Ventriloquism: Or, Trying to Recapture my Early-Story Voice

August 14, 2017

I’m in the process of editing Their Sharpest Thorns, a horror book that is horror in the more traditional sense.  As I’ve written this novel, I’ve realized that this story will require a lot of editing — not just editing to provide more clarity of voice, but also to augment the initial tale.  That’s right, I’m editing in an attempt to add words.

It has been my experience that it is difficult to remove words.  I always want to keep my pearls, and always think that my novels show a cohesion that makes it difficult to remove any links in the chain.  Adding words is even more difficult, as I am trying to add something to my story without inherently changing the story.  The problem, more often than not, is that adding words does change the story — not necessarily because I’m adding plot, but because I’m adding a voice.  There’s two ways in which adding words adds voices.  Of course, added characters or expanded characters add voices to the voiceless.  Whether a TV show like Family Guy or a book like Game of Thrones, characters who were not so important in the early going become more important as the story goes on.  Beyond this, a person’s literary voice is always changing.  Yes, we all have our styles, but there are subtle changes that occur from project to project.  The deeper I get into a project, the more I tend to interject dialogue.  Action gets tighter, description gets sparser, and characterization becomes starker.  Now, months into a project, I am trying to add a character after the fact, and one of the most difficult things to do is to try to recapture my early story voice.  Thus, I am adding a voice to my story, while trying to recapture the early-story voice of my narrative.

I haven’t shared much about this story recently, in part because I’ve hit this voice-related block. I expect to share more this week, and will go Facebook Live at some point in the middle of the week.  Until then, faithful readers, thank you for the kind words and thoughts.

Review: The Dark Tower (2017 Film)

August 8, 2017

On Saturday, my wife and I went to see The Dark Tower, the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, specifically The Gunslinger.  I’d read a lot of negative things about the movie, and was worried that the movie would devolve into one of those characteristic “1/4 plot, 3/4 fight scene” movies that seem to have infiltrated all of my favorite genres and franchises.  The short run time had me doubly concerned.  Nevertheless, I didn’t come away from the movie feeling particularly cheated.  In fact, I think that the movie was good for what it was.  At least, it didn’t try and fail to remain faithful to any one book.  Instead, it was the spiritual successor to The Gunslinger with a little bit of everything else thrown in for good measure.

I may not be doing my job as a long-time Stephen King aficionado, as I am not absolutely gushing over the movie.  Still, I showed up in my favorite Megan Lara shirt — probably the only one in the theater to do so, and ignored everything I’d read to that point.  I would have expected a full house on this first weekend, and was amazed that our local screening still had plenty of empty space.  We sat next to a few stoner teens.  We didn’t need to ask those teens whether they were fans, as they were chattering about their confusion pretty much as soon as they sat down.  It didn’t matter to me.  This was the weekend that I’d circled on my calendar months ago, and nothing was going to stand in the way of me getting a sense for the overall film.

First thing’s first: I’d recommend going to the film, if only to see how thousands of pages can be condensed into 95 minutes.  At the same time, I’d warn any Dark Tower reader that there’s things that you’ll enjoy, and things that will bother you a bit.  I’ve come up with five positive aspects and six negative aspects to consider if you’re on the fence.

As some of these deal with the climax or end of the film, or deal with novels outside of The Gunslinger, I’ll have to slap one big SPOILER ALERT to everything that you read below.  If you’re the type of person who hates spoilers, then this is what I recommend: read the bold text and then go see the movie.  You can get back to this later.

Things The Dark Tower Did Right:

1.) Continuity Nods: Granted, I probably didn’t catch everything, as it might take a few stop frames to do so, but the production crew certainly put in a few details that are nods to other books in the series or other Stephen King books.  the number 19 comes up several times. As does 1408, a nod to a Stephen King short story.  We don’t hear about “the beam” in quite the same way, but we get to see a beam of light attack the tower.  They refer to “the shine” more than they do in the books, which is a nod to The Shining and Dr. Sleep.  Finally, there’s a small discussion in which Roland draws a wheel with the Dark Tower at its hub, evoking a favorite saying about “Ka,” his world’s answer to fate.

2.) Casting Idris Elba as Roland Deschain: I’ll get grilled for this one in certain circles.  Yes, Roland was supposed to be a skinny, tall dude with piercing blue eyes.  Elba is at least tall, scraping the skies at 6’3″.  He’s not exactly skeletal, and it looks like the man could handle himself at the weight bench.  I think that the thing that really makes Elba stand out is his gravitas.  Yes, you could get someone like Keanu Reeves out there to play the role of the solemn hero, but Elba lends power behind his solemnity.  The only thing that I didn’t like about his characterization is the implication that this would have for a future conflict between Roland and Detta Walker. My wife would also mention that Roland smiles too much (i.e., at all).

3.) Streamlined characterization: Considering that they’ve pulled five books into one film, they did a great deal to make the movie less complex.  There’s no Eddie, no Odetta or Detta or Susannah, and no Susan Delgado, either.  As far as Roland goes, there is no love interest — or any real interaction with women.  Jake makes eyes at a young girl, but the story relegates most characters, outside of Roland, Jake, and “Walter” to the third string.  The only “second stringers” are Jake’s mother and (maybe) Sayre.   Considering how much they’ve condensed, it’s surprising that none of Roland’s other ka-tet is even mentioned.

