kind of get what people are getting at when they take that position, but last night it kind of gelled in my head.

If you replace “conflict” with “choice” I think you address both sides of the argument about conflict driving a story (or not). Character choice in a tale drives the action. The ideas presented in the Hero’s Journey (this is an archetypal concept that predates many of our written tales; you can see examples of it in Norse mythology for instance) contain direct items of choice. One of the central and early themes of the Hero’s Journey is that the Hero is going along his (or her) merry way and encounters a choice: The Call To Adventure. The hero can accept or refuse this call, but that choice will forever define the hero’s life. At least according to the idea of the Hero’s Journey.

So, if you think of “choice” as the mechanism rather than “conflict”, even stories for children contain some measure of this (at least in the stories I can think of), whereas saying they contain “conflict” might be a stretch for some of them. The idea that the character is presented with some situation about which a decision has to be made drives the story. Do I follow the wizard on this crazy escapade? Do I run away from home to escape my evil stepmother? Do I go see what those strange lights in the sky last night were?

I am sure there are plenty of people who already understood this idea, but my perspective on it shifted last night, gaining clarity. Interesting character choices lead to interesting stories. And one definition bandied about in our conversation dealt with what makes a hero. If the character is presented a choice (we’ll keep it a binary choice for simplicity), and side A of the choice is safer/better for the character, and side B of the choice is safer/better for the world/the character’s friends/some endangered group, what makes the character a hero is choosing side B.

I think that has some legs, but it could be the margaritas talking.

Writing Exercise #2

This exercise is one I picked up from “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes.

Objective #1: Think of a vivid image (from whatever source). Write about the image imparting motivations, what led to the event/person/whatever.

So, I am going to expand on what I did yesterday. Here goes.

The hand, more than anything, catches my attention. It is as if he is beseeching me. Not so much to physically reach for it, as if I would help or rescue him, but rather, metaphorically reaching for it, as if to help or rescue what he represents. He is, perhaps, an envoy for a larger group who needs assistance, or support, or maybe just comfort. Perhaps he is not even really a person, but is an avatar of some universal force, or thought, or idea. The physical manifestation of a much greater need. Something beyond what a single human could need. So much need that the desire was given form. His form. Standing in the darkness, but bringing with him light; the request for help accompanied by the promise of personal reward, of fulfillment, of gratification in the act. Perhaps in helping him, or serving his deep need, my own burden will be lightened, my own need fulfilled. Perhaps the outstretched hand is not a request, but an offering. Perhaps the extended hand is saying, “use me to fulfill yourself; use my need to serve your compassion.”

Or maybe I have his keys and he wants them back.

Writing Exercise #1

This exercise is one I picked up from “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes.

Objective #1: Think of a vivid image (from whatever source). Describe it in as much detail as you can.

So, here goes.

His hand is outstretched, palm up. I say his, but, really, he is obscured in shadow. The room is darkened, no lights at all, but the window in the door behind him is streaming with late afternoon light. Not bright; the day is cloudy and gray, perhaps it has just rained, or is just about to start. But the light is enough to hide the figure’s features. But it doesn’t hide the room completely. I can see enough to guess this is a shack rather than a house. There are thin bars of light leaking through the walls as well. And the doorway contains a screen door, one of the old wooden kind. I think the screen is missing, but maybe I just can’t tell because of the lighting.

The skin on the hand is dark, a deep mahogany. The fingertips are slightly illuminated, not quite like they are glowing, but they are lighter than the other things I see. Maybe they actually are lighter, and it is not a trick cause by the illumination. But maybe not. The outstretched arm is the same deep tone. I cannot be certain, but I think the head, what I can see of it, and the other arm are also this color. But maybe that is because I expect the skin to be uniform. The hair sits tight to the head of the figure, curly, kinky even. The shape of the silhouette is what makes me think this is a man. From the height, the thinness, the outline of the hair and head, I believe it is a young black man, maybe in his twenties. He looks underfed, and I can see the shape of his bones beneath the skin. Though perhaps the shadows are enhancing that perspective. He is wearing a t-shirt, perhaps an undershirt. It looks like what they call a “wife-beater”, though that term doesn’t fit him at all. It fits him loosely, but not because that is the style, more, I think, because it is a size or two too large for him. And it seems old, worn, thin. Perhaps it is a hand-me-down.

