Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

Website Tour: E L James

June 14, 2017

Over the past week and change, 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.”  As I’ve been researching author websites for my own website, I took a list of contemporary novelists from “Amazon Best Sellers” and explored their books.  This list, compiled sometime in late May, includes a mix of household names and writers that I’d never heard of before. I tried to eliminate Romance, because that genre seems to play by its own rules.  However, a few of the well-known Romance novelists appear on this list, such as the one discussed today.

As I look into websites, and if this becomes a regular feature, I’ll only explore well-known authors, as I assume that these authors are not making their own websites, and are instead relying on professional assistance in their website development.  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.  I’ll leave this little disclaimer: I’m not exactly out to snipe the indie author, who may be creating their own websites off of a Wix or WordPress template and have just about as much experience with professional web development as I have with professional lacrosse (i.e., none).

Without much further ado, let’s take a look at the official website of E L James, author of the Fifty Shades Trilogy.

E L James

The first person on my little tour of author websites is E L James.  She’s a fairly well-known name, in part because of her amazing story of going from a fan fic writer to one of the bestselling authors of the past decade.  Her brand isn’t my cup of tea, but I do applaud her for writing something that pushes the limits.  She makes no mistake about it when you read her website.  Right below her name on the banner, it says “Provocative Romance.”  Her website above the fold is pretty basic, with a simple banner, a series of pull-down menus, and then a welcome message with her photo.

It has a nice aesthetic, all told.  I wouldn’t put a welcome message quite like what she has on this site, but it has its own appeal, and it is far gentler (in terms of advertising) than some alternatives.  Aside from her picture and a short message, there’s a button inviting us to “browse the books.”  Immediately below that, there’s a YouTube trailer for her movie “Fifty Shades Darker.”  It isn’t until you tap the “page down” button a few times before you see her book covers, or anything of substance about her books.  This might be the natural evolution in her role as an entertainer, as the Fifty Shades Trilogy will likely generate much more as a series of movies than it ever has as a series of books.  At the same time, I don’t think I’ll ever see Michael Crichton (who has Jurassic Park and E.R. among his lifetime credits) as something other than an author, much as I don’t think I’ll see E L James as a Hollywood producer / entertainer.  The irony, of course, is that she is a former TV exec.

The Good:

Between her introduction and then her “About” page, I have a pretty good sense of E L as an artist who is living her dream.  Her “About” page is a glimpse of someone who was once a little girl, growing up in London, and dreaming about being a writer.  She shows humility and gratitude – both useful in reminding the rest of the world that she is, indeed, human.  I like the brevity (yeah, I know, yuk it up) and the sincerity here; in my mind, these are two difficult things to accomplish simultaneously.

She has widgets for her social media, including an interesting little film strip from her Instagram account that appears at the bottom of her site.  She includes several ways of contacting her or her representatives, including via snail mail and email.  My website drafts have some of this, but I’ve never used Instagram or posted anything onto YouTube.  I’ve also never created an email form (and actually deployed it).

The Bad:

Her blog only contains two posts, and hasn’t been updated since April.  The blog is more “news” than it is her thoughts on life or her thoughts on her writing.  Even then, there’s not much news here.  I probably spend too much time on my blog, particularly for someone who is moonlighting as a writer, but blogging twice weekly doesn’t need to be 500 words every time; it just need some sense of consistency.

Aside from her blog, she doesn’t have much other information surrounding appearances, reviews, an actual news tab, or FAQs.  She probably doesn’t need it.  However, I will definitely want to have these in place well before I have any semblance of success with my own writing.

Verdict:

There’s nothing wrong with her website.  It is clear a professional has created this.  At the same time, there’s just not much to keep people coming back to her website.  An author as big as E L James doesn’t need much to keep her audience engaged, but she’d be in a little trouble if she was someone in my shoes, hoping to build a following from the ground up.

To see Ms. James’ website, click here.

Putting Together a Web Page / Blog Post for Your Book

June 5, 2017

Over the past several years, and particularly the past several months, I’ve shared my writing journey and my thoughts on writing, with you.  Over this time, I’ve discussed a little but about my process, my search for publication, and my various misadventures.  Today, I wanted to share something about other processes.  As you have no doubt seen from this blog, I’ve been working on this blog as a means of building a community and “marketing” myself.  I hate that word, marketing… even though that’s part of what I investigate for my daytime job.  Of course, there are benefits to marketing, if you approach it from the right way.  If you don’t “market” yourself, then nobody will know about who you are, how great you are, and the stories that you have to tell.

One of the easiest ways to share something about yourself today is via a website. The only thing you’ve seen from my website so far is my blog. That’s because I have one major thing holding me back from putting together a fuller site: visuals. I’m working on that, but I spend a lot of time researching websites through my primary employment, so I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do in order to get a successful website in place.  I was thinking about sharing some of that with you, but I decided that I should start a little smaller.  What do I need to do in order to successfully put together a blog post or a web page that specifically markets my book?  For this, I thought I’d share a process that David, my colleague, has shared with me and with our many clients.

My employer frequently shares what it would take to sell development tools to clients, so this isn’t exactly what we explain to clients (and we usually show an idea rather than tell it), but there’s a lot of crossover here.

Before we start, let’s take an example. Michael Wallace’s Quill Gordon Mysteries, because he is already doing a lot right when he introduces “The McHenry Inheritance.

Introduction

The first thing you want to do is introduce your book.  He does this with a slugline “It’s scary, and so wrong,” and then goes into the content that you’d find on the back cover.  This introduces the stakes and a few of the main characters. Mr. Wallace gives about two paragraphs of content, mostly summarizing the content of the book.  What he’s given is good.  The only thing that I might change is spending a bit more time toward the end taking a more distant view of the book.  “This is a mystery in the vein of [comparable author].” or “The McHenry Inheritance takes you on a ride through the sordid underbelly of Harperville, wherein everybody has reason to be suspicious of outsiders.”  This isn’t the best means of pulling away from the stakes, but it does leave a little more to the imagination.

If this is your only book, then it might be useful to share a little bit about you, but this is probably better left fro a dedicated “About the Author” page.  You’ll have plenty of places to share who you are, anyway.

Short Reviews

Okay, so you’re probably low on reviews if you’ve just recently released your book.  There’s ways around this.  You can ask your beta readers for some kind words (but, by all means, don’t give away their identities unless they want you to do so!).   You can wait for some positive reviews on Amazon, and then ask for permission for those.  Mr. Wallace has a review off in the corner.  It is a solid review, but he only needs a sentence or two from that review to let visitors know that his book is a worthwhile read.

If you have a positive review in your local paper, this is the ideal place to put it.  Not everybody will garner this attention in their early career, so if you have something here, might as well put it to good use.

Book Trailer

In an earlier post, I referred back to Mr. Wallace’s book trailer.  I think his trailer works on many levels.  It tells a little bit about Mr. Wallace himself, adding some credibility in the process; it talks about his process; it talks about the book itself; and, perhaps most importantly, it tells readers where they can pick up his book.

I think there’s a few nice balances Mr. Wallace makes here.  He keeps it simple, while still providing a glimpse at the setting.  He’s made a professional video, hiring professional videographers and video editors to make the short piece — I’m not saying you should go for pros every time, but he’s done so to good effect. Finally, he’s used original content.

