Category Archives: writing

A good book cover provides incredible value

There’s an old saying: never judge a book by it’s cover. While applicable in the metaphorical sense, when it comes to actually publishing a real book, people do judge books FAST based on the cover. Having a good book cover is a must.

When deciding on a book, what do you do? If you have stepped foot inside a physical bookstore and found a section you’re interested in, you probably browse. Waltzing across the isles, I’ll guess you stop based on some snazzy title. Pull out the book, glimpse at the cover, and read the copy on the back. Whether or not you open the book and look at a single page is governed by two things: the cover and the description on the back.

Indie publishing demands a well designed cover

Listening to Steve Womack last week talk about the huge changes in the publishing industry, becoming an indie author is a popular move. But one thing you MUST do is invest some decent money in a top notch cover.
Ever publish a book through someone else? You may have learned through brutal means that you are NOT in control of the cover. Whoever is betting money on selling your story will often leave you out of the entire process. Instead, your publisher’s marketing team makes such choices.

Finding a good graphic artist

If you self publish, you are in control. Spending $100-$200 on a good graphic artist to produce a cover is money well spent. Assuming you have a decent story, you should be able to make that back.

Don’t do this the wrong way. If you think snagging a handful of images from Google Images and pasting them together will do the trick, forget about it. First of all, you are probably running into gobs of copyright violations. I’ve created decks using such means, but actual commercial work requires properly vetted sources of art.

A good graphic artist can also take stock images and blend them together, making professional grade edits (like altering hair color, facial hair, etc.) and has better access to fonts. The graphic artist also has a keen thing you don’t: artistic experience. When putting together a title’s cover, your artist will have a better feel for what fonts work, how to position the elements, and can put in the small touches you have never thought of.

If you find a good graphic artist, my suggestion is to continue going back for future projects. Your artist will grow to know you, and your titles can take on a certain signature. And of course, there’s the implicit vote of confidence if you like that artist’s work.

Keep on writing!

Looking for magic in all the right places

Having three kids, all six and under, I get pelted with all kinds of kid’s shows. Today, my youngest was having his milk while sitting in his seat, watching Sofia the First. I was working on the sofa, but somehow digested the whole episode.

CedricWhat caught my fancy was how my fantasy-writing nature digested all of the magical rules this episode put forth. The often bumbling royal sorcerer (Mr. Cedric) was forced to save the magic school from some pranksters, but was stuck in a spell that bound him and his hands to a chair. He couldn’t wave his wand and hence cast no spell.

Observing this hard magical rule of their universe, made me start mentally flipping through other magical systems, and seeing if I could spot their rules, and decide whether or not I liked them. Feels like a way to objectively look at my own magic systems and see if there are any big gaps to address.

harry-potter-wandThe first thing that came to mind is Harry Potter. I read the first book and have seen all the movies. (I promise I’ll circle back and read the other books at some time). Harry Potter appears to be a wand-only environment as well. One of the first spells you see (in the movies anyway) is Expelliarmus, the one that knocks your opponent’s wand out of their hand. More advanced casters actually manage to catch the wand.

I know what you’re thinking. What about potions and scrolls? Okay, those also exist. But it appears that in these systems, you can NOT do a spell all by your lonesome. You need a medium to help you.

doctor-strange-02-03Which brings me to my third example. Doctor Strange. As a big time collector from long ago, I am quite familiar with their system of magic. And it is QUITE different. Instead of being wand-only, they have different levels of magic. They tap magical energy from themselves, the surrounding universe, and the most powerful ones, from other dimensional entities. I have really enjoyed the conflicts and challenges this system posed. In one issue, all the “good” entities cash in, demanding Doctor Strange come to serve in exchange for having let him use their energy.

If you are going to write fantasy and have magic, you must put time and thought into it. If it’s a cornerstone of your novel (and they often are), five minutes of thought won’t cut it. But don’t view it as laborious and tortuous. Instead, the more time you invest, the better it will arise and bear fruit. I find much excitement when members of my critique group pelt me with questions.

