Monday, June 27, 2011

Character Description: How Much Do You Want?

Inside, a man sat behind a laminated wood desk tapping away on a computer keyboard with thick, stubby fingers, his eyes glued to the flat panel screen. The walls of the office were covered with framed photographs of canals and dams from different eras. A descriptive title under the frame of one read “Fresno Scrapers.” It showed mustached-men posing by a horse-drawn contraption with a long metal blade while standing in a wide, shallow dirt trench he assumed was an early canal. There were pictures of big dams, little dams, dirt canals, and cement-lined canals. Lawless couldn’t see anything personal on the walls or desk.
McFrazier glanced up and jumped when he saw Lawless.
“Sorry. Didn’t see you come in.”
He stood and reached over the desk to shake hands. Ralph McFrazier was a stout, hairy man with thick arms and wide shoulders, dressed for summer in an open-collar short-sleeved white cotton shirt and lightweight cotton pants. Lawless imagined something ugly but comfortable on his feet, like Clark’s; he didn’t look like a loafer man. He had a full beard, heavy eyebrows, and bristly hair on top of his head. Thick, dark curly hair covered his forearms and the back of his fingers, tickling Lawless. More dark hair burst out of his shirt at his throat, reminding Lawless of the way a plant will curl and twist to get more of itself into the sunlight.
“Ralph McFrazier,” he said as they shook hands. His voice was gruff, and Lawless thought he might be smiling but it was difficult to tell through the hair.
“Detective Daniel Lawless. Nice to meet you, Mr. McFrazier.” Lawless expected to have his hand crushed, but McFrazier’s grip was soft, almost effeminate.
“Call me Ralph. Mr. McFrazier was my father. Sit down.” He waved a furry arm at a worn chair behind Lawless and sat back down. He talked in short bursts, like a machine gun.
“I’d like to talk to you about Jose Sanchez,” Lawless said, pulling out his notepad. 
“Yes. Terrible thing. What happened?”
“We’re not sure yet. The coroner’s doing the autopsy today. We hope to know more.” 
“No clue yet?”
“Afraid not.” Lawless found himself talking like McFrazier, and didn’t like it. “I understand he worked for you.”
“Somewhere down the line. His direct supervisor is Jake Franklin. He can tell you more.” 
Something beeped: McFrazier glanced at his computer screen and hit a key. The beeping stopped.
“Can you tell me what he was doing out there so early?”
“Can’t tell for sure. Probably checking a gate.” 
“Gate? What kind of gate?”
“Irrigation gate. Lets the water out. They get stuck. The farmers complain.” McFrazier turned his palms up, shrugged, and rolled his eyes.
“What tools does he use?”
“Wrench. Drill. Small stuff.”
“Does he use a chainsaw, anything like that?”
McFrazier frowned. “No. He doesn’t work on trees.” He looked at his watch, barely visible through his arm hair, and said, “Lunch time. Got an appointment. See Franklin. He can tell you more.”
He stood and stuck out his hand again, indicating their talk was over.

Since you’re a reader, let me ask you something: do you like characters whose physical descriptions are laid out for you in the text, or do you like to fill in those details yourself? Or is your preference somewhere in between?

I’ve read all of Johnathon Kellerman’s “Alex Delaware” novels. He likes to describe his main characters’ physical attributes in detail, especially the clothes they wear. He names designers, styles, and brands I’m not familiar with so it doesn’t help me picture the character at all. They’re extra words to me, and frankly, they make me feel a little naive. Like I should know the names of popular designers.

One of my favorite authors, John Sandford, uses a lighter hand when describing his characters. He might spend one paragraph, maybe two sentences.

My wife reads nothing but romance and romance-mystery. It’s tough to get her to read anything but Nora Roberts. She likes some physical description; color of eyes and hair, full or thin lips, height, fit or flabby, etc. She likes to be given mind pictures instead of making them up herself.

