Posts Tagged ‘Jim Owen; Author’

Ruminations on Fathers Day

June 19, 2017

Author’s Note: I plan to extend my tour through other author’s websites on Wednesday, but until that time, I have a few spare thoughts about writing that came up through my reflections yesterday: Father’s Day.  The following is a whimsical and meandering, and maybe sometimes philosophical, look at fatherhood from the perspective of an outsider – and novel-writing from the perspective of a “nervous first-time dad.”

Ruminations on Father’s Day and Fathers in General

If necessity is the mother of invention, then what is the father of invention?  Yesterday was Father’s Day, a worldwide holiday in which we honor our forebears, specifically our fathers, with offerings of novelty ties with US presidents; authentic, old-fashioned shaving kits that we made in China last week; truly unique, only four more like them at Sears, grills for the upcoming feast; collections of beers from around the corner; and the burgers to go with those beers.

There are certain ironies in the stereotypical gifts that we pass along to our fathers on this day, particularly for me.  For example, my father dislikes wearing ties so much that he takes his off for his lunch breaks; he prefers the inexpensive razors because he doesn’t have to worry about throwing them out when they break down; he doesn’t drink (neither do I); he’s pretty much vegan; and he doesn’t like grills due to the carcinogens that they produce (after taking an applied chemistry class that discussed carcinogens at length, I don’t blame him).  To top it all off, my father is notoriously hard to shop for; it’s not that he doesn’t express gratitude; it’s that he doesn’t ever express a need for anything beyond what he has.  It’s an enviable place to be, and an enviable outlook on life.

I am not a father.  I hope to be there one day, but my two ‘children’ are a pair of felines.  Yes, they’re like children.  They’re constantly bickering, with the big brother picking on his little sister – a sister who happens to be roughly three times his age, but that’s beside the point.

Father’s Day is a day of appreciation, and a day of understanding everything that a man has done to contribute to your existence and who you are as a person.  (Cats already do that whenever you give them wet food)  In many ways, a man or a woman is a reflection of their father, for better or for worse.  For instance, my father-in-law is notoriously industrious; he will leave work in the afternoon and move on to his second job, coming home only to eat dinner and go to sleep.  My wife is equally as industrious, and is a whirlwind of productivity when she comes home.  I don’t know what my cats may have inherited from me, but I’m not sure that they care.

Fathers in Fiction

Fathers have historically been essential in much more than how one is reared.  For instance, numerous ancient texts, including some of the first texts that have been distinctly English, have discussed patriarchs, and patrilineal significance in great detail.  We see a little of this in Beowulf, a turn of the first millennium text that is one of the earliest surviving examples of English fiction.  Beowulf is the son of Ecgtheow, a victorious warrior who was exiled to Geatland (from Daneland) as part of a political power play.  Thus, when Beowulf brings up his father, he’s also establishing a bit of his own credibility as a warrior. This tradition carried on to stories such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where introductions sometimes involve more than a century’s worth of family histories.  Gimli, Son of Glóin, Son of Gróin, son of Farin, and so on.  By following the patterns of some of these pedigrees, I’d be Jim, Son of J the athlete, Son of H the aviator, Son of M the carpenter.  By the time I’ve hit that third antecedent, I’m already discussing two family migrations and a story that began more than 130 years ago.  Nevertheless, this type of pedigree is often important in high fantasy, science fiction, and even historical fiction, and the role of the father carries on again and again through fiction.

Writing is like Fatherhood

Over the past few weeks, I’ve put a little thought into how writing is like fatherhood, and hence the introduction, “necessity is the mother of invention,” which has appeared in many forms, and may be a bastardization of Plato’s The Republic (c.380 BCE).  If necessity is the mother of invention, then imagination is the father of fiction.  I’ve seen it many times before that a good writer must also be a good reader, but I don’t think I’m taking too much of a leap to say that there’s more to it than that.  A good reader can only write what they’ve already seen in their own reading.  A good writer must use their own imagination to expand upon and deviate from what they’ve read.  Similarly, a father is someone who has learned about fatherhood because they’ve experienced the opposite side of it as a son.  However, a good father must use their own intuition and their own imagination in order to build a strong relationship with their own children.  Just as my grandfather had a different relationship with his children than his father had with him, my father has had a different relationship with my sister and me than his father had with him.  In part, this is the natural order and the progression of time, but it is also the result of a man’s ability to create relationships.

But I think that the analogy of novelist:novels::parent:children extends further than this, and is also why we are similarly so careful with our novels that they may seem like our children.  Children form over time; even though there aren’t any complete rewrites, child-rearing is much like novel writing (and editing) in the sense that you want to put both in the best possible situation for success.  Despite our best efforts, there will be shortfalls, and none will turn out perfect (would it be in poor taste to include a Todd Marinovich joke here?), but they all must face the world at some point, and they will all be perfect in their own way.  There are ways in which novel-writing is like motherhood, in the sense that they both have a gestation period that starts at conception, and ends with them being introduced to the World.  However, regardless of the gender of the writer or of the parent, the product is ultimately a reflection of its creators.

Thus, as I’m working through another editing process, and awaiting another round of beta readers, I realize that a large part of why I haven’t published my works yet is due to a common concern for both authors and fathers: that their children must be ready for the World.