This last little part, about original content, isn’t necessary — there’s plenty of content in the public domain that will work nicely — but it is important to show that he is the genuine article.  I’ve been gathering ideas for my own book trailer, and one thing that I’ve noticed from other production-quality book trailers is that they’re borrowing from movies (either stills or even short, live action sequences) that are not in the public domain.  This is very risky, as there are items that are covered by “fair use,” but taking an image of Sean Connery from Highlander may show the reader something about your book, but it also is something that others can recognize comes from somewhere else.

Passages

You don’t want to give away too much about your writing content, but it helps to give away something, so people can know what they’re getting into. If you’re nervous about this, you can always provide copyright notice.  Considering how much space these passages might take up, it wouldn’t hurt to hide them via a “spoiler” option if you have it in your given website.  It’s fairly common for BBscript, if that’s available.

If you have visual media, this is also a good place to show some artwork or whatever other pictures or charts you might have on hand.  If you’re going for the George R.R. Martin type of saga, a family tree is always helpful (provided it doesn’t give away too much about your book).

Links

In my daytime job, I’d recommend this if you have technical resources that help people see what your product can do, and how to do it.  With writing, it’s a little different. You could link to relevant items about your book within your site.  If you have full reviews, this is a great place to put them, as well.  Anything that is germane to your book can fit here.  If you’re writing a period piece about ancient Hippo (Annaba, Algeria), then perhaps a link to the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo would be relevant, or perhaps there’s a book, site, or society that is dedicated to ancient Hippo.

For Mike Wallace’s book, this might be something about his notes for his fictitious mountain town and some of the landmarks, such as Harry’s Tavern.  He might also provide some of the history of the quill gordon lure in fly fishing, or some other angling sites.  He has some media coverage that would fit in well here, such as this spotlight from our local Santa Cruz Sentinel.

This would also be a good place to provide links to your book in online booksellers. If you’re looking at American booksellers, Amazon has to be on there.  B&N, Lulu, and others are all important, but nothing does as much volume as Amazon.  There’s an important item to consider here: as much as you might want to feature where to find your book in bookstores, it really needs to be embedded in the rest of your post.  We, as readers, know why we’re looking for books, so it doesn’t do you any good to be pushy in getting people to buy your book.  By passing along your purchase information as just that, information, rather than overt marketing, you’ll attract more people who are on the fence.

Finally, if you haven’t attached links or widgets to your social media, then this should be at the bottom of your post.  It’s not critical to a blog / webpage dedicated to your book, but it is yet another way that you can connect with your audience.

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I haven’t been able to apply the above to my own site.  As mentioned, I’m still missing visual media, including a book trailer and any sort of cover or collateral pictures, but these are items that I’ve been considering, and items that I must take into account as I put this information together.

As if I haven’t stressed this enough earlier, the blog post or website is a means of introducing others to your book and introducing yourself to your audience.  Thus, while I do make mention of telling people where they can find your book in the usual bookstores, I didn’t mention anything about telling readers to “buy it now.”  If you use those three words, you must be very subtle, as using that phrase as a command is bound to turn others off.

A big thanks to David for the idea.

Is there anything I missed? Please feel free to add them in the comments below.

Photo Attribution: Unsplash on Pexels. Creative Common 0 License

Comic Books, Basketball, and Writing: Why They All Connect for Me

June 1, 2017

Prologue: Comic Books and Basketball

When I was younger, I was a comic book nerd.  Batman, The X-Men, and the Hulk were some of my favorites, but thanks to the intervention of my cousin, Joey, I had numerous old Spider-man titles.  It didn’t matter, as I would read my fill of numerous comics, no matter how different, or how silly.  Before sports entered my life in a big way, a day with my friends involved reading comics and playing video games.  Comics, and the trading cards that emerged from them, were so interesting to me, as they not only told a little bit about the character, including real names, hometowns, and vitals, but they also spoke a little bit about the characters’ strengths and limitations.  Furthermore, with character arcs moving  across multiple issues, just as basketball players change from game to game, I was able to pick up a fair deal about characterization through what I’d observed in comic books — as well as the many print books that I simply devoured in my youth.

When basketball came around, my parents and my grandfather each would give me basketball periodicals and books.  I devoured those, as well.  I still read the old Basketball Almanacs for nostalgia, reflecting on what people expected of the likes of Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Kobe Bryant back when they were fresh-faced teenagers who had just made the leap to pro ball.  Years ago, my best man suggested that these, along with the NBA Live video games, were the reasons why we became such big fans of the NBA.  When we truly went from Warriors fans to Warriors fanatics, the Warriors were perpetual underdogs, but we were always happy to think about the possibilities, and of the many characters that came through the San Jose Arena (one year) and the Oracle Arena (pre-Oracle).   The Warriors haven’t been the underdogs for two seasons now, and the general pulse around the rest of the country is that the Warriors are a super-team full of characters worthy of vilification.  If they are a superteam, they are a super-team that still has that tantalizing burden of potential.  If they are villains, then they’re the nicest villains I’ve ever seen.  Tonight, they face off against the Cleveland Cavaliers for their best of seven series for the highest title in professional basketball.

The headlines will continue to discuss Steph Curry, two time defending MVP; 2014 MVP Kevin Durant; 4-time MVP LeBron James; and the nine other players in this series who have played at least one NBA All-Star game.  However, each of these players, and the twelve to fifteen other players who may play in this Finals series, are each on their own trajectories.  Whether a continuing rebound from a nearly career ending injury or becoming the first NBA player from their island nation to play in the NBA Finals, there are innumerable personal stories, and far more than 30 personal career trajectories (including players, coaches, execs, and owners, among many others), that are now hinging upon the next four to seven games.

We’re too close to the action now to see the “character arcs” for these individuals, and how these players will be viewed after their careers have come to an end.  However, we can foresee players roles in this event.

NBA Finals: On Writing

As people are prepared to cheer for their favorite team, and turn their lambasting of the other team and its fans up to 11, realize that most people don’t see their team, their favorite players, or themselves as villains. It doesn’t matter who threw the first punch, or where the technical foul came from, people will generally view themselves as being in the right (even rationalizing things that the average person would consider abhorrent) — up until the point where they admit (to themselves or to others) that they’ve made a big mistake.  Furthermore, an antagonist will go out of their way to find an individual’s negative traits. This doesn’t mean that someone necessarily needs to have an adversarial relationship with somebody else, or that these antagonists are necessarily wrong in their assessment of the other person’s character.

Whether talking about a controversial arm motion (or, if you will, punch) in Game 4 of last year’s finals or your primary antagonist’s raison d’etre as your book reaches its climax, one person’s act of heroism or self-determination can sometimes be viewed as flagrant disrespect by someone else.  I recently read something in a political piece (I’ll leave it at that) that discussed one thing that made the most vicious villains: their obsession with the notion that they were not wrong to do what they were doing, and that they are being wronged by the rest of the world. While a difference of opinions may be what separates the protagonist from the antagonist, it may also be what makes individuals distinct on their own character arcs.  Even in such a small sample set as a playoff series, players are in motion along their own character arcs, and may embark on a variety of side-stories while in the midst of a much larger arc.