I think physical description is very important to the romance genre, and maybe to most genre fiction. And there are lessons to be learned here.

Like John Locke, John Sandford has written that he knows his reader demographic well: mostly women read their books so they write their main male character in a way women find attractive. 

I’ve not read any of Locke’s books but this is what he’s written about his MC Donovan Creed: 
“With my character, Creed, I want to give you a guy who is hard to like, then force you to like him. Women make up 75 to 80% of my audience, and those in my target group get the fact that what Creed really needs in his life is the right woman. My readers are the right woman for a guy like Creed, and when they see him saying something dumb, or making a bad decision, they shake their heads and laugh—because every one of my female readers is smarter than Creed when it comes to relationships, and they know it. They think he’s rough, but worth saving.”
Sandford wrote Lucas to be appealing to women: big and tough, rich with a fancy car, likes women—a lot, has a dark dangerous side (the bad boy), dresses well, etc.

The description of Ralph McFrazier, a minor character in CANALS, at the beginning of this post was too long and largely unnecessary. This is his only scene; why spend so many words describing him? I think I did a better job with the MC in CANALS, Daniel Lawless, giving out snippets of description interwoven through the beginning of the book. 

In the future, while writing genre fiction, I think I’ll describe people with a light hand, maybe try and “show” looks through dialog or action instead of narrative: “After Amber’s eyes adjusted, she saw Grant in the booth. Male heads turned and interested eyes tracked her as she walked through the bar.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

"Branding" As John Locke Does It

   As a follow-up to my last post on branding, here are my "crib notes" from a John Locke guest post on Jack Konrath's blog. John hung around the rest of the day, after the post went up, and answered questions. I extracted what I thought was important and saved it in Word.
   If you'd rather read the original post you will find it here. Take a look at John Locke's author page on Amazon here to see how he's branded his books.
   Why bother looking at what another self-published author has done? As an example of someone who treats their writing like a business, who formulated a business plan and executed it. And he stuck with it. Notice he said he'd made a combined $47 on Amazon through September 2010. He's well over $100K a month now because he didn't bail when his plan wasn't immediately successful.
   I think it's possible to write in different genres, but if you do, you will likely need to make YOU your brand, not your books. Not impossible, but tougher, in my opinion.


-  Marketing is all about giving people a place to go and a reason to go there. My advice is to start on Twitter. The Twitter author community is very supportive. That’s how I started. Next, write a blog that shows off your writing style. You can do much more, that’s all the marketing you will need, if you can build up a following. But it is KEY that your tweets and blogs give an insight into your writing style.

-  I am a businessman, and I look at each of my books as an employee. I make a one-time invest­ment in each of these “employees” ($995.00) and send them out into the world to make sales for me. Some employees do a better job than others. Right now I have six employees, and they are all in the top 100. This past Thursday night, my 7th employee, “A Girl Like You” went out into the world, and she is already #114. I trust her, and believe she will sell enough to get into the top 100 in the next few days. “She” has already earned back her investment. But unlike a real employee, I don’t have to deal with her in person, or match her social security or provide benefits. She works 24 hours a day for me for free, and will, for the rest of her life. --How can this not be the best investment in the world?

-  I started writing about two years ago. I had no training, no experience, and never attended a seminar. It probably helped that I was an English major in college.

-  I believe you CAN judge a book by it’s cover, and in fact, it’s one of the best ways to judge one! Again, your cover should appeal to your target audience.

-  With my character, Creed, I want to give you a guy who is hard to like, then force you to like him. Women make up 75 to 80% of my audience, and those in my target group get the fact that what Creed really needs in his life is the right woman. My readers are the right woman for a guy like Creed, and when they see him saying something dumb, or making a bad decision, they shake their heads and laugh--because every one of my female readers is smarter than Creed when it comes to relationships, and they know it. They think he’s rough, but worth saving.