Futurists aside, we cannot adequately predict what the World will be like as our works have time to mature.  What will the critics say about our novels when we publish them?  Will they survive for five years?  Will they survive for a hundred years?  It shouldn’t matter to us, but I think that there is a visceral desire to see the lives of our creative works exceed our own.  Today, with self-publishing, ebooks, and a seemingly endless amount of digital storage, we do not need to be Shakespeare or Byron, or Shelley or Harper Lee.  Our works – whether critical hits or monumental flops – can extend far beyond our own lives.  It’s a grandiose idea, yes, but think about how difficult it was for people to get their own copy of Chaucer’s work in his own time!  Think about what it was like for the little guy that we haven’t

Despite its popularity, The Canterbury Tales wasn’t “mass” produced until nearly eighty years after Chaucer’s death.  Why?  Because Chaucer predated the printing press!  Even then, William Caxton’s printing press of ~1480 (the original press for Chaucer’s work) was one of just a handful west of Germany.  Even 500 years later, by which time the technology had upgraded many times, the types of presses that print fiction were still limited in the sense that only a few companies were capable of true mass publication.  Today, anybody can publish through Amazon CreateSpace, Lulu, Barnes & Noble, and dozens of other publication services and digital storefronts.  We don’t need thousands of square feet to house all of the books in our local libraries (at least, not to the same extent we once did), as today’s libraries can house literally (and yes, the correct use of the word) millions of ebooks on a relatively inexpensive server.  So, what does this mean?

This means that you, Alan Smithee, Author of Awesome Book and its three sequels, may not live on as author of the “Universally Beloved Awesome Book series,” but your work may be on some server (either in the AWS data center, your local library’s server, or some infrastructure supporting the Cloud), long after you have retired your keyboard and taken up permanent residence with the worms.  Whether your book burns up the Kirkus Review, or the Kirkus Review tells readers to burn your book, your book will live on!

Until next time, this is the father of several books that are still in incubation, reminding you, in the words of the imitable Ralph Kiner “It [was] Father’s Day [yesterday] at Shea, so to all of you fathers out there, happy [belated] birthday!”

Author Sites: Content

June 12, 2017

Last week, I began a long post about author websites.  This all stems from my investigations into creating my own author website, and focuses on the real meat of the developer website: content.  If you’re interested in the visual aspect of an author website, please click here to review my previous post.

Odds are, if you’re following me on Twitter, you’re a fellow writer.  You’ve read through my rants and raves about writing, about sharing my writing in public, and about my efforts to drum up interest for, publish, and market my books.  You’ve probably scoffed at the bare bones nature of my blog, and wondered why I don’t include photos, artwork, or even buttons.  These are all baby steps; they will come, but let’s first point to the first thing an author website should do. If you said “sell my books,” then please take your seat at the back of the class.  In my last blog, I mentioned that most people don’t like to be marketed to (or sold to).  Yes, you create a website with “sell my books” as one desired outcome, but the first thing that the author site should do is introduce your writing to your potential reader.  By extension, you’re also introducing yourself, but the writing is the thing (with apologies to Hamlet)!  There’s a subtle difference between marketing to an audience and informing an audience.  This may sound like talking from both sides of my mouth, but both can be accomplished through a simple advertisement; the only difference is the content of that advertisement.

Yes, up and coming works are a focal point for many websites, but providing an “Order Now” page at the front and center of your website only works if you have hundreds of thousands of adoring fans and you know that you’ll sell out your first edition — maybe even on pre-order.  If you look at Dean Koontz’s site, for instance, you see that he is advertising The Silent Corner.  However, when you click the “Learn More” button, you see two things — one, a brief (and far too marketing-speak) introduction to the book, and two, a brief synopsis.  It isn’t until you get below the fold where you find “Advance Praise for The Silent Corner,” as well as where you can pre-order his book.  Yes, the marketing is there, as are the “sales” links, but Mr. Koontz does not treat his website like the ear piercing booth at your local mall.  No, he saves the sale for somewhere else.

Last week, I promised some opinions on what CONTENT should be included in the typical author’s website.  I’d discussed a little about this when I discussed individual book pages, so please refer back to that for a bit more detail.  However, here are eight (or, would you believe, thirteen) more things that you should consider when you are creating content for your author website.

1) BOOKS – As mentioned before, the books are the things that are really drawing people to your site, and they are also the items that you should be discussing the most.  There are layers to what you can provide on your author website.  Some of the content that I envision for my own book page include:

a) A Brief Synopsis – No, I’m not going to give away the plot twist in the third act, but I will provide something a little more substantial than what I would put on the back of a book jacket. This might include more detail about the plot itself, or more information about the principal characters.

b) Character lists – who are the people in your novel? Who do people need to remember? If you’re a part of a book club, or a lit teacher, you know that people are doing this already as a means of understanding and staying connected with the book.  However, it does help to do a little of the work for them.   I haven’t done character lists of other writers’ books before, except for when I needed to do them for coursework.  That being said, imagine somebody who comes back to a book somewhat infrequently, to the point that they have to remind themselves every time about that Daenarys and Jon Snow don’t really know each other, or have trouble identifying the various other characters that may have some familial relationship to each other.

c) Maps – Another item that comes to mind is a map. I’ve already seen enough maps of Westeros to know that they’re out there, but what about the map of the Harry Potter world? What about a map that identifies the various locations of District Six and where they come from, as opposed to the characters of District Two?