4.) Shift in Focus: Do you want to make a movie with mass appeal? Put a kid in it.  Yes, The Gunslinger included Jake.  However, Jake doesn’t appear until the waystation.  He becomes important to the story, and to Roland’s characterization, as Roland nears The Man in Black, but that’s it.  The Dark Tower movie focuses on Jake, and starts with Jake’s experience, wherein he sees things that are not of his world.  Jake’s quotation from the book “there are other worlds than these” does not appear in the film (except on the promotional poster), but it is reflected within the movie — just in the reverse of what one might expect.

Ultimately, this aids in making viewers relate to the movie.  By the time they’ve seen the film, viewers have either been a teenage boy or have met one.  They have not met an otherworldly gunslinger.  Some purists may hate this switch, but I understand it.  One stoned-off-his-gourd guy sitting near me quipped that the movie was like Harry Potter.  I can understand this; the tropisms are evocative of Harry Potter, for all of the right reasons.

5.) Left It Open Ended: If this is all that we get of The Dark Tower, then at least we’ve seen a little of everything.  However, this movie is like a new series Dr. Who episode in the sense that the story resolves the main plot, but leaves with the characters ready to go on another adventure.  In this way, the movie does something that we don’t always see in individual books within the series — it ties together everything that needs to be tied together.

Things The Dark Tower Movie Did Wrong:

1.) Run time: I like long books.  I also like long movies.  I’m not talking about Lawrence of Arabia long, but 90 minute run-times are usually reserved for comedies, not epic action-fantasies.  Heck, Superbad was 1h 53 minutes, that’s 18 minutes longer than The Dark Tower.  Eighteen minutes would have been just enough time to add some backstory about how Roland knows The Man in Black, or why Stephen Deschain and Walter were at odds.  Eighteen minutes could have been enough time to show The Man in Black hold greater dominion over his underlings, or create an extended fight scene between Roland and The Man in Black.  1 hour 35 minutes was just a bit too short for the genre.

2.) Fight Scene Rather than Palaver:  In The Gunslinger, Roland’s interactions with the Man in Black are less about the fight than they are about the testing of wits.  As much as Roland’s struggle is a physical journey, it is also a psychological challenge.  In the book, Roland kills everybody in Tull after The Man in Black has poisoned their minds, but he only has a brief physical fight with The Man in Black, everything else is verbal.   In the movie, Walter’s silver tongue is nothing compared to his telekinesis.  Yes, he uses the power of suggestion multiple times for some important scenes, but the last scene is only a fight of the mind in the sense that Walter’s telekinesis is moving things with his mind.

3.) Condensed Narrative: It was clear that the writers were trying to get as many nods in to the book series as they could before their run-time was over.  After all, if this is all that we, Dark Tower fans, get, then it might as well have a little bit of everything.  We didn’t get Shardik, the giant bear, but we did get some forest predator.  We didn’t get Roland slipping into the mind of Jack Mort, but we did get him raiding a gun store.  We didn’t get his reunion with Sheemie, but we did get a look at the psionic blasts directed at the Dark Tower.  With items spanning five books, The Dark Tower series may need to reshuffle some material, or bring in new material entirely, in order to help frame any future installments.

4.) Too Much New York: Yes, New York has a few vital scenes in the series, but there isn’t anything except a little backstory until The Drawing of the Three.  Before Roland meets Eddie, he doesn’t spend any time in New York.  During this iteration, much of the action takes place in New York.

5.) Too Little Backstory: Aside from the encounter in Tull, one of the major omissions from the movie is Roland sharing what life was like in Gilead before the fall.  There is no mention of Roland’s mother, nor of Roland’s ability to outsmart Cort.  We get much more about Jake’s background, something that we only briefly glimpsed in the novel, than we get of Roland.  This, in part, works to the movie’s great benefit, but I think it comes as a great detriment to Roland’s characterization.

6.) No Oy! For everything that The Dark Tower introduces out of sequence, the one thing that bothered me the most was not the inclusion of the house, or too much time spent outside of Mid-World, it was the ommission of a little billy-bumbler named Oy.  The creature, which is like a domesticated raccoon, is the mascot, if not an important character, for Roland and his cadre of travelers.

For Kacie

August 4, 2017

Hello Faithful Readers:

I am sorry for the long delay.  Things have been very busy over here.  I have various projects, and my work time is starting to bleed into my home time.  Of course, what do I end up doing with all of these projects?  I end up procrastinating,   I end up researching dead-ends that go on forever, and I end up watching clips of the Simpsons on YouTube before I nod off.  Ironically, I was never as much of a Simpsons fan as my friends.  That’s not why I’m here this evening.  I’m here to gather my thoughts and write a fond farewell to a colleague of mine in the hopes that she will see this.  Sure, she’ll get a card, but this will be a bit more free-flowing.

No, no, she’s not dying or anything — heaven forbid.  My day-job editor of the past two years is retiring.  She is the first person to retire from my company in the six-plus years that I have been there.  We’ll replace her, sure, but we’ll never quite replace her.  I know I talk about my work life on here more than I should.  Ironically, I don’t like talking about work and I don’t intend to talk about work when I blog. If you’d like to learn a little about my colleague, read on.  If you’re looking for any of my regular features, on writer’s websites, my writing, or any writing, I’ll catch you next time!

