Tuesday, February 21, 2017

When Characters Won't Behave

Some writers feel that their characters are autonomous; they speak and act on their own, and the author just follows them around and writes things down.

I'm not one of them.

Yes, your characters have to seem to be autonomous. Your characters have to seem to speak and act spontaneously, out of their own inner realities. But I see myself as more of a director than a biographer.

If I need for a character to say something or do something and the character -- in my imagination, now, they don't actually speak to me; I may be odd, but I'm not a practitioner of alternate sanity .... I lost my place. Oh, yeah: If I need for a character to say something or do something and the character is all like, "I just don't feel that. What's my motivation?" then I'm all like, "Fair enough. Let's talk about that."

See, I don't like pushy characters (with the obvious exception of Bud Blossom), but I don't like sock puppets, either: characters who obviously speak and act at the writer's will. You know the kind where you go, "I can see why the author wanted her to steal the secret code and plans, but I don't understand why she wanted to."

So, when characters don't want to say or do what you want them to, you have choices:
  • Give 'em their heads and see where they take you
  • Get out the cattle prod and herd 'em back in line
  • Sit down with 'em and yak around until you come up with reasons that make sense in their contexts
  • Get all evil wit' it and plant false memories so they believe they have motive.
By which I actually mean, tweak their backstory. That's one reason I like to leave backstory a bit vague, so I can fill it in as I need it. Also lazy.

CHARACTER: "But I'm not afraid of dogs! I love dogs!"

ME: "You don't love ... um ... red dogs. Yeah, see this dog is red. 'Member when that red dog knocked you down and bit you on the chin when you were two?"

CHARACTER: "...No, I don't."

ME: "Blocked it out. That's how traumatic it was."

CHARACTER: "Oh, yeah. Big red dogs. I always cried when the teacher read a CLIFFORD book."

ME: "Right. Right. So sad. Poor baby. Ready for the scene, now?"

Some writers work out the backstory, characters, and plotlines ahead of time, so they don't run into this sort of thing. Me, that much planning doesn't work for. Neither does just going with the flow. Not a plotter, not a pantser, I call myself a panther. I outline enough to get me through the story, but leave things loosey-goosey enough that, if something more interesting than what I have planned comes along, I can pounce on it like a hungry panther.

Oh, and Bud? It's the cattle prod and the cow dogs for Bud. YES, I'M TALKING ABOUT YOU AGAIN. YOU ALWAYS MANAGE, DON'T YOU?

~sigh~ It isn't easy being me.

Marian Allen, Author Lady
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Sunday, February 12, 2017

My Book Cover Dilemma

I was in the mall this week, looking at all the winter clearance sale racks. It’s something I don’t do often, mainly because the many choices in department stores make my head spin. I’m better suited to the smaller boutiques, where there are maybe 40 racks instead of 90.

I’m discovering that the same is true when it comes to choosing a suitable book jacket image for my fifth Casey Holland mystery, and this is causing me a great dilemma. Even by using key words, there are thousands upon thousands of images to go through.

I remember doing this when I chose the cover for Fatal Encryption back in 2008, and it took a long time. But I was very clear about the image I wanted, a decision I don’t regret to this day. The cover for this book is a little more complicated, which adds to my dilemma.

Knock Knock is a story about a group of vicious home invasions that have been targeting seniors, many of whom also ride a particular Vancouver bus. Since my protagonist is a transit security officer for a bus company called Mainland, Public Transport, each cover has a bus related theme on the cover. They were designed by the in-house designer of my former publisher.

This time, a large part of the story takes place in residences. Thus, the second dilemma. Searching under the categories of mystery, home invasion, homes, and buses has presented some interesting images, and the choices are beginning to make my head spin.

To save costs and time, I was hoping to choose an image before I hire a jacket designer, but I’m now wondering if I should simply leave it to the expert.

Incidentally, I’m also intending to produce a Casey novella this year, the title of which is Man in a Gold Satin Thong. Really, the cover’s a no-brainer for that one, don’t you think?

If anyone has any suggestions to assist me in my search, please let me know! Thanks!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Deep End 2nd Edition Released!

