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On Turning 34

December 12, 2017

Stephen King said that 19 was a magical age for him.  It was the late 1960s, as the Summer of Love was rising, and at a time when The Lord of the Rings was at the height of its literary popularity.  In his essay “On Being Nineteen”, King describes nineteen as “a selfish age, and [one] finds one’s cares tightly circumscribed.”  Nineteen wasn’t as magical for me.

For me, most of 19 was 2003. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers had just entered theaters, but the action flick didn’t capture the minds of the hippies that had so latched onto the books in their youths.  At the time, I considered myself a bit of a hippie: no, not the peace-love-dope variety, but of the type who found happiness in nature and despair in civilization.  I wanted to live off the grid, but only off of the grid enough that I still had power to play video game basketball and write that novel on my oversized Gateway computer.  Yes, I was a hippie of the Oregon Trail generation, back when computer games involved dying of dysentery and drowning oxen.  No, my generation wasn’t worried about Tolkein’s allegory for industrialization any more than we were worried about BPAs in our Nalgene bottles.  We were waiting for the third installment of The Matrix with bated breath, and mostly didn’t care that Neo was Buddha for the Internet Age.

It may be hard for the average 19 year old to understand the historical context of 2002 and 2003, especially given how things have happened over the past eleven months.  The United States was at war that most felt was justifiable, but many vaguely understood;  the War on Terror was in flight, and the fervor of the new patriotism squashed the anti-war sentiment that followed everything Vietnam like a shadow.  Unlike Vietnam, there was never an immediate threat that we would get drafted to serve, whether we wanted to or not.  Unlike Vietnam, we didn’t know friends who defected to other countries in order to avoid dying on the other side of the World. Unlike Vietnam, we weren’t at war with a country; we were at war with a loose political philosophy. No, this wasn’t Communism; at least Communism was systematic.

Every now and then, I see these junk videos on YouTube (which wasn’t a thing when I was 19) that have teens guess the names of songs and the artists behind them.  The kind of music that I listened to (Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, and an entire catalogue of stuff that is way older than I am) is something that completely eludes them.  Sure, they know Beyonce, post-No Doubt Gwen Stefani, and Jennifer Lopez, but there’s nobody that seems to know Cake, Fastball, Pearl Jam, or Foo Fighters.  These bands are a bit older, but even the bands that were big when I was 19 are now footnotes in musical history. Audioslave, Linkin Park, and Evanescence were tearing up the charts when I was 19. Pop-punk was a thing.  Rock was still alive, and post-rock was my idea of Earth after the big boom.  Now, of course, Chris Cornell (Audioslave) is no longer with us, neither is Chester Bennington (Linkin Park), and only the devoted know where to find Amy Lee (Evanescence) on a given night.  Hopefully, the latter is in a recording studio somewhere, but I wouldn’t have a clue.

My freshman year (when I turned 19) ended with tumult, and sophomore year started with the hope for something brighter.  Back then, I didn’t have a cell phone, or a car, or anywhere to be between the hours of noon and midnight. I didn’t have many responsibilities, but I also didn’t have much control.  At the time, I was determined to not quit school, but certain that I wouldn’t be at that school much longer.  (I was right — I graduated a few years later).  I was a part of a writer’s group back then, and I co-hosted a radio show, but I was growing increasingly convinced that I didn’t see eye to eye with anybody at our meetings.  I wanted to be a radio DJ, a writer, and a runner, but all of those goals seemed so far away.

Fifteen years later, only one of those goals is still on the table.  Radio DJing and sports broadcasting are now a decade back in my rearview mirror, and running is something that I haven’t done consistently for about two years.  I write, and it is something that I still love to do.  Eight NaNoWriMos and two completed manuscripts later, and publication still seems far away — even if it seems so much closer than before.  In fact, I’ve written something for my novel every day for the past month and a half, and lament the fact that this streak isn’t any longer than that.  In this and so many other senses, I’ve achieved a level of consistency that I haven’t had since I’d consistently fall five seconds short of my all-time best mile time.  I was sick of it then, but oh, what I wouldn’t give to see 5:53 on my wristwatch again!

Now, I’m coming up at the end of 33 (a very good year), and looking forward to 34, which may be one of the best.  Better than 26? Maybe.  Better than 18? Probably.  Better than 14? As if there was any contest! As I reach this next mile marker in the race of life, I think about everything that has changed, and everything that will change in the near future.  Think about it: 34 is 15 years removed from 19.  In another 15, I will be knocking on the door for 50, well in the throes of middle age.