With Kacie being such a film fan, and a benchmark film in my life on the horizon (Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, as if you couldn’t guess), I put two and two together and here I am.

Thank you, faithful readers.  Keep reading, and keep writing!

~Jim

For Kacie

In a past life, I was the editor at this company, my current employer.  Because of this, I was now on the interview committee whenever we needed a new editor.  I’d interviewed and recommended several people as my replacements. Some turned out good, and some were… well, let’s not dwell on that.  Kacie came into our office and breathed life into a place that some had (not so) jokingly called a morgue.  Her cheer was a salve that helped smooth over some rough patches and help get our motley collection of cogs working harmoniously once again.

I remember when Kacie first came into our lives.  It was a hot day, and our building had invoked Murphy’s Law; we’d gone without air conditioning for perhaps the first day that we’d ever actually needed such a thing.  I was out of practice with interviewing people, and had added perhaps a few too many questions to my standard repertoire.  She’d answered all of the questions that I had in great depth, and added levity to the interview that few will do in such a situation.  It was the perfect interview; not only was she not desperate for the job, she had another more pleasant alternative facing her if she didn’t get the job: retirement.  She interviewed because she wanted the job, not because she was in any great rush to jump back into work. After what must have been an hour of interviews that included our other team members, I gave her a test; this test was toward the end of a long day for us, as well, and it was something that I’d had to compose just a few hours earlier (as our old test had disappeared).  Thank you, Kacie, for your patience that day, and thank you for your candor!

It was remarkable!  Here was an editor candidate who not only admitted that spelling wasn’t a particular strength, but joked that what set her apart as a candidate was her age!  She did well on the editing test, but she’d already done so much to win us over.  Two years ago, we were happy to see her come aboard; now, two years later, we’re sorry to see her say goodbye.  Thank you, Kacie, for winning us over, and proving our gut feelings right!

One thing that is inherent in my position (as well as suited to my talents) is silence.  I often work for hours without any interaction with my colleagues — not because I don’t relish it, but because it’s what I need to do my job particularly well.  I go in, plug in, and stay quiet.  Every morning, and on many evenings, she would come into my office and chat about affairs of the World, music, books, and most of all… movies.  I couldn’t add much to the latter, as my taste in movies extends all of the way from Highlander to (hopefully) The Dark Tower. However, I’d hear something about a new movie about once per week.  It was interesting, because Kacie should have been a movie critic or a book critic, and probably would have been one of the two if our local paper still had such a thing. Every conversation would leave me thinking about something new about characterization, remind me about mood and tone, and about the way good fiction can raise your spirits.  For all of that and more, I want to thank Kacie for breaking the silence.

I was always happy to put little factoids into my work, because I knew that she’d pick up on them and make comments.  I’d even put in a few quips or some flowery language because I knew that it would give her a laugh.  For reference, I almost never put such a thing in my business writing before, and may have to curb what little I do now that she’s on her way out.  As I look at my latest business writing, a task that I am also addressing as I draft this, I think back to the last little easter egg that I’ve written: “Defining success takes much more than a feeling.”  Yes, it’s subtle, but isn’t that what we strive for as writers?  Thank you, Kacie, for laughing at those intended references, and even those that I never intended in the first place.

SIDE NOTE: One of these days, someone should figuratively hit their audience over the head with the symbolism of… a brick.

Unfortunately, I am under the weather. I am running short on evening hours, and do not want this to be a prolonged illness.  I would like to write more, but my energy level is waning, and I want to wrap this up before I set it aside.  Thus, I must abruptly bid you adieu. I hope you have all enjoyed this small tribute to Kacie.

Thank you, Kacie. The team will miss you.

Make Writing a Practice

July 17, 2017

“Listen, we’re talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, we talking about practice.” – Allen Iverson, 2002

Outside of writing, my one most consistent hobby over the years has been playing basketball.  For the past six years, I’ve been a part of an ever-changing group of guys that gets together once a week to shoot hoops at a local gym.  There’s a few hard-liners from when I arrived on the scene — men who are now in their forties or fifties and have been playing together since long before I knew any of them.  When I was showing up regularly, getting my shots in, and taking care of everything else, I was playing good basketball — not the best of my life, but far better than you’d expect for someone who’d spent the better part of a decade away from the game.

Now, as one of the relative old-timers, I’ve seen a lot of players come and go.  A few years ago, a trio of brothers started playing with us.  The baby brother, one who was far more athletic than his older brothers, was like a puppy running across the court.  Then in his early twenties, he had only fairly recently picked up basketball as a hobby, and it showed.  He could run circles around most of us old codgers, could nearly touch the rim from a standing start, and had some of the quickest hands and feet in the gym.  Sure, he’d draw blood half of the time he tried to steal the ball, but there was no getting around this kid’s athleticism.  The problem was that he didn’t know basketball.  He’d pick up the ball and travel half of the time he tried to drive to the basket, and you didn’t need to defend him for any shot outside of (maybe) ten feet; you simply needed to box him out for the miss.  Even lay-ups were somewhat of a 50-50 proposition.

