Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

I finally got around to watching Ajin Season 2 (aired on Netflix in October 2016) [Note: spoilers ahead!]. After an exciting season 1, the new season of anime provides a little more character development, primarily for Izumi Shimomura, the female ajin working for Yū Tosaki at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Mr. Sato and his Ajin followers continue to provide more diabolical mayhem as they wage war on the Japanese government. An impressive villain, Sato is always one step ahead of his foes, outsmarting them at every turn. Overall, the episodes were fast-paced and enjoyable as I binge-watched them over a weekend.ajin-season-2-episode-1-sub

On the downside, some of the major plot turns felt somewhat contrived. Kei Nagai’s failure, crisis, and retreat are followed by a redoubling of his determination to beat Sato, but his renewed commitment seemed hollow, without much reason behind it other than the unflagging faith of an old friend.

Disappointingly, we don’t learn anything new of significance about the Ajin themselves. How did they come about? Do they have a higher purpose? Barring future seasons, I guess we’ll never know.

Another abrupt revelation is Sato is just playing a horrifying game. Rather than obtaining freedom for Ajin, we learn he really just craves the excitement of hunting and killing his enemies, turning everyone’s lives into a real-world video game. This plot turn seemed somewhat arbitrary. Even his followers seemed to acknowledge the change without much fuss and shifted gears into fighting against him too smoothly to seem real to me.maxresdefault

The ending was sufficiently dramatic and exciting, but then the epilogue undercut any satisfaction I felt at the story’s resolution—far from being contained, Mr. Sato pulled off another escape, and Nagai’s well-earned quiet life was on hold once again. This skewed ending was an off-key way to end the series IMO, or perhaps a clumsy way of leading into a potential season 3. Overall, those who enjoyed the first season will likely enjoy season 2 as well; however, I think it could have been better.

Writing Slow

Posted: January 19, 2017 in fiction, Writing
Tags: , ,

I am slow. My writing process reminds me of the fast food vs. slow food movements. You hear it a lot—be prolific, write fast, crank out books, series, new product funnels—the literary equivalent of fast food. But partly by choice, partly by nature, I’m a slow writer.

I’ve begun baking lately. The kind of bread I like, sourdough, requires long, slow fermentation to develop a more complex texture and richer flavor.

My writing is like that as well. I’ve spent the last year anslow-2d three months ruminating on the plot for my new book series, hundreds of pages of notes without a single page of prose so far. The plot turns and turns in my mind, my subconscious churning out useful bits and pieces here and there, as I weave the structure into greater complexity or reduce something overwrought into a more elegant simplicity.

Ok, I should be completely honest here—viewed from another angle, I turn the pieces of my story this way and that, add a piece here and there, but they won’t yet fit together—is this my process or failure? I vacillate between “this isn’t enough” and “this is too much”. I suspect this grinding, frustrating process is my road to a better book, but what if there is no better book? I can only quit or not. We’ll see.

slow-down-focusPerhaps a writer’s approach derives from the initial goal—why is he/she writing? To get paid, to become known, or something else? For me, I write as a test. Can I really write something that—had it come to me as a book written by someone else—my reader-self would have loved? The kind of book I would stay up late reading because I couldn’t put it down? I’m not sure if I’ll ever achieve that, and it’s impossible for me to know, since I can’t be truly objective about my own writing. I have to rely on other readers to provide a different kind of mirror, one with its own limitations (lovers and haters and what do you take from them?). Meanwhile, I inch forward on this quest, a literary tortoise hoping to win the race.fast_and_slow

While working on a story, I often get great ideas crystallizing along the edges of my main concepts and plot. Things that happened that led to the main events or that happen on the periphery. I’ve found when I struggle to consolidate the story, I sometimes reach a point where I realize much of what I’m considering background IS the story.