As I look forward to 34, I have so many responsibilities that I didn’t have at 19.  I have a cell phone — but also a cell phone plan.  I have a car — but also auto insurance.  I have a home — but also a mortgage.  I live on the grid, and couldn’t be happier.  To paraphrase Rockwell, “I work from 9-to-7ish, hey hell I pay the price.”  The things on my mind nowadays are still basketball and writing, but also a number of other things that weren’t even a blip on the horizon when I was 19.  Questions of insurance coverage, retirement savings, and HOA dues enter my mind (between whatever is going on in my main characters’ lives).

As recent as it seems, things have changed so much in this post-9/11 landscape, and when I think that a 19-year-old today was a toddler in 2001 (and still short of kindergarten when I was 19 in 2002/03).  19-year-old me wouldn’t have believed that 34-year-old me would be married (for a good few years, at that).  19-year-old me wouldn’t believe that 34-year-old me would have two cats (because 19-year-old me was going to have dogs).  19-year-old me wouldn’t believe that 34-year-old me would have a desk job (because 19-year-old me was going to be a forest ranger).  Moreover, 19-year-old me wouldn’t believe that 34-year-old me would see three Giants World Series wins, 2 Warriors NBA titles, and the Niners in a Super Bowl.  (To be fair, I didn’t see much of that last one.)

Oh, how different the world was then, back when Michael Jordan was still clinging to his playing career, and Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter were still considered heirs to the NBA throne.  The musicians that were still alive then, the actors and actresses that topped the World’s Sexiest list, and the web browsers that people used were all different then.  The iPhones and Android phones of today didn’t exist; a “smart” phone was the BlackBerry, and everyone I knew seemed to have a Motorola Razr.  Back then, MySpace was the new thing that seemed poised to take over the World (how’s that going, huh?) and blogs hadn’t entered the mainstream.  Where will we be in fifteen years?  Nobody could have seen BlackBerry’s decline, and MySpace’s near disappearance.  Not that Apple or Google or Facebook would allow it, but could you imagine a world where these brands are old news? Think back a few years, and you’d be amazed at the things that you never would have expected that you now take for granted!

Now, as I turn 34, I have a lot of changes ahead.  I haven’t shared it yet on this blog, but I will be a father by the time I’m 35.  In fact, my child will probably have taken his or her first step by the time I’m 35, will have started to sleep in his or her own crib by the time I’m 35, and may have started something vaguely resembling actual words (rare, I know, but possible) by the time I’m 35.  Imagine how the World will change in those nine months, but also imagine how the World will change by the time my first-born child is an adult! By the time this new person is 19, the Taylor Swifts and Ed Sheerans of the world will be like oldies, Nirvana will be ancient history, the Foo Fighters will be like the Rolling Stones are today, and there may be #1 radio hit from somebody who isn’t even born yet.  To this future 19-year-old, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady will be like Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Kelly Tripucka were to me.  To this future 19-year-old, The Matrix might as well be Star Wars, and The Matrix Revolutions might as well be Ishtar.

What does any of this have to do with writing, you might ask?  Well, the first part of this is that you will now know why it may still take me a while to get published.  The second part of this is simple: in 19 years, when 34-year-old me is 53, and my own child is nearly 19, I hope that people will go onto their Amazon (or Lulu or Nook or whatever) accounts, or dash into their local book store and see my name on a shelf.  They will see “Jim Owen,” and wonder if they could someday write like him, or if they could someday have that success, or if they should check out this prolific writer because they’ve heard so much about him.

Fifteen years ago, when I was 19, I never imagined where life would have taken me to this point.  I never would have imagined that I’d be back in my home town, working less than a mile from my alma mater.  Fifteen years from now, or even 19 years from now, I wonder what 34-year-old me would never have imagined that I’d have done by middle age.

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Kicking off NaNoWriMo 2017

October 29, 2017

This past Wednesday was a big day for me. I attended a meeting to kick-off National Novel Writing Montb (NaNoWriMo).  Thanks to the lovely and benevolent JungleMonkey, and the Santa Cruz Public Library, I was able to meet with a few future superstar Santa Cruz area novelists.  Among those, we had two authors who were working to complete the third installments of their own respective trilogies (both had both previous books published in some form), one first time novelist, and two who were doing it for the second time.  I sat across the table from one of those latter two, a high school history teacher who is hoping to create some alternative history short stories this month.

