Art on Your Own Terms

In addition to Dexter Dogwood’s Fables from Elsewhere, which I wrote about on Saturday, Paul McComas sent me the fifteenth anniversary edition of his novel Unplugged. I have to admit, I looked at it with some skepticism. It’s the tale of a rock star named Dayna Clay who survived childhood sexual abuse and suffers from depression. On the last night of a big tour, she disappears off stage to go home and attempt suicide by asphyxiating herself with carbon monoxide fumes in her garage. Fortunately, a squirrel falls from the rafters and she feels she can’t take another life with her, even a small one, so she moves herself and the squirrel to safety.

After the suicide attempt, she gets in the car and retreats out west to the Badlands of South Dakota. Once there, she goes on a personal quest to discover who she is and whether or not she can continue with her music career. On the surface, it seems a lot more introspective and possibly even sad book than I would go in for. I will admit that I’ve had low points in my life and have even heard that frightening siren call from the back of my brain that made me think about suicide. Fortunately, between my amazing family and my own stubborn self-preservation instinct, I never got all that close to the brink, but I’ve glimpsed enough to know how scary it is and hesitated getting closer, even in fictional form. Despite that, I found myself captivated with Dayna’s story and how she becomes enchanted by the Badlands and the people she meets along her journey. Even though the novel opens with Dayna in a dark place, the novel proves hopeful and even fun at times as Dayna finds help for her depression and rebuilds her life.

One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was Dayna’s early decision that if she was going to return to the music world, she would return on her own terms. Dayna has a demanding agent, a full public appearance schedule, and pressure to get into the studio to record more songs. Dayna’s story actually parallels a lot of writers I know, who have numerous publishing obligations and travel to science fiction and comic conventions every available weekend. There are intense pressures to move the books already published and produce more books at a steady rate. In fact, I know some writers, editors, and agents who will insist that this kind of intense schedule is the only viable career path available. Anyone not on this path is a failure as a writer and should quit wasting their time.

I’m sorry. I just don’t accept that. All it takes to be a musician is to make music. All it takes to be a writer is to write. All it takes to be a painter is to paint. All it takes for something to be a career is that money from the occupation must flow to the person doing the job in some sustainable way. How an artist makes that happen is between the artist and those paying for the art. For any occupation to be sustainable, the person occupied must feel satisfied with their life as a whole. For me, right now, satisfaction with life includes spending time contributing to astronomy through my work at Kitt Peak, spending time with family, in addition to writing. I choose writing jobs and projects that both give me satisfaction and allow me to do the other things that give me satisfaction.

I’m glad I joined Dayna on her journey to the South Dakota Badlands and visiting the real Badlands is now something I must do. You can find the novel at: https://www.amazon.com/Unplugged-Anniversary-Novel-Paul-McComas/dp/1564746046. As I’ve mentioned, this is a novel about a musician. It turns out that Paul McComas has collaborated with Maya Kuper to create an album of Dayna’s music and it’s a pretty amazing listen. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you do art on your own terms. It frees you to explore and I was delighted to hear Dayna’s songs come to life. “Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Karma Bomb” will likely get frequent play from me, but all of the songs are great. You can listen and buy at: https://daynaclay.bandcamp.com/

Proceeds from both the novel and album go to benefit two causes. One is the Kennedy Forum, which works to improve the way mental health and addiction issues are treated in this country. You can learn more at kennedyforum.org. The other cause is the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. In addition to these two great causes, I want to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case anyone reading this needs it: 1-800-273-8255

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TusCon 44

Next weekend, I’ll be at TusCon 44 which is being held from November 10-12 at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites in Tucson, Arizona. Timothy Zahn is the Author Guest of Honor, Theresa Mather is the Artist Guest of Honor, Melinda M. Snodgrass is the Media Guest of Honor, Geoff Notkin is the Toastmaster, Madame Askew is the Mistress of Chaos, Hal and Dee Astell are the Fan Guests of Honor. For more information about the convention visit http://www.tusconscificon.com

This year, all of my panels are on Saturday, November 11, but as you’ll see, it’s a busy schedule! I will be at TusCon all weekend and Hadrosaur Productions will be in the dealer’s room. Here’s my event schedule:

Saturday, November 11

  • 12pm-1pm – Autographing – Canyon Theater Foyer. I’ll be signing autographs alongside Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Marsheilla Rockwell, Rick Cook, and Dr. David Williams.