Book Report: Area 51 by Bob Mayer

As indicated before, I started reading break away or debut novels by prominent authors last year. And here I am to deliver another book report!

Area 51 – Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer was one of the speakers at last year’s Clarksville Writer’s Conference. He was hilarious, gung ho, maybe a tad bombastic (retire Green Beret), and best selling author that had no hesitation to brag he makes about $1000/day with his trove of published novels.

Like or hate his personality, he has succeeded so I wanted to read one of his first works. It turns out, this novel was released under the pen name “Robert Doherty” through classic channels. He has since gotten the IP rights for all these past novels reverted back to him, a business move worthy of respect, and moved on to e-books.

Back to the story. It really is pretty neat. The writing is crisp, the dialog cool. I kept turning page after page, wanting to know what happens. I also had an inbuilt curiosity as to what this author would do. I have seen TV shows set in Area 51 like Seven Days, Stargate: SG-1 (based near Area 51 and steeped in similar military conspiracy), and other movies.

There was a bit of investigative journalism gone wrong combined with other historical legends. I must admit that part (won’t give it away!) really whet my appetite.

Bob Mayer indeed knows how to write. He knows how to make you turn the pages. I think I spent 3-4 days tops reading this book. I’ll confess it didn’t match my hunger in reading the debut Jack Reacher novel KILLING FLOOR. But then again, I’m finding it hard to spot the next novel that will compete on that level.

I’ll shoot with you straight on this: it wasn’t as hard to move to another novel by another author when I finished as it was for certain other novels. There were other series novels I read last year that made it hard to stop and move on instead of continuing the series. This one wasn’t the same. Will I ever go back and read more of Bob Mayer’s books?

Maybe/maybe no. I have read some of his other non-fiction books on writing craft, so in a sense, the man has already scored additional sales. It takes a top notch story with top notch characters and top notch writing to score that with me, and Jack Reacher has made me picky. Don’t take it a nock.

If you like SciFi and military conspiracies, you’ll find this book most entertaining.

Happy reading!

Book Report: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Over the past year, I have been on a bit of a reading binge. I got this idea at the 2015 Clarksville Writer’s Conference to read the debut novel of top notch authors. Instead of reading a series or stack of novels by one author, I’ve been jumping from author to author, looking for a cross section of writing styles, views on things, and varied tastes.

This is my first of many book reports, so without further ado….

The Andromeda Strain – Michael Crichton

There was a movie by the same name released in 1971. As a kid, I had seen it a dozen times. Okay, maybe not that much, but anytime I spotted it, I had to stop what I was doing and watch it. It’s so cool, despite its dated look. When I learned, years later, that this was the break away novel (not debut) of the famous Harvard doctor Michael Crichton, it blew me away. I finally bit the bullet and read it last year.

A team of scientists battle a strange disease that threatens all of mankind. But instead of being loaded with cliches, the scientists battle it with real science. And they have real, believable issues that hamper their pursuit of a cure.

One scientist spots a key symptom early on that would result in a solution, but a strange, unexplainable incident causes him to forget this epiphany. Having seen the movie, I knew what happened. I won’t spoil it for you and tell you what it is, but suffice it to say that I have suffered the same in the past, and this connected with me on a personal level.

Michael Crichton has a strong basis in biological science with his medical education. He clearly shows preferences for the hard sciences as did Isaac Asimov. He takes things into the realm of “this may not exist today, but I believe it could in the future.”

The novel isn’t as dated as the movie. The scenes with the military sound realistic. I can visualize the parts in the labs where experiments are conducted. I may not be on top of medical research, so perhaps some of the stuff mentioned is ancient. But it gripped me. And it doesn’t slow down and bore you with research, but instead makes things exciting.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that little was changed from novel to movie. The novel has an all male set of characters whereby they changed a key doctor to a woman in the movie, for the better. Kate Reid delivers a superior performance as a sassy, knows-what-she-knows microbiologist. But the core story and the big wrinkles are all there. Makes me want to go and watch the movie, again.

