Saturday, August 29, 2015

An Author Reflects … One Year Later

This anniversary caught me completely by surprise.

I didn’t even have a chance to run out and buy the usual goodies: cake, candles, ice cream, festive napkins, a bottle of champagne, streamers, a card, and some glittery confetti.

It’s just as well. Vacuuming confetti out of shag carpeting is the pits.

I do have a bottle of beer in the fridge though; and that’s okay for a start.  However, I’m looking at a package of green cookies sitting on my kitchen counter.  Trouble is, they were yellow when I bought them a LONG time ago.

No cookies for this celebration … just a cold beer.

Perhaps, in the grand tradition of Hemingway and the other venerable old school authors, this quiet, subdued, and reflective celebration is more appropriate … in a literary sense anyway.

Just one year ago, “Child of Privilege” took its place on Amazon’s iconic bookshelf.  Joining cyberspace’s grand bazaar of books covering everything from aardvarks to zygotes, my humble novel now competes for its chance to tell the story it was conceived to convey.

As every indie author knows, the competition is fierce and intensifying with each passing day.

Personally, I find this swift passage of time a bit hard to comprehend.  It really doesn't feel as though a year has passed already.  Even more difficult to grasp are the changes that have subtly (and sometimes abruptly) re-arranged the landscape of my cyberworld.

A year ago, I was one of 8 people in America who had no social media presence whatsoever.  I had no Twitter account, no Facebook page, no author blog, no Amazon product page, and no Goodreads Author page.  I had no idea how to post, tweet, comment, share, follow, PM, like, retweet, DM, query, or blog.

At this moment, I’m chuckling at how ironic it all seems!

Just to compound this irony, I finally untangled and activated the skeletal corpse of my Google Plus page this week and installed the G+ widget on my blog. I’m now capable of being CIRCLED.

OMG!

On a lark, I rummaged through my archives and read the first versions of my book blurb, author bio, and review request letter.  I still haven’t decided if I should laugh hysterically or toss my cookies (no, not the yellow-turned-green ones!).

What was I thinking when I wrote that crap?  I think I’m getting better at this “author” stuff … at least I hope so.

So, what are my impressions at the one-year mark of authorship?

On the negative side of the ledger, “Child” hasn’t skyrocketed to the top of any best-seller list of which I’m aware.  There has been no frantic parade of agents and publishers clamoring for my signature on multi-million-dollar publishing contracts.  Yet to materialize is the public acclaim that handily fueled a million daydreams a year ago.  Ross Ponderson is still a fantasy away from being considered an “elite” author.  My voicemail shows no trace of that long-awaited call from Hollywood begging me to accept millions of dollars for my movie rights.  I struggle every day to keep pace with the technologies and protocols involved in getting the word out there.  I’ve learned the fact of author life that book promotion is a long, laborious journey with progress measured in inches rather than light-years.

At this juncture, I’d happily settle for a small parade of agents and publishers.  Okay, maybe three or four of them walking abreast on the sidewalk.

How about one sauntering along very slowly?

But the landscape is far from completely bleak and bewildering.

It still thrills me to visit my Amazon page and see my adorable little cover girl up there on the screen.  I feel a palpable sense of gratitude for the very kind reviews posted by the bloggers, reviewers, and book-buyers who--bless their hearts--judged “Child of Privilege” to be a worthwhile read.  Some of them did include a constructive criticism or two, but that’s okay; that’s part of the process.  No matter where my literary journey takes me, I’ll always be indebted to them.

My energy is still renewed by the discovery of new promotional assistance, whether it’s a group offering exposure, mutual support, and information for indies, a blogger generously posting spotlight features and interviews of indie authors, or a reviewer willing to consider self-published books for honest reviews.

Which brings me to my most salient point.

It has been said that the blogger/reviewer is the new literary agent.  I agree with that premise and consider the parallels undeniable.  As they did with the grizzled literary agents of old, authors swamp these new gatekeepers with an avalanche of daily queries in the hope of earning a positive review, an interview, or a spotlight feature.  The reviewers sift through this new virtual slushpile in search of the standouts that will entertain and enlighten their readers.  They perform this thankless work--day in and day out--for neither pay nor accolades.  They do it driven by a love of good books, a devotion to good writing, and a respect for the authors who bare their souls for the entire world to see.

