Friday, August 30, 2013

Hypnotic State

As I continue the toiling of working on my book and other assorted writing pieces, I continue to notice a trend when it comes to my muse appearing or not appearing. I've read and seen some presentations on hypnotism, and never really believed in it until recently. In my case, my muse seems to be connected to my hypnotic state.

When I was a child I would come up with most of my ideas while either running for the cross country team at school, or being driven places on the bus or in the family car. The act of moving and not having to focus on anything specific put me, unknowingly, into a meditative and hypnotic state. I was alert, true, but I was also tapping into my subconscious, seeing images of characters in my mind and hearing snippets of their dialogue to each other. After the run or the ride in the car, I would hurry to write down what I saw and heard, and that would turn into a few chapters of the latest manuscript. (In case you're wondering, yes, they are all still in a file box, newly rescued from the unorganized filing cabinet that was overflowing. They may have some water damage from a basement flood, but they are still readable - thank-you Smith Corona!) Today, I can put myself into that state by listening to music during the drive to or from a job, and sometimes simply going for a walk.

The illusive muse. She doesn't always appear, but sometimes she can be coaxed out of the ether. It's glorious when that happens!

Fanfiction: Yay or Nay?

I've read a few different blog posts that discussed the idea of fanfiction, and with Amazon's recent Kindle Worlds unveiling, I decided I would put my own two cents in.

I am a huge supporter of fanfiction. When I was a freshman in high school I was distraught that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was taking so long (indeed, it didn't even have a release date or title at that time) and was craving something to read that was Potter related. My friend Kim introduced me to, and I was in heaven. There were five or six different full-length Harry Potter Book Fives on there, and I reveled in the exploration of different themes and characters who weren't the central heroes of Rowling's work.

Needless to say, I am a writer, and quickly found myself spinning my own Potter stories. I learned a ton about writing from beginning to end, as that was how I uploaded so quickly. I started planning ahead a few chapters at a time, and found myself up to 40,000 words within a year. Better than that, I got regular feedback from a handful of fanfiction readers (I've never met any of you in person, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your criticisms and your encouragement! I hope you're all doing well and still writing your own stories!). I also joined around the time that the "hits" data was being tested. I could see how many people were looking at my work daily, from which country, and which stories were most popular. What a revelation! Imagine the encouragement that people from across the ocean were reading something that I wrote. It was powerful.

As writers, we all want our words to reach many people around the world. Will my novel entertain someone riding a subway car in the UK? I certainly hope so! Will someone in Los Angeles be checking out my books while they wait in rush-hour traffic? That would be fantastic. These goals would have seemed unthinkable if I hadn't started out writing fanfiction. Exploring the craft within the confines of a pre-existing world was a great learning tool for me, and a lot of the terminology that the website used ended up priming me for a future in digital publishing. I encourage anyone in school to check out all the fantastic work on and elsewhere around the net.

But, what do I think about Amazon's Kindle Worlds? I'm a little lukewarm on the idea. So far none of the franchises that are involved are ones that I am into. Vampire Diaries? Meh. They're all a little too CW for my taste. Now, if they were going to start allowing people to write Smallville fanfiction, I would jump all over that! It's a neat idea, but until they broaden their scope, I'd much rather write fanfiction for a website and learn about the craft of storytelling while getting some feedback on my writing style. Even if I'm not making money from writing or reading fanfiction, I am getting something else out of it creatively, and that's providing entertainment until a new season of American Horror Story or Downton Abbey comes out!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why Scrivener?

I will admit right off that I've been using Microsoft Word since I was in high school, and if you want to count, that was roughly ten years ago. I was typing away on an old Windows machine in the basement, writing Harry Potter fanfiction every night. If only I could be so productive now with my own stuff! But I digress...

The argument I'm going to make here is that it's hard to jump ship on a typing program and learn a completely new piece of software if you're looking just at the act of typing words on the screen. I heard about Scrivener last year, and the free trial has sat on my laptop since then, barely used. Originally I was trying to use it to write a few screenplays, but never really got into the nuts and bolts of the software with that usage alone.

Fast forward to a month ago.

Nearing the end of my first draft of my manuscript, I decided to try my hand at formatting for Kindle, my end goal format for self publishing. I thought it would be easy. After all, with every Kindle that I've purchased (I own a Kindle 2 - purchased in 2009, the original Kindle Fire, and now my beloved Kindle Paperwhite) Amazon has provided a free eBook that goes over the process of publishing on Amazon. This step-by-step guide insists that I use Microsoft Word, so I was thrilled that I already had my hands on the program and was doing all my typing in it.

However, when I actually got into the nitty gritty of formatting, I wasted at least three hours on trying to get my tabs to work (I had already stripped out the manual tabs like it told me to do and replaced those with the auto formatting of first-line indent x percentage). After all that time, I still had tabs that were off kilter and looked like a mess! Now, you have to understand that I worked for two years as a graphic designer for the University Of Southern Maine's music department where my entire job consisted of making sure that all the text of their music programs was lined up precisely and all the italics were where they should be. Seeing my manuscript, a 50,000+ word novel just thrown together with me being helpless to figure out what was going wrong - I was ready to cry or drink a very large glass of red wine!

I did enjoy the wine regardless, but it wasn't until I re-discovered Scrivener through the Self Publishing Podcast that I found a solution to all of my formatting woes. (If you haven't checked out that podcast on iTunes, I highly recommend it). You see, the main roadblock to my using Scrivener was simply that I didn't want to learn a new, fancy interface in order to do something that was so simple up until now: type words on a screen and print them later. But, with the advent of self-publishing as eBooks, I found that I wasn't printing my words any more, rather, I was going to be exporting them as a digital book that is not unlike a website. The table of contents is a list of links, and the image insertion is exactly like a web page. I didn't finish my only HTML course in high school with flying colors, but I knew the basics and was easily frustrated when the codes didn't do what I wanted, or I forgot how to type some random tag.

Scrivener takes all the headache out of this export process with some very cool presets for Kindle (.mobi) and other major eBooks (.epub). I found some excellent blogs about formatting my document for the best possible .mobi output and went to town. There are way too many things to type right here, but if I get a chance, I will try to document some specific revelations that I found while formatting with custom fonts and cover images. In a matter of three hours in Scrivener, I had a beautiful Kindle book that I loaded onto my Paperwhite and enjoyed like a kid in a candy store. Why would you ever try the headache of Microsoft Word when you can get better results with complete customization options in Scrivener? I don't know.

What I do know is that I can't imagine using any other writing software moving forward. With all the different things you can do, from drafting to completed Kindle export, Scrivener is a dream. Definitely check out the free trial if you are struggling to get your work out to eBook stores like I was. There's a great peace of mind that settles over me once the technical aspect of constructing the eBook product is finished and I can focus completely on what really matters to my creative brain: my story.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Music As Inspiration

This is another writing tip that I've come across recently, but found that I've used it a lot without realizing what was happening.

I love genre. Going into a book store back when I frequented one weekly, sometimes a few days a week, I absolutely loved being able to walk to the horror section, or the computer technology section, and find a handful of books related to what I was interested in. Just recently I've started exploring some romances and also a few science fiction/dystopian novels. They all work so well within their defined genres - but they also surprise me when those genres are stretched and combined by gifted writers who love to play.

My first draft of the manuscript has thirty pages left to work through, and then I start the meticulous task of adjusting each page in Scrivener to reflect my notes. Once that's done, I'm sending out the completed piece for feedback, which will then lead to a final draft before publication. It's going to be hard work - and it has been mentally exhausting (I took a break from serious work last night to recharge, re-watching an episode of American Horror Story, season one!) but, I know that in the end it will be worth it. Even if this book isn't perfection, I hope it's entertaining, and I definitely learned a ton about story structure and revisions with this one.

However, as I near the ending of one project, my first ever completed novel, I am faced with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I am thrilled that I've seen something through to the end. Just ask my family and friends how often I finish something of this scope, and they can count them on one hand! On the other hand, I am now free to work on something else. I have almost finished plotting out a sequel to my first manuscript, which was the plan from the start, but I am also curious to see if I can try something new in between that will speed up my writing process. I keep reading blog posts about fellow authors who finish a rough draft in three months, and darn it, I want to be like that! The ideas are there, but how do I nurture them into fleshed-out novels, or even novellas?

On the commute to work this morning I put in the fantastic, atmospheric, and chilling soundtrack to the film Insidious, by Joseph Bishara, and found my imagination going wild with a new idea I've come up with for a horror novel. This idea came to me a few weeks back and I jotted it down in a notebook, but was determined not to let it take over my attention before I got the second draft of my manuscript to my wonderful beta readers (who I hope are harsh on me so that I can really see what's not working, or what needs to be beefed up). Wouldn't you know that just listening to this creepy music in the car this morning got my brain working, and the characters leaped out at me - their struggles with the paranormal, their family situation, and the protagonist becoming clearer and more vibrant with every passing mile on the road.