After the brothers were established as regulars, they started to miss a few games; months passed by and I didn’t see the little brother.  Part of it came down to a few absences on my part, and part of it came down to a change in his work schedule.  Then, one day, he was back on the court.  I was guarding him, and he pulled up from about 20-feet away (we don’t have a three point arc, so it’s tough to say).  I waited for the shot release and immediately boxed him out.  There was no need.  Swish.  A few plays later, he tried the same thing, but I was guarding him for the shot.  He put the ball on the floor, and got around me.  A friend came over to help me on defense, and this young man pulled up for a fifteen footer.  Maybe he banked it in, I don’t remember.  What I do remember is thinking “uh-oh, now this guy can shoot.  What do I do now?”

At the end of the night, after he finished piling up the points, I asked him if he’d been working on his shot.  He said “not particularly, but I’ve been playing every day.”

Sometimes, I forget how much impact an everyday habit can make. However, seeing this young man go from a “kid” who looked like he’d never played the game to a legitimate scoring threat made me realize that many of the players on the floor were still improving because they were able to get there on the hardwood/blacktop every day.  Writing is very much like playing pick-up basketball every day.  You won’t win every time, and there’s a lot of “meaningless games” in between you and your goal, but turning in 100 words per day or 2,000 words per day will help you become a better writer — eventually.

In retrospect about the past decade of writing, I think that the best writing that I’ve ever done came when I was committing 2,000 words per day to paper.   Not all of it was beautiful, and only about two-thirds of it survives, but I was a far better writer because I practiced.  If you haven’t yet made writing every day a habit, do yourself a favor and try it. You’ll thank yourself later.

(And, because basketball related puns are mandatory… “Give it a shot!”)

 

Website Tour: Gillian Flynn

July 14, 2017

Apologies for the delay, folks!  A few late nights at work have thrown my writing schedule off!  I am back with another website tour.  As you now know, I’ve discussed some of the best practices for author websites.  Along the way, I’ve taken a sampling of author websites and identified what works and what does not work about their sites.  The latest stop on the tour is acclaimed thriller author Gillian Flynn.

Gillian Flynn

You may have heard of Gillian Flynn.  Her Gone Girl book is just one of several critically acclaimed novels, and is her first work to be adapted into a motion picture.  Two of her other books have also been optioned into visual media, with Dark Places reaching theaters in 2015.  In 2016, Ms. Flynn released The Grownup; this was on Amazon’s bestseller list when I started my website critiques about a month ago, and is the next stop on this author website tour.

Ms. Flynn’s website opens under a large banner, one that takes up half of the screen.  Below that Flynn has a number of basic buttons and pulldown menus, followed by the image of her book, a brief list of its accolades, and her picture.  Her pull-down menus include a few interesting tidbits: a section titled “For Readers” and a button for contact information.  The remaining buttons / pulldowns, including “Home,” “Books,” “About Gillian,” and “News & Events” are everything I’ve come to expect from an author site.

The Good:

The “For Readers” section is a riot, regardless of whether she is trying to be sarcastic or trying to be serious. The section includes a short blog post that introduces her.  It’s riotously funny, and makes Ms. Flynn out to be someone that you wouldn’t want to invite into your home — or would you? She tells some personal details that some might find offensive, but she does it with a point.  If nothing else, it illustrates her sharp wit and frankness.

The other item of interest is a little box at the side, which includes book club questions for her first three novels. I love this idea, as Ms. Flynn has made the effort to help extend the conversation surrounding her book.  Some of these questions are softball questions, yes, but some of them are the type of questions that you would find in any undergraduate literature course – particularly the literary analysis courses. Here, you find a variety of reader response questions, but also questions about symbolism, themes, and other open-ended questions.  In essence, Ms. Flynn is doing what you see in a lot of websites for other disciplines: she’s supplementing her product (the book) with questions that help extend the book beyond the words on the page.

The Bad:

There’s not much to hate with this site.  It centers upon the books, helps you form a “relationship” with the author, and is generally pleasant in its aesthetics. There are two things that I don’t like, and they both relate to what you see above the fold.

First, the only description we get about her most recent novel, The Grownup, is just a list of Ms. Flynn’s other books and accolades.  The same can be said for information about her other books – at least eight bullet points each about sales figures and accolades, but nothing to tell you about the books themselves, unless you click on the books to go to the books’ separate pages.  As a sub-point to this, the only other information we receive about the book is a list of websites and brick-and-mortar stores where one can buy The Grownup. At least she’s fairly subtle about it, but it is still very much verboten in my mind.

The other item I don’t care for is the size of the banner. This is splitting hairs, yes, but the banner takes up a little less than half of what you see above the fold.  From the perspective of aesthetics, this makes the page itself less busy, but it also means that not much information exists on the page’s first screen.

The Verdict: With a few minor flaws, Gillian Flynn’s website does exactly what it is supposed to do.  There are a few nice additions, including the humorous essay and the series of questions for reading groups, but the website does what it sets out to do well.  It isn’t the kind of site that will knock you out with visuals or with features, but both form and function meet an author website’s needs.

To visit Ms. Flynn’s website, click here.

Mr. Owen Ventures into Podcasting

July 9, 2017

Author’s Note: Apologies for the delay.  The July 4th holiday (America’s Independence Day) has fouled up my schedule, and I am trying to get back on track.  This coming week is going to be very busy for me, but I hope to post another author website feature on Wednesday.

Jim “James” Owen’s podcast appeared on Wednesday, July 5, 2017.  To hear it, click here.

Four months ago, I answered a post on Nanowrimo about being part of a podcast.  A few missed connections later, I was moving forward with my first foray into voice media since I was broadcasting basketball games at my college’s radio station.  I was on my way toward being a guest on The Modern Meltdown (For more about the Modern Meltdown, click here), an entertainment website that has scores of podcasts about everything from books and movies to video games.

It was not necessarily an easy process, as The Modern Meltdown is Australian, and Holly Hunt, the host of the Beyond the Words (click here) podcast, resides in Canberra. Canberra is seventeen hours ahead of the Bay Area, my stomping grounds.  Thus, 12:05AM Thursday here is 5:05PM Friday there, and 7AM here is 2AM the next day there, and so on.  Due to this significant time difference, and the fact that we both work more or less regular hours, either a Skype call or a phone interview would be out of the question.  I had to get creative, as I was looking forward to this opportunity, and I wasn’t about to let a time difference get in the way.  Thus, I had to make my own recording studio.

My Makeshift Recording Studio

Over the years, I have also done some recording for my company’s webinars.  Through this process, I’ve grown accustomed to using Audacity.  Audacity (click here) is a free, open source digital audio recording software package that has editing capabilities.  Designed and released in 2000, this package may not have great aesthetics, but basic capabilities are easy to find and intuitive to use.  All I needed was a microphone.

One of the problems that I’ve noted is that a lot of computer microphones don’t pick up bass nearly as much as they pick up higher registers, which makes my voice sound nasally.  When I was working on the webinars, the best microphone I’d used was a lavalier microphone that we’d simply used as a computer microphone.  Somewhere, I also have a wand microphone, but I haven’t bothered to look for that in years.  The microphone on my laptop picks up too much sound from my fan, and my phone?  Ha ha ha, that’s a good one!  I had a few other workarounds that I couldn’t get working, so I was left with a few interesting alternatives.  By using the microphone on my camera (very good quality sound), and capturing myself on video, I was able to pick up a broader register of sound.  I used another program (Lightworks) to separate the audio from the video by converting an .MP4 file to an MP3, and then used Audacity to clean up the audio.

This still left me with the issue of where to get the optimal sound.  While working on the webinars, our recording studio is an office with paned-glass doors and windows.  No matter where I sat in the room, the audio would pick up the sound of my voice bouncing off of the glass, giving everything a slight echo (or, if not, then the sensation that I was recording in a tunnel or a bathroom stall).  Luckily, my home office has two small windows and a great deal of solid wall.  Thus, while recording, the only things I needed to worry about were my voice, the content, and my cadence.

I was tasked with addressing the very beginning of a story.  How do I construct an opening?  Well, that’s a long story for me, but Holly Hunt (click here), a fellow author, was kind enough to provide me with a few questions so that we could play off of each other.

For my podcast debut with the host, Holly Hunt, please click here.

What I’ve Learned

Through this process, I noticed a few things:

  1. Mapping this out allowed me to be much more succinct with my answers, and (hopefully) more informative.

2. It’s hard to sound like an authority when the item over which I have authority, my book, is not even published yet.

3. I had a bit of trouble anticipating my audience, as my only experience with Aussies has been discussing basketball video games (as well as a few web comics I’ve followed over the years).  Was I over-explaining a little by describing The Scarlet Letter as if they’d never heard of it? I don’t know.

4. I think there was some broken communication about the intent of the questions, and a few questions were not as I remembered them (funny thing, memory).

5. Ultimately, Holly Hunt was great to work with, and I feel like she did a great job of putting together the final product.  It was an experience that I’d definitely take on again.

I listen to a few podcasts, and one thing that I notice in those podcasts is sound quality, but another is the amount of energy that the participants bring to the table.  If they bring too little, it makes me feel a little bored, but if they bring too much, it’s like listening to monster truck commercials for half an hour.  I think that both Holly and I brought the appropriate amount of energy, and I’m fairly certain that our Audacity-augmented process helped.  What do you think?  Did we do well?  Is there anything else you’d like to know surrounding getting started with a novel?  Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Did you miss that link for my turn on Holly Hunt’s Beyond the Words?  Click here.

About Holly Hunt:

Ms. Hunt, host of Beyond the Words on The Modern Meltdown, is a Canberra, Australia, -based author.  She has published a dozen graphic and written word novels spanning the fantasy and horror genres.  In July 2017, Ms. Hunt published The Devil’s Wife (Click here), a print novel in which Lucifer is alive and roaming the streets of New York City.

About James (call me Jim) Owen:

Mr. Owen, a native of Santa Cruz, California, is an author who is looking to take flight.  Absconded by Sin, his first novel, is currently in closed beta.  A graduate of St. Mary’s College of California (with another stop at UCSC), Mr. Owen has spent the past 6+ years in market research.  Prior to that, he taught high school English… and lived to tell the tale.

Once Bitten…

July 3, 2017

Hello writing fans!  I hope you’re enjoying your long weekend.  I wanted to send out a brief post, and share something that has come up out of this weekend.  On Friday, I went down to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and saw Great White run through their catalogue of hits at the Bands on the Beach.  I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the experience, as one “creative” admiring another.