I remembered my first time at a NaNoWriMo event; it was the first week of December, 2010, and I’d just tacked on the middle 60,000 words of my ultimately 187,000 word first draft for Absconded by Sin.  Back then, I didn’t have a name for the novel.  Heck, I still don’t — at least, not really — so I decided to call it “Call Me the Breeze,” a name lifted from one of my favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.  Back then, I was still just 26, was six months removed from my own misheard calling as an educator, and was newly married.  When I attended the TGIO “Thank God it’s Over” party, I felt like I was the youngest person there who could legally drive a car.  There were a few teens (and one who happened to be a UC student knocking on 20’s door), but most of the writers there were a good ten years older than me.  I suspected that I was the novice.  As more writers discussed their failures in hitting 50,000 and their seemingly far-off aspirations at getting published, I had a much better sense that I belonged.

The one question people had for me back then was the question of where I got my unique title.  When I told them it was a song, one of the writers (still perhaps in her 30s) said she’d thought she’d heard of it.  She then snapped her fingers and started singing “Call Me the Breeze” as if it was some kind of Bobby Darrin tune.  Perhaps she was thinking of the JJ Cale original, but it didn’t sound like the tune I knew and loved.

Just seven short years later, I was sitting there, talking to someone who was still looking for his first “win” as a NaNoWriMo participant.  He seemed very cordial, but perhaps a bit distant, when we first began talking, but as soon as he’d heard that I’d won NaNoWriMo, and that I’d actually finished  previous novels, he listened intently as I answered questions about my process, what it was like editing a long work, and what it was like trying to market my book to agents and publishers.  He had a lot of questions, and I had a short time to answer them and think of questions to ask him myself.

It was strange thinking of myself as the voice of experience in this matter, especially considering that I’ve never successfully published a book.  It was humbling, and also provided a huge shot of confidence.  No matter where I was in the stream, there was somebody back on the shore, wondering if it was safe to enter.

I had the benefit of asking questions from the voice of experience when I sat down with multi-genre author Linda S. Gunther, author of Finding Sandy Stonemeyer.  While I haven’t yet been able to implement some of the wisdom she shared about getting published, I was (and am) grateful to have heard some thoughts from the voice of experience.

I’m going into year seven of my own NaNoWriMo excursion with the desire to get this and so many other books published.  To those of you who have more experience, I salute you, and wish to learn from your experience.  To those of you who are doing this for the first time, I salute you, and wish to learn from your experience.  To those of you who are coming in having started NaNoWriMo in 2010, glad to see we jumped in together; I still wish to learn from your experience.

Insomnia & A Brief Update

September 18, 2017

Over the years, I’ve suffered from a bit of insomnia.  During some occurrences, it’s not very bad.  I can usually get to bed by 1 or 2 am, and may have a little trouble getting up in the mornings, but can function throughout the day.  Other occurrences are worse, and I will be awake to see 3 am or later, and then be in and out of sleep for over an hour before I eventually get up. I often notice that I have insomnia on nights after I play basketball. My evening basketball run, a mainstay on my schedule since I started working with my current employer back in 2011, has been particularly sporadic as of late.  Even though I have had insomnia since I stopped my consistent attendance, it never seems to be that bad.  So, what might this have to do with reading and writing?  Well, a lot and a little. Writing takes a great deal of energy; even though I can crank out hundreds of words when I am half asleep (and sometimes rely on that half-asleep state to work through particular images), I usually do my best writing when I am well-rested.

Aside from the need to sleep well in order to write well, I find that I get most engaged with my reading when I’m well rested.  I’ve recently started reading a book that is somewhat appropriate for my off-again on-again relationship with a good night’s rest: Stephen King’s Insomnia. I feel like this 1994 novel is one of King’s lesser known works.  I’ve come across a buzzfeed list, or some other procrastination tool, which identifies Insomnia as King’s best work to not make a screen debut.  For this reason, it’s not Clocking in at nearly 800 pages, this novel would be the perfect book when you know that sleep isn’t coming any time soon.  So far, I’ve enjoyed the book, but it is still in the early going, and there’s only the slightest hint of anything fantastic or supernatural.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that Stephen King has a tendency towards an archetypal old loner.  Many of his works, and particularly those since 1990, have an older focal character.  InsomniaDuma Key, the Bill Hodges trilogy, and The Dark Tower series all have older protagonists who spend some significant portion of time alone (whether emotionally significant or significant in terms of duration). 11/22/63CellUnder the Dome, and Black House also have central characters who are generally loners.  This is just one of several parallels that I’m starting to see emerge from some of King’s more recent works.

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As for my own writing, my primary focus has been editing my current work-in-progress, Their Sharpest Thorns, but a new project is currently percolating on the back burner, and I am eager to start an untitled sports-related horror story when NaNoWriMo arrives in about six weeks.  Until then, I have a couple hundred pages worth of editing and amending.  I hope I can send a draft to my beta readers by November.  It all depends on how much energy I can muster in these next six weeks.  I suppose I could tie this all back into tonight’s theme of insomnia, but if I were truly an insomniac, wouldn’t that give me plenty of extra hours for editing?  Oh, well.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

Retro Vibes

September 11, 2017

Culture depends on many different aspects, including space and time.  I’m not about to start talking about Dr. Who right now, but this timey-wimey stuff matters.  Today, my 22-year-old colleague stated that It (2017) was going for that Stranger Things retro vibe.  The problem?  Aside from the fact that the source material for It predates Stranger Things by 30 years, the original It split time between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s.  Stranger Things puts its characters in the early 1980s.  I have yet to see the recent It movie, and it has been many years since I’ve seen the TV miniseries.  Regardless of when the source material was constructed, Stranger Things and It should be similar in how they present the World, as they are taking from the same era.

It hits me more and more often about how different things are from my childhood.  There are so many details that young adults today wouldn’t remember, or even understand. The wide availability of cell phones and smartphones is one big difference. One thing that I find odd is that amorphous treatment of the past. This was an era before cell phones; heck, cordless phones and pagers were relative novelties when I was a kid.  It wasn’t that long ago that MTV was changing the way that teens consume television, and that Stephen King wrote about an era that was in the then and now.  Now, even YouTube is becoming passe, and Stephen King’s heyday is now a Stranger Things retro vibe.  The 1980s don’t seem like that long ago to me.  At the same time, I barely remember the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which is perhaps the biggest event of my youth.  When I turned 22, the same age as this young man, the year 1980 was further away than 2040 is now.  I am now (barely) closer to the year 2050 than I am to the year of my birth.

There’s many things that I can remember that hardly seem like nostalgia compared to the collective memory of our culture.  I remember a time when TV miniseries were the big media event.  I remember the nightmares that I had after watching It, and the fear I had of being pulled into the sewer by a stranger.  I remember scrambling to find a pay phone if I was ever lost on a bike ride or needed to get home from practice.  I remember the treat of going to the local library, and the joy I would find at picking up books at our school’s book fair.

What are some of the things that you remember from the pre-millennial era?  Feel free to leave a message in the comments section below, and don’t feel bad about feeling old.  You’re just thinking about a Stranger Things retro vibe.

Thanks for the read, and keep on kicking it old school with actual books!

Website Wednesday: Veronica Roth – Author of Divergent

August 30, 2017

Hello Friends.  It seems my Website Wednesday feature has not been so regular.  I hope to start that again.  Kicking off this latest round, Veronica Roth’s website has its good and bad qualities.  Like the website itself, this review is brief.

Veronica Roth

Those of you who don’t know who Veronica Roth is have probably heard of her work.  Roth, now just 29, published her first book in the Divergent series in 2011.  Now, more than six years later, her trilogy has spawned three feature films and an upcoming television series.  The series transformed Shailene Woodley from teen television star to big box office draw.  The books have sold tens of millions of copies, collectively, and the three movies based on those books grossed more than $750M.

While it is apparent that Roth has started her own blogs through Blogspot and Tumblr, her main website is clearly professionally done.  Her rotating banner and professional photographs clearly illustrate a web designer’s touch.  It’s possible that Roth did some of this herself, as her website clearly lets her personality (and her less professional blog and Instagram account) shine through.

The website was clearly designed with “responsive design” in mind.  The banner menu across the top becomes a “hamburger” menu when viewed through a mobile browser.  The menus are just about what one would expect.  Of the eight items, the only one that stands out to me as unusual is “classroom.”  This might be because she is one of the few YA authors that I’ve explored.  Everything else, books, bio, events, blog, and the rest, could come from anyone from E.L. James to George R.R. Martin.

The Good:

Roth’s site is distinctly her.  Her blurbs are very familiar and informal, and are mostly written in the first person.  She / the designer has a good sense of white space, and doesn’t overload you with text.  The graphics are stunning, and the photography is clearly professionally done.  The individual book pages focus on the book first, and then work their way down to the film adaptations and the various avenues for purchase.

I was particularly interested in the discussion guides.  They are professional done, and each provides more than a dozen lines of questioning for educators.  Many of these lines of question reach several different levels of questioning, from recall to predicting and hypothesizing.  These guides are particularly useful when reining in younger readers, but anybody can appreciate the method that goes into good questions.

The Bad:

In general, this is a good site.  It does everything it should.  The one issue that I have with it is that it breaks one of the few rules that I have: place the books first.  If not the books, then some discussion of writing or of the author’s journey would be reasonable.  Instead, this site has a huge rotating banner that includes glamor shots, action shots, and a beautifully rendered graphic.