My seemingly irrational impulse is to avoid incorporating these important story elements. I label them background because they don’t fit the preliminary narrative structure I’ve crafted. Without knowing it, I’ve fenced myself in arbitrarily. This habit seems to arise from a passive side of my writing self. The same source of passivity responsible for my persistent desire to protect and coddle my protagonists when I should be casting them out into the cold to suffer and struggle.ba8406b875891caa38c61af88a072c6b

The good news is a quick, easy (sometimes) shift of perspective can pull all those important happenings into the story. Reorder events or expand the timeline (start earlier) to include them. Expand your scope (characters, setting, plot, etc.), skip from one key period to the next (sweeping transitions like Ten years later…).

This is the opposite of the commonly-held wisdom: start where the story starts—skip introductory background to where the action begins. While I agree skipping background is good advice in general (we don’t really need to know Stormwald’s family history before he’s accused of burning down his village and banished), I’ve found with my own writing, sometimes the action has started well before the point I thought it did. Star Wars is a good example. Georsample-timelinege could just as easily have told that story in chronological order, and it might have been as good or better. Beserk and its Golden Age sequence is another example. Right or wrong, I’m not a huge fan of starting in the middle and then jumping back in time. It’s a disruption for the reader and risks losing his/her attention. I do use this mechanism at times, but if I can avoid it, I will.

What’s more powerful? One character relating a past event to another, a flashback scene, or allowing the reader to experience the event firsthand as part of the main story? For a given character’s background, some important events in their preceding life can be worth writing into the story in some way. Here’s a clue you might need to re-evaluate your background: are you spending as much or more time describing events prior to your story’s start? Do you find yourself describing other places and/or people in great detail? If you’re struggling to define your story amid a sea of compelling details, it might be time to bring the background into focus.

 

I love beginnings! They unspool almost without effort from my brain. So much mystery with just a few words. Momentous events can be implied with a few lines description. Captivating characters step through a doorway radiating promise. What I hate (ok, perhaps hate is too strong a word)… what I cringe away from are endings. Those black holes at the end of my plot outlines that sit there like gaping craters. They’re hard to dealpicture-110-300x186 with those craters of emptiness, or worse, of weak plot I keep telling myself is good enough (writer’s instinct: listen, you fool, before it’s too late—that’s Swiss cheese you’ve written! It’s rotten through and through). There are quite a few books and movies out there that suffer from this syndrome. Why? Because writing a good ending isn’t easy. No, in today’s world of jaded readers and audiences suckled on amazing stories, it’s damn near impossible.

So what, I wondered (for the nth time), makes a good ending? With that question in mind, I began to jot down a list of my favorite stories and some notes about what made their endings stand out (I considered both final endings and endings of key plot sequences). Next, I divided them into ending components, and this is what I came up with (spoiler alert!):

Components of Great Endings:

Unexpected revelation (URn):

Wizard of Earth Sea: enemy revealed as something unexpected (Ged’s death).

Game of Thrones: Hodor’s big reveal. This is also another excellent example of tricking the reader, where the clue is laid down early on and becomes so routine the reader overlooks it until the final revelation when it all makes sense.

Unexpected ally (UA):

The Diamond Age: The main character is kidnapped, raped, fights her way out, and is rescued by the mouse army the reader thought was only imaginary.

Lord of the Rings [Helm’s Deep], Game of Thrones [battle at King’s Landing], Count Zero, Watership Down: hold off superior army, allies arrive to counter-attack [brought by one of the characters].

Conan the Barbarian: Arnold is almost overwhelmed by his enemy, but a Valkyrie (lover back from dead), intercedes, allowing Arnold to regain his footing and win the fight.

Beserk: rescue by the Skull Knight during “The Eclipse”.

Star Wars IV: Han returns to give Luke a hand right when he needs it most.

Note: to avoid a deus ex machina situation, the allies can’t make it too easy for the protagonist who should still struggle to overcome the problem.

Unexpected reversal (URl):

Blade Runner: Protagonist (Harrison Ford) faces final enemy, Roy (Rutger Hauer), cannot defeat him, yet Roy saves the protagonist’s life. Important note: in the very end, Roy gains a transcending appreciation for life, and thus, his saving his enemy’s life in understandable despite being unexpected.