It has been my pleasure to work with a number of blogger/reviewers this past year in the effort to focus the eyes of the world’s book-buyers upon “Child of Privilege.”  Most of these collaborations have been businesslike and purpose-focused: a query; an invitation; sending a review copy; forwarding of promotional material; reading the book; posting the review; exchanging thanks and social media “follows”; and then on to the next author and reviewer.  Many blogger/reviewers simply don’t have the time for anything beyond that … and that’s okay.

A few of these collaborations, however, have resulted in ongoing correspondences which I value so highly.  They’re nothing elaborate; merely an occasional brief email asking “How’s it going?”  But this simple communication affords us the opportunity to view this ever-changing publishing business from the other’s side of the fence.

Reviewers and authors can get along; we need each other.

Having said that, I’m painfully aware that many authors have had unfortunate experiences with reviewers.  To believe otherwise would be na├»ve.  And yes, I’ve had my share as well.  But to brood over them is a waste of time and energy.  I prefer to focus on that vast majority of blogger/reviewers all over the globe--genuinely good people--sacrificing their leisure and family times to read and review strangers’ books.  They play a vital role in this crazy business.  All they ask for is a little respect.

They earned mine.  There's NO WAY I could spend my free time reading book after book after book after book, ad nauseam.  I'd go stark raving mad!

Working with them, dear reader, has been the most satisfying aspect of my authorship … year one.

So, where does this author go from here?

This first anniversary finds me still in the ring and trading punches like the indefatigable Rocky Balboa.  T
here’s been no need for me to scream “Cut me, Mick!”  Like any other fighter, I’ve already acquired a collection of nicks, scars, cuts, and bruises.  The point has been driven home unmistakably that the promotion of “Child” will be an ongoing (and perpetual?) process that will occupy much of my online time.

Offline, the first-drafting of my second novel continues but at a snail’s pace and slowing.  When I recall how quickly and easily the words and ideas poured forth during the writing of “Child,” I can’t help but wonder if my instincts are trying to tell me something.  I’ve decided to take a step back and perhaps tinker around a bit with both the overall storyline and a few of the characters.  Something just isn’t right.  But this novel will not be trashed; I’ve invested far too much time and effort to even consider taking that drastic a step.  It’s simply time to step back and take the opportunity to repair and re-grease the literary wheel until it turns freely again.

This hiatus is probably a blessing in disguise; September will find me back in school as I resume my social media studies.  If past experience is any indication, classwork will likely infringe enormously upon my writing time.  We’ll see how that plays out.

They say all good things must come to an end, and this virtual anniversary celebration is no exception.  I’ll finish my beer and get back to work.

One final point of conjecture: Do you think Hemingway would’ve eaten these green cookies?


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Do your characters have character?



Take a moment to consider diving into a huge bowl of steaming, robust, homemade stew for dinner tonight (beef is my personal favorite).

What makes a heapin’ helpin’ of stew so appealing?

Is it the main ingredient (beef, chicken, seafood or whatever)?  Is it the array of spices whose flavors cascade across your taste buds like a culinary waterfall?  Is it the herbs that add just the right touch of tingle to that mouthwatering montage?  Or is it the produce and veggies that add their own unique texture, crunch, and subtle highlights to the finished product?

The answer is: all of the above.

If you removed just one instrument from that delectable orchestra, it simply wouldn’t taste the same; something would be missing, and anyone sampling your creation would detect it immediately.

The product of your long hours of slaving over a hot stove would be no better than that canned stuff you buy at the local supermarket.

Now, what’s the correlation, you ask, between stews and novels?

I offer you this theory.

A novel is merely the sum of its parts: plot, setting, suspense, dialogue, narrative, timing, conflict, climax, resolution, and—of course—characters.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve written the next Gone With The Wind; if your characters aren’t up to their tasks, your literary stew is doomed to fall flat on its bookend.

I introduce a character into a novel for one simple purpose: to perform some action that keeps the master storyline moving along at an acceptable pace.  Players earn their roles in my stories by doing something: either performing some action solitarily (interacting with a situation); or by interacting directly with another player.  Boring, one-dimensional characters (whether their roles are major or incidental) are ingredients that should never make it to the dinner table.

If they aren’t needed, they don’t need to be there.

Now comes into play the writer’s sometimes twisted imagination.  What must one character do to another in order to earn his/her keep?  The options are many.  Here are but a few:

  • Love them.
  • Hate them.
  • Befriend them.
  • Stab them in the back.
  • Entice them into bed.
  • Kick them out of bed.
  • Make their lives joyous and fulfilling.
  • Make their lives sheer hell.
  • Give them gifts.
  • Steal from them.
  • Put the toilet seat up.
  • Put the toilet seat down.
  • Remove the toilet seat.
  • Rip the toilet out entirely.
  • Cook a scrumptious stew for dinner.
  • Throw a frozen dinner (still frozen) at them.
  • Swear BY them.
  • Swear AT them.
  • Help them solve their problems.
  • BE one of their problems.
 
You get the idea.

When creating characters, pile on the personality layers higher than Grandma’s lasagna.  Your literary children have a mammoth task to perform: they must convey themselves, their personalities, and their motivations to readers who have a wide spectrum of opinions, comfort levels, and experience-based filters.  Your words are the only tools they have to accomplish this gargantuan task.  Help them out by going WAAAAAAY overboard and having fun with them.   

Enable them to get themselves across.

Make them brilliant; make them laughingly stupid.  Make them as affectionate and gentle as kittens; make them meaner than junkyard dogs (R.I.P., Jim Croce!).  Make them loyal and treasured confidantes; make them backstabbers who wouldn’t think twice about betraying a friend.  Make them as benevolent as Mother Teresa; make them as nauseatingly evil as Richard Van Werner.  (You’ll understand that last point if you buy and read “Child of Privilege.”)

Any character caught (figuratively speaking) texting, smoking a cigarette, or talking on a cell phone on my time (and word count and page space) is outa there!

My players cut the mustard or they get cut.

A novel lacking vibrant characters is like a piece of candy without the chocolate coating; a slab of barbequed ribs without the sauce; Curley without Moe and Larry (yes, I am that old!); Chicago-style hot dogs without the “garden”; or a tropical drink without that little paper umbrella.

It just ain’t right … and your novel won’t be either.

For additional thoughts about painting literary characters, check out my blog post: My Top 5 Writing Tips:  http://rossponderson.blogspot.com/2015/08/my-top-5-writing-tips.html   


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

My Top 5 Writing Tips

Let me begin by clearly stating that I am not qualified to teach creative writing; nor do I present myself as an editor or adviser.

But I've been writing in one form or another for most of my life. To my great relief, the feedback from readers has been generally positive. Along the way, a number of folks far more skilled than I--teachers, blogger/reviewers, editors, publishers, readers, and other writers--have been more than generous in sharing their considerable expertise. I learned long ago that literary people are--by nature--kindly souls who derive great satisfaction from helping others perfect their craft. While perfection continues to elude me, I can state with absolute certainty that I give writing my very best effort every time I sit down at the keyboard. THAT commitment will NEVER change no matter where my writing pursuits take me.

So, what have I learned? I've boiled those accumulated nuggets of wisdom down to a series of guidelines I strive to follow during my writing frenzies. While this is by no means complete, I've assembled a Top 5 Writing Tips List for your perusal.

If this humble offering assists even one author, I'll consider this post a worthwhile investment.

Here goes (in no particular order):

1. Overwrite your characters.
As they say in the great state of Texas, make them LARGER THAN LIFE.  Make them huge; make them bombastic; make them breathe fire and spit nails; make them deep, wide, long, and bursting at the seams with quirks and idiosyncrasies.

There's nothing more boring to a reader than a colorless, dull, listless drone taking up page space.  In fact, such a character has no place in a work of fiction at all.

By design, I painted the principal players in "Child of Privilege" with very vivid strokes:

Following in the grand tradition of literary louses, Richard Van Werner redefines evil.  :(

Some various descriptions: white-hot-steel-in-your-lower-intestines nasty; an extreme "Type A" semi-humanoid turbo-obsessed with winning and destroying all competition; patriarchal monarch; unprincipled bastard; despicable woman-beater; all-around predator and psychotic.  Why bring a monster like this into my novel?  What's the one thing people remember most about the legendary Dallas prime-time soap?  Of course, it's J.R. Ewing, villain extraordinaire.  Despite not having a likable bone in his body, the late Larry Hagman's character created a buzz that continues to this day.

For a moment, imagine the consequences of an alliance between J.R. and Richard Van Werner: even Superman, Marshall Dillon, Thomas the Tank Engine, Batman, The Lone Ranger, and Mister Rogers (plus his entire Neighborhood) fighting side-by-side would be powerless to save us.

The entire world would be doomed.  Let's all hope that Richard and J.R. never get together!

Reavis Macklin was, quite simply, a nauseating excuse for a human being.  He was a crude, obnoxious, hormone-obsessed reptile who laughingly pictured himself as Mister Waaay Too Cool.  If not for his unfulfilled compulsions to please Richard and lay Dana, this vulgar buffoon would've been a waste of oxygen.

Dana was a lovable "girl next door" with an unmistakable edge.  She became so fed up with being victimized that she finally gave herself permission to fight back against anyone who gave her any more crap.  You can push a good woman only so far.  When she decides to fight back, you'll find yourself in some very deep doo-doo.  If you don't believe me, just ask Richard and Reavis.

Maggie was the ultimate doormat.  Soft-spoken, good-natured, submissive, and compliant, she was once cruelly described by Richard as marital "window dressing."  In a misguided bargain with the devil, she traded her body and soul for greenbacks and blue blood.  While she did achieve a sort of "consolation prize" revenge against her husband, that satisfaction cost her dearly.

A private investigator who secretly despised his boss, Angelo Saranello enjoyed the job security and income derived from his labors as Richard's personal henchman.  But he was continually doing inner battle with his values and morals.  While no kneecap was safe in his presence, his conscience finally got the best of him in a most tragic way.

Nothing boring in this ensemble, is there?  No bland, flavorless personalities either.  'Nuff said.

2. Take the long way home.
Aside from being the title of a 1970's rock 'n' roll hit by Supertramp, it's also a great way to keep your story alive, interesting, and moving.  An added benefit is the opportunity to heighten the suspense so vital to keeping a reader involved and turning the pages.  If I recall my Geometry (barely!), a line is the shortest distance between two points.  Well, that's great for drawing nice straight lines or for reducing your gasoline consumption while driving.

In constructing a storyline, the shortest distance between two points is the LAST thing you want.  Rather:

  • Take side trips; they represent golden opportunities to unfold intriguing plot complications.
  • Follow detours; they provide great devices for introducing antagonists just itching to make your hero's (or heroine's) life more miserable.
  • Explore the side roads out in the middle of literary nowhere; they're perfect locales for heightening suspense and adding urgency to your storyline.
  • Take those lesser-traveled back-roads; they make ideal routes to unexpected and plot-enhancing twists.
Remember, you're not racing to reach "THE END."  You're striving to tell a textured, multi-layered story.  Take some time to explore the landscape.  You never know what might be waiting behind that next unmapped bend in your story.

3. BE your characters.
What has become one of my favorite (and admittedly most bizarre) writing practices is my "acting out" of many scenes in my living room.

During these impromptu "performances," I ask myself a number of questions:

  • Are the characters' physical movements plausible and realistic as scripted? (If a character is currently depicted as lying flat on the floor, and then swinging from a chandelier 5 seconds later, there's a transitional issue that needs to be addressed)
  • Does the dialogue sound like "normal-people-speak?"  Is there too much dialogue?  Too little?  Is there too much narrative?  Too little?  Is the scene too long or too short?
  • Is the language appropriate? (Anyone who has read "Child of Privilege" knows I'm not afraid to use street language (gasp!) when it's germane to the characters or to the scene)
Only when a scene feels "right" in my "living room theater" will it be included in the final manuscript.

4.  Put faces on the names.
While it's necessary to describe a character's physical appearance, I like to take that to another level.  If at all possible, I like to mentally "cast" my players (as though I were casting a hypothetical movie version) using the faces of the thousands of actors and actresses I've seen through the years.