  • 2pm-3pm – The Astronomer’s Crypt: Making a Book and a Trailer – Panel Room 2 (Pima B). Filmmaker Eric Schumacher and I will debut our short film which presents a scene from my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Our goal with this project is to make something that goes beyond the ordinary book trailer and actually brings you inside the world of the book. We’ll discuss how we made the trailer and, if you’re an author, we’ll show you how we can help you get more eyes on your book.
  • 4pm-5pm – Publishing in 2017 – The Options, the Opportunities, the Pitfalls – Ballroom (Sabino). There’s the big press, the small press, the self press, the no press. What to do what to do? On the panel with me are Ron Collins, Julie Verley, Cynthia Ward, Beth Meacham, and Catherine Wells.
  • 5pm-6pm – The Snowball Effect: How to pick up steam on the way to making a low-budget film – Panel Room 1 (Pima A). I’ll join director Marty Ketola, actor Eric Schumacher, and actor Geoff Notkin to discuss the making of the indie film Revenge of Zoe in which screenwriter Billy Shaw must face his inner demons while convincing comic book store owners John and Pete to help him write a sequel to his greatest work; a movie about comic book super heroine Fren-Zee.
  • 7pm-8pm – Why Do Adults Like Young Adult Fiction? – Ballroom (Sabino). What are adults finding in the “kids” shelves that they’re not find in the rest of the bookstore? On the panel with me are Linda Addison, Mary Fan, Jim Doty, Jill Knowles, and Beth Meacham.

Also, I’m planning my annual shared birthday celebration with fellow longtime TusCon dealer Marty Massoglia on Saturday night after all the panels. Check with us at the convention for details. We might even go back in time on Friday night to TusCon 43 to have the party we missed last year!

When Research Derails Your Plot

Before I sit down to write one of my novels, I like to plot them out. These days my plots are fairly detailed with a sentence or two about every scene I plan to write. This helps to guide my research so I learn what I need to know before I start writing the novel. Despite that, details sometimes slip through the cracks.

For example, I’m currently working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. The historical Wyatt Earp is an important side character. In one scene, a character wants to buy Wyatt a drink. Now, I’ve watched many western movies featuring Wyatt Earp and he’s often shown in a saloon, playing faro or poker. In my research, I found this to be reasonably accurate, so it seemed fair to assume that Wyatt was a drinking man.

I thought it would be fun to add a little authenticity to the story and have the character buy Wyatt not just any drink, but his favorite drink. Wyatt Earp’s life is so well documented, I thought it might be possible to find out what he liked to drink. As it turns out, I did indeed find out. Wyatt Earp didn’t drink alcohol at all!

At this point, I faced two choices. The first, and perhaps most controversial would be to declare that in this alternate history Wyatt does drink. I’d argue this is actually a fair choice, but if you do go this route, you should do even more research to understand why Wyatt Earp didn’t drink and decide what circumstances in your alternate world would make him a drinking man. While you might not dwell on that choice in the story, you probably should say a few words about it. I would only recommend considering this route if major plot points down the road required that Wyatt Earp be a drinker for some reason and pulling that element out of the story would make it fall down like the proverbial house of cards.

In addition to being a writer, I’m a professional scientist. All my training is built around the idea that if I do research and find something that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions, I have to accept that finding. Between that inclination and the fact that Wyatt Earp having a shot of whiskey, scotch or anything else was simply not critical to the story in its own right, I did a little more research. I discovered that Wyatt Earp was a big fan of ice cream and ice cream parlors were just starting to spring up in the old west of the 1880s.

Returning to my novel, I used this bit of trivia to create a minor plot complication for my character who had to scramble to find Wyatt’s favorite ice cream parlor to continue his plans. It adds an interesting moment to the story, as well as a little bit of fun, historical trivia.

For me, this is one of the most fun parts of writing the Clockwork Legion novels. I get to learn about history and figure out how that history is changed by the world-altering events I’ve proposed. Conversely, I figure out what things would be constants in this new world and how that affects the story I want to tell.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join me on this thrilling ride through history. The links below will take you to my pages about the books where you can find out how to purchase, read sample chapters, see book trailers and more. Also, note the first two books are available as audio books as well as print and ebooks.

Revision Hell

This past week, I’ve been reading and revising my rough draft of Owl Riders, getting in shape for beta readers and ultimately getting it ready to submit to my publisher. Despite the post’s title, the process hasn’t been hellish, but it does eat time. Owl Riders is the fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion series and the fun of this process is that I enjoy playing in this world. It’s because I enjoy it that I feel I have a responsibility to tell the story in the best way possible.

I’m a believer that to succeed in writing, you need to sit down and write. As with my other recent novels, I wrote Owl Riders on my weeks off from my observatory job. Typically, I managed two chapters every other week. I didn’t worry too much about getting just the right words the first time through. I wrote from an outline to keep me on track and help me know where I was in the story, but I didn’t worry too much about tracking details. So my job this time around is to assure continuity, make sure I didn’t repeat facts I already conveyed in earlier chapters, and improve the prose so I tell the story in the best way possible.

