Book Reviews–Unintended consequences.

There are three things that an author must absolutely do:

1. Write a great story people will want to read.
2. Pair it with a great cover that radiates genre and doesn’t give the story away.
3. Write a blurb that makes the reader want to look inside the book AND doesn’t give away the plot.

The order here is very important. It reveals the steps in sequence, but the truth is that #2 (a great cover) probably has more to do with whether or not someone will read the blurb and #3 (a great blurb) has more to do with whether or not someone will look inside and ultimately decide to hit the “Buy” button AND proceed to actually read the book. While “Buy” may seem like the end-all and be-all of the process, it’s not, because if the reader doesn’t finish the book, how likely are they to buy another?

Enter the poison pill of our times, the “review.” Now, I’m not talking about editorial reviews, which are a whole different animal. I’m talking about the “reader” review.

Continue Reading

The Arthur Myth-When it works and when it doesn’t

I blame my new fascination with German musical theatre for re-kindling my interest in the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, and as with all things that resonate with me, I binge on it and you, dear reader, get to hear about it. On the upside, it’s not been a full binge (like going back to re-read the Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart or any of the huge academic tomes on the subject) so I’ll keep it light.

It’s been awhile since I enjoyed Mary Stewart’s 5-Book Saga, so it has gone back on the re-read list. It was one of the more memorable fictionalizations of this myth, if not my hands-down favorite.

For this comparison, we have three movies (or rather, two movies and a play).

Continue Reading

The Foster Test

Let me start by disclosing that I absolutely loathe the Bechdel-Wallace Test. The fact that someone thought this was a concept we needed speaks more of their own neuroses than anything else, but it keeps coming up.

Basically, the Bechdel Test attempts to measure how women in fiction are portrayed. If a work features at least two (as opposed to one; smirk) [named] women talking to each other about “something” other than a man, then it passes.

I despise the identity politics behind it, but also the disregard of genre and the needs of the story. It seeks to impose a politically motivated, self-serving radical feminist agenda on Story. The Bechdel test has been incorporated into submission mechanisms and into screenwriting software. So, basically it’s not just some ivory-tower gender-warrior’s academic rants.

I first ran into the Bechdel test a few years back when I was on a writer’s critique site and one of the people giving me feedback suggested I revamp a major portion of my story in service to the Bechdel test, because otherwise “no women were going to read it.”

Was there a poll, I missed? I’d been reading for decades and NOT once did I think to myself, “Where is the checkbox that tells me whether or not, as a woman, I’m allowed to read this because it passes the Bechdel test.”

Therefore, I propose the Foster Test. A work passes the Foster Test if it features a woman who succeeds at whatever her goal is without weakening the man/men in the story or eliminating them from her life altogether.

The music in your prose

Yesterday I got a message from an acquaintance asking me if I had any good exercises that I could suggest since he was getting back into writing after a two-year hiatus. I didn’t really have an answer for him, although I did point him to The Other Side of the Page.

But then, this morning, I ran across this video (don’t turn the volume on yet) and it makes a brilliant point but also sparks an interesting question: How do you put the music in your prose?

What a difference music makes

Sound muted: A report listing the details of the scene does not convey anything other than physical details. So imagine a paragraph or so from the imperial officer’s viewpoint, telling us where he is, i.e. describing the surroundings. And it makes for pretty dry, thin writing. I’d say a majority of new writers write like this (dry and thin). That’s what you’re seeing with the sound muted. Actually, to be fair, you’re seeing far more on the screen because the camera angle gives you his facial expression, but even that is ambiguous, as you’re about to find out by turning the sound on. In order to convey just how thin and dry a mere description would come across to a reader you’d have to change the camera angle by placing it behind the officer’s eyes, so we could only see what he sees. As readers we would not get his facial expression or any other body language at all, much less what he’s thinking.

Sound on: The melody suggests happy feelings. We kinda get that he’s about to meet someone, but not whom. The music makes a big difference. Then we are shown Darth Vader and we get a chuckle, because it doesn’t fit the music. Which was the point.

But now that you’ve had your chuckle, think about it as a writer. How do you convey the trepidation (rather than the happy feeling the music suggests) to your reader, when you have neither the happy song nor the original score to flavor the experience, nor a shot of the viewpoint character’s face? How do you SHOW rather than tell us that “Officer-so-and-so felt a great deal of trepidation as he approached Darth Vader’s shuttle?” Remember, your camera is behind the character’s eyes, not outside the character. You only have access to his thoughts on the matter. You cannot see what he does not see. Cannot know what he does not.

Ready, set, write.

What does a character know, and when does she know it?

I recently attended the LTUE Symposium in Provo, and one of my favorite panels was the one on getting your firearms right.

Now, you may not be a gun nut, and you may not care, but I can practically guarantee that just about every author who’s written about guns has gotten some–ahem!–feedback on what they got wrong.

So let me lay it out as (a) a gun-nut, (b) a writer, and (c) a reader. These states of mind are not separate. They overlap.

Let me take off my shooting hat (yes, I have one to keep the brass out of my cleavage) and put on my writer hat (let’s say it looks a bit like a crown).

Just because I know the difference between a magazine and a clip doesn’t mean that every character I write does. Just because I know the difference between an auto-loader (semi-automatic) and full-auto doesn’t mean that every character I write does. Got that?

Continue Reading

5 Days to Go: Intellectual Property Tracker Kickstarter

I’d like to thank Jamie Ferguson for giving our Kickstarter a boost with this interview. Time is running out. Our Kickstarter ends on Feb. 13th. Make your pledge now in order to save money and unlock bonuses available only while the Kickstarter is running.

The Kickstarter has met its funding goal, so what’s the advantage of someone supporting the Kickstarter at this point?

There are three advantages: 
1. saving money; the pledge levels offer you the plans at a savings.
2. Dean Wesley Smith’s Magic Bakery Workshop on copyright and intellectual property is a $150 value on its own; you’re going to learn so many amazing things about copyright and how important it is to manage your rights in this class. Honestly, if you don’t know why stories are intellectual property and the value that intellectual property (IP) has to your success as a writer, you absolutely NEED this class, even if you’ve never published anything or if you’ve just had your first story accepted.
3. for those that already have a few (or a dozen or a hundred) titles out and know about copyright and IP, the $500 Lifetime Plan is a Kickstarter special.

Story and Characters: Love-hate affairs across cultures

Earlier this month I was introduced to the most successful German-language musical of all time, Elisabeth das Musical.

This fictionalized account of the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria has been translated into seven languages and seen by over ten million, although apparently never in the United States. It made me wonder why, since it has been successful not just in Germany, but Hungary, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. In fact, the cross-cultural adaptations are worth a study in themselves. Here is a multi-language compilation of the prologue. I’m particularly fond of the Japanese costuming. And here is the international trailer with an English introduction.

Personally, I love a good anti-hero and in this case that would be Death, not Elisabeth, the heroine of this story.

Having grown up in a culture similar to the one that Elisabeth grew up in, I’d like to share my take on this story.

Know then, that for most of history, people did not marry for romantic love. Most of those who ruled didn’t (I’m sure there were exceptions). The peasants, shop keepers, and nobles didn’t either, although they had, perhaps more freedom in that regard, depending on the time period, etc.

Today, we live in a culture rich enough to allow us to casually enter into marriage based on romantic love, with less thought given to the economics involved, than in the past. All it takes in most places in the US, is a drive down to City Hall or a Justice of the Peace, the payment of a fee, and you are married. Most people are free to fall in love and marry just for that. Whether it lasts or not is another matter. So, go into this knowing, that that was not the case in Elisabeth’s time, and it is not the case in most of the world even today.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generation in Communist Romania certainly thought of marriage in terms of economics, despite it being the 20th Century. Nobody cared about love. What did they care about?

Does he have a good, stable job?
Will he be able to support a wife?
Will he be able to support a family?
Is he husband material in other ways?
Is she wife material?
Can she have children?
What kind of mother will she be?
Do undesirable traits and behavior run in his or her family?
Can the families get along?

Living as part of an extended family that were always in your business, did not allow an unmarried man or woman the freedom to just fall for someone and call it done. Even if the respective families couldn’t stop you from marrying, they could certainly withdraw and refuse support, and often did. It was also not that unusual for the older generation (the grandparents’) to be responsible for child-rearing, and for younger cousins and sisters to be involved as well (as nannies and baby-sitters for girls must learn how to be mothers themselves some day), since the concept of a nuclear family was unknown.

And I can tell you without a doubt that the idea of living only for oneself, for one’s own selfish desire was not praiseworthy, was not encouraged, much less celebrated. In contrast, today, there are plenty of young men and women who pursue “their bliss” well into their thirties, often as a result of parental generosity.

Elisabeth (as portrayed in this musical) is in many ways a contemporary embodiment of what we so often see today. She is raised in an ideal environment, which, while desirable, does not reflect the reality of the world. One moment she swears off marriage for the freedom to do whatever she wants. The next, she’s fallen in love (at first sight no less) with the Emperor of Austria (a man intended for her older sister).

Then when she does have children, they are taken away from her to be raised by her mother-in-law. She fights to get them back, but then abandons them in retaliation for her husband’s unfaithfulness. Now, I realize that some of this is being done for story reasons, and that’s fine. Conflict, shattered expectations, and a character arc all demand it. Otherwise we’d have no Story, or at least not this story, and it is THIS story that is compelling.

Elisabeth sacrifices everyone (including her beloved son) for her own freedom, while at the same time enjoying an unearned material wealth. Audiences are drawn in and cheer on her declaration that she belongs only to herself.

While it’s interesting, and entertaining to watch the character arc, the love triangle between Elisabeth, her husband, and Death personified (and yes, I enjoyed the heck out of this play–I watched the German and Hungarian versions–and it’s in the “watch again” bin) there were so many times when I wanted to reach out and strangle her and shout “You are such a selfish, silly <insert expletive>!” Then I take a deep breath and remind myself that it’s a Story, it’s meant to be entertainment, and I should just enjoy it.

Which leads to “Why am I willing to watch this again, when I don’t particularly like Elisabeth as a person?” Yes, Mark Seibert as Death makes up for a lot, but he’s not on the stage that long. And it’s not just Seibert’s portrayal of Death, even though I’d jump at the chance to go see him on stage even if that meant actually going back to Europe. Kim Junsu’s portrayal of Death in the Korean version is just as good, if not better.

It’s the characters, stupid! Plot, logic, and inconsistencies matter not when the characters have you in their grip, just like with a book you read again and again, even though you know not just the ending, but every plot point along the way. It’s why I’m on a mission to watch the Japanese and Russian versions as well, provided I can find them.

Even the language barrier was not enough to dampen my enjoyment and I’m not a fan of theater in general. The fact that it was in a foreign language made it more interesting. I really admire the translators since they had to translate not just the words, but make the syllables fit, and oh, by the way, some of it still rhymes. Think of it this way. In English, “I” is one syllable; same in German, Hungarian, and Russian. But in Japanese, “I” is “watashi(-wa)” which is three or four, in Korean it’s “naneun” also three. From what I saw of the subtitles, they did it while preserving context in most cases. It’s shown particularly well here, in a multi-language compilation featuring several of the actresses portraying Elisabeth during the 20th Anniversary Tribute. Notice how the song smoothly flows from one language to the other (I identified German, Dutch, Korean, and Japanese. Finnish might also have been in there, although I didn’t verify it).

As a writer, I also appreciate how well the Story (not the plot) delivered a highly satisfying ending.

When it was all over, I asked myself, was this a romance (i.e. it had a happy ending) or was it a tragedy? And the answer is, it was both. The climax was a tragedy, but the denouement was a happily ever after. Yeah, that’s right. THIS and the compelling characters is why Elisabeth das Musical is such a hit.

Now I’m off to add “learn more about the Habsburg Empire” to my ever-growing list of stuff I’ll probably never get around to. I really do wish they’d have spent more time on this part of history when I was going to school.

One final thing. The story shows the rising nationalism of the time period. I believe it is historically accurate. If you’re going to get offended by the appearance of National Socialism and its anti-semitism (slogans, symbols, etc), despite their portrayal as the bad guys, you might want to skip this.

Creative Penn podcast

Many thanks to Joanna Penn for the shoutout about Intellectual Property Tracker on her Creative Penn podcast. Joanna is a successful author and entrepreneur, with many, many, titles (both fiction and non-fiction about the business and craft for writing) to her name. 

Remember that our Kickstarter ends on Feb. 13th, so don’t delay. 

Please help us spread the word by sharing this. Thank you.

Intellectual Property Tracker update:

You asked. We responded. We added a requested feature to the demo version.

In response to the request for a feature that allowed the tracking of  images related to covers and merchandising, I’ve added that functionality to the demo version and recorded a brief (4′) video to give you an idea of what it might look like. This new feature allows you manage the data associated with images as well as the licensing associated with them. Whether you’re just using images for covers or not, we think this feature will streamline your process and free up your time.

Thank you again, everyone, for your support. We’re very excited to see this project come together. You can help this project by supporting our Kickstarter here.