d) Glossaries – If you’re into high fantasy or science fiction, there may also need to be a glossary. Particularly if you’re dealing with technical real-world stuff (or even technical, fictitious stuff, people aren’t going to necessarily know the difference between a jump drive and an FTL drive, even if they’re the same thing in your universe. They might know that a Halfling is approximately half the size of something, but what is it half the size of – are the “humans” in your world really like the humans that you would see in Times Square?  Your universe has its own rules, and it may be difficult for people to remember those rules and how they may be any different from Tolkien’s or Alastair Reynolds’ or Burroughs’ Barsoom.  I sometimes need them for real-world books, even when the only thing I’m trying to figure out is what the difference is between a vicar and a priest.  If you’re prone to reading American books, you better be well prepared for understanding that a fanny is a polite word for somebody’s bottom, and that rooting for something is not vulgar in the slightest (and probably not what you Aussies think it means).   Sometimes, this comes down to very common words or tropisms.  Wizard, witch, and warlock — what does that mean to you?  In some of the fantasy books of my childhood, a warlock was simply a male witch.  In Rowling, a male witch is a wizard.

e) Backgrounds – As for other odds and ends about the book itself, remember that people will be approaching your book for all different purposes. If you’ve written a historical fiction / period piece, you might need some collateral to explain to the modern reader why Thermopylae was an important battle in Greek history, or where the ancient Troas (Troy) was in relation to Crete.  You might need to explain the importance of neck rings in Dinka culture, or why some parts of China would engage in foot-binding.

There may be many other items that relate to an individual book that you’d like to put on your author website.  As mentioned, I’ve discussed a few here.  However, there are many other items that may not directly relate to your books, but rather to you as an author.

2) News – There are several ways of putting out news on websites. Having no headlines to drum up myself, I tend to append my news to the end of these blog posts.  If I had news of more substance, I would have a separate place for all of it.  If you’re generating a lot of news-worthy items (and I mean a lot), you might think about a monthly or bi-monthly newsletter.  I wouldn’t recommend much more than 26 per year (and even that may be a lot).  As much as fanboys might love a given author, even the New York Times Bestsellers don’t have that much news in a given week.  Even if you are the type of author that generates a lot of news, it may be worthwhile to put out the news as it happens.  If you’re releasing a new short story on Smashwords, why wait two weeks until your next newsletter?

3) Blog – Well, of course I would point to this.  After all, you’re reading my blog.  However, a blog is a useful, less formal means of keeping in touch with your readers, your friends, and other writers.  I try to blog about twice per week, but I wouldn’t blog nearly as much if I knew that I was under deadline for some great opportunity.  A few of the authors that I’ve examined over time put out a blog 1 to 2 times per month, but many of those authors are also of the sort where writing is their full-time profession, and they hardly need to build their audience.

4) Reviews – This can go both ways.  It is useful to put up reviews of your own books, particularly if they’re thorough.  It may also be useful to put up reviews of books that you’ve enjoyed.  At the same time, if reviews are too detailed, they might give away too much information, and you don’t want to be on record as absolutely slamming another author – no matter how much you think they might deserve it.

5) Appearances – Are you the errant author?  Will you be in Seattle one weekend and San Diego the next?  Are you doing book signings at your neighborhood bookseller, or having a reading at your local library?  If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you will want to share this with your audience.  If you’re the type of writer that is speaking at a charity function, add that, too, even if it has nothing to do with your books. If you have a following, they will want to see you in the flesh, and they will be wondering why your Awesome Book: Volume IV remains in the development stage.  (By the way, I’d laugh so hard I’d cry if I saw Awesome Book: Volume III on a book rack!)

6) FAQs – There’s a reason why you’ll see FAQs on numerous websites.  If there are stock questions that you always get asked, you might want to address them all at once on your website.  At the same time, you need to be careful.  Not all questions deserved to be answered, and some of them fall into the realm of personally identifiable information (PII) or “password questions.”  Sorry, nobody needs to know your mother’s maiden name, unless you’re Melanie Griffith (her mother is Tippi Hedren of The Birds).  If you’re Melanie Griffith, you might want to share your pedigree with the World.

7) Bio – As much as that website might say AntonioSaavedra.com or AngelinavanHeusen.com, the website is not about you, it’s about your writing.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a little something about you in store for the reader.  Many of the top authors that I’ve researched have little bios.  These bios are much like what you’d see on the back of a book, but some get into a bit more depth, discussing former professors, other occupations held, inspirations for writing, and other life details.  My own bio is very sparse, which is probably just a force of habit.  It isn’t as if you’re not getting enough about me through this blog!

8) Contact Information – Keep this brief, and don’t give away the whole enchilada.  I have some thoughts about why you might not want to share much, but there are a few items that you might want to share: Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram accounts are useful, as they are not nearly as personal as Facebook.  If you have a P.O. Box for fan mail and the like, this is also useful.  I wouldn’t provide a street address, for obvious reasons.  If you’re from a small town (like Jenner, CA), you might not even want to use a P.O. Box at your closest post office.  Instead, as is the case with Jenner, you might want to have a P.O. Box in Bodega Bay or Guerneville – they are not exactly the big city, but they’re both ten miles further away from where you sleep at night.  If you have a little bit more time, then creating email forms can be useful.  These allow people to quickly and conveniently contact you, but do not give away your email address.