To do this, I employ a three-prong approach for each chapter. First, I make a pass through the printed manuscript, rereading and making changes. I also make notes of facts I should remember for later chapters. Some of these facts are just matters of maintaining consistency of small details through the novel. Some of these facts are things I’d forgotten I highlighted, but are fun to revisit later in the novel as the characters have grown. I recently acquired a copy of Scrivener, the book writing software from Literature and Latte. It’s been a great help keeping those notes handy so I can check them as needed.

My second pass through each chapter uses a technique highlighted in the book, The 10% Solution by Ken Rand, which I’ve mentioned in other posts. My publisher also recommends following the book’s approach before submission. In short, the book highlights several common overused words (the infamous adverbs, the verb “to be”) and filler words (things like “of,” “about,” and “by”) that are all too easy to drop in your manuscript when you’re writing. The idea is to search for these words and then evaluate the phrase where it occurs and decide if you could find a better way to say it. I tend to catch a lot of this in the first pass, but searching always highlights more of these. The important thing about Ken Rand’s technique is that he doesn’t say you must make changes when you find these things. He just suggests evaluating the sentence and seeing if you can say it better. I usually make several revisions in this pass.

My third pass is to read each chapter aloud. This helps me smooth out prose from the first two passes, helps me to hear where I may have repeated phrases, and I often catch important elements I either cut or never wrote in the first place.

At this point, I’m about halfway through the revision pass. I hope to get more work done during my next break from the observatory. In this fourth novel, the Apaches have built battle wagons and they’ve carved out a land claim in Southern Arizona. Ramon is pulled into the conflict. Meanwhile, the man Fatemeh was once betrothed to in Persia seeks retribution for her decision to run away. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the first three novels in the series. The links below will take you to pages with more information and purchase links. All of the books are available in print and as ebooks. The first two novels are also available from Audible as audio books!

The Magic of Old Books

This past week, I finished the rough draft of my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, tentatively titled Owl Riders. These novels are steampunk steeped in history. The first novel, Owl Dance starts in a wild west very much like the wild west of history. However, as an alien character called Legion interferes in human affairs and humans themselves gain confidence in their inventions, the world of the novels gradually diverges from the world of history.

Because I start in the world of history, I like to do my homework and understand the places and peoples I describe in my books. Even when I diverge from history, the cultural experience of the people in the novel will be the same up until the divergence point. Reading books that discuss the history of the region and peoples I’m writing about is, of course, important, but one thing I like to do over and beyond that is find books written by people who lived at the time the book takes place.

One of the challenges of Owl Riders is that I have some scenes set in Persia of 1885. I found some good histories of Iran which gave me insights not only into the country in the nineteenth century, but how that history helped to shape the modern country. However, I wasn’t sure what I would find written at the time period. A search at my local library didn’t turn up anything. On an off chance, I went to COAS, our wonderful used bookstore in Las Cruces and happened on a book called Land of the Lion and Sun by Absalom D. Shabaz, published in 1901. The book’s subtitle is “Personal Experiences, the Nations of Persia—Their Manners, Customs and Their Beliefs.”

This sounded perfect, a personal viewpoint of someone living in Iran within a few years of my story’s time period. On closer inspection, I discovered that the book was written as a guide for people hoping to be Christian Missionaries in Persia. I’ve just started the book and I find that Shabaz was raised a Christian in Persia and had to deal with the reactions of his friends and neighbors. This actually proves to be an interesting viewpoint because it combines elements from both my protagonists, Ramon Morales who is a Catholic-raised lawyer visiting Persia for the first time and Fatemeh Morales who converted to the Bahá’í Faith as a young woman and then left home.

For me, the real magic of a book like Land of the Lion and Sun is that I can hear the words of the author speaking directly to me across more than a century. I can read a personal perspective in the language of the time, with all the attitudes and prejudices of the time intact. I think it’s important to start by reading modern histories precisely because an author of a particular time can’t help but share their prejudices. It allows me to separate the perceptions of the historical author from history as it unfolded. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Shabaz experienced the history I’ve read about and see where that might lead me as I prepare to revise my novel.

While you’re waiting for the fourth novel, be sure to catch the three novels that are already published. Clicking the titles will take you to pages with more information:

Marketing Buzzwords

One of the things that drives me crazy about the publishing business is that as writers and editors we strive to be clear, concise, and avoid clichés and hackneyed phrases. Yet, when it comes time to market books, many people including some very talented writers and editors will fall back on some very tired and overused phrases to describe the process. One phrase in particular that sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it is “building buzz.”

The idea here is that when a new book comes out, an author should make a concerted effort to get word out about the book. Because there are only so many people an author can interact with personally, the author wants to encourage others to talk and write about their book. And just to be clear, this is a good thing and authors absolutely need to do this. My problem is with the hackneyed phrase used to describe this activity.

My first problem with the phrase is that it sounds horribly egotistical. It’s like what you’ve written is so totally amazing that everyone is going to drop what they’re doing and talk incessantly about it until it becomes a drone, like the buzzing of bees. Let’s be real, no one has ever written a book that’s set people talking that much before they even read them. The closest I can think of are the Harry Potter novels. Of course, these books were discovered, read, recommended and discussed enough that they became best sellers, then had movies made of them, and remain popular years after they were written.

“Buzz” is earned through engaging writing. It’s not something manipulated and built artificially after the book has gone to press. People talked and wrote about the Harry Potter books because they liked them, not because J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Publishing, or some marketing company told them to talk about them. The buzz happened because the books touched the imagination of the audience.

What’s more, I think clichés like “building buzz” do a disservice to writers and publishers trying to navigate the complicated and ever-changing world of book marketing. It lends credence to the notion that there’s some magical recipe that will make your book so successful that everyone talks about it. If you didn’t successfully “build buzz” with your first attempts, you’ve failed and you should stop trying. As I implied earlier, the hard work of “building buzz” happens when you write the book and create something people want to read. Once the book is out, your job is to find creative ways to tell people about your book without droning on like the buzz of a bee.

When your book comes out, do tell people it exists. Tell them what it’s about in concise, clear words. Find creative ways to get that message out. Talk to other writers and find out what worked for them. Those almost certainly include such things as newsletters, blog posts, sending out free copies to reviewers, book trailers, social networking, bookmarks, and lots more. That said, don’t limit yourself to those things people have told you work. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try new things. This is not a recipe. It’s a process.

Finally, if I ever use the phrase “building buzz” as a shorthand for getting the word out about your books or mine, you’re more than welcome to call me on it!

Meet Mike and Claire

This past weekend, I’ve been working on a book trailer for my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. To make this trailer, I’ve been collaborating with actor, director, and producer Eric Schumacher, who played Wyatt Earp in the Fox Network TV series, Legends and Lies: The Real West.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of book trailers. Some are more successful than others. I’ve even made a few using graphics provided by the wonderful artists who worked on my covers. For this trailer, Eric and I wanted to kick it up a notch, and make a more cinematic trailer featuring a scene from the novel. Eric is playing telescope operator Mike Teter and Sara Mirasola is playing astronomy graduate student Claire Yarbro. Here’s a sneak peak of the actors in character.

I have tried my hand at writing a couple of screenplays, and even submitted one to Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was on TV, but this marks the first time I get to see my words translated to the screen. Eric and I collaborated on the screenplay. Like most book screenplays, it’s not a word-for-word translation of what happens in the book, but we worked hard to keep the essence of one of the book’s scariest moments. As the scene opens, Mike and Claire’s dialog teases what’s been happening in the novel so far, then Mike leaves Claire alone. In the book, Claire goes through an internal monologue as she waits to find out what’s happening to the others with a few exclamations. We worked to translate enough of the words to give you a sense of what she’s thinking without giving you a Shakespearean-style monologue. I’ll leave the description there to avoid spoilers both for the book and the trailer.

The writing process started with me picking a handful of scenes I thought might be suitable. We developed one in hopes that Kitt Peak National Observatory could be a stand-in for the novel’s fictional observatory. However, that request was denied. The powers that be felt the Mayall 4-meter was just a little too recognizable and such a film would imply organizational endorsement for the project. Disappointing, but fair enough.

The new scene is set in an observatory control room, which is easier to mock up without implying institutional endorsement. So we went to one of our backup scenes. The scene I picked only had Claire. Eric roughed out a draft based on that scene, then I suggested an opening based on the previous scene where Mike and Claire are together. This allowed two actors to play off each other and set up the scene before Claire has to carry the ending alone. We then sent the script back and forth a few times. I checked for both scientific accuracy and assuring the script was true to the flavor of the book, while Eric worked to assure the scene could be filmed and actors could speak the lines.

It’s been exciting to see Eric and Sara bring Mike and Claire to life. In a future post, closer to the trailer’s release, I’ll discuss more of the technical aspects of making our short film. In the event you don’t want to wait for the trailer’s release to read the book, you can learn more about The Astronomer’s Crypt, read a sample chapter, and find places to buy the book at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html