The Days Are So Full

I have been very busy during this season (thus the lack of posting). To give you a sense, I make about 3000 pieces of chocolate this time of year (see pbchocolates.com for a sense), I am writing the second book (A Dollar Short), I am helping coach a robotics team of middle schoolers, and, of course, I have a day job (programming).

So, sorry I haven’t written much. And sorry for the (lame) explanations (excuses).

Tomorrow I hope to start posting writing exercises (both for me and for anyone reading).

 

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving, the holiday, is, of course, about giving thanks. So I think I will.

I am thankful for my wife. She supports my choices, encourages me to take chances, and comforts me when I am blue.

I am thankful for my cat. She makes me laugh with her silly antics, keeps my lap warm when she visits me at the computer, and greets me warmly every time I return home.

I am thankful for my friends. They are stalwarts all, and provide entertainments, camaraderie, and aid me in seeing a broader world.

I had opportunity, just recently, to visit with one of my longest term friends. The dedication in Into The Fire is to him. I really enjoyed the opportunity to catch up (we hadn’t seen one another for quite some time), and he made me realize just how much I have enjoyed writing. I haven’t spoken as animatedly, nor with as much pleasure about a topic for quite some time. So I am thankful for that opportunity, both to catch up and to learn something about myself and writing.

I hope the day is filled with good things for all of you.

Stumbling and Missteps

As you know, if you have been reading my posts, I have been learning about how to promote Into the Fire (or, books in general). I have done some efforts¬† with amazon giveaways, which are pretty neat, but I have not paid attention to setting up my “experiments” correctly.

In case you don’t know, you can promote books by giveaways on amazon. The price is not too bad from my point of view. But.

How do you do the promotions? Amazon can push them for you (there is a little checkbox for allowing or not allowing other amazon visitors to discover your giveaway). Facebook is also used for pushing items (including books) and there are various ways of doing it there. You can post your link to the giveaway on your personal page, you can post it on your author page (or whatever equivalent), you can promote the post on the author page, and you can do the promote for specific geographic areas (great for local stores, or if you want to raise awareness or test the waters in a specific place), or by age, or by gender.

Where I didn’t think things through sufficiently is determining how I know where a sale (ok, a giveaway) came from. If you advertise in more than one place, how do you know which channels are producing which results? Short answer: you don’t.

So, my new policy will be to try one channel at a time, see how fast people are reached, how fast the giveaway ends, and whether any reviews are generated from that (which is important for helping the people thinking about buying). I think by carefully picking an arena to advertise in, and determining exactly what comes from that (or, as exactly as I can), I will be able to better pick how I spend my money.

Amazon also has limits on how many of your item (book or whatever) you can do per period of time. So, think through what you want to do, what you expect to learn, and so forth before doing your giveaway. Unlike the path I followed.

As a note, I suspect 100% of the items “given away” (to date, 30 copies of Into the Fire) probably went due to the push that amazon gave them. As noted, I cannot be completely sure, because my test is flawed, but that seems to be the case. There is also a rythm to it. A giveaway will be open for awhile with no response, and then, very swiftly, all prizes are claimed and the giveaway is closed. I am not sure what drives that, but either when/how amazon does the ads, or the timing of when people are looking around on amazon would be my top guesses.

One other nicety: the giveaway items are actual purchases (by me), so they seem to get credited to my royalties. That is what makes the price attractive. Amazon also gives you a listing of the screen names of the folks who “won”, so you might be able to tell a little about sales channels from that (like, if you recognize the names of all your facebook friends).

Anyway, just my two-bits on my experiences, but thought someone else might find it useful.

Friends are Precious

I have sold Into The Fire to a number of people. Many of them I know. A few I don’t. But I would never have gotten to where I am without the friends I have. I have friends who encouraged me. I have friends who inspired me. I have friends who bought the book. I have friends who have promoted the book to others. I have friends who edited for me (at less than the going rate). I have friends I didn’t even know I had.