It’s hard for many fans to imagine this now, but Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and even LeBron James were not always the All-Star players that they are now.  They also weren’t vilified by any particular fanbase (except if somebody had it out for Davidson, MSU, or St. Vincent-St. Mary’s).  We are seeing these three players on relative high points in their career arcs (not necessarily the apex, as there’s a lot of the story that is not yet written).  Shawn Livingston may have been on that trajectory, as well, had it not been for a serious injury that almost removed him from the profession.  Similarly, outside of short stories, fictional characters are hardly a snapshot of who they are in a given point in time — even something as basic as a character’s role changes from one point of the story to the next.  Characters change, and how they change and who they are at the end is a product of (at least) five basic factors:

-Who they are on a fundamental level
-Where they came from
– Where they hope to be
– Whether or not they’ve actually made strides toward where they want to be
– How they perceive the World

From a basketball standpoint, the answers to these questions might end up being a few standby archetypes in the sporting world:
– The Chosen One (LeBron, maybe Irving)
– The Golden Child (Love, Steph & Klay)
– The One with Something to Prove (Durant, maybe Tristan Thompson, Javale McGee, Derrick Williams)
– The Unsung Hero (Iguodala, Tristan Thompson, Ian Clark)
– The Gritty/Wily/Cagey Vet (Richard Jefferson, Shawn Livingston, Pachulia, Korver, Deron Williams)
– The Young Gun (McCaw, Felder)
– The One with the “Chip on His Shoulder” (Barnes, Draymond Green)

From a fiction perspective, there are so many archetypes, and so many characters that you may boil down to a few words.  For instance, Absconded by Sin has two major players that fall under the category of the disgraced veteran.  They are secondary characters who ascend in importance throughout the novel, and they each have their own trajectories.  Some of their trajectory relates to their station in life before the novel takes place (Major and PFC), and some of their trajectory relates to where they have been, but their trajectory also has something to do with how they see the World.

Some of the archetypes you may see in your novels are the reluctant hero, the whore with the heart of gold, the damsel in distress, and the so-called action girl.  It’s up to you to determine if those characters follow a traditional character arc or trajectory for those archetypes, and whether that trajectory will be ascending or descending.  It could be a roller coaster; I never watched professional wrestling for enjoyment (just to fit in with friends), but what little I saw surprised me at how often a character could take a heel-face turn, going from good to bad and back again.  It’s no different from professional basketball, except that the heel-face turn largely depends on the court of public perception, and the same may also be true of your novels.  The antagonist may be pure evil, as well see in space operas and epics, or they may be a character that is scared, frustrated, or determined.

Epilogue: Characterization Challenges in My Writing

In a few minutes, my mind will be on the Warriors, hoping that they will be able to beat the Cavaliers at their best, or whatever state that they may be in.  I’ll also try to spend some time working on my novel, bearing in mind the archetypes that I’m using (if they apply to my characters, which they often do), and the types of character arcs I expected of these characters.

One of the challenges  I foresee in my current novel is making sure that the many divergent archetypal characters and character arcs can coalesce at the right points.  I focus on two characters, an aging small-town sheriff and a ne’er-do-well young woman who has lost her direction in life.  These two characters are often together, and thus the only time we get to see character arcs for their supporting characters are through the main characters’ eyes.

Another challenge is in taking the antagonists and making sure that their motivations and character arcs are equally believable.

A third challenge is balancing out the character arcs, and making sure that I am paying particular attention to the inner monologues and motivations that push my characters to the resolution.

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Update #1: Community Writers – presenting Their Sharpest Thorns

I’ve been working on my public speaking. On Saturday, I delivered another portion of an unpublished work, sharing the moment where the aging sheriff mentioned above comes across the second in a series of homicides that plague his small town.  I received a lot of positive comments, and was surprised that I didn’t once hear any mention of the pace.  In the five minutes that I’d read, I only briefly touched upon the dead body or the immediate investigation surrounding it.

From the perspective of an orator, I think I did a better job at enunciating, maintaining a steady cadence, and being forceful in my speech.  There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but I hope that I can build on what I did this weekend.

Update #2: Current Work in Progress – Their Sharpest Thorns

I was able to finish my initial draft (let’s call it draft zero, as it is awfully drafty) of Their Sharpest Thorns.  One thing that I’ve noticed as I’ve begun editing it is a disconnect from the beginning of the novel to the end.  There are some inconsistencies in terms of setting (such as the physical location of buildings), and it will help me to work this out via notes, maps, and anything else that I can do to firm up the setting and focus on the quality of the writing.  I’ve read a few books that have this level of inconsistency, and it is sometimes confusing, and sometimes maddening.

As some of you may remember through a variety of conversations, this blog, NaNoWriMo, or even Twitter, I ran into a problem toward the end of my preparation stage this past October, as I lost all of the outlining work I did for Their Sharpest Thorns when my thumb drive ended up in several pieces.  Thus, I am facing the challenges that frequently come from writing by the seat of my pants (pantsing) or only providing a limited outline.  This is not to say that mistakes like this dont happen for worldbuilders, but the efforts that go into mapping out settings and providing detailed character sheets prior to any writing will alleviate inconsistencies.

I’ve heard some people argue that issues like this are why we have editors.  This may be true for some of us. However, speaking as someone who has edited various types of works, I can attest that it is far easier to look at something critically, and to offer commentary of substance, when an author (novelist, analyst, poet, whatever) has already taken a critical eye to their own work.

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Okay, well, I think that’s it for now.  Until next time, cheer for your favorite team and take a critical eye to your characters!

(Go Warriors!)

Recent Musical Finds

May 22, 2017

You never know when inspiration will strike, so I sometimes take a few nights to focus on my blog rather than on my novels.  I have a backlog of blog stubs, nothing nearly as robust as I’d like, for circumstances where I want to focus on my writing.  That backlog didn’t work out so well over the past few weeks, as I haven’t been inspired to publish any of them.  Something happened last week that inspired me to freshen up this one: Chris Cornell’s death.  Audioslave was the soundtrack to my first couple of years in college.  While my roommates and friends had albums from Collective Soul, Depeche Mode, Dashboard Confessional, and U2 blaring from their computer speakers, I picked up Audioslave from one of my closest college friends, and played that album regularly. 

I don’t think “Like a Stone” ever made it to my weekly radio show, but that’s because I focused on bands I knew and loved from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.  In music terms, I was a throwback; my musical tastes are classic rock, and are probably considered oldies by now.  I rarely picked up new albums, because I was too busy fishing through bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the more I listened to bands of that era, the more obscure the bands became.  Things have changed over the past year.  For the past year (at least), I’ve been listening to WKIT: The Rock of Bangor, and I’ve picked up a lot of songs that weren’t standards in my rotation.  One of those songs was Chris Cornell’s “Nearly Forgot my Broken Heart” from his 2015 album, Higher Truth.

The following includes some of my more-or-less recent finds in music.  These intentionally excluded bands and musicians I knew, such as Alice Cooper’s new band, Hollywood Vampires; David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar; or Chris Cornell’s “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart.”

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Recent Finds for Music

A few months ago now, I caught myself trying to remember the lyrics to Midnight Oil’s song “Beds Are Burning.” A year ago, I had no idea this song existed.  Heck, I didn’t know that the band existed.  It’s one of those bands, much like Manic Street Preachers, where I had no idea who they were in their heyday, and it wasn’t until much later (“Bed are Burning,” for example, was a popular song in 1987), when I stumbled upon the song for the first time.

Mountain Climbing – Joe Bonamassa

How is it that I’m only now hearing about Bonamassa?  The 39 year old Bonamassa opened for B.B. King 27 years ago.

I’ll let that sink in.

As WKIT calls him, “Joey B” was only 12 when he opened for B.B. King.  When I was 12, I thought my little tan recorder was too difficult.  As a teenager, he was rubbing elbows with famous guitarists, such as Robbie Krieger of the Doors, and was playing in a band with Krieger’s son, Waylon; Miles Davis’ son, Erin; and Berry Oakley’s (of the Allman Brothers) son, Berry Duane.  Bonamassa first charted on the Billboard Blues chart as a 23 year old.

In 2016, the 38 year old Bonamassa released Blues of Desperation.  On that, he included track number 2, “Mountain Climbing.”  If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear this track was written and performed by Robert Johnson after he made a deal with the Crossroads Demon.  (Johnson, one of the original members of the “27 Club,” died in 1938).  This may be classified as a blues song, but make no mistake about it, this is a hard rocker.  It has the B.B. King sound, but it could just as easily be Jimmy Page on the guitar and Robert Plant penning the lyrics.  Bonamassa’s movement between ‘clean’ guitar work and distortion adds a unique voice to his guitar, and compliments the throaty tenor of his singing voice.

Rebel Heart – The Shelters

The Shelters owe their big break due to producer Tom Petty’s ear for talent.  Guitarists Chase Simpson and Josh Jove were studio musicians on the 2014 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album Hypnotic Eye.  After forming The Shelters in 2015, the four person band released their eponymous album in June 2016.  The first single off of that album, as well as the first track, is “Rebel Heart.”

So, what makes “Rebel Heart” special, aside from the fact that I first heard of it on WKIT?  Well, it’s a throwback.  I think that the folks at WKIT compare it to the Monkees, but I don’t see that.  It does have a poppy, ‘60s style to it, but the guitar work reminds me a little bit of the Byrds, and most particularly of Jim/Roger McGuinn’s guitar solo on “Eight Miles High.”  There are elements that remind me of a Beatles single, as well, but the vocals are decidedly from this century, as Josh Jove’s lead vocals, as well as the band’s backing vocals, are melodic without being the silky smooth harmonies that were popular in the ‘60s.  I haven’t heard any of The Shelters’ other work, but this song alone hearkens back to an era of rock that has been buried by album after album of pop and R&B.

Heartbeat Smile – Alejandro Escovedo

First, let’s talk about the man and his pedigree. Alejandro Escovedo, a first generation Mexican-American from San Antonio, started his career with San Francisco punk band “The Nuns” in the mid-‘70s.  He has been a part of the Austin music scene since the ‘80s, and has cut his own solo albums since 1992.  His family includes his niece, Sheila E, one of Prince’s frequent collaborators; his brothers Coke and Pete, one-time members of Santana’s band; his brother Mario, the frontman for the Dragons; and brother Javier, former frontman for the Zeros.  Clearly, Alejandro has both years of experience and a family bond that ties him to music.

In 2016, the 65-year-old Alejandro released Burn Something Beautiful.  The second track on that, “Heartbeat Smile,” is a catchy tune with some pleasing rock riffs.  The lyrics aren’t deep, and he’s not going to be confused with Robert Plant anytime soon, but the simple aesthetic of his lyrics lends itself to something that is a cross between sorrow and joy.

Two Stroke Machine – 7horse

A lot of people have side projects, and the same is also true of professional musicians. Joie Calio and Phil Leavitt have been members of the alternative rock band dada since 1992, where Calio is a singer and guitarist and Leavitt is a drummer.  They lose guitarist Michael Gurley when they tour as 7horse, a blues and rock duo, and Leavitt takes the lead vocals duties.  In 2016, 7horse released the album Living in a Bitch of a World, with the song “Two Stroke Machine” as one of its lead singles.

“Two Stroke Machine” isn’t the most uplifting of songs, as its full of signs of serious family dysfunction, and I like to pretend that I don’t know the lyrics when it comes on, because it is a bit of a downer. However, it is a catchy song with pace and instrumentation that’s reminiscent of old school blues and rock and roll.

When I first heard this song, I was under the impression that this was a much older song.  The lead singer reminded me of Tom Petty, only without his characteristic twang.  It surprised me to read that he (Leavitt) has made a career out of something other than lead vocals.

All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You – Halestorm

First of all, nobody quite compares to the divine Ann Wilson when it comes to vocals, just as nobody quite builds upon the almost engineer-like precision and complexity of sister Nancy’s guitars.  The only way you could improve upon Heart is by getting rid of the synth in their poppy ‘80s era and replacing it with a combination of electric and acoustic guitars.  Lzzy Hale doesn’t quite have the depth of Ann Wilson’s voice, but she manages to provide a sharper edge to Ann Wilson’s lyrics in Halestorm’s interpretation of “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You.”

If you look at my music collection, you’ll find a lot of males: male drummers, male guitarists, male bassists, and male vocalists.  This is what I get for insisting that it must be rock.  I have looked at bands with female leads.  Yes, some of them absolutely rock, but none of them carry that sustained intensity that comes with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who or Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.  Halestorm is one band with a woman who rocks.  Out of Red Lion, PA, Halestorm may only have one woman, but she absolutely delivers as both a vocalist and a guitarist.  I am not as keen on their original work, but Lzzy and the band shine on some of their covers.  They’ve covered Joan Jett, AC/DC, and Soundgarden, but I think their best cover is that of Heart’s “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You” off of their ReAniMate: The CoVeRs EP (2011).

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As mentioned, the occasion of Chris Cornell’s death wouldn’t have reminded me of this post if I hadn’t heard “Nearly Forgot my Broken Heart” recently on WKIT.  It’s funny, because before I heard this song I’d never really thought about Cornell’s vocals, his charisma, or even his guitar as what made Soundgarden and Audioslave special.  Instead, I attributed it to the ensemble of each group.  Now that I have been able to single out Cornell, I realize the gravity that Cornell’s death has with respect to the total rock scene.

I listen to music throughout the day, but I don’t always listen to music with lyrics when I write because I prefer to focus on the words on the page.  Perhaps in a future blog post, I’ll discuss what I listen to when I write.

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Update: Absconded by Sin (5/22/2017)

I am still looking into publishing Absconded by Sin.  I’ve shared bits and pieces of the novel through Facebook Live and through writers’ circles, but its publication has taken a backseat toward completing other projects.  If you’d be interested in seeing Absconded by Sin in publication, please let me know.  I’ll talk more about this in later posts, I’m sure.

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Update: Their Sharpest Thorns (5/22/2017)

Last night, I finally completed a very rough first draft of Their Sharpest Thorns.  It was very drafty, as I wanted to get most of the story on the page, and I will soon commence going through and tightening it, firming up characterization and improving overall cohesion.  The initial draft is ~92,500 words, which is a little shorter than what I anticipated.  Considering that I am already aware of areas that need more verbiage, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 105,000 words by the end of my second or third review.

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Update: The Modern Meltdown

I’m still in the queue in terms of my debut on a podcast.  No word yet on when that might be, but it’s still at least two weeks out.  The host, Holly Hunt, publishes about twice per month, and her most recent post was on Friday.

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Do you have something that you’d like to see me discuss in my blog posts?  You can reach me through this blog, or by tweeting to me at @jowenenglish, or by connecting with me by other electronic means, if I’ve otherwise provided them to you.  Bear in mind that I’m already work full time, and I’m moonlighting as a novelist, so it might take a while before I get to blog about your topic.  That said, I’m always interested in new ideas!

Picture credit (applies to links from other sites only): Tookapic via Pexels, CC0 License.

Where Can Authors Promote their Books in Media? How about Podcasts?