The whole thing is cutely wrapped up as a government memo you are reading implying this event DID happen. I always enjoy little bits like that, and I hope you do as well.

Happy reading until my next book report!

.@ScrivenerApp – The Ultimate #NoSQL Database

Over the past year, I have dove head first into use Scrivener for my writing efforts. The thing is amazing!

Scrivener is a writer’s tool, built by writers for writers. It costs about $30+. I couldn’t put my finger on what was so cool about it until I read this.

tl;dr – Scrivener puts your story/case/project into a database, Microsoft Word puts what you’re doing into a typesetter. Typesetters optimize for printout, databases optimize for reading/writing/updating information.

NoSQL Database

NoSQL data stores have gained big popularity over the past ten years. Why? Their charm is being schema-less.

schema-less – data not required to adhere to a certain structure

For years, people have adhered to SQL, the codified and accepted standard for grouping data to a strong structure. SQL comes loaded with lots of promises, which it indeed delivers. What is that?

If you define the structure of your data upfront, and observe other related practices (like 3rd Normal Form, i.e. 3NF; ACID, …), your data store will…

  • have maximum efficiency in storage by not duplicating data
  • have maximum efficiency in maintenance by not accidentally updating data in one place but forgetting to update in another place
  • get ALL the results when you query the database
  • ensure ALL inputs are committed to the database or none

These sound great, until you reach the era we have entered. People have discovered that all the guarantees of schema-driven data have costs. And costs that are proportional to your volume of data can catch up and cripple you.

We have discovered that not ALL data needs this amount of guarantee. Different data stores optimize in other ways, solving different problems. And thus was born the schema-less data store revolution.

Scrivener as a NoSQL data store

scrivener-binder

left – binder of folders with leaves; right – one leaf

How does Scrivener work? Out-of-the-box, it has a hierarchical nature. You can create folders within folders with folders. Each folder can have metadata about the folder itself, and it can contain leaves as well.

Click on a folder and you can view/edit all its leaves at once. Click on a leaf, view and edit a single leaf.

Folders and leaves can be converted from one to the other. The only difference is that folders are also containers, able to hold more folders/leaves.

The content can be text (our primary medium as writers) or other types (PDF, images, videos, …), meaning folders don’t have to just contain your story. Use it to capture your research, character notes, whatever!

Breaking out of the box

scrivener-charactersWhen you first install Scrivener, it comes with a pre-written manuscript and a tutorial. You walk through it, learning how to use the tool. It’s really quite clever and brought me up to speed, fast!

But at some point, you need to break out of conventions and learn how to use the tool. I first did so when I needed to sift through an extensive critique from my editor.

In the span of a 2-hour phone call, I had written down two pages of notes in a LibreOffice document last year. Some points, high level; some points, specific to a single sentence. I imported that document into Scrivener and took it apart, using another structure.

scrivener-researchI split up the collection of notes into individual leaves, all contained in a single folder. This way, as I addressed each comment, I could flag it as complete inside scrivener (I used checkbox icon to indicate this).

I put the scene-specific notes in a sub-sub-folder. To tackle the fact my editor had a different version of my manuscript, I dug that copy out of email and put in there as well. Using that, I tracked down every page specific comment and found its current scene.

Scrivener lets you put links between scenes (kind of like a MongoDB DBRef).

In a nutshell, I laid out my own structure, and then bent it as needed. Instead of bumping into it, like one often does with schema-based data stores, Scrivener accommodated my needs.

Spring Data Scrivener?

As a member of the Spring Data team, I’m truly amazed at how this release train of projects has leaped over the balkanized landscape of query languages. Use them when needed, but offloading typical queries to a framework is great!

I may have to keep my eye on the potential for writing apps that can query Scrivener manuscripts. It would lean on exactly what people are putting in their projects.

Until then, I hope you poke your nose into Scrivener and see how it’s perhaps the most user friendly NoSQL data store put out there to solve a very popular problem.

Darklight critique by best selling author @JerryBJenkins

The thing you can never do without is getting solid, concrete feedback from a bestselling author. You can see my Darklight critique by Jerry Jenkins below.

I have the webinar keyed up to where he digs into my story and pulls no punches. The points he makes are amazing.

The blind leading the blind

If you meet up with a handful of wannabe authors, the odds of getting solid feedback aren’t stellar. Your chances begin to rise when you meet with published authors. Those that have been through the wringer of editors, publishers, and proof readers may have more usable stuff to chew on. Find an author with 21 best sellers, and you’re no longer hear “your story is wonderful, dear,” from your spouse or your mother.

Okay, enough glee on my own story. I really recommend you go back and watch the whole thing from the beginning. There is one other 1-pager that gets picked apart like mine. The points he makes are great.

  • Avoid on-the-nose writing (telling us about stuff we all know).
  • Focus on nouns and verbs to keep it snappy and tight.
  • Don’t explain everything to us. Give the reader credit, a.k.a. give the audience 2+2. Let them figure out 4.

 

The Hunt for Red October – writing analysis

imageI previously blogged about going back and watching/reading The Hunt for Red October as a writer.As a follow up, I wanted to walk through it the story line and talk about it right here. Together, we’ll walk through each act and do a writing analysis at the end

SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT

This article will go into the movie and bits of the book in great detail. If you haven’t seen it yet, then stop right now. Sufficiently warned? Great. Let’s move on.

Down below, I have each section staked out. This is one way of framing the Three Act Story. Hopefully by analyzing The Hunt for Red October, you can start spotting this pattern in other places, and then be able to see how each writer applies their own styles and twists to come up with new, fun stories.

The Hook

Captain Ramius is standing atop a Russian submarine with his first officer. The ship is on the surface, and getting underway. The tension from the captain is clear, but we’re not sure what it’s about. They go below deck and give the order to dive. Captain Ramius is alerted that the political officer awaits him in his cabin to read their orders.

The captain and the political officer meet. It’s clear they don’t like each other. Each one produces a key to access their orders. The political officer has one key, and Ramius the other. Their orders are to rendezvous at a certain location and conduct drills with another vessel, supposedly a submarine.

And here comes the hook. Captain Ramius kills the political officer, burns up the orders, and pulls out a separate set of orders. He calls the doctor to report an accident. In front of the doctor and another crewman, Ramius takes the political officer’s missile key and keeps it for himself. It is pointed out that the orders (fake ones) indicate strict radio silence. The captain then speaks to the entire crew, indicating that they will sail to New York and conduct missile drills.

Everyone knows what a pair of missile keys is, and it appears that the captain has seized control of a Russian submarine armed with nuclear warheads. He is heading straight to the eastern coast of the United States. And the audience is hooked. The title itself whet our appetites, and now we know why there will be a hunt for this submarine.

Disaster 1 – The First Act

Things switch and we are introduced to the crew of the United States submarine Dallas. Their top notch sonar operator has detected the submarine and moved to investigate. It’s nicely laid out that the United States is the protagonist and Renegade Captain Ramius is the antagonist.

The first sign of conflict and tension is when the Russian submarine activates a never before seen (or never before heard) silent propulsion system. The sonar operator loses track of this new submarine and is perplexed. He tries to track it, but it is hopeless.

Pinch Point – Enemy makes a move

The Russian’s turn but the Americans don’t follow. Ramius has made a rousing speech about the past successes of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin as the Russians entered space. They elude the Americans and we are left hanging, wondering how the “good guys” can beat a silent submarine.

Resolution 1

The sonar operator won’t stop. He listens over and over. He also is hooked onto a reel-to-reel tape, constantly listening. The COB (Chief of the Boat) mocks him, but it doesn’t work. The sonar officer then visits the captain and plays a tape recording at 10x normal speed. The cyclic sound is clearly a man-made sound. To top things off, he produces a chart with five readings, all marking a straight edge course for the entrance to a Russian-mapped ste of caverns.

In the book, the skills of the sonar officer are better laid out. On a submarine, you are trained to do one job and do it well. The sonar officer had no training in navigation, but this one manages to put together a big picture. On submarines, no one has perspective or view of stars or the sun, so navigation seems only possible if you were trained for it. The character in the book is immediately granted a promotion by the skipper. And the audience cheers.

The captain orders his first officer to put them at the end of the canyons. He instructs the sonar officer to stand by, and pick them back up, now that he knows what to listen for. Sounds like the hunt is over, right?

Disaster 2 – The Second Act

The story moves along, and we discover, that Captain Ramius is NOT a renegade planning to fire his missiles. Instead, he is planning to defect along with most of his officers, but not the enlisted crew nor the doctor.

After entering the canyons, the silent drive breaks down, and they switch to classic propellers. We have already seen that the bulk of the Soviet navy has been scrambled to find this submarine and sink it, and now we know why.

This disaster is quite fascinating, because the protagonist has shifted from the Americans to Captain Ramius and his officers that want to defect.

Midpoint – Enemy makes a move

Earlier, the Russian submarine was the enemy making a move. Now the enemy has become the rest of the Soviet navy. Due to the failure of the silent drive, they use propellers to keep moving. It attracts a Fox Bear aircraft to launch a torpedo.

We already have the tension of a Russian submarine slipping past American sonar. The tension gets bumped up when it turns out the captain wants to defect. Yet more tension is heaped on when a torpedo is bearing down in a boat that has no room to maneuver in this underwater canyon.

Resolution 2

The captain does NOT order the turn when the navigator signals it is time. Instead, he keeps looking at the clock, listening to the “pings” from the torpedo, and seemingly making computations in his head.

At the last second, he orders a hard turn, and manages to dodge the torpedo. By waiting long enough, the torpedo has no room to turn and detonates as it hits the wall of the canyon. We get a hint of the captain’s expertise. In the book, these types of details are more clearly voiced. The knowledge the captain and his officers use to evade attack are better laid out.

Finally, as they exit the canyon walls, the silent drive is repaired and they continue on their real mission, escaping to freedom.

Disaster 3 – The Third Act

I haven’t really mentioned much about Jack Ryan, a pivotal character in the movie. That’s because he is mostly playing catchup. He represents the Americans and is the one that figures out in advance that Ramius is defecting. His tension is first suggesting the idea, then having to convince every member of the government along the way.

He finally links up with the Russians after the enlisted crew are evacuated for what he guesses is a false nuclear reactor emergency. Just when we get a sense of tension relief, the sound of a torpedo passes by. The sonar officer, without any gear, identifies it as Russian. As they plan to fire back, a secret member of the crew shoots at Ramius, but instead hits the first officer while also blasting the weapons control station.

Final pinch point – enemy makes a move

One of the other Russian submarines, a fast attack boat, is bearing down. He fires another torpedo, and Ramius manages to steer into its path, and blow it up before it arms itself. Another demonstration of his experience.

The crewman who shot at him threatens to blow up a nuclear missile and destroy the ship. In the book, this character is revealed to be a KGB agent. As Jack and Ramius enter the launch area, the agent keeps firing a pistal, wounding Ramius.

At the same time, the other Russian submarine launches another torpedo instantly armed. The tension is super high as the Dallas slips in between the other two subs and draws the torpedo away. After the Dallas escapes with an emergency blow, the torpedo locks back onto the Red October.

Resolution 3

Here we get to see the skipper of the Dallas really shine. He was part of the contingent that joined Ryan on the Red October. Ramius put him in command as he went after the agent. Mancuso has ordered a bunch of maneuvers, but we can’t tell what is happening. Finally, the captain lets us, the audience, in when he says, “The thing about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.”

The Red October is barreling down on the other sub and then breaks off. The torpedo that was following it, crashes into the other sub and destroys it. You get a real sense of awe when you realize that the captain performed this move without seeing everything, under enormous pressure, and on a boot he has never been on before.

To top it off, the explosion erupts up on the surface, and all the crewmen, unaware of the other sub, believe the Red October has been sunk.

Conclusion

The closing scene shows the Red October being hidden a hundred miles from any naval base with Jack welcoming Ramius to “the new world”. He is then seen on a plane flight, asleep. This tiny snippet resolves the fact that he hasn’t slept in days and has had to fly ever worsening conditions from London to Washington to the carrier to the Dallas and to the Red October.

ANALYSIS

In the books, the skill sets of each officer is better laid out. In a movie, you can’t just explain everything or it would slow down to a crawl. The captain’s ability to evade sonar and slip in behind another submarine is delivered smoothly.

I never quite bought the Russian officer’s ability to hide their defection from the crew until I read the book. There it becomes clear that most enlisted Russians are probably serving their first or second tour, and basically are there to push knobs and other things to make the sub go. They don’t understand navigation, how all the systems operate and other things. They totally trust their commanding officers. This difference is turned into more tension when the defecting Russian officers meet the enlisted sonar officer of the Dallas and see how intelligent he is.

Tom Clancy uses the medium of underwater submarines to tell an exciting story. It is quite fascinating, because it is a great way to hide and reveal various things.

His big twist is changing who the antagonist is halfway into the story. Tom Clancy also communicates navy and military elements with grace and charm, one of the biggest things that made his career so successful. I have heard of other writer’s using Tom Clancy’s writing as their source for military research.

So go forth and watch the movie and read the book. The Three Act formula is easy to see, and yet, it doesn’t rob the author of a good story. It certainly doesn’t produce anything dull. Instead, it provides a collection of tension and relief that keeps adding up all the way to the end, making it real page turner.

Happy writing!

Want to be a writer? Watch and read The Hunt for October

imageWant to be a writer? At last week’s writers conference, one speaker used movie clips to demonstrate various key structures found in books. I also heard another speaker mention how, in chatting with Lee Child, that the man did all his military research by reading Tom Clancy.

I just finished watching The Hunt for Red October for the nth time, only this time, I was watching it as a writer. I also plan to go and re-read the novel. That story carries all the perfect elements of a story. Want to write a gripping tale? Look at what happened there and you will understand things like pinch points and other constructs.

Disasters and Pinch points

There is a story structure that dates back to Aristotle. It has names including the Three Act Story. Some say this recipe is so successful because it really reflects us.

One way of describing this story is that it contains a series of disasters followed by pinch points. First, a disaster ensues and then a pinch point is when the enemy makes a move.  Then show a way forward

Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.” –Kurt Vonnegut

Go and watch The Hunt for October. Can you spot the disasters?  What about the pinch points?  Another good sign is when you connect to the characters and start to cheer for them. Or hate it when they are hurt or killed. And every author shoots to move the story along in a way such that you don’t need the next disaster that’s about to strike.

Read debut novels of famous authors

You don’t really have to pick the book I just said. But go and find the debut novel for any author you recognize. Read the first chapter. Does it hook you? Want to read more? A debut novel is what that author had to submit, wade through the tough process of convincing agents, editors, and publishers to bet on. These authors had no coat tails to ride.

I don’t know about you, but the next novel on my list is The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. I love that movie. I must read the book and digest it as a hopeful author.

Happy writing!

Building a writer’s platform

As Sara gets underway with her writing career, I am happily doing anything and everything to help. In particular, I’m her de facto web administrator.

  • I set up http://saraturnquist.com using WordPress.
  • I configured her Mail Chimp account to help her build her email list. She’s already sent out a newsletter!
  • I have stood up a Google Analytics account and created a property that is now linked to her website and her Mail Chimp mailing list.

Now, every web page she crafts, whether a blog page or a Mail Chimp archived newsletter, is serving up metrics to my admin page and letting me track it all. This is where you bend social media to serve you and not the other way around.

Of course, I’m doing to same for my own site as I slowly work at publishing my own debut novel. But suffice it to say, building your online presence in this day and age is easier than ever before. (It also helps if you are a professional software dev who understands some of these things!)

Happy blogging and newsletter writing!