Trickery (Trick):

Hunt for Red October: Sean Connery fakes the destruction of his Russian submarine so he can defect without hurting his crew while still maintaining the intel value of the stolen sub to the Americans.

Conan the Barbarian: initial phase of final battle using decoys to distract enemy soldiers.

Roadwarrior: in a change of heart, drives fuel tanker that turns out to be a decoy.

Almost Famous:  Penny Lane tricks Russel and viewer into thinking she sent Russel to meet her, only to find she really sent him to meet the protagonist.

Somewhat similar: Silence of the Lambs: viewer is tricked into thinking agents are coming to rescue the protagonist at the correct house, but it’s not the correct house. Just when she could really use the help, she’s on her own.

Note: there are two forms of trickery: fooling the antagonist and/or the reader/audience. In either case, the trick has to be clever and plausible.

Failure instead of success (FIS):

The protagonist must either succeed or fail, and failure isn’t an option. Or is it? This binary choice is a tough one for authors. LOTR solved it with a 3rd party (Gollum) and the ring’s evil, corrupting influence.  The ring defeats Frodo only for Gollum to take ring and unwittingly complete mission. It works because Gollum’s behavior is completely plausible having been laid down over the entire trilogy and its precursor, The Hobbit.

Endurance (End):

Wizard of Earth Sea: Ged pursues enemy to final confrontation (turns from fleeing to pursuing: hunted becomes hunter: courage).

The Road: enduring many travails, the protagonist finally dies (self-sacrifice in a sense) but first gets his son to safety.

True Detective: the first protagonist is stabbed by the big bad (seemingly mortally), but counter-attacks anyway, enough so protagonist #2 can assist, #1 kills big bad before he can kill #2.

Enemy Secret Weakness (ESW):

LOTR [final battle at Black Gate] and Star Wars IV and VI: attack superior enemy [but enemy has secret weakness that is exploited], enemy destroyed.

Sacrifice (SAC):

The Mission:  Robert De Niro sacrifices himself to save the village.

Harry Potter (end of last book): Harry sacrifices himself, but lives on to defeat enemy.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan sacrifices himself then is reborn and defeats enemy.

Hero Goes Alone (HGA):

The Man from Snowy River: the protagonist goes over cliff when no one else would, captures wild herd and clears his name.

Ripley in Aliens. It’s just her against the Queen.

Enemies Unite (EU):

The Storm Riders: Rival protagonists unite to defeat big bad who had manipulated them and betrayed them.

Endings can also be rated by various criteria. I’ve come up with five:

  • Difficulty (for the protagonist): I notice this a lot with stories I critique: beginning writers make things too easy for their protagonist. It’s almost as if they identify with their character so strongly, they can’t bear for anything bad to happen to them. I always advise they get over this tendancy and start throwing obstacles in their protagonist’s path. Unless the hero earns his/her victory, it won’t generate much enthusiasm from the reader.
  • Plausibility: Hollywood films are full of unbelievable plot devices, deus ex machina situations, or plots that just don’t make sense. An audience’s suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
  • Unexpectedness: everyone loves to be surprised. It’s a big part of the entertainment experience. While not easy to accomplish, it’s worth it (IMO) for an author to spend a lot of time making sure their story has some surprises in store.
  • Resolution: some stories have too much of this, others not enough. While every question doesn’t need to be answered, enough should be answered so the reader feels a sense of closure at the end.
  • Contribution (of the protagonist): It seems obvious the protagonist should do the most towards resolving the story’s major problem, but that’s not the case in some stories.

Using these criteria, I rated some stories. The results are completely subjective, but it allowed me to think more clearly about why I liked the endings of some stories, but not others.

plot-criteria-table

To take it even further, I used my ratings to create the figure below. Ideally, a story should be as close to the outer edges of the pentagon as possible.

 

plot-pentagram

The Greatest Endings:

In the final analysis, I find the greatest endings often:

  1. Combine more than one of the components above.
  2. Are nested like Matryoshka dolls, one surprise and/or escalation opens within/after another.
  3. Are complex and nuanced—some joy and some pain, some victory, but also some loss (you see where I’m going with this).
  4. Surprise the reader/audience. The unexpected is essential, but more difficult to pull off well as time goes on and audiences become more savvy. Surprises must (IMO) have their groundwork laid out well in advance, so the unexpected event makes immediate sense and doesn’t come off as a badly-done twist ending.

Tips for Developing Your Endings:

  1. Warning (advice gained the hard way): if you don’t have at least a rough idea of your ending as you write, you’re likely to end up having to do some major re-writing by the time you’re done. Having to do those re-writes is probably healthy for the story at that point, but if you can avoid re-writing in the first place, I’m all for it.
  2. Think of an ending for your story. Odds are your first idea is trite, simplistic, too easy for the protagonist(s), and uninspiring (I speak from personal experience). What now? Think of another ending. Then another, another, and more. To make it easier, start tearing apart every assumption about your plot, every turning point, every fork in the road. If they steal a ship, what if they build it instead? If the aliens can’t speak English, what if they know Japanese? Take your plot endings and “break” them, twist them, reverse them, etc. Besides the fun of morphing old, tired ideas into something new, it’s a great way to force yourself to expand your thinking. Theodore Sturgeon put it well when he suggested writers “Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that.” While you can apply this process at any point in your writing, I think it’s especially useful for plotting endings, whether it’s the end of your book or just an important scene.
  3. Make a table or list of the ending components in your book or series (see example below) for each character arc and/or major plot. This will at least force you to think through the various endings. Are you using the same ending components too many times? If so, this is a quick way to see that early on when you can easily rethink the plot.

ending-table

  1. Don’t feel you can’t use a plot device just because it’s already been used. It may even be true, as some say, that no new plots exist. What you want is to use that plot device in your way, putting your own unique style, spin, or stamp on it. That’s really the one thing you have people will value the most—you (see, even that advice is trite!).

And here we are,

The End

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Have you ever heard an inner voice whisper while you’re writing?

This is boring.

Why are you doing this?

Why do you need this?

Something’s missing.

This doesn’t make sense.

He/she/it wouldn’t do this.

This isn’t enough.

I don’t mean the loud, “This sucks—no one wants to read this” voice. That one, I regularly reject.whisper-408482_960_720

No, this is the quiet voice you barely hear over the steady roar of your mind’s creative process. The voice it’s easy to override, not pay attention to, or rationalize away. Luckily, it usually comes back. I’ve learned to disregard this voice at my peril. In one case, I flat out ignored this voice, even when a critiquer echoed it (you’re ending the story too soon). But when an editor said the same thing, I finally gave in. She was right, the critiquer was right, and so was my inner voice. Much work, time, and editing cost later, I fixed the problem and vastly improved the story as a result.

What did I learn from this? Pay attention to that inner voice. It may be quiet, but it’s wise and usually right on the money. Call it your inner editor, a writer’s instinct, or maybe a hidden muse. Whatever it is, give it a listen. It may be pointing out exactly what your story needs.

I love being caught up in a “new” series on Netflix. In this case, said series is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a British alt-history/fantasy TV miniseries based on a best-selling novel by Susanna Clarke (Alert! Mild spoilers ahead). Set in 19th-century England, the series’ premise is English magic has been gone from the land for some 300 years after the departure of the Raven King. Since that time, only street magicians and charlatans have been in evidence. The series opens as the only living magician in England, Mr. Norrell (played by Eddie Marsan), decides to make himself known to the public with the ultimate goal of making English magic respectable. Just his stated goal was enough to perk my ears with memories of the Weasley brothers’ antics at Hogwarts. Might more mischief be afoot in this series? I suspected it would. Conflict arises when it turns out Norrell is not the only, living, English magician. There is another, Mr. Strange (Bertie Carvel), who seeks to become Norrell’s pupil.

Television - Strange and Norrell

Although I’ve only watched a handful of episodes so far, I’ve already noticed more than enough instances of excellent storytelling. For starters, the series juxtaposes its two protagonists perfectly: Strange is a natural magician—a prodigy of the magical arts for whom magic comes without much effort. Indeed, Strange becomes a magician almost by accident (or so it would seem). Strange is handsome, curious, and adventurous, whereas Norrell is a serious, gnome-like man who has worked in obscurity for decades  studying every book of magic he can lay his hands on. Where Strange is bold, Norrell is timid. Where Strange is loving, Norrell is asocial, preferring the company of his precious books. However, Norrell is also quietly proficient, calculating, and committed to his goal even if others are hurt in the process. He has the qualifications of a villain, but a more subtle one than I typically encounter.

Another aspect of this series I admire is how it eschews the usual coupling of magic and secrecy. There is no prohibition against use of magic in front of muggles here—these magicians cast spells publically, to the extent they are recruited by the government and Strange is enlisted in the war effort. His magical acts prove decisive in the war between England and France, although in unexpected ways. The magic itself utilizes enough special effects to seem well done IMO, but is also presented in clever ways such as a card trick gone peculiar in the first episode.

Extra villainy is provided by a malevolent fairy (Marc Warren) reminiscent of David Bowie’s goblin king (minus the cod piece and tights). The rest of the cast shine as well, including a head butler, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare), whose impeccable manners are put to the test when he is tricked into serving the fairy king, and a convincing rogue, John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), who succeeds in adding a sinister element.

Finally, for those who miss Hogwarts, there is a sub-plot to establish a school of magic. Let’s hope it succeeds!

(Or…The Best Book Promotion Sites: What Do the Data Show?)

I expected something to happen when I self-published The Farthest City, my first novel—internet accolades, awards, maybe even a parade. Yeah, not so much. New books are published on Amazon every day, and mine was just one of them. After an initial, minor flurry of downloads, my novel sat there on its virtual shelf gathering dust with only the occasional download.1280px-military_laser_experiment

I wasn’t expecting to make much money. What I really wanted, craved, was for someone to read it and tell me they liked it (or even that they didn’t like it). Very few reviews materialized despite my incessant checking.

After doing some research, I found some common approaches other authors recommended for getting those much sought after reviews:

  1. Ask your family and friends for reviews. Some authors advocate this approach. Others say it’s a waste of time and only results in questionable reviews that Amazon might reject anyway. I side with the latter camp for the most part. I didn’t want people I knew to feel obligated to review a book they might not even like. I decided I really wanted genuine reviews.
  2. Pay a review service. This seems to be a huge trend. You’re connected to readers, give them a free copy, and hope they leave a review. At the urging of the review service, these reviews typically come with a “I received this book free in exchange for an honest review.” I tried one of these (one for a fee, one free), and received some good reviews. However, I’ve seen some books where the majority of the reviews contain the disclaimer, and I suspect readers may be wary upon seeing too many of these.
  3. Request book bloggers review your book. This seemed promising, and it has worked for me to some extent. It really becomes a question of how much effort you’re willing to devote, and possibly how much mass appeal your book has. Based on my searches, the majority of book bloggers review either romance or young adult. For my novel, a work of adult science fiction, and not a typical one in some ways, I found the majority of book bloggers weren’t interested. Either they declined after reading my plot synopsis, or they had too many books to read already, or they just never responded at all. That being said, from the reviewers who did agree to review my novel, I received some wonderful reviews. Book bloggers tend to write more in-depth reviews which is nice IMO, as it gives prospective readers more information than the typical 1-2 line reviews most readers leave (I’m happy to get those as well, of course!). In the end, as of the date of this blog post, I sent out 157 e-mail requests to book bloggers (after reading their review criteria and thinking my novel might fit) and received 8 or so reviews. Overall, a lot of time spent searching through book blogger lists, sending e-mails, and in some cases mailing books. I do recommend this method, if you’re willing to put in the time.
  4. Get genuine reviews from people who read your book without any interaction with you whatsoever (I call these spontaneous reviews). By this, I mean either they bought it, or downloaded it for free during a promotion. For me, this proved to be another crucial route to getting genuine reviews. But how do you get these? I wasn’t getting a lot of sales, and I hadn’t found Amazon free and countdown promotions (limited to Amazon Select members and even then you only get 5 promotion days for every 90 day period) to be very helpful. A typical Amazon promotion netted me a few hundred free downloads and almost no reviews. Of course, there are myriad promotion sites available that will run e-mail, Twitter, and website campaigns to promote your book for a fee. But which ones are the most effective? Other than reading accounts by other authors, I had no clue (many authors run multiple promotions simultaneously which doesn’t allow them to differentiate performance). Eventually, I decided to try an experiment. I made my novel “perma-free” (many other excellent articles explain how to do that) and ran a series of promotions (mostly paid) through the summer one by one to compare how effective each was. Throughout this experiment, I tracked daily downloads and reviews.downloads-summer

In the end, I spent $406 on promotions, 12 paid and 2 free, yielding 12895 downloads and 47 Amazon reviews over 104 days (including reviews on Amazon UK, Canada, and Australia). The baseline average daily downloads (excluding all promotion dates and following two days) was 57. The best predictors of promotion success were Alexa ranks (global and US, lower ranks being better), although neither was a perfect indicator. Neither price nor change in Alexa rank were good indicators (although my best promotion, freebooksy.com for $70, was also the most expensive). For comparison, Bookbub (generally talked about as the best promotion site, as well as being very expensive) had lower global and US Alexa rankings than any of the promotions I used. My own Reddit and Twitter blasts (both free) yielded 236 downloads the day of. As an aside, a few of the promotions included Twitter blasts of their own; however, despite the flurry of tweets, I never saw a corresponding increase in downloads.downloads-table

You might say: you just gave away over 12,000 copies of the novel you spent years working on. And I would agree. But my realization was, if I wanted people to read The Farthest City, not to mention review it, I had to get it out there, into people’s hands. How better to do that than by offering it free? Through that process, I’ve received some amazing reviews from people who clearly enjoyed reading it enough to write glowing reviews and even to e-mail me. That’s gratifying, and in a way, makes it all worth it to me.

One drawback I have to mention is if you’re giving your novel away free, there will be people who download it, hate it, and leave a stinging review (as opposed to book bloggers or review services where, I believe, reviewers are less likely to leave really bad, 1-star reviews). I received some 1-star reviews. Generally, they’re very short reviews, and I think they validate all your other reviews in a sense. Clearly this book is getting out to unbiased readers. So even there, you have a silver lining.downloads-vs-price

Another caveat is I am writing this post from the perspective of a completely unknown self-published author (no fan base, no e-mail list, no publisher support or connections). Although I’m happy with the resulting reviews, it’s still a daunting fact I only received one Amazon review for every 274 free downloads.  This could be a measure of the book: the better the book, the more likely people are to write reviews. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if professional, full-time authors simply produce better books that people are more likely to review. Alternatively, it could be people are getting burned out by frequent requests to review every product they purchase.downloads-vs-alexa-global

However, I suspect it’s at least as much about marketing and publicity and that sought-after viral marketing. Is your book good enough for one reader to recommend it to another? Have you had a lucky break and had your book receive some media attention?

Many authors say it also depends on how many books you’ve written, what kind of footprint you have out there in the marketplace of books. A one-book author probably won’t draw as much attention as an author with several. Maybe it takes several books for a reader to get really committed to and excited about a series and its author.downloads-vs-alexa-us

After accumulating 47 reviews on Amazon (and a smaller number on iBooks and B&N), my guess is the distribution of reviews (5- vs. 1-stars, etc.) won’t change that much, and I’m happy if that proves to be true. Now that the experiment has concluded, The Farthest City is no longer free. I’m now trying out advertising (Google AdWords). If I learn anything interesting from this new phase, I’ll be sure to pass it on.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you’re an author yourself. Do you have any book promotion experiences you can share? What worked? What didn’t?