Through numerous lineup changes, Great White has been making music together for 40 years, starting out as a band called Highway with former frontman Jack Russell and current lead guitarist Mark Kendall. Their current frontman, Terry Ilous, has been active in the music scene for 31 years, as a founding member of XYZ before joining Great White in 2010.  In 2017, they played their second consecutive Bands on the Beach event in Santa Cruz.  They were also advertising their June 2017 release of “Full Circle,” their first studio album in five years.  To reiterate, with the exception of a few year-long hiatuses in the 2000s, they have been performing together for 40 years. Truly, their tenure in Great White is not only a job, it’s a hobby.

Why does Great White do it, after all of these years?  Why do they continue to perform the hits that made them stand out (such as 1989’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”)?  It’s about the relationships that they have, for sure, but there’s more to it than that.  These are musicians, and they have been doing this through years of practice, and years of trying new things out, and years of trying to build from their catalogue of hits.  These are the moments that they are trying to recapture, but there are also connections that they’re trying to maintain with their fans and each other.   There’s a reason why they are still doing this — they must.  And there is a reason why people continually go and see them in concert, because they have such a strong attachment to the band that hearing the best cut, the album cut, or the bootleg cut, isn’t enough.  They have to see them live.

I am not a member of the Great White fan club (but I’d love to know what they call themselves).  However, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert.  I think that what I enjoyed most about the concert is that it was clear that they were up there having fun.  As my wife stated, it looked like drummer Audie Desbrow had the enthusiasm of a kid being told that they get to bang on the drums.  Lead singer Terry Ilous was up there cracking jokes with the crowd and making fun of himself, and Mark Kendall was shredding the guitar like a man a third his age.

Ultimately, if I take one thing away from watching Great White go at it, now 40 years in for some band members, it’s this: it’s their job, but they’re having fun doing it.  If you’re a writer, hoping to write for your career, be like Audie Desbrow – be like a kid being told that they get to bang out another novel on the keyboard.  Be like Terry Ilous, and have fun with it, be funny, be charming, and be self-deprecating.  Be like Mark Kendall, and let the writing move you.  You’ll thank them later!

Website Tour: Suzanne Collins

June 28, 2017

Over the past several weeks, I’ve discussed some of the best practices for author websites.  Along the way, I’ve taken a sampling of author websites and identified what works and what does not work about their sites.  A few weeks ago, I kicked this off with E L James, Author of the 50 Shades Trilogy,.  and I followed this up with popular Australian author Liane Moriarty, who will be visiting Santa Cruz later this year.  My next stop on the tour is renowned children’s author Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games Trilogy.  

Suzanne Collins

The next stop on our little website tour is that of Suzanne Collins.  Collins gained worldwide acclaim for her Hunger Games Trilogy, which was adapted into one of the most “tweeted-about” movies of all time and propelled Jennifer Lawrence to become a household name.  Her credentials are numerous, and are plastered all over her websites.  She became the darling of almost every major media outlet, and her books have a mass appeal that extends beyond her young adult target audience.  She hasn’t published any books since a picture book in 2013, but her books remain among Amazon’s top sellers.

Collins has a simple website, which particularly highlights The Hunger Games and The Underland Chronicles, two series that currently stand as her signature works.  With many reviews, including several on her home page, several more on a widget that rests to the right of each page, and oodles more that appear on each book’s individual page, Collins credibility as a writer is overwhelming.  What’s not overwhelming is her talent as a web designer.

The Good:

To borrow from Shakespeare, the books are the thing(s)!  If you live by this one mandate, then you’ll do well enough.  Collins and her webmaster provide ample space for the reviews, and these reviews are enough to attract any discerning reader.  To make a bad play on words, the website is a tribute to her abilities as a writer and as a story crafter.  These reviews come from a who’s who of newspapers and organizations, and each page starts with the numerous awards that her works have garnered.

Collins has personalized aspects of her site, such as humorous photos and an interview.  While her bio is written in the third person, I wouldn’t doubt that she was responsible for much of the content that went into her website.  Despite “the bad” below, that DIY, hands-on look appeals to me.

The Bad:

The general aesthetic of Collins’ website is dated.  No, it’s not dated in the sense that “that was 2013, this is 2017,” it’s dated in the sense that “that was Geocities circa 1999, and this is 2017.”  The website has a great deal of white space, but is packed along the right side, and most of the content on the main page is hidden below the fold.  The site generally lacks balance in that regard.  While technically there is nothing wrong with the site, and it is intuitive to navigate for most things, the lack of balance and the particular arrangement of white and peach make this site seem much older than it is.  Collins hadn’t emerged as a novelist when GeoCities was at its peak, so there is no reason why her site should have this GeoCities-like appearance.

This is a minor point, but there is not enough mention about what the books are about. I know, you’d have to be living under a rock to not know the general gist of the story.  Her works page provides a few sentences about each work, starting with When Charlie McButton Lost Power and moving all of the way up to Year of the Jungle.  However, these descriptions are, at best, the length of a description on the back cover.  Newer entrants in a given series receive fewer words and less concrete descriptions, to the point that the description for Mockingjay doesn’t really describe where the plot as much as it describes the general setting.