Thanks for tagging along for this whopper of a post. Expect another post later this week, but I can’t promise the timing!

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

Photo Attribution: Unsplash on Pexels. Creative Common 0 License

Author Sites: Aesthetics

June 9, 2017

Get out your color wheels, design fans; it’s time to talk about website design!  This was initially intended as a single post, with smaller follow-ups, but the information has since exploded, and I had to segment this off into two posts.  Check in soon for the second part, where I talk about content!

But first, let’s talk about the beauty of website design (as it relates to author sites)!

Just so we’re on the level, I should be one to talk — this is my website: plain, simple, and as of June 2017 black text on a white background with a blue band across the top.  This is a basic template for WordPress, and it has served me well over the past several years since I started blogging under the “jowenenglish” banner.  It isn’t intended as a complete site, and I will update this someday.  In fact, this post (and, now, at least one more post in the series) has come out of some of my research into creating my own website.

I’ve learned a lot from my colleague, David, on the matter, and I wanted to share some of the thoughts that have crossed my mind as I not only research other authors’ websites, but also research websites as part of my day job.  At some point, I might apply this knowledge and build out my own site, but it’s fun to take a look at what I’ve seen.

Aesthetics (or Can You Judge a Website by its Cover?)

1) Orientation

How many of you have gotten frustrated with a website because you still can’t find what you’re looking for?  Worse yet, you’re scrolling through something that has so many graphics and individual pages that you get the feeling that you’re being sucked into a click-bait site.  The orientation of a website is important.  I won’t go into mobile sites, as I generally prefer full sites, and many website building tools allow you to have responsive design with the so-called hamburger menus off to one side.

2) Pull-down Menus / Hamburger Menus

Pull-down menus, or those buttons that appear below the banner, are important.  As far as I can tell, there is no sure-fire combination as to what should appear in a menu, and in what configuration, but there are three basics that I generally see within author websites: My Books, About Me, and Contact Me.  Some authors have much more, and having a few more items works, as long as the main items do not get lost in the clutter.  Pull-down menus are among those aspects of a website that fit into both the aesthetics category and the features category, as pull-down menus ultimately show you what yo need in a palatable format.

3) Banners

One of the main things that has held me back from building out my site is the lack of visual appeal.  Whether it’s the banner itself or just below the banner, I don’t have the right images to entice the reader.  This has a bit to do with a lack of Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator skills, and a bit to do with everything else being up in the air. However, I have observed a number of websites that work in this respect, and the items that work are typically the items that make the website itself unique.  Cover art, such as the full cover art that would fit on your dust jacket, sans writing, is one way of going about this, but some authors (or, presumably their design teams) tailor this even further.  I think what this art entails is very genre specific.  The stark and hard-boiled look might work for a mystery writer, but it won’t work for writers in other genres, or for the literary fiction crowd.

And then there’s the rest of the bunch…

Within an author website, there are generally seven items that I look for in terms of aesthetic or visuals.  I’ve already discussed a little about the orientation, the banner, and the pull-down menus.  The other four are what appears “above the fold,” the visuals that represent the books themselves, the author photo, and the text.  These aren’t nearly as appealing to discuss.  There’s definitely meat to them, and some people can fill up pages just talking about the physical appeal of fonts themselves.  I’m not one of them, but I do have my opinions on the matter.

Above the Fold

Many times, the only thing people will see about a new website, unless they’re very interested, is what occurs above the fold.  The term (sometimes called “above the crease”) comes from the newspaper industry, and refers to any item that you can see when you unroll the newspaper and see the stories that appear immediately above or below the banner.  Websites have this, too.  If people do not need to scroll up or down to see the content, it is considered “above the fold.”

When it comes to what appears above the fold, I think about this as an orientation consideration, a visual appeal consideration, and –most importantly — a content consideration.  Yes, it is great to have an appealing visual above the fold, but readers who base their book choice on beautiful visuals are bound to be disappointed.  You can judge a book by its cover, but only to a point.  If your site does not have much appeal except for a brilliant visual above the fold, then readers will not be as compelled to dig into the rest of the site.  Having buttons to show them other site features (book synopses, character charts, interviews, readings, or whatever you would like to offer) is essential to your site’s success as an informational vehicle.

5) Visual Representations for Books

Okay, so you’ve published your novel, what image do you use to represent this on your site, and how do you share that?  Amazon does one thing well in this regard, as they have a simple image of the book’s front cover on the left, and then a synopsis or blurb on the right.  If you click onto the cover, you usually get a few sample pages.  I prefer this physical orientation, and prefer the book cover rather than some other related image.  When it comes to what that visual representation does, the “button” format is fine, but I would recommend that you go a step further.  Use that book as a mouse-over button, if you can, and include a list of numerous features that supplement the book.  I’ve mentioned a few of these above, and I generally think that these forms of collateral are a good place to start.  You might also have essays that you’ve written about your book and what it means to you, and these would be perfect for your book site, but aren’t necessarily a top-level item.  Another item that comes to mind is information for book clubs or educators.  You might think it is presumptuous, but these items can pave the way for broader discussion of your novel, and help the readers approach your book with all of the right tools in hand.