If you are a writer like me and are searching for inspiration to nurture that idea in your mind, give listening to some genre-specific music a shot while you lull yourself into a meditative state. I find that driving is usually the sweet spot for me because I'm focused, but my creative brain isn't occupied. That leaves the door open for all sorts of wonderful revelations. If you're writing a young adult novel, give the top forty chart a shot. You might be surprised.

I don't listen to music while I actually write anything, but just getting the creative juices flowing is a huge head start for when I get to the blank page and start off sprinting. I think I might give that horror story more of a shot and see how quickly I can complete a draft when the going is good. Maybe a little distance from my other characters is what I need for a month or two before I seriously begin telling the second chapter in their story. We'll see!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Old Dog, New Tricks

I just did something that I only do once in a while: I bought a few Kindle books.

Did you read that correctly? I actually paid real monies for a product that someone else wrote. If you know me, this is a little shocking because I am infamous for prowling the "Top 100 Free" list on Amazon daily. I have only read one book from the hundreds that I've downloaded, mostly because I am very busy and my free time is very limited - but I am also nearing the end of two other books I've downloaded recently that kept my attention. Those were also free promo books for a day or two.

Why this leap into spending money for something? Well, I just got my first ever Kindle Paperwhite. I debated for a month whether or not I should buy a new eReader (my other options being my iPad, which hurt my eyes after an hour of reading, and my original Kindle 2 with keyboard and buttons) but, I finally broke down. I am thrilled with the device, and it has jumpstarted my book consumption back to a healthy level that I haven't seen since my high school days. I was very turned off by my old Kindle 2's single, computerized font. The Paperwhite looks like real printed type, and I love the backlight. I've read everywhere, and it's rejuvenated my imagination.

But, enough about the eReader. My point for this blog is that I've struggled with something mentally that I read about a while back when it comes to eBooks. I downloaded so many for free that they started losing their value in my mind. Why is this? I'm still not really sure. I think it may have something to do with the genre that is most often free, and that's coincidentally related to the genre that I am trying to write: romance.

I'll be honest. I'm a sucker for a good love story. I am a man, but that doesn't stop me from crying like a baby when I see Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley share a kiss in the snowfall on Downton Abbey. I am sucked in to the stories of these characters and their relationships. They're fascinating and engaging when done right.

However, I've noticed that there are a lot of half-baked ideas floating around in eBook-land. Technology is good to us and gives writers opportunities that we didn't have five years ago. But it's a double-edged sword. The ability to publish anything means that as a reader I am now forced to wade through thousands of books to find one to read. Many of these books are not my taste. Many of them are not bad, but there have been quite a few that had me scratching my head thinking, "What was this writer trying to do?" I suppose some of these stories are too simplistic for my liking. I need high stakes, even if those stakes are simply who will inherit a sprawling estate. I have come across many books that believe that I should be completely interested in reading about every little thing that the heroine does for her daily routine. This isn't the case. I need urgency. I need to feel that everything that is happening has a point for the overall story. It's something that I'm currently sorting through in my own manuscript.

Even with all this wading, I believe I have found a few eBooks that are worth my money. I'm hoping, at least. I need escapism. Better than that, I need to be well-read in my chosen genre. There are many how-to books out there, but nothing teaches better than a great novel on its own. It's also an added bonus when that book is a page turner!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Absolute Power!

It's been quiet for me in the online presence area because I've been cranking on the production of my first draft of the manuscript. It's been grueling, mostly because I'm working two jobs - which, combined together, equal about fifty-five to sixty hours. When I take out 8 hours or so for sleep (I need a lot more than I admit) and the two hours of commute time per day, that leaves me with about four hours a day before I pass out to eat, unwind, and also write.

I have been lucky since I'm able to sneak in an extra half hour at my weekend job for writing, but now I've come to the part of the journey where the first draft is "finished" and I am moving onto editing - or proof reading.

It's really fun, but - I have to admit that I am chomping at the bit to get this book out to my beta readers. I have a handful that are willing to give this book a read, and I hope they find it an enjoyable experience. I'm focusing so much on this first pass because it's where I can hone my sentences and be sure that there are no sloppy errors before it goes away from me and off to its first day of Kindergarten. It's going to be very emotional! But I am ready for a break, much like some parents must also be when school arrives.

My cover design is finished, and I am very pleased with it