Verdict:

I am not for updating websites just for the sake of updating websites, but I think Collins could stand to improve her website and to bring it “up to date” with the present decade.  In terms of content, she has much of what she needs on the site itself, but the arrangement is lacking.

The one thing that I find particularly irksome about this site is that the site has outside links to websites that provide greater depth about Collins’ own content than what she has on her own site.  It makes me wonder if her publisher didn’t want her to have an in-depth site, so that people would be more likely to seek information about her books from other venues (such as the publisher’s site).

My favorite radio show describes things as either “hum baby” or “bum baby.”  Unfortunately, this site is very much a “bum baby.”

To view Ms. Collins’ website, please click here.

Writing, Basketball, and Other Things

June 26, 2017

Author’s Note: For those of you looking for another website tour, don’t worry! One will come.  I will continue my website tour on Wednesday, as I evaluate the website of author Suzanne Collins, writer of the famed Hunger Games trilogy.

As writers, we are so fortunate.  We get to share our thoughts with the World.  The format doesn’t matter so much. Poetry, songs, prose; blogs, flash fiction, novels.  They’re all what we get to do.  Often times, they are what we must do.

On Saturday, poet Stephen Kessler (link here) shared his poetry with us at the Santa Cruz Community Writers monthly meeting.  He shared the circumstances of his poems (a nice glass of pinot noir, if you go for such a thing), the places that inspired his poems (the San Lorenzo River, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center) and the feelings that he had that inspired his poems.  He is one of those authors who likes to write in crowded places, and he would bring his notebook to Kuumbwa to write before, during, and after concerts.  He gets to write in the places that inspire him.

I’ve enjoyed blogging, as I get to share my thoughts with you.  I’ve also enjoyed sharing my work with the Santa Cruz Community Writers, a group that I am beginning to feel comfortable calling my own.  I am also learning, time and time again, that I need to work on my skills as an orator.  When I read my work, I often go too fast.  I just need to remember the lyrics to “Feelin’ Groovy.”  I need to record myself in order to better understand my pace and my diction.  It’s the easiest way of overcoming my chronic speed-speech.

At some point, I will share my fiction with you, dear readers, so please be on the lookout for when that time comes.  Right now, my work is in beta, with another work still months away from reaching my alpha reader.  I am glad that I get to share my fiction with friends, and greatly anticipate the day that I can share these with the wider world.

I don’t have a long, semi-connected diatribe to share with you today, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts about things going on in and around my life.

Editing

I’ve been editing my latest work, Their Sharpest Thorns.  It has not been as consistent as I’ve anticipated, and I might not finish this editing effort until the Fall.  Nevertheless, I have a few long weekends in front of me, so I might be able to carve out more than i think I can.

New Projects

I’ve begun work on an untitled project that is classic horror, with particular emphasis on body horror.  I’m thinking of making it more comical.  My primary focus right now is world-building.

Podcast

I will be featured on an upcoming episode of The Modern Meltdown’s Beyond the Words, and would like to thank Holly Hunt for putting this all together!  I will provide a link in a bonus post this week, once it hits the Internet!

Camp NanoWrimo July 2017

I’ve toyed with the notion of completing another Camp Nanowrimo next month.  Given the season, and the fact that I have a lot of other projects going on, I don’t think that I will participate in July’s event, even if I can manage a sizable word count.

The NBA Draft

If you came here for the writing, then I’ll bid you farewell until next time, because the rest of this is all basketball!

Ever since I was young, the NBA Draft was like Christmas in June.  When I was at the height of my basketball fanaticism, I watched easily 60+ Warriors games per year (I’d say more, but let’s play it conservative).  I awaited the NBA season, wondering if Antawn Jamison would go for 50 again, wondering if Adonal Foyle would find a bigger role in the offense, and wondering if Donyell Marshall would put it all together.  I rejoiced when the Warriors added names like Tony Delk and Muggsy Bogues, and lamented the trade that sent Jamison, Fortson, Mills, and Welsch to Dallas for Van Exel, Popeye, and cap relief.  Whether the Warriors were rumored to draft Todd Fuller or take a flyer on Chris Porter, I was inspired by all of the potential that these young men held.

Many professional basketball players come from dire circumstances.  They do not come from the suburbs, or even those penthouse apartments overlooking the Embarcadero, they come from the projects, the rural country bunkhouses, and the oppressive city.  Regardless of race, religion, or national origin, these players often come from places where they have to live in fear of the bullet, the switchblade, or the needle.  They have friends, brothers, and neighbors that have succumbed to addiction, joined gangs, or been gunned down in a case of mistaken identity.  It’s not all bad for these players, as many come from loving families, with dedicated mothers and fathers, but it can get so much better for those who click in professional basketball, either in the NBA, or the many esteemed overseas leagues.  Players sometimes find their niche in places like Iran, where they use basketball to overcome prejudice and preconceptions, and live within a society that many of us might consider hostile to Americans.  Even if players do not “make it” in the NBA, they OFTEN get to make it somewhere else, and get to spend ten years out of their lives doing something that they love for a living.

I didn’t have much of a horse in this race for the 2017 NBA Draft.  My cheering interests didn’t have many NBA-bound players, and my teams didn’t have many (or any) picks.  There’s a few players that I really wanted to see go to certain teams, and certain teams that I really wanted to see do well.  Here’s a few quick hits:

  • I feel like both the Celtics and the Sixers got what they needed out of the trade of top picks, and that the Sixers have really hit a home run.  They’ll be exciting for years to come, provided they’re all healthy.  If the Sixers are healthy, they should be a playoff team this year.  If the Celtics are healthy, they might take down Cleveland this year.
  • I’m happy to see the Suns get a star.  I have a feeling that Josh Jackson will be the best player out of this draft.
  • De’Aaron Fox and Jonathan Isaac went to the exact two teams that I wanted them to go to.  I have a feeling they’ll be great fits, and I’m glad that the Kings got a high character guy.
  • Speaking of the Kings, I think that they have two immediate starters that come out of this draft, and two more that will eventually become major contributors in the NBA. I’m just not exactly sure who that second immediate starter will be.
  • Thank you, Philadelphia, for breaking the streak of players that I’ve heard about all year long. Anzejs Pasecniks, I hope to one day pronounce your name correctly.
  • Jordan Bell!!!! Jordan Bell!!! With the Warriors getting Bell and signing Chris Boucher, I think that they’ve come out as real winners in a draft where they didn’t even have a pick!
  • Nigel Williams-Goss and Jabari Bird were vastly underrated.

Website Tour: Liane Moriarty

June 21, 2017

Over the past several weeks, I’ve discussed some of the best practices for author websites. These are not without some help, as I’ve learned a lot through discussions with developer relations guru David I., but David doesn’t think about books every evening. He thinks about software. I, on the other hand, see the word “writer” and “editor” and think “NOVEL” and “AUTHOR.” This list, compiled sometime in late May, includes a mix of household names and writers that I’d never heard of before. As I look into websites, and if this becomes a regular feature, I’ll only explore well-known authors.  If you’re an independent author and would like some feedback on your website, I’d be happy to comment about it in this blog.  Last week, I kicked this off with E L James, Author of the 50 Shades Trilogy.  This time, let’s focus on popular Australian author Liane Moriarty. 

Liane Moriarty

Not that any of you would have any reason to have heard of somebody like me, so I can’t say much, but… I’d never heard of Liane Moriarty or her body of work prior to doing this research.  It’s funny, really, as she has a number of Hollywood’s A-listers working on adaptations of her two latest books, Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty.  She’s also admirable, and unusual, in the sense that she has had success crossing over from adult to children’s fiction.  Having read synopses of her two latest books, I’d imagine that’s quite difficult.  After all, lust, rape, and domestic abuse aren’t the substance of Newberry Medal winners.

Ms. Moriarty does a good job of having a dynamic site and fitting in several key aspects above the fold.  She has a simple, but aesthetically pleasing website design with a light blue and black over white.  She uses a rotating image to hit on some of the major features: new books, movie options, and the like.  The Reese Witherspoon tweet gives her a bit more credibility among a broader audience; it is pretty exciting, but it does nothing for me as someone who might be interested in her books.

Below the rotating image, she has a few short reviews from USA Today, Kirkus, and Entertainment Weekly.  These are pretty neat, and are compelling words from some of the major players in the review game.  I’m not quite sure if I would be pleased to be compared to a pink cosmo laced with arsenic (per USA Today), but it does make for an interesting image.

The Good:  I think Ms. Moriarty has done a great job of prioritizing her pull-down menus / tabs.  Home > Books > Children’s Books > About Liane > Appearances > Contact.  She keeps each of the tabs relatively simple, as it is easy to gather information about her books by clicking on images of their covers.

She provides a pretty thorough biography on her site, and includes some old photos.  This is particularly useful in humanizing her as a writer.  It is longer than what I would post about myself, but it isn’t off-putting in any way.  I also like the detail that she goes into surrounding her appearances.  She’ll be in Santa Cruz, CA (my hometown) on September 12th, for anybody who’s interested – and she’s supporting a small business!

The Bad: Her Twitter feed in the website is a bit much.  I’m not sure why it’s there.  Right now, there’s a picture of Blake Lively on a red carpet.  Sure, an attractive actress wearing a provocative dress will sell just about anything, but it doesn’t really tell me anything about her book.  The next tweet down, about Liane Moriarty’s appearance at the “Sydney Writer’s Festival” is of much greater interest to me as a fellow writer, and would be really cool if I lived in Oz and wanted to meet one my favorite authors (for sake of argument).

Another interesting item, and something that makes it clear to me that her publisher is responsible for her website (on some level), is the Subscription widget at the bottom of the page.  This widget, for “BookChat” is an email list for Liane Moriarty, Dianne Blacklock, and Ber Carroll.  It is quite possible that Ms. Moriarty is good friends with these two other authors; perhaps she’s also collaborated with them.  However, without her own personal touch and explanation of why she endorses these two other writers, it feels like something that her publishers have implemented for her.

The Verdict: In terms of website aesthetics, there are some things that I would change, but she covers most of the basics, and provides enough on her site to keep someone occupied for a while.  Her website doesn’t seem to promise any new content, and perhaps that’s for the best.  She’s a fairly prolific writer, and she has more than enough to keep her busy.  The website itself has enough to keep you busy for a little while, and places particular emphasis on her books – which is exactly what it should do.

To see Ms. Moriarty’s Webpage, click here.