The Verdict:

On its own, this site is not really exciting.  It does everything it is supposed to do and provides a nice aesthetic.  There’s nothing wrong with it, to be sure, but also nothing that sets it apart from the numerous other author websites.

For Greg

August 25, 2017

Hello Faithful Readers:

Now you know the pattern of the Summer of ’17: another summer month, and another long delay!  As always, things are busy, and I am procrastinating.  This time, it’s little things, including NBA Live (the one game I still play regularly). At this point, I have another good reason to write a post.  There’s a lot of changes going on in my professional life, and many other things going on around the homestead!  Here’s another tribute to a good friend who is on his way out!

Thank you for your patience, faithful readers!

~Jim

For Greg

For the second time in a matter of weeks, I’ve been trying to process a change in my surroundings.  First, my team’s editor left our company after two years.  That was tough, as she was the heart of our team.  Now, we’re losing a colleague who has been there since I came on years ago; if Kacie was the heart, Greg was the nerve center and the spine.  He’s been a relentless worker, a good friend, and one of my biggest champions.

For many years, Greg has been a friend and ally.  When frustrations would boil over, he was the sympathetic ear who let you talk it out. However, when interoffice politics came to a head, he wasn’t afraid to be level-headed and impartial.  The need for these characteristics was infrequent, as he would try to plot a steady course through uncertain seas.  He was the first to think of the team when our office would undergo turnover. When he was promoted to upper management, he never treated himself as being above the team.  He is even thinking of his teammates as he is in the process of moving on to a new endeavor.

For many years, Greg was the man with all of the practical coding knowledge.  Whether we were designing sites, or querying databases, or trying to figure out our dodgy CRM, we knew who to ask.  If we had any issues with our home hardware — such as when I smashed my USB drive — we knew who to ask.  If he didn’t know, he would work tirelessly to find the solution.  Speaking of tireless, the man would often be working until the wee hours of the morning to make sure that the rest of the company kept with its deadlines; there were even a few times where he was working off of just a couple hours of sleep and putting in a full day. Greg put himself in many unenviable positions, but we never heard him complain.  All too often, Greg would take his work home in the evenings, but we always knew that he would put in the hours there, as well.  Of course, there were always the times where his wife would bring him dinner; we knew that those were the nights where even sleep became a luxury.  We’d even call him when he was vacationing out of the country, and he would put in the hours to get things done.

Every year, when we put on our conference, Greg would be the first one up in the morning, already piecing all of the technical equipment together by 7am.  Whenever any speaker needed some technical assistance, he was there before they would even say the word, and when we needed an emcee in a pinch, he’d be the first to volunteer.  At the end of the day, he would gather all of our employees and make sure that we let off steam; he’d be the first to suggest bowling, or karaoke, or the Mediterranean place down the street.  First thing that next morning, he’d be ready to do it all again.  Things didn’t change when he became management; if anything, he managed to cram even more duties on top of those that he already had.

Outside of work, we would see each other about once per week, and we would play basketball in our regular games.  Greg, a lean man who is not of particularly great height, was the man who made the rest of us work harder just to keep up.  He was the first down the floor, and able to pick the ball clean from your hands as soon as it left the fingertips.  He was a gritty competitor, but was never so myopic as to put himself before the team.  If we needed someone to guard the 6’5″ former (German league) pro, Greg was the first to volunteer.  If we needed someone to guard the 19-year-old whiz kid, Greg was right there.  If we needed someone to play defense because the rest of us were too winded to make it past half court, Greg would take on all comers, even if they knocked him into the wall.  We’ve both stopped playing (at least, playing religiously, as we had for several years), and I miss seeing him on the court. Of course, I do not look forward to the day when he comes back to perform a chase-down block on me; if you can envision LeBron James blocking Yao Ming, then you know why.

Of course, there’s also the time that he helped me move.  I’d asked him to help, and he didn’t realize that he’d already committed to helping somebody else move; he ended up going right from helping one person move to helping another, and he even volunteered to do much of the heavy lifting.  I wish someone had snapped a picture of him crawling underneath a heavy metal desk so that he could push from the center and guide it through a narrow door.  Nobody needed to ask; he volunteered.

There are some key details that I’m missing here — aspects that I must keep private — but it nevertheless has been difficult to anticipate how we will manage his void.  We’ve delegated responsibilities, and scraped every last bit of knowledge out of our friend before he takes on future endeavors, but we will never be able to match his drive.

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.

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.

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.