6.) Author Photo

The author photo is an important consideration, but don’t think too long about it.  We’ve all seen the glamour shots at the back of popular trade paperbacks.  These are fine, and professional glamour shots are probably preferable if you want to be taken seriously as a writer.  However, if being good looking was the a prerequisite for selling books, then many of the great writers of our time wouldn’t be making much money at all.  Your professional photo should be subtle; even if you’re as arrogant as they come, you don’t want someone to look at the back of your book and think “wow, that guy probably never passes up a chance to look at his own reflection.”

7.) Font 

Finally, the last item I’ll talk about in terms of aesthetic is font.  Generally, font size doesn’t matter, as people can adjust as needed.  However, I wouldn’t venture too far off of the defaults that come with your given tool (unless you’re going straight from the CSS — if that’s the case, huzzah!  I generally don’t pay much attention to fonts.  My preference is for serif fonts in print media, however the prevailing wisdom is that sans-serif fonts are easily readable because they are less visually complex.  The fonts that I’ve heard bandied about most often are Verdana, Arial, and Helvetica.  Experts in visual design will wax poetic about the benefits of one over another.  I’m a writer, not a type-setter, so I don’t particularly care as long as I can read it.  Comic Sans might be the exception.

I’d love to hear your opinions on font, but I plan on leaving these considerations to typesetters and designers.

Content is King! (But I’ll Save This for Another Blog)

I initially didn’t think that I would have much to say about aesthetics in the more abstract sense, but I soon realized that this post is getting pretty lengthy.  This will cap out at over 1,500 words, and I don’t want to bury the topic of content under that volume of words.  I will say this, before I provide a few more updates: first, the most brilliant aesthetics will hide a lack of content, but they cannot entirely overcome a lack of content.  Content is at the heart of your author site, but even the most brilliant content will disappear if you’re mired in poor aesthetics.

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Writer’s Update: I don’t feel like I’m busy, but it seems like I always have something to do.  Right now, I have a checklist that’s about twenty items long, and many of these are time consuming projects. On top of it all, this doesn’t include work duties.  In recent weeks, my supervisor has been leaning on me to get a lot of writing projects done.  The hours spent agonizing over reports has made for a few late nights.  I have been better at getting home before dark lately, but that isn’t saying much as we approach the solstice.

Their Sharpest Thorns is still in early edits.  I’ve worked through about a quarter of the book already, but I’m primarily taking a postmortem of where my story deviates from my notes, and attempting to correct any inconsistencies.  There’s still a good month’s worth of work in editing, and it is likely that I will not have enough to call this a “complete” draft until late summer.

Thanks for tagging along for this doozy of a post.  In my next post, I’ll discuss the content of an author site, and hopefully have a few more updates along the way!

 

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

Death: An Evocative Tropism in Written Works

May 26, 2017

I’d intended to write something about the power of music and my preferred listening when I write, but I think that will have to wait for another time.  Last night, just a few hours before I began this, I was sitting on the couch, reading an excerpt from Helene Simkin Jara’s Because I Had To, because I will likely see her this weekend.  Jara is the featured speaker at a writers group that I have attended over the past several months.  She is a free-form poet, a short-story writer, an actor, and a director, so she knows the importance of evoking emotions.  She sure did.  One of her poems, as it turns out, is about someone I once knew — or, at least, knew of — in high school.  She’d grown up with my wife, and (unfortunately) has since left corporeal existence behind her.

Death is a sensitive subject for all of us, whether we care to admit it or not.  If we have been lucky enough to have never encountered death amongst our friends and family, we are either very young, very fortunate, or very isolated.  Everything dies (except for, perhaps, some forms of hydrozoa).  Considering the universality of death, it is an important, and poignant, concept to address in fiction.  No, you don’t need to include Hamlet’s soliloquy — and please don’t, that’s been done — but killing off characters is not something to be taken lightly (unless you’re writing a comedy).

In fiction, not all deaths need to be meaningful.  Nobody cares about that lackey that gets offed in the middle of a firefight, but when meaningful characters begin dying willy-nilly, there better be a darned good reason why the character has to go.  After all, the reason why Piggy died in The Lord of the Flies is not because Golding ran out of things to do with that character.

I’ve had to kill characters in my novels, and my latest effort, Their Sharpest Thorns has a significant death count.  However, only a few deaths are meaningful, and addressing those deaths properly has been one of the challenges in trying to cap off this book.  I will venture to guess that the second and third drafts will spend a great deal of time focused on improving the death scenes, and establishing the emotional connections leading up to the meaningful scenes. I also have the challenge of differentiating the deaths that really matter from the deaths that are just a point of fact.

If I succeed in writing a death scene, then I evoke an emotional response from myself as I am writing it, just as I would in writing a scene that is funny or a scene that is heartbreaking.  I seldom do that when I write poetry — not that I have written much poetry.   When I read from Helene Simkin Jara’s excerpt, I realize that Ms. Jara must have written the poem with a heavy heart, because I have a heavy heart when I read those words.  As I scan the words, I don’t see very many big words, and there’s not that many words in the poem, at all.  However, those words that are on the page are arranged in such a way that, when read or scanned, properly represent a tragic death.

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.

Learning Two Important Tips from Santa Cruz Writers

April 24, 2017

This past weekend, I shared a portion of my first completed manuscript, Absconded by Sin, for the first time ever.  I had previously shared a draft version of this in November of 2011, when I was still about a third of the novel away from having a completed first draft.  I wasn’t the only one to share, and far from it.  About ten authors shared their work, including one featured author, Michael Wallace.