I have done promotions on facebook. I have done promotions by pushing ads. I have friends who have given advice about other ways to promote, and other avenues to pursue (without even knowing they have done so). I will likely do more promotions in various ways. But friends who buy, sight unseen, are amazing. They sustain my confidence in making a go of this. I am sure I will gain new “friends” from the sales. They will see something they like in what I do, in the stories told, and share with their friends, and those will become new friends.

I am amazed by the human capacity for goodness, sharing, and help. We have so many differences between us, and hard times can produce both so much good and so much evil. But, in the end, people will surprise you. Someone you think shares none of your values will aid you in ways you cannot imagine, but desperately need.  Though we can see darkness ahead of us, and believe there is only a bleak horizon, people will always surmount our expectations. Did you know, we live in the safest, and best, of times in all of human history? Check it out. Look at the numbers of death from murder, persecution, whatever measure you choose, and see where we are historically speaking, and tell me I am a liar. I dare you.

Are any of you fans of Star Trek (in any of its incarnations)? Gene Roddenberry had the right of it. We move, steadily, if not consistently, to a brighter future. We have much literature today that shows a dystopian future. But, look at the actual numbers. Look at the numbers for violent crime. Look at the numbers for infant mortality. Look at the numbers for death in childbirth. Are they up or down over time?

And socially, are we more accepting, or more rejecting? How many times have you seen lesbian/gay relationships on television over the past five years? How many times in the twenty years before that? What do those numbers tell you? Do we live in the best of all possible times? Maybe.

Our relationships with one another, and our willingness to talk, hear, and relate are central to those changes (or so I believe). We, together, can do things that we, divided, cannot. Benjamin Franklin (surely you know who he is) stated it as “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” A clear indication of where human strength resides.

Never neglect the power of friends.

Stay the Course

I spent some time today doing promotional stuff for Into The Fire, and Odd Jobs Mysteries in general. You know the kind of thing: facebook, goodreads, amazon, etc. I was very excited at one point because I moved up on amazon from a ranking of 600,000 or so to 20,0000 or so. Wow. Yay! Then I realized I misread what I was looking at (I still moved up, but not anything like an order of magnitude). Oh. Bummer.

But that got me thinking. In general, my path here is a long term one. My goal is for writing to become something that, maybe, supports me in retirement. That is still a decade or so away for me. My goal during that time is to write somewhere between ten and twenty novels, and to enjoy the process of creation. So, why have an up or down about any given day’s number?

Which led to another thought (as they always seem to for me). Aren’t there a lot of things in life like that? We often (or I often) get wrapped around the axle about some minor (in the scheme of things) hiccup, but why should I? Most things in life are not earth shaking. They might not even be remembered in a week or a month, so why get up in arms about them in the moment? We have plenty of real turmoil in our lives, so taking an attitude of not going to turmoil over every little thing seems like it would be beneficial for me. Don’t get me wrong. I am no Pollyanna. I don’t stick my head in the sand and hope the world goes away. But, really, any thing, on any given day, should be seen as clearly as possible in its own context. And usually that means it won’t matter tomorrow or the day after.

At least, that’s how I see it today.

The Work

I was working today on promoting Into the Fire, and was struck by how difficult it is to do. The publishing paradigm has altered in the last decade or so, and more rapidly in the past few years than prior to that, largely due to social media and access to self-publishing (like that is news to anyone).

But the new arena is interesting to navigate, too. Today I went to set up a facebook page to aid in getting the book in front of people. I thought, “oh, this should be pretty easy.” Famous last words. I found that to really do it right, I need more artwork. Like a book cover shaped and sized for something other than a book. And also an overall image for the book series, Odd Job Mysteries. And a picture that represents me. And maybe one that represents the book. And so forth.

Not being an artist, I looked around for something suitable, but had no real luck. But I did get some inspiration, and so came up with ideas for the images I need. And since I own photoshop, and can read, I figured I can figure out how to generate the images and re-use my own work as I do (in case I want to change something later).