-  I’m not writing for the masses, I’m writing to a specific audience. My audience likes my humor, understands my quirks, accepts my mistakes. They’re my closest friends. What better friends on earth can a person have than the people who love your books? I love--deeply and profoundly love--my readers, and I hope they love me, too. And Donovan Creed, despite our faults. I think they know our hearts are in the right place.

When that next book comes out, I’m hoping my family of readers will smile and say, “Hey--John’s home!” --and will welcome me with open arms. (--If this sounds like a silly fantasy to you, please don’t burst my bubble!)

-  Kindle represents 90% of my sales.

-  I praise a number of people on Twitter. I read their blogs and review their sites every chance I get. Sometimes I’m too busy to write each day, so I’ll save 10 or 15 comments and post them all at once. My friends forgive me for this, because when I see something I like, I mention it to my follow­ers, and they usually check it out.

-  You’re right in that marketing is often a matter of finding a need and filling it. In my case, I just wanted to write about this guy, Donovan Creed, and all the crazy people and situations he encount­ers. After I wrote my first three novels, I started trying to figure out who else in the world might like to get to know Creed.

-  It takes me 100 hours to write a series novel, 150 if it’s a new one, like Follow the Stone.

I sort of have a review committee: I send my manuscript to three people before publishing, to get their take. These people “get” my work, and are not afraid to tell me when something in the story isn’t working for them. I trust their instincts most of the time.

As for increasing the price of my downloads, I don’t want to. I’m charging my reader less than a penny for each hour of my writing, and think that’s a fair exchange. In other words, if you hate my writing, remember, it’s only 99 cents. You could buy a flippin’ Starbucks mocha latte, or 5 of my books!

-  Early on, more than a year ago, I offered a free book to the first 40 people who requested one on Twitter. Some were nice enough to give me reviews, though I didn’t ask for them. One thing I’ve learned since those days is to ask for reviews, though I haven’t given any freebies out.

-  With the exception of Lethal People and Saving Rachel, I have paid the author, Winslow Eliot, to edit my books. I feel more comfortable doing that, because every time another set of eyes sees your manuscript, they will find something that everyone else has missed.

-  As recently as September, my total book royalty income was, I believe, $47. People laughed at me, saying, “Why are you writing two more when you can’t sell the three you’ve already written?” I said, “When my audience finds me, they’re going to want five books, not three.”

-  99 cents will move ‘em off the fence.

-  In my experience, Kindle book buyers are extremely astute, and I agree there are many who seek to discover a new talent. For 99 cents, they will give indie authors like you and me a try.

-  The business model I was referring to is the idea itself: that your books can be offered on this world-wide platform for pennies, with all the accounting done for you, and you don’t owe any money until you make a sale. You don’t need an office, don’t need employees, or even a telephone. And for a one-time payment, you get a lifetime of income at a 35% royalty level. To me, it’s just an unbelievable business opportunity.

-  How do I outline my novels? I don’t really outline them, I “write” the novel in my head, then type it out a scene at a time, whenever I find myself with a couple of unencumbered hours. But I never sit down at the keyboard unless I know exactly what I’m going to type. Not word-for-word, but pretty close.

-  As for category, it would be great if your book fits in a thin one, where there is less competition. But you’re limited, since your book has to fit that category. The more precisely you can match, the more likely you’ll be able to find your target audience.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Do You Have A Brand?