May 9, 2017

Prior to the 1940s, the radio was the primary form of mass communication in entertainment.  It took years of experimentation, but television evolved rapidly through the 1930s and 1940s.  In 1946, just a year after World War II formally ended, standardized television schedules and broadcasts were just coming into existence.

Television’s first years of existence were not as innocent as they may seem.  Much like the radio stations that preceded (and ran concurrently with) them, popular shows were sponsored.  Some of these sponsors are still household names: Kraft, Esso, and Texaco are among them.  Beyond that, shows would regularly have a significant cast member, whether Harriet Nelson pitching ketchup or Lucille Ball pitching food conglomerates (in the early 1950s), or the narrator, such as Dick Wesson of David Janssen’s The Fugitive, announcing that the show has been sponsored by Acme Safe Company.

Ads today are more overt, separate productions that have production costs beyond John Wayne endorsing a line of cigarettes.  The 2017 Super Bowl has the most extravagant examples of this, with price tags in excess of $2.5M for a 30-second spot.  That may seem like a lot of money –indeed, it is – but consider that approximately 111M people saw the Super Bowl; that’s 2.3-cents per viewer!  I don’t know what kind of estimates they make based on a funnel of viewers to buyers, but I’m sure 2.3-cents is worth it when considering the average price for a Big Mac in the US is now $4.62.

Interestingly enough, authors have also used television ads.  In the past, I’ve seen trailers for James Patterson and Dean Koontz.  I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed, but I rarely watch any network television at this point in my life.  Still, television is not necessarily the medium of readers.  I know many book fans who also are fans of many authors, spanning across multiple genres, but I’d find it hard to believe that fans of reality television would kick back with a nice Thomas Pynchon novel and dive into his world.  With authors like Stephen King and Danielle Steel, there probably is more of a crossover between television fans and book readers, but these authors have had their books adapted into many movies and TV shows (successful and unsuccessful alike).

Where does that leave authors?  Books generally don’t have ads (although I see them pop up on my wife’s Kindle when she’s put it down for the night).  Television and the radio remain media that are dominated by corporate interests.  I’m sure you’ll find more ads for beer than you’ll find for any New York Times Bestseller.  Another medium, the Web, has become the refuge of the self-marketing author.  Social media like Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest allow writers to reach a broad community, while book-specific social sites allow writers to reach known readers.  In recent months, I’ve also seen “book trailers” on YouTube, and some of them have been done to great effect.  I’ve even mentioned Michael Wallace’s Quill Gordon book trailers in a previous blog.

However, there’s another resource that reaches the ears, if not the eyes, of targeted audiences every day: podcasts.  If YouTube is the democratizing of visual media (let’s not kid ourselves, it’s different from TV), then podcasts are the democratization of audio media.

There are plenty of podcasts out there for readers.  Bookriot provides one list of them right here.  I am in the process of recording for one podcast, but this takes a slightly different tactic.  The Modern Meltdown Network provides a podcast for writers every two weeks.  This podcast, Beyond the Words, hosted by Holly Hunt, takes writers through various aspects of the writing process.

I hope to share the link with you if / when it is released.  Until then, I plan on sharing some lessons learned about recording interview questions and thinking up responses to a recorded interview in an upcoming post.  At least one of these lessons learned will also apply to writing, so I hope you’ll enjoy the parallel.

In the meantime, I am continuing to write.  My first complete draft of Their Sharpest Thorns is still a few weeks away, but I am optimistic that I will finish this month.

Picture credit (applies to links from other sites only): Tookapic via Pexels, CC0 License.

First Impressions: What I’ve Learned from Linda Gunther’s Finding Sandy Stonemeyer

May 2, 2017

Personal Update: Tackling Camp Nanowrimo

Over the past month, I’ve been working on my current project, Their Sharpest Thorns.  I set out a goal for 20,000 words over the span of May.  That may not seem like a lot when you consider that the goal for NaNoWriMo (every November) is 50,000, and I typically surpass that goal with about a week to go.  This time, things were different.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the demands of the blog would often get in the way of my progress on the work.

That being said, I surpassed the goal on April 30th, and ended up with more than 22,000 words for the month, and more than 87,000 words for the project.  In terms of word count, that’s the equivalent of coming around the home turn, three laps into a mile race.  In terms of project completion, meeting word count goals does not equate a finished project.  In project completion terms, word count is just a guideline.  It is more important to get to those closing words, whatever they may be and whenever they may occur.

The next steps are when things begin to get difficult.  From the completed first draft, I go through my completed draft several times.  In the first pass-through, I look for plot.  I try to identify places where I skipped connections, or where some item, whether in terms of narrative arc or in terms of character development, needs more buildup in support.  The next several passes look for areas where I can improve the language.

At this point in my writing career, having completed two manuscripts to date, I’ve found that there is one specific section that doesn’t begin to crystallize until I’ve been through the novel a few times: the beginning.  The first couple of lines set the tone for the rest of the book, and are typically among the most memorable lines in a work.  The framing of these first lines, as well as how you might deem these first lines as successful or not, depends on the genre.  In literary fiction, in particular, it is important to create a sense of importance in the overall text.  In action and adventure, an author might want to throw the reader directly into the plot or describe the stakes.  In high fantasy or science fiction, an author will want to establish the rules of their world as soon as possible.  These are not hard-and-fast rules; an author may abide by these rules and successfully immerse the reader in one book, and then take a completely different approach in the next book, and still provide a memorable first line.

Like anything, the first impression is important, and the first sentence, paragraph, or page is the first impression with which you leave your reader about your work.  Speaking of first impressions, I had a very positive first impression following an interaction that I had last week.

Mini-Critique / Review: Linda S. Gunther – Finding Sandy Stonemeyer

On Friday, I spoke with a published writer about her experience in getting published.  She is a self-published writer, with books that span several genres, including thriller, romance, children’s fiction, and (a current work-in-progress) non-fiction.  Toward the end of our meeting, she asked me to take a look at one of her books, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer: A Romantic Thriller Set in Northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.  I left this for myself as a treat, promising myself that I would not read it until my 20,000 for the month of April was set.  On Sunday, I began her novel, and the first several sentences struck me right away:

“Never think for one minute that your life is one-directional, still, or steady.  Change hovers on the fringes of our existence, ready to strike at any given moment.  My name is Sandy Stonemeyer, mother of two forever feuding children: Luke, a curious four-year-old, and Jenny, a rambunctious nine-year-old.” (Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, (c) Linda S. Gunther, 2016).

Without having read beyond the first chapter, I can already tell you that this is the cornerstone for the rest of the novel.  It is the cornerstone of this novel because it needs to be.  Linda approaches her opening using several techniques that I don’t use myself.  It doesn’t mean that she’s right, and it doesn’t mean that I’m right, it’s just a different approach.  These are characteristics of our respective literary voices.  Notice the juxtaposition between the first two sentences and the third sentence.  Not once in the first two sentences does Linda give the narrator a gender or have the narrator refer to herself.  Instead, she starts with a “universal truth.”  This is the same technique Jane Austen used in Pride & Prejudice, Graham Greene used in The End of the Affair, and Charles Dickens used (albeit to a slightly lesser extent) in A Tale of Two Cities.  This style of opening sentence tries to appeal to the audience’s greater moral sense.  It distances itself from the action, in a way that Nick Carraway does not as the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and hints at a lesson to be learned – either by the reader or by the protagonist – as an outcome of this tale.