We kicked off the event with one of our leaders within our small community sharing her prose.  Jennifer Pittman is a local journalist, and she moonlights as a memoirist and a nature writer.  I cannot find any copies of her creative non-fiction on her website, and her manner of writing journalism does not do her wordsmithing abilities any justice.  Jennifer has mastered that fine line between descriptive prose and poetry that engages the senses and evokes a sense of nostalgia within her audience.  An avid hiker, Jennifer uses her extensive time spent on the trail to weave a tapestry, and imbues that tapestry with the many vivid colors of meaning.

Click here to visit Jennifer Pittman’s website, and see her journalism.

Michael Wallace, the month’s featured author, shared excerpts from Wash Her Guilt Away, the second novel in his Quill Gordon Mystery Series.  Wallace, a veteran newsman in his own right, released the fourth novel, The Daughters of Alta Mira, in October.  Michael reminded us of an important task in any prose (and some poetry), the importance of handling your setting as if it is a character.  Unless your fiction is bordering on the absurd or psychotropic, this doesn’t mean that the setting itself has dialogue, but it does mean that the setting itself has some distinct characteristics that sets itself apart, rather than blending in to everywhere else.  Michael Wallace’s series takes place in the Eastern Sierras and in far Northern California, which has a distinct flavor, being far more remote than much of the state, and this is a characteristic that Michael seeks to evoke in his own writing.  In addition to the setting, one of the great characteristics that I noticed in his writing was his narrative authority in portraying a pair of characters who are in a fishing boat along a High Sierra river.  I’m not an angler, so some of the meaning of what they did was lost on me, but even Wallace’s main character, Quill Gordon, is a tribute to something that he loves.  (For reference, Quill Gordon is a famous American lure, made famous via its creator, Theodore Gordon.)

I did a little bit of research in preparation for Michael Wallace’s visit – all of which I promptly forgot, as there was originally another author on deck.  However, as he stood up, it came back to me.  Wallace has put together an effective website, including buttons to direct you to his YouTube, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn channels.  He includes an excerpt from one of his latest novels The McHenry Inheritance, and allows third parties to provide reviews (although they could stand to be curated a little). His YouTube, in particular, is the most effective in showing a book trailer.  This book trailer provides everything it should, introducing the book and the author, and sharing a little about what it’s all about.

Click here to visit Michael Wallace’s website, and learn about Quill Gordon

Click here to see Michael Wallace’s book trailer on YouTube

Through what these two shared, as well as the wit and wisdom of some of our other writers, I reflected on two things that make for good writing:

  • Word choice: being able to select the mot juste (right/appropriate words) to convey an idea, emotion, or action
  • Subtext: The story may have sprung from your fingertips, but you also need to understand the story behind the story from all angles, even if that latter story does not appear on the page.

As for me, I’d like to think that my presentation skills have improved slightly from one month to the next.  I did a better job of setting up my story, but still spoke like I was trying to emulate the guy who reads all of the disclaimers at the end of an ad for some new medicine.  Speaking after such a talented wordsmith like Jennifer, and such a practiced and poised speaker like Michael, was a bit intimidating, and reminds me that I still have a long way to go!  Finally, my latest live sessions on Facebook were not as successful as the first from the perspective of views, reactions, and clicks for my blog, but they were fun – and that’s an important part of being able to write well, too.

Unfinished Business (Part Three)

April 12, 2017

Note: This concludes a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  For the previous items in this series, see: Part One and Part Two.

Over the past few entries, I’ve mentioned some famous examples of novels that were left on the side of the road (or in the side drawer of a writing desk) due to frustration or illness, as well as a few examples that were left incomplete due to more dire circumstances.  As mentioned, Robert Burns made the phrase “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” a part of the public consciousness, if he didn’t coin the phrase himself.  In the third installment of this series, let’s take a look at some examples of my own work that are sitting there, incomplete.

Corporate Decree (2012) – “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure dome decree.”  These are the opening lines to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, a short poem that is arguably a long metaphor for the writing process.  The lines of this poem inspired me to draft out what became Corporate Decree, in which security guard for a massive live-work-play must investigate a suspicious death on his own, while his boss frets over the state of his company.  This has remained unfinished and untouched since September of 2013.  I still have most of this story, which clocks in at 56,000 words, but it is the last in a line of novels that I have started and hope to finish.

48 Minutes (2013) – Inspired from an idea given to me by my grandfather, this is the story of a man who mysteriously retires from professional sports, the circumstances that led to his retirement, and the path that he follows after his retirement.  I briefly workshopped aspects of this story with my friend, Adam, but it didn’t get much farther than NaNoWriMo 2013.  I abandoned this story in January 2014 with more than 76,000 words committed to the tale, but may return to it at some later date.

Untitled Disaster Story (2014) – This story is the tale of a group of mismatched parts who struggle to survive before, during, and after the first “man-made” natural disaster.  This was a long story, with many secondary and tertiary characters.  I abandoned this story in March of 2015 with 67,000 words spread out over several documents.  As of now, I am not certain that I will continue this one.