I did just that with "Child."

I've found that it lends an additional dimension of humanity to my characters which aids me tremendously in my writing.  I not only write my characters' words, but I also "hear" them and "see their faces" (in my mind's eye) as they execute their dialogue and subplots.

Maybe it shows in the finished product; maybe it doesn't.  I'll leave that judgement to the reader.  But it helps me as a writer to develop and showcase my players' personalities.

Just for grins, meet the hypothetical cast of the hypothetical "Child of Privilege - The Movie":

Richard Van Werner: Nick Nolte
Dana Van Werner: Reese Witherspoon
Maggie Van Werner: Dana Delany
Angelo Saranello: Sylvester Stallone
Reavis Macklin: Richard Grieco

I'm working on my acceptance speech for the awards ceremonies in Hollywood ... not.

I know, I know; I'm delusional.


5. Conflict, conflict, conflict.
An English teacher I greatly respected advised me once, "Conflict is the root of all good fiction."

Let's face it: how many folks would want to read a story in which the lead character's life is totally joyous, fulfilling, harmonious, and devoid of any problems, hardship, and pain?

BOR-ING!

Even television's happiest families--the Waltons, the Nelsons, the Cleavers, the Bradys, et al--tangled with each other (or someone else) every week, for cryin' out loud!

To quote that venerable fast-food commercial: "Where's the beef?"

The meat of a gripping story consists of the villains, trials, tribulations, pain, tears, despair, friends, and enemies that surround a lead character who must overcome them all in order to ride off into the sunset with a hard-earned happily ever after:)

A tall order?  Perhaps.

But here's my favorite recipe: cook up multiple antagonists, multiple conflicts, and plenty of neck-breaking plot twists, each one tightening the noose around your hero's/heroine's neck; sprinkle in some supporting players on both sides of each conflict; then top it all off with a climax that finishes the story into a neat, seasoned tale that grills up lean and juicy.

You're now ready to proudly serve it to your readers.  They'll thank you for a tasty, satisfying, literary meal they'll savor for hours afterward.

In writing, conflict is good.




There you have it: writing stuff that they'll never teach you in school ... for good reason.

Now I'll spend the rest of my evening working on that acceptance speech.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Child of Privilege" News, Reviews, and Interviews


My humble novel has found some delightful fans in the United Kingdom these days.  It has been a distinct pleasure to work with some of the UK's premier blogger/reviewers in getting the word out about this up-and-coming indie novel.

I would like to thank these generous book-lovers for their enthusiasm, courtesy, and kindness toward both the book and its author.  I'm looking forward to expanding and deepening these valued literary relationships with my comrades-in-books from across the Atlantic:

Stacey and her Whispering Stories Blog have favored me with both a 4-star review and an interview that allowed me to fantasize about "Child" becoming a major motion picture (we authors LIVE on fantasies!):
http://whisperingstories.com/the-writing-life-of-ross-ponderson/ 
http://whisperingstories.com/child-of-privilege-review/ 


Read Along with Sue featured Sue's heartfelt and enthusiastic 5-star review which was truly gratifying:
http://sueandherbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/child-of-privilege-by-ross-ponderson.html 


Holly's Bookaholic Confessions was the setting for an interview that felt more like two "book friends" enjoying an afternoon cup of tea:
https://bookaholicconfessions.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/author-interview-ross-ponderson/#more-3551


Let's journey to Belgium for our last item of Euro news:

A mother-and daughter team operate M's Bookshelf.  Here's Mom's review:
http://mssbookshelf.blogspot.be/2015/07/book-review-child-of-privilege-ross.html

 
Let's not forget the "stateside" news.

I recently had the pleasure of answering author Douglas Schwartz's (http://www.checkeredscissors.com/) 20Q.  What made this interview unique (at least for me) was the opportunity to script my own 20th question.  What do you suppose I selected for that final question?  I'll never tell; at least not here.  I can say it's a little different.  You'll have to check it out at:
http://pegamoose-g.livejournal.com/85401.html
 

For our final item, Colantha from Romancing the Book posted this review:
http://romancing-the-book.com/2015/07/review-child-of-privilege-by-ross-ponderson.html