There are moments in this first couple of sentences that border on cliché, but only in the sense that they are expressions that enter common use (i.e., “never think for one minute” and “strike at any given moment”).  Some would be repulsed by claiming something is a cliché, but a cliché is not a bad thing.  A cliché, a common aphorism, and a common turn of phrase are all made common for one reason: they work.  Furthermore, these two sentences redeem themselves from having more-or-less common sayings by what they attempt to tell the reader.  In addition, by using these common words, by turning these common phrases, the narrator allows the reader to drop in on familiar terms.  If you look at that second sentence, it is a reasonably long sentence (fifteen words), but it doesn’t waste any space.  The personification of change as an animal, presumably a snake, that is ready to strike leaves an impression.

The third sentence uses a technique that you can see in the beginning of innumerable novels, from Austen and James Joyce to the novels at the rack at your local supermarket.  It describes the players, and what you can expect from them.  Again, Linda wastes no space here, describing the narrator and her two children in twenty words.  We get a descriptive word to identify each child, as well as his or her age.  This is a technique that is particularly relevant upon first-person narratives, and authors often use this to get all of the introduction down as quickly as possible before moving on to the rest of the story.  It is not a technique that I particularly ascribe to, as I like to leave readers hanging for a little while as they form their own opinions of the character.  I’m still early in my current draft, so I don’t have anything to illustrate my most recent approach, but I’ve started my first novel Absconded by Sin without any concrete description of the main character in that scene:

“She took off her shoes and felt her bare feet against the tile floor.” (Absconded by Sin, First North American Serial Rights (c) 2017, Jim Owen)

Within my first paragraphs, the character’s name doesn’t appear.  This is by design.  Whether the character is named Jennifer or Theresa, the reader is divorced from any preconception that comes with the name.  I should note that I do not always follow this formula.  My past several incomplete drafts, including my current work in progress, all mention at least one character by name in the first sentence, and several do so in the first five words.  That being said, I use no adjectives to describe their disposition, except (perhaps) to discuss their emotional state.  In using adjectives or adjective phrases, such as “forever feuding,” “curious,” and “rambunctious,” the narrator of Finding Sandy Stonemeyer has already provided us with first impressions of the characters, and these adjectives should provide markers of what we will need to know, and what we can expect, moving forward.  As mentioned, without having read much further (I’m about 12 pages in as I write this), I don’t know if the story makes good on this promise. I’d imagine it does, because that is what the narrator has already taught us to expect.

Ultimately, there are several aspects of Linda S. Gunther’s first paragraph that bring me to some key points about good writing.

First and foremost, the narrative tries to reach us with an evocation.  Writers often use a “universal truth” to elicit some form of emotional or intellectual response from the reader.  Why can’t we think our life is one-directional?  What do we do when change strikes us unexpectedly?  These are questions that speak to a much bigger picture.  These “universal truths” also allow the reader to “tune in” intellectually, as everybody has their own thoughts about life and life changes, and these are not necessarily congruous with what the narrator has to say.

The second is that she establishes a sense of direction for the story.  This isn’t as obvious, but it is there.  We now know that the story is about a narrator who is the mother of two children.  We don’t necessarily know what will happen to them, but we know that there will be a change.  This isn’t always something that writers address in the first few paragraphs (I surely don’t), but it is important for the reader to understand what is at stake.

Beyond this, the narrative provides a slight emotional tie.  Through both the use of aphorism and the description of her kids, the narrator shows that she’s “been there,” and the use of the terms curious and rambunctious to describe kids are two examples of details that appeal to readers who have “been there,” too.

Finally, there’s one detail that appeals to the modern reader more than it appeals to readers of years past.  She’s brief. The beginning is the rhetorical equivalent of opening a presentation with a welcome: it does its job, and then you move on.  Many literary examples build up a short argument (note: not the literary definition of an argument), wherein the narrator lays out all of their stakes, goes into detail about the tapestries, or gives a detailed account of the hero’s pedigree. The narrator gives us all of the pedigree we need in the third sentence: she’s a mother of two.

If you are interested in Linda S. Gunther’s Finding Sandy Stonemeyer or any of her other work, please click here.

Author’s Note: I’ve missed my usual Monday update yet again.  I will look to update at once more during the course of the week.  Considering that this is going out on a Tuesday, please expect a bit of a delay as I gather my thoughts on other topics.

Running through Mud: An Update on my Current Project

April 26, 2017

It has been a little over two months since I’ve started blogging again; that isn’t to say that I had completely stopped, but there is a difference between shooting for two blogs per week and blogging when the muse strikes.  Setting myself to a schedule has helped my productivity, both in terms of blogging and in terms of writing, and has helped me think through a number of critical aspects of the writing craft.  In this time, as you may recall, I have also used Facebook Live to share some of my work, and have spoken at the Community Writers of Santa Cruz gatherings.  However, as I sit here, thinking of my next scene, I wonder just how productive I have been.

In terms of my current project, Their Sharpest Thorns, I am in the early stages of my fourth act.  I came into this month having written 65,511 words, and have since added 12,266.  Through dumb luck and a little bit of wordsmithing, I ended last night with 77,777 words in the project.  Having set my sights on 20,000 words for the month of April, I have come to the realization that I may not hit that mark; right now, I’m far off the track, but I have been known to pull 2,000 words on nights where I’ve been less than inspired.

Some of this stunted production does relate to the blog.  The blog has helped me get back into writing, but anything is an improvement in production when you’ve set your book aside for weeks at a time.  Nevertheless, when I devote 1,000 or so words to a blog, it is not the same as devoting 1,000 words to my book, and that’s time spent away from my book that I have no way of retrieving.

I can say that a part of this stunted production is that layoff.  When people ask me how I write so much in a month for NaNoWriMo, the answer is frequently “it’s easy.” It isn’t quite easy, but writing is about rhythm and momentum.  Writing 1,667 words nightly, as I do in November, is much easier than writing 1,667 words one day, and then waiting a week to write 1,667 more.  Furthermore, the muse is more likely to strike if I am already in the habit of writing.  My exhortation to those of you who write, whether it is poetry, fiction, or non-fiction: write daily.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about writing, whatever you write about will help you create that writing momentum to push you to that next milestone.

Of course, part of this grind relates to the need to produce good writing. Good writing has one voice – or, at least, one voice per narrative focus.  If you look at examples from your lit class, William Faulkner bounces back between Benjy, Quentin, and Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, with the last section being a third-person narrator who does not closely follow one character.  There may be four narrators within the story, but the voice only changes when it jumps narrators.  By continually writing on a project, your project will be shaped by the same voice, and will have better cohesion in terms of the mood that you have set for your piece.  Furthermore, by writing every day and exercising your literary voice, you are allowing your literary voice to evolve naturally.

Finally, some of the stunted production relates to where I am in the novel. When I began this novel, I had a basic outline and an otherwise blank canvas.  Now that I have devoted nearly 80,000 words to this story, I have run out of outline and I am working with a world that now has rules, no matter how vaguely defined some of they may be.  It is far easier to write from the standpoint of everything goes than it is to write from the standpoint of “I must anchor this to the world that I have created.”

As I sit here, with not even one new word introduced to my novel today, I wonder if I will resign myself to missing my first NaNoWriMo challenge (my goal is 20,000 for the month) since I began engaging with NaNoWriMo more than seven years ago.  No.  As long as there are hours left in April, I will continue to pursue this goal.  That being considered, it will be one white-knuckler of a ride from here on out!

Image Credit: User: Canon EOS-1d Mark Iv via Max Pixel – Creative Commons Zero License

Thoughts from an Unrelated Conference

March 31, 2017

I recently cited a Herman Wouk quotation that states that “a rule sometimes broken is better than no rule.” It has been a while since I’ve written new content, and the last time I worked on my current work-in-progress was Saturday, in which I spent time polishing a short section for reading at the Community Writers of Santa Cruz gathering.  A great deal has happened in the interim, but little of it is writing related.  My employers hosted a two-day conference, in which we had speakers from all over the high-tech landscape come and speak to other professionals.

One of the first speakers of the conference was a celebrity who crosses many fields.  Guy Kawasaki, a one-time colleague of Steve Jobs’, has spoken at conferences around the world, and on topics such as marketing to technical audiences, general marketing, and community management.  The general overview of his talk on Monday was evangelism, an activity he does for Canva, a company that provides free graphic design tools.  He generally speaks about the software development field, but many of the topics for discussion were general enough that they don’t need context.  It is very likely that I will mine these for content for future blogs, but also look to these to address my future endeavors as a writer.

I’ve mentioned another writer, Janice Mock, in my blog before.  Janice is a memoirist, whose debut memoir, Not All Bad Comes to Harm You, is currently available.  She has also harped upon Kawasaki’s book, Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur (APE): How to Publish a Book.  I haven’t read the book myself, but I have heard good things about it.  I have also seen a caveat, which is something that appeared in various forms after his talk at the conference.  It’s easy to get published when you’re Michelle Obama, Dwayne the Rock Johnson, or Guy Kawasaki.  During his talk, Kawasaki claimed that he’s getting 1,200 new Twitter followers per day.  It takes me a few weeks just to get that many Twitter impressions.  While there are probably a great deal of factoids that are useful in APE, it is important to understand that Kawasaki has a résumé that makes things happen on its own.

Not to take anything away from the man.  His presentation was great!  I also learned something very important through his presentation.  Along with Susie Wee, one of the CTOs for Cisco, Mr. Kawasaki introduced me to a concept that I hadn’t seriously considered before, using live video as a way of communicating with my audience.  Kawasaki and Wee used Facebook Live to live-cast their talks. In the time since their Monday talks, Kawasaki has had 7,700+ views.  Wee has just 39 views, but I have to think that she’s providing this somewhere else; Cisco is a major player in the tech world, and her presentation was simply outstanding.  I make a guest appearance in Wee’s video as a mortician who has ingested embalming fluid, so maybe that’s scaring people away.  My cousin’s husband, Steve, had already used the Facebook Live function to share his thoughts on life, but I didn’t think that such a medium would be particularly effective.  After all, it takes a second or two to get the gist of most Facebook wall posts, but a Facebook Live event might take five minutes or more for someone to extract all of its gems.  However, Steve got a lot of views.  As I sat in on Kawasaki’s and Wee’s respective presentations, I realized that what Steve had done could work for me, too.

On Tuesday, after I got home from the conference, I recorded my first Facebook Live session.  It had its moments, but was plagued with all of the problems with doing something live without any real testing.  After three attempts in which I actually went live, and numerous prior struggles with audio and video, I finally was frustrated enough to just go through with it.  There were small issues, as I was trying to flip through three pages of 8-1/2 by 11” document while reading from what I’d presented at Saturday’s Community Writers meeting.  I finally placed the three pages on a clipboard next to my camera.  It was my attempt to approximate eye contact with the camera – in essence, a kludge teleprompter without the “tele.”  This worked a bit better, as I was able to read through my work with just two brief transitions.  If you’ve seen the Facebook Live run, either live or recorded on my Facebook page, your teeth are likely grinding at the very thought of those transitions.  Surely, there is an alternative, but I will have to work this alternative out as I continue experimenting with this medium.

Tools for Live Recording

The Internet is the great equalizer when it comes to producing recorded content.  There are tools that make it easy enough to do.  Speaking as someone who came into it with no prior experience, I know that tools such as Windows Movie Maker and Camtasia can allow you to pre-record webinars with little more than a vision and a little intuition.  They are not necessarily professional quality, and will not be confused for something put out by teams that are dedicated to such tasks, but the bare bones are indeed possible, if not easy.  If you’re going for something that’s raw and grassroots, Facebook Live can instantly get you from ideation to a live broadcast. One of the major takeaways from Guy’s talk was the growing set of third-party tools that are already there to support you in your FB Live broadcasts.  There were three resources that he identified:

Telestream WireCast – This is a production studio toolkit.  It allows you to use multiple cameras and mics for Facebook Live, to capture live content, and to provide modern editing and layering to Facebook Live broadcasts. Telestream offers limited time trial versions, but the software itself runs around $500 for the base level.

Be.Live – This is more of a community for live creators, rather than a tool or integration itself.  This community is full of information.  One such post explains how you can download your live streams from Facebook.  This also sells “.live” domains for live content creators.  I’m not sure where the integration occurs here.

BlueJeans – teleconferencing technology that has integrated with Facebook Live.  From the website, it appears that most of this is done for enterprise teleconferencing, but I’m sure that you can stretch it to include live Q&A sessions with your fans, if you have the imagination.  There is a free trial of BlueJeans, but the full package is a subscription service.  With some exceptions, such as a 50% deal in March, the price is about $20 per month for up to 50 attendees at once.

Content is King

Later in the day, I watched my colleague, David I, illustrate examples of a developer portal that really doesn’t work.  He had some great points that make a lot of sense to all of us in the blogosphere.

The key point that resonated the most with me is that you may be trying to sell something, but the key reason why you should be producing content on your blog or site is to give something to your audience.  It doesn’t matter if that something is advice, information, or just you telling your story.  If you’re hocking something right off of the bat, you’re going to turn people away.

Another key point that I’d like to bring up is the volume of content, and the completeness of vision for your site.  If you’re reading this, you know that I have a blog.  I also have a Facebook author page that hasn’t gone live yet.  A large part of the reason why it hasn’t gone live is that it is still devoid of content and visual appeal.  With my blog, I have been focusing on delivering content, and do so because my only experience with blogs has been experience with text.  I have been exploring ways of expanding this to a full site.  For the time being, this is a blog, and the written content is king.  One of these days, when somebody picks up my blog, they will have a backlog of my thoughts, and will hopefully be able to trace my evolution as a blogger and as an author.  Right now, my Facebook author page has none of that.  For this and other reasons, I have not gone live with that page, and I may need to wait for some time before you, my friends, will see it.

If you haven’t heard about David I., then you’re missing out.  The man is a great presenter, and great storyteller.  He shares from his backlog of more than 45 years in the software development field, and his experience picking up an array of programming languages.  However, his reminiscing of days of compilers past is not what makes him so engaging as a presenter.  He has adopted numerous philosophies of presentation skills from presenter Jerry Weissman, and one of them is particularly helpful for those of us who want to use video as a medium for blogging and sharing content: ERA, earned run average.  Oops, nope. ERA…

Eye Contact – keep your eye on your audience, whether that is a camera or a live event.  If a live event, maintain eye contact with numerous people in succession.  A presentation is just a conversation with many people.

Reach Out – be welcoming, draw people in.  If you physically reach out (think with open arms), it’s like shaking hands.  There’s a visceral response to shaking hands, and it harkens back to centuries past, where you knew that if you were shaking hands, you weren’t carrying a weapon in that hand.  As most people are right handed, you’re proving that you’re at least vulnerable enough to not have anything in your dominant hand.

Animate – don’t just stand there, you corpse!  Lurch, the butler on the Addams Family, would stand there looking like the scenery, but most people are animated when they engage with others.  Use your hands.  Walk the stage.  If you’re only a close-up on a screen, laugh and smile, or gesticulate in some manner.

Closing Thoughts

After all that has happened this week, and my relative level of exhaustion, I didn’t think that this blog post would be as long as it is.  I’ll leave you with a few things:

  • If you’re trying to draw interest to your cause, try Facebook Live. It couldn’t hurt.  In fact, as of this posting, I have 165 views, and drew nine unique visitors to my blog in just under 40 minutes.  That’s not too bad.
  • Consider low cost or free production tools. Fiddle around with free tooling, and see what works for you. Some are fairly intuitive; even if they aren’t, you might learn something!
  • If you want to feel natural on the camera, you might not necessarily be able to animate, but try keeping eye contact with the camera as much as possible, and establish an open posture. If you look uncomfortable on the camera, then it won’t be any fun for your viewers.

Photo Credit: Cozendo on Pixabay.  CCO License.

If any of the above interested you, please check out the following:

Janice Mock
Guy Kawasaki
APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur
Susie Wee
David I

Breaking the Shell: Sharing my Work in Public (Again)

March 27, 2017

Writing takes time.  Good writing takes even longer.  If you do any writing for leisure, you can consider yourself a writer.  My grandfather often points to me, out of his eight grandchildren, as the writer in the family, because I write novels in my spare time.  He writes memoirs, and these are a gift to his grandchildren every Christmas.  He may not think of himself as such, but he is a writer, too.  Of course, there are certain aspects of the craft that he might not do as much as a typical fiction writer, such as editing or fretting over word choice, but he certainly can write.  His memoirs are frequently entirely in capital letters, but that’s a different story altogether.  He is a writer because he shares insights about a world that are lost to people of my generation; he has a tale to tell, and he uses the written word to tell it.

In this way, my grandfather is much more of a writer than I am.  I have written fiction for many years.  Many of the short stories that I’ve written are lost due to the burnt silicon of years past, and other works are still floating around my hard drive, looking for an ending.  I have two completed novels, one that has been edited, and one that is in need of a 33% reduction in length.  I also have enough incomplete novels to keep me busy for years. Outside of me, my wife, and a number of beta readers, I have not leaked any of these projects out to the public.  In fact, not counting the time I read a portion of my current work-in-progress to some fellow writers in a crowded restaurant, I hadn’t publicly shared any portion of my writing projects for about five years — that is, until yesterday.  For the first time since college, I’ve joined a writing group that has a regular meeting schedule, established rules, and a consistent following.  Yesterday, while most of the poets in the group were likely attending a festival called “The Celebration of the Muse,” I stood up in front of a sparse crowd of memoir writers and poets and shared my current work in progress, tentatively titled “Their Sharpest Thorns.”

I was one of the last readers of the day.  Considering how much others had shared, and how much free time we had, I could have read much more, but I kept myself true to the group’s designated time limit of 5 to 8 minutes.  As the new guy, I stuck as close as I could to the five minute mark.

Before I go on about my own writing, I’d like to share some thoughts about what I’d previously heard.  Before I got up to the podium, I’d heard one woman describe living in abject poverty in the midst of Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl era, another woman described learning to drive on one of the most treacherous roads in the region with her three siblings in the back seat, and a third described having her wallet stolen from her hostel on the first morning in a strange land.   These are three experiences that I have no real grounds for understanding.  California, and particularly the Bay Area, was booming throughout my childhood. I learned to drive on an empty country road, and waited months before I drove down Highways 5  and 99 for my first long trip by car.  I’ve never been out of the country on my own, and never spent the night in a hostel.  I’ve heard several people state this, but there is an entire generation that has never experienced war of the magnitude of WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.  There is still a lack of social justice in the World, but the fight is different than what the world “we” saw in the 1960s, even if it is the same fight, but a different venue.  Sharing those differences, whether it is a difference of time, socioeconomic status, gender, race, or anything else that makes you unique is one way of providing others with a perspective of what it means to be you.

As for my experience, it’s a little different.  When I write, I attempt to convey stories and illustrate characters.  On Saturday, I was the lone fiction writer, and my reading was nestled between two expressive and enthralling poets.  These two men, like most of the others in this group, are each at least twice my age.  They lived through the Summer of Love, and they saw friends and neighbors go off to fight battles on foreign soil.

The man immediately preceding me has a wry and capricious wit.  The other poet jokingly categorized his friend’s work as almost pornographic.  I wouldn’t go that far, but it was something that my parents wouldn’t have wanted me to hear when I was a child.  That said, it was very clever, and his use of wordplay, and the absurd personification of an MP3 player, was a treat.  “Ike,” or whatever his actual name might have been, served as a gentle reminder prior to my own presentation of the power of timeliness in wording.

After Ike presented, I stood up.  I was already talking, sharing a little bit about myself before I made it to the lectern.  This, is a presentation no-no, as a pregnant pause at the lectern reminds people that the chatter has ended and the presentation is about to begin.  It reminds you that your time as the audience has ended and that it is now your time to shine.  I forgot that, and needed a gentle reminder, after the fact, that I needed to do this in order to have better command over the room.

When I started, I blew through introducing myself and introducing my work so quickly that I was easily ten seconds ahead of when I’d timed myself earlier.  I was stumbling over words that I’d read several times (out loud to my wife, out loud to my cat, and in my head multiple times).  I knew that I needed to slow down.  I think I gained a little more command of the piece as I went through, but the nerves and “rust” were slow to slough away. By the time I’d run out of words to say, I felt spent.  I think the only adverb that I could use to describe my amble back to my seat would be “drunken.”  I was humbled as I took my seat in the midst of the seasoned vets, but their applause and comments were very supportive, and I knew that I hadn’t completely swayed from my intent.

After I sat down, the moderator, poet Keith Emmons, had a few kind words, and began reading from his own work.  As a spoken word poet, Mr. Emmons is enthralling, and it reminded me of how a talented rhapsode can evoke such interest in their words based solely on their delivery.  Through his poetry, as well as his delivery, he shared the essence of what it is to live the bohemian life in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  He was also there to pitch his book of poetry, Moondrifter Reverie.  I have heard Keith speak several times, enough to become familiar with his style.  I was happy to order his book.  I’m not a poetry critic, but I may share some of my findings once I receive my copy.

Moondrifter Reverie is available from Red Mountain Press of Santa Fe, NM.

—-

You may be curious about what I’ve shared.  At this point, I’ll just leave you with a synopsis of this scene from “Their Sharpest Thorns”:

An aging small-town sheriff is faced with his first major case in years; several people have died due to particularly grisly, ritual murders in his town.  He has just come from the scene of the first murder, where he recovered the body of a backpacker.  He already has another backpacker in his custody.  Is she the killer? He sincerely hopes that the answer is no.

—-

On a somewhat unrelated note, my company is hosting a conference this week.  For this reason, I may not be able to get to comments or follow-up posts until later this week. Wednesday’s blog post may be delayed. I hope that this conference will generate some useful tidbits that will cut from my career to my passion.  We’ll have to see.   I will announce my next blog publication through the appropriate channels as soon as it occurs.

Photo courtesy of Congerdesign via Pixabay. Creative Commons license.