Untitled Robert E. Howard-style Novel (2015) – In 2015, I began an epic story that follows a group of adventurers through a foreign land, where an unlikely hero has to vanquish an evil queen.  I was having so much fun with this one that I was planning to break it into multiple books, and had to carefully consider how I addressed this.  Unfortunately, an unknown percentage of this one was lost due to the fact that one of my flash drives suffered irreparable damage.  I was able to locate a backup copy of this, which has about 56,000 words, but my full notes and most robust draft of this project were lost forever.  As far as incomplete manuscripts go, this is second among my priorities.

Their Sharpest Thorns (2016) – I workshopped this one recently at a writer’s group, shared some of this on Facebook Live, and committed to write 20,000 words for this during Camp NaNoWrimo.  It is still very much alive, so it might not be fair to say that this one has been abandoned.  However, this is the project that has sat in various stages of neglect as I try to beef up my blog and get my first novel, Absconded by Sin, published.  From November 2016 to March 2017, hardly any words had been committed to this work, and it has been just about two weeks since I picked this project up again.

Thanks for letting me share something about my own unfinished projects.  If you’re interested in any of these, or would like to see any other topics discussed in my blog, please comment below or reach me through your regular channels.

Photo Credit: Glory Cycles, Creative Commons 2.0 license via Flickr, 2012

Unfinished Business (Part Two)

April 10, 2017

Note: This is the second in a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  The third part of this series is scheduled to go out on Wednesday.

Last week, I mentioned my mentor’s fondness of the Robert Burns poem, To A Mouse (1785), which ends with “/ an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / for promis’d joy!” (essentially, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, and leave us with nothing but grief and pain for promised joy).  Despite what we may plan to do with our lives, some things never come to fruition.  Due to writer’s block, frustration, illness, or myriad other things, some authors are forced to leave a work behind.

Of course, not all writers are fortunate enough to step away from a novel or long story and choose to set it aside. Some writers suffer from what tvtropes.org refers to as “author existence failure.”  The following are a few examples of writers who were not able to complete a famous work before they died:

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer – One of the early examples of great English literature (but by no means the earliest) is The Canterbury Tales, a story of pilgrims on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. There are 24 completed tales, and centuries of debate that go alongside them. The general consensus is that Chaucer did not finish his tales before he died c.October 1400 at c.57 years old, because the pilgrims never make it to Canterbury, and Chaucer’s work ended in the middle of “The Cook’s Tale.”

The Canterbury Tales, for those who haven’t subjected themselves to them, are a trip because of the nature of the language in the text. It’s nominally English, but the thing that you need to realize about English at that time is that it was still coming together as a collection of languages based on British Anglic, Frisian (a German language that is still spoken in portions of the Netherlands), Norman (an earlier version of French), and a handful of other native British languages. As a result of this still simmering stew of languages, some of the words are the same in appearance as they are today, but sound completely differently than you’d expect; for instance, “pilgrimage” is actually pronounced “pill-gri-mah-juh.”  If you can cast aside the almost foreign English language, you’ll find tales with a variety of different content, from the pious to the profane.  A lot of the tales have to do with relationships and sex, at least one of them has to do with roosters, and all of them were intended to entertain people 600+ years ago.

The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser – Like Virgil before him and Walt Whitman after him, Spenser set out to create a national myth for his country. He intended to compose twelve books (more like long chapters or acts) of an epic poem that followed the virtues that mattered to contemporary Britain, personified by knights staving off giants, witches, dragons, and dark knights.  Spenser was so well liked, and so well known in his endeavor for a national myth, that he was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, and received a pension of £50 per year from the crown in order to complete it.  However, he died at age 47 in 1599, allegedly of starvation, having completed just five of his books. Any notes on the planned installments are lost, and it isn’t clear if Queen Elizabeth ever even read his work.

Don Juan – Lord Byron – Prior to the 1800s, novels weren’t really much of a thing for English-speaking audiences, and the epic poem was the closest thing to what we see today, which is why you see examples of verse, such as The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queene on this list. Lord Byron came in that intervening period where epic poetry hadn’t entirely phased out, but the novel was still evolving as an art form. His Don Juan was a satire about a man who was easily seduced by women (not the womanizer that we hear about today). He published sixteen “cantos” (effectively chapters) before he died. The first two were anonymous, because he was worried that he would get in trouble for peddling “immoral content” (19th century smut). He was working on a seventeen canto, in which he effectively calls out his critics while continuing the story from the sixteenth canto, when he died from a sudden fever in 1824; he was 36.

The Love of the Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald was of notoriously poor health due to his almost surreal ability to drink copious amounts of alcohol, but his heart attack and subsequent death in 1940 still shocked the literary world.  Fitzgerald wrote about 163 pages into The Love of the Last Tycoon, his unfinished work that gathered insight from his years in Hollywood.  It follows a fictitious director’s rise to power, and the conflicts that he encounters along the way, including a rivalry with another director. His family published the incomplete draft in 1941.

Islands in the Stream – Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway was incredibly hard on himself as an author, and relentless at editing his own work. This is indicative of his overall mental state, as Hemingway is the only person who had the final say on when he died; he took his own life via shotgun in July 1961. Islands in the Stream and the subsequent The Garden of Eden were both published posthumously.  Despite taking almost two years to complete (nothing compared to the fifteen years spent on The Garden of Eden), Hemingway’s work on Islands in the Stream is rough.  His family did publish a complete draft of the novel, which follows a man as he goes from an artistic recluse to an action hero.  There are characteristics of the novel that are clearly Hemingway, but the rough nature of his word choice makes some critics wonder if the seemingly finished work was indeed finished, or if Hemingway intended to publish it as is.