   I began writing CANALS in 2004. I dragged myself out of bed every morning between five and five-thirty, booted up an old Windows 95 PC in the spare bedroom, and sat and forced myself to write. Writing almost every day, it took five months to complete the first draft.
   Writing CANALS was an experience I’ll always cherish. I thought I was going to be another Stephen King so I wrote CANALS the same way King writes, in the style he calls “a found thing” in his book On Writing. Other writers call it “by the seat of your pants” writing. I started with a premise but no plot.
   Countless times I sat at the computer, when it was pitch black outside, with no idea what would happen next. I’d force myself to type something, just to get started, and then an idea would come and off I’d go, galloping up to the next roadblock. It was thrilling.
   I edited the manuscript a couple of times and thought it was ready for primetime. It weighed in at 200K words. A bit long, I know, but I’d read many King books that were twice that and I like long reads.
   Sure my book would be snapped up by an eager publisher, I dreamt of large advances, book tours, appearances on The Tonight Show, and a vacation home on Maui. Most of all, I dreamt of a full-time writing career. I’d be like Dean Koontz and buy a house overlooking the ocean, with a writing room on the third floor.
   Out went the query letters, printed in 1200 dpi on fine stationary. I got an early hit; they asked for three chapters! The rejection letter must have been in the mail the same time as the sample chapters. I thought later a new intern likely asked for the pages as the info I had on the publisher said they didn’t publish books longer than 90K words.
   I received about twenty-five rejection letters, most tenth-generation photocopies--tacky and impersonal. One publisher sent a nice letter stating he liked the concept and was interested but the manuscript needed editing. The story “told” more than it “showed.” I had no idea what he meant but by then had given up. The digital file was backed up to a USB drive and the printed manuscript was banished to a shelf in the garage.
   Never at any time have I thought CANALS wasn’t a good story. I just thought I was a lousy salesman. Which I was.
   I was sure it was the genre; few publishers and agents list an interest in horror. And check out the bestseller lists, you rarely see a horror book in the top ten.
   Four years later I decided to write another book, this time a thriller. In fact, I told myself I would stick with the genre. Instead of wanting to be Stephen King, I now wanted to be John Sandford, my favorite thriller writer.
   I’ll save the story for my writing THE MIGHTY T for another day.
   I queried for THE MIGHTY T. While waiting to hear back from agents and publishers, I thought I’d resurrect CANALS now that I thought I knew a lot more about writing. Sure it’s length was a hindrance to it being published, I edited with a heavy hand and got it down to 145K. A lot of bad bloat was cut, words and scenes that added little or nothing to the plot.
   I queried for CANALS again, even tried to reconnect with the editor who’d written the personal letter. He was no longer there and Google had no idea where he’d gone.
   With an impressive pile of paper rejections, and a few megabytes of email rejections, for both manuscripts, I was discouraged and dejected. This would’ve been late 2009. I knew little about ebooks then and nothing about self-publishing other than I’d read agents and publishers look down their noses at writers who self-publish. Why I was concerned about what people who had no interest in my work thought of me is anyone’s guess.
   Then, in February 2011, I found Smashwords and eventually Jack Konrath’s blog, which I devoured. I bought Konrath’s philosophy, as well as John Locke’s, on how to successfully self-publish. I have a two-page crib sheet from a few Locke blogs and interviews I’ll throw up some day. Very enlightening.
   I decided to publish on Smashwords and chose to publish CANALS first. It would be my practice book. Once I learned the ropes I’d publish THE MIGHTY T and yank CANALS. Remember, I’d chosen to be a genre thriller writer; I thought it would be bad for thriller readers to find a horror book with my name on it.
   Is there a point, Everett, or does this post ramble on forever?
   The version of CANALS I published in March, 2011, while far better than the version I tried to get publishers to buy, was inferior to the version that’s now for sale. The editor was right: I had way too much telling and not nearly enough showing.
   Here are my points:
1. CANALS shouldn’t have been published in March. It’s not fair to ask people to pay for something that’s not polished. I apologize to the people who paid for that version, all five of you.
2. I’m flip-flopping on the “I’m a genre writer”. I’m currently writing a second Grant Starr thriller but I have no idea if I’ll write nothing but thrillers after that. This flip-flopping has me troubled. I’m not convinced it’s good for marketing.

   Here’s my question: If you’re a writer, have you defined your “brand”? Do you think having a brand is even important? I think it makes marketing your writing a lot easier.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

After Lightfoot: Restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley

O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Valley

After the exciting conclusion of THE MIGHTY T, I wrote a brief chapter that addressed several things. One was what happened to the Hetch Hetchy Valley after the terrorist John Lightfoot successfully destroyed the O'Shaughnessy Dam. Here is a excerpt from that chapter:

There were two camps of thought concerning the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. While they differed on everything else, they had agreed on a set of eight givens.
To create a solid base for the dam, Michael O’Shaughnessy had had to excavate 118 feet below the natural riverbed. If they removed all 118 of concrete, the river gradient would be too steep and the valley would quickly erode.
So the first given was, leave enough of the dam in place to restore the original stream gradient.
Sediment accumulation behind a dam is a major problem; it displaces water and is a huge environmental mess when the dam is removed, which all dams eventually will.
The second given was, Hetch Hetchy lacked sediment. The watershed forming the Tuolumne River is mostly granite rock, cut and formed by glaciers, covered with a thin layer of soil — there was little to wash into the valley. What little sediment there might have been over the years had already washed downstream because water was released from the bottom of the dam.
The second given leads into the third: because of the lack of sediment buildup, the original river channel still exists. Restorers didn’t have to worry about dredging a new channel, which they would have had to do if the valley was full of silt.
No one knew for sure what native flora and fauna existed in the Hetch Hetchy Valley circa 1920, but — the fourth given — whatever would’ve been living in the valley had the City of San Francisco not flooded it, probably still lived in the mountains and valleys around Hetch Hetchy. It was assumed these native plants and animals would, with time, find their way back into the valley.
The fifth given was simple: it would be impossible to prevent non-native plants from taking root. Yosemite Valley had forty-five non-native types of grasses, so it was silly to think Hetch Hetchy wouldn’t also.
The sixth given was, bugs and worms will return on their own.
Seventh given: no one knew what to do about the white bathtub ring around the valley, so they would have to be content to let nature figure it out.
Eighth and final given: little creatures might need help if there were too many bigger creatures around eating them. Everyone thought it would be okay to meddle by bringing in more little creatures, or removing a few big ones.

(This information came from a 1988 National Park Service study; I wanted the book to be as accurate as possible, keeping in mind it’s a work of fiction.)

The chapter also discusses two camps of thought regarding how the restoration should be managed: one camp says, keeping in mind the above givens, give Hetch Hetchy back to nature and let her make of it what she will. Man screwed it up in the first place by flooding the valley so he should keep his soiled hands off the restoration.

The second camp wants to micromanage the restoration and is split into two subcamps; some for managing with a light hand, others with a heavy hand. Those in favor of light management think it would be okay to meddle a little by replanting fora and re-populating fawna native to the area; give nature a helping hand.

Those who favor the heavy-handed management want to control everything. They would erect greenhouses and nurseries while the valley drained, then map out where everything would be planted. Then they would micromanage the valley forever.

All sides think Hetch Hetchy would, in 150 years, look like it would have had the City of San Francisco not flooded it in 1923. Except, of course for the fifty-foot white ring around the valley where the pure water had leached minerals from the granite mountains. It can be erased only by hundreds or thousands of years of erosion.

I’m not sure I agree. In all likelihood, the Hetch Hetchy Valley would have been developed in a similar manner as its big sister, Yosemite Valley. No doubt someone would have erected a hotel or two, paved roads would’ve been laid, and tourists would’ve been motoring through the valley, dirtying up the air.

A restored and protected Hetch Hetchy, save for the bathtub ring, might be an improvement on what might have been had man not intervened.

Albert Bierstadt's painting of Hetch Hetchy Valley

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Interviewed by Jay Krow - Check It Out Please

Author and blogger Jay Krow published an interview he did of me on his blog today. You can read it by clicking here.

I've done several "interviews" in the past month, but none have been personal like Jay's. He took the time to read THE MIGHTY T before he wrote the questions. I felt like I was being interviewed by Larry King, except Larry King probably didn't read the books he said he did.

Jay also takes the time to do careful book reviews. Please check out his blog if you get the chance.