So I diddled in photoshop for an hour or two, and came upon what I want to do, how I want to do it, all that. There are still some questions about things like fonts, colors, and so forth, but nothing insurmountable. I suspect tomorrow or over the weekend I will get something together, and can begin getting my book more in front of more people (and this blog as well).

And then it struck me. This is the “work” part of writing for me. It takes time, effort, patience, all that. It is something that an author twenty years ago would never have done for themselves, nor probably could have for the most part. Yet here I am with the task of doing it in front of me. Previously, the work would be to get an agent to believe in the project. Now the work is different, but not necessarily less.

Then I realized that in a couple days to a week, I will have lots of this work done. It will be, more or less, what I want and will have been done all by me, without having to pay for someone’s time, communicate my idea, all that.

So then it struck me that even the “work” part isn’t too much work.

Winds of Change

I just had a nice conversation (well, email volley anyway) about my book Into the Fire, and it got me thinking. One of the items my friend brought up was the pacing and character development. He felt that the beginning could have been more swiftly paced, and that the reader knew almost nothing about the physical appearance, mannerisms, and jobs of the main characters.

I think all the observations stem from the same elements in my writing. I intentionally wrote the book in a particular style. I decided on a third person, non-omnicient point of view. We see all that we see from the main character’s point of view, but as if we were watching him rather than him telling us the story. I also decided I wanted to tell the tale in the form of the actions of the people involved and rely as little as possible on explaining those actions other than by other people’s reactions to what was occurring, being said, or being observed.

This is a story telling style that is different than many I have read (and, thus, part of why I wanted to try it), and it is also not a style that has always been around. I came to it from a series of lectures by James Hynes (I have them on DVD, Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques, and well worth giving a look). He explores various techniques used by writers, many of which I had heard of before, and points out how different ones can be used for different purposes.

I made my choices to try to exemplify show, don’t tell, and it worked very well for me as a writer. But not, obviously, for all my readers. But the comments made me think about how writing has evolved over time. My own recent reading (many of them first time reads for me) has included:

  • A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
  • Red Harvest, By Dashiell Hammett
  • The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
  • Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout

And reading older works such as these made me think of other things I have read in the past. Nineteenth century English literature, for example, reads very differently than a current Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel. Even the old masters in the detective/mystery genre, in which I would certainly include Hammett, Chandler, and Stout, read quite differently from modern works by the current masters of the field. And it is not just the diction or idioms of the times, nor the pacing, nor even the point of view that changed, though there are certainly differences in all three. But the differences I am struck by are more than those. They are in the way the author tells the story.

As an example, nineteenth century English literature, such as what we see with Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, is much more slowly paced. It takes its time to build a story, and it is all about giving a feeling of the place of the characters, both in physical location and in social class. The tension is a different kind of tension altogether than most modern story telling. The flow has a distinctly different feel. Not really so much better or worse than modern work, but very much different. Long, descriptive scenes of rooms, locations, or even a garden or mode of dress dominate. I think, in part, that is because people of that era had never seen those things. Extensive description takes the place of having seen movies, television, or you-tube videos in our modern era.

Not everyone likes the pacing in older works. But not everyone likes the pacing in more modern works, either. I have heard complaints about violence, sex, profanity, and so forth regarding modern novels. And there is certainly more of all three, and more graphic versions of all three, in things written today. I use the word pacing here, perhaps mistakenly but certainly intentionally, because all three (violence, sex, profanity) can give a more frenetic sense of pace than appears in much earlier works. The placid has been replaced by the panicked. Again, not good or bad, but different.

I wonder whether our increased pace of technology, and media, have impacted our writing, and to what degrees. Is the advent of email, texting, and the 6 second sound byte moving our writing in a particular direction as well? Perhaps. Or, I suppose, definitely, but what that direction might be, and what future literary efforts might look like is unclear, at least to me. Again, not good nor bad, but different.

We have evolved in many areas, and continue to do so. I wonder what will writing look like in another twenty, fifty, or one hundred years?