Bonus: A Fourth Millennium Series book – Steig Larsson – This one is probably fresh in many of your minds, but Steig Larsson, the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was working on a fourth book in that series when he died of a heart attack in 2004. Furthermore, Larsson had written out notes for two more, and allegedly had plans for as many as ten books in the series. His partner, Eva Gabrielsson, inherited his laptop, which contained his manuscript and all notes, and elected to sit on them while she considered her options.  In 2015, David Lagercrantz, another author contracted by Larsson’s publisher, published a fourth book in the series.  It does not rely on Larsson’s original notes.

There are plenty of other well-known authors who have famously passed on in the middle of a famous work.  Are there any big ones that I’ve missed?  Feel free to leave some examples in the comments section below.

Unfinished Business (Part One)

April 5, 2017

Note: This is the first in a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  The second part of this series is scheduled to go out during the week of April 10th.

When I was in teacher training, I had no fewer than three mentor teachers.  I worked with one teacher per semester for three semesters.  For the fourth semester (second, chronologically), I assisted another teacher in an unofficial capacity before replacing her as a long-term substitute. The last of these three (or four) mentor teachers was a sharp-witted man named Nick.  Nick introduced me to a little tidbit that I’d either never learned or had already forgotten about John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The title of that short novel stems from a few lines of a 1785 poem, “To a Mouse,” by Scottish poet Robert Burns:

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, / an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / for promis’d joy!”

(frequently as “the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry…”)

Let’s leave that last portion alone for a second, and think about the phrasing for “the best-laid plans” (one of Nick’s favorite phrases).  When I am writing at my best, I have a firm outline of where I want to go with my narrative.  I generally view it by act, following the same five act format that was popular in Shakespeare’s time.  At times, those five acts are reduced to four, and I group the denouement and the conclusion together. This doesn’t mean that I’m exactly successful at carrying these narratives out to the end.  In fact, only three of my novel-length works (and only two in my adult life) can count as completed first drafts — or beyond.

I’m not the only writer who has left something unfinished, either due to frustration, illness, or death.  Let’s take a look at the writers who stepped away from a novel, and were never able to complete it.

The Long Goodbye – Harper Lee – The woman who brought us To Kill a Mockingbird apparently had a follow-up that long predates her Go Set a Watchman “sequel.” The Long Goodbye was apparently 110 pages of what happened after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I have not found out where it is in relation to Go Set a Watchman. It is among three known books that Harper Lee never completed during her lifetime, and abandoned long before her illness and death.

Dark America – Junot Diaz – Diaz is a darling for many contemporary lit teachers due to his economy of words, and the clever use of the words that he does use. His collection of short stories surrounding Yunior and Rafa, Drown, has graced many shelves since 1995.  However, Diaz has abandoned at least two novels, including Dark America. This, a sci-fi story about mutants, was something that, per the New York Times, Diaz found “stupid and convoluted.”

The Mysterious Stranger – Mark Twain – Over a period of nearly 21 years, Mark Twain tried and failed to complete The Mysterious Stranger. Each time, one of America’s most famous humorists, had to start over.  There are three vastly different drafts floating around somewhere, a fourth fragment that represents his earliest attempt, and who knows how many other false starts have vanished with time? They each follow the tale of a demonic figure, who is explicitly named Satan in at least one of the drafts, but the setting and story itself change from one draft to the next.  Each time, Twain set his story down, and there is no evidence that he attempted to publish any of those drafts.  The last version takes place in the same St. Petersburg, MO, a partial setting for several of his well-known books, was apparently “finished” in the sense that there is a beginning, middle, and end, but there are enough holes to make analysts highly dubious about its completeness.

Fountain City – Michael Chabon – If anybody knows the frustration of an incomplete work, it’s Michael Chabon.  Chabon started Fountain City, a book about architects who want to build a baseball stadium in Florida, and continued writing about it for 1,500 pages, before realizing that he hadn’t found the right way to end it.  He abandoned this book, but the experience inspired him to write the 1995 novel Wonder Boys, which was then optioned into a 2000 movie with Michael Douglas.  What is Wonder Boys about?  An author who cannot finish his 2,611 (gulp) page novel.

Eamon Diaz and the Vampire Queen – Larry Hama – You might not know the name, but comic book fans know his work.  Larry Hama is responsible for such titles as G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero and Bucky O’Hare, and has been an editor (as well as a writer and artist) on a number of Marvel projects.  A quick Google search does not yield anything about the content, but Hama’s oeuvre is enough to make this one notable, as if a Hiberno-Latino vampire hunter does not.

Bonus: The Cannibals – Stephen King – Stephen King is famous for the volume of books that he produces.  Because of his prolific nature, King was forced to publish several novels under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman.  However, Stephen’s consistency in delivering 2,000 words per day (a good sized novel every two to three months) has had a few misfires that he was unable to publish.  One of those misfires, The Cannibals, a project that King started in 1982, plagued him for years.  However, he was able to return to the book and, after a “partial” rewrite, he published the story as Under the Dome in 2009.

There are plenty of other well-known authors who have famously set aside a novel and never completed it.  Are there any big ones that I’ve missed?  Feel free to leave some examples in the comments section below.