At last, my fourth Casey Holland mystery, The Deep End, has been reissued in ebook format! This means that I’m finally caught up on reissuing previously published books and can now look forward to releasing new titles. The 5th Casey installment, Knock Knock will appear later in 2017, along with a brand new Casey Holland novella!

The Deep End is available at:

I also have a couple of local gift stores selling the paperback version, which you can find on the homepage of my website.

Here’s the blurb:

Transit security officer Casey Holland is surrounded by troublesome teens—her thirteen-year-old ward is dating a manipulative boy, a group of juvenile shoplifters attack her on the job, and during her first volunteer shift at a youth custody center, she is shocked to find a friend’s grandson, Justin, inside.

Shock turns to horror when the facility’s director suffers a fatal heart attack in front of her. A second death and rumors of illegal activity at the correctional facility make Casey wonder whether Justin is partly responsible or potentially in danger. As Casey fights to protect her ward, her friends, and the youths at the center, escalating violence threatens to change her life forever. Who will live and who will die?

The Deep End, the fourth installment of the Casey Holland mystery series, will have you compulsively turning its pages until the explosive conclusion.

Praise for Casey Holland mysteries:

The National Post - “Kong’s writing is no-nonsense at best . . . the end result is a mystery that fits the bill.”

The Hamilton Spectator -  “A good read with urban grit and a spicy climax.”

Quill & Quire - “The novel’s short, punchy chapters whisk the story along to a thrilling climax, while the characters’ relationships and rivalries provided a strong emotional anchor.”

Crime Writers of Canada - “Purdy Kong keeps the action fast and furious . . . Casey is a perfect heroine for our times, a combination of thought and action.” – Lou Allin

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Latest Publishing Stats Released

I read a lot of blogs on the state of state of publishing. I have to tell you that the contradicting information and opinions about whether ebook sales are waning and print resurging is enough to make one’s head spin. If I want real data, though, I go to the folks from AuthorEarnings (AE) who gather incredible amounts of data to provide a snapshot of the publishing scene. Recently, they produced an incredibly detailed report on the state of publishing in 2016. It’s long, but has been prepared in easy-to-read graphics. It would take far too long to list every highlight, so browse at your leisure HERE.

So, are ebook sales dropping? AE’s short answer is no. In fact, their data shows that they increased by 4% in 2016 over 2015. Also, print sales among traditionally published books actually dropped through venue retail venues, chain bookstores, and Barnes and Noble in 2016. What did increase was sales from Amazon’s own print publications.

AE says that in 2015, “agency” contracts eliminated retailers from discounting ebooks from large traditional publishers, so Amazon raised discounts on their print books instead. Thus, the surge in sales. Apparently, Amazon has cut back on the discounts in 2017, which is already showing a cooling off of print sales.

Now, for non-traditional book sales, here’s surprising info: 43% of all ebook sales are going to books without ISBN numbers. And it’s not just self-publishing authors who are skipping the ISBN, but small traditional publishers as well.

Back in the day when I first started publishing, an ISBN number was essential. You couldn’t sell anywhere without one on the back cover. Things have clearly changed, which has also skewed the sales/publishing data of those who rely solely on books with ISBNs for their stats. In other words, there is a whole world of ebooks being sold outside the conventional means, and AE is one of the few who are paying attention to that.

You likely won’t be surprised to learn that romance and thriller/suspense novels still sell the most ebooks through both traditional and non-traditional means. My genre, mystery, is also fairly popular, along with fantasy, science fiction, and general fiction. A detailed, somewhat more complex look is spelled out in their report.

There’s much more in AE’s report, and it’s important for any writer who cares about where and how their books are likely to sell in the near future. As I’ve mentioned many times, consumer buying habits are changing, price matters, and, in my opinion, it’s still a good idea to work with Amazon than against them, at least for now…

Sunday, January 22, 2017

How Many Books Can You Write In A Lifetime?

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but these days I’m overwhelmed with the reality that I’ve been juggling six different writing projects, including four novels and two novellas, for some time. Actually, one of them I haven’t worked on at all this year, but that needs to change.

There are different ways to look at this. One is that I’m a professional writer. I write, publish, and sell novels, and am paid through royalties and direct sales. For me, working on more than one book at a time is how I continue to be a professional. The other upside is that pretty much all of 2016 was spent writing new work, which isn’t something I can say every year. In hindsight, it was a pretty awesome experience.

But the downside? Well, given that I also have a 5-day-a-week part-time admin job, a mother with dementia who needs more attention, and a 2,500 sq. ft. home that requires cleaning now and then, it all becomes a bit much at times. On these short, dark, damp winter days, I feel my energy and my spirits wane, especially after one of my regular bouts of interrupted sleep.

After weighing the pros and cons, it comes down to two things: I still love writing, and I can choose to stop anytime. I created this life. I can also dismantle it. These are my choices, and on those overwhelming days I find myself wondering about the latter.

It was invigorating, therefore, to come across a blog this week on Quartz Media, about how Isaac Asimov, author of nearly 500 books, wrote so much, and yet struggled with some of the same issues that plague me. It was good to know that I’ve already been using some of his strategies, like working on several works in progress.

The piece of advice that resonates with me most is Beware the Resistance (part of this means being paralyzed by persistent insecurities about one’s writing). For me, editing a book to a satisfactory, publishable state is challenging. Maybe I should adopt one of Asimov’s other strategies, which is to not strive for perfectionism.

In Asimov’s world, taking on six writing projects is normal and necessary. So, maybe I’m on the right track after all. I just have to keep figuring out ways to play down the negative self-talk and stay focused on completing some of these projects. This year, the plan is to publish two books. We’ll see how it goes.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Story Arcs

At the critique group meeting the other day, we were talking about story arcs. In case you haven't heard of them, they're pretty much what they sound like: the arcs of stories.

Story arcs are traditionally shown like this:
Not very helpful. Better ones break that up into sections, like First major conflict, Decision to act, Frustration of hopes, Change in direction, and so on. That can be helpful, although I find it more helpful in shaping the story after I've written the first messy blob of it. Most stories aren't really like that, though. Most stories are more like this.
Yes, here I go again. Although the story, itself, has an arc, each character in the story has a story arc.
Connie Willis is a mistress of this. Mom and I just finished reading the Black Out / All Clear set, and it illustrates the point perfectly.

Each character has a goal, then a revised goal, then another revised goal, constantly changing as circumstances change, plans are frustrated, and/or understanding of the situation alters. EACH ONE has a different story arc. Sometimes their arcs intersect; sometimes they run parallel, in cooperation or opposition.

"There are all sorts of things going on behind the scenes," one of them says, speaking of people they can't directly interact with who are aware of their difficulties and are doing everything they can to send help. Those people have story arcs. The reader may not be privy to them, but they have arcs, and they need to make sense.

As the book(s) progress(es), the arcs interweave until THE END, when it's clear that all that mish-mash was one big story arc, after all.

(By "dead guys," I mean backstory: sometimes, something that happened before the story begins has a presence in the story. Marley, as Mr. Dickens puts it so well, was dead, to begin with.)

All those arcs could also represent the main plot, the secondary plot, the minor plot, the running gag, some of which may belong to the main character, some may belong to secondary or minor characters, some may belong to an animal.

You know what I'm talking about: On any given episode of Boston Legal, for instance, there were always two trials going, each with its own story arc, usually at least one relationship story, and one or two running gags that had some kind of closure by the end of the episode, as well as a piece of at least one arc that continued over several episodes.

But how do you track that, when you're writing?

yWriter5 has a character timelines function, like index cards, but index cards work just fine. I love index cards, me. You can write each character in a different color, or get different colors of index cards, or just put a distinctive mark on the corner for each character.

Write out the elements of that character's arc on cards (one for A meets Q, one for A gets job at L's firm, one for A overhears L and B discuss murder). Write out the elements of each character's arc. Then you can arrange them in the context of the overall story arc, to see where it makes sense for each element to take place in relation to everybody else's elements.

Word to the wise: vacuum the floor first; you're gonna needa lotta room, for the cards and for dancing in frustration as you work it all out.

Marian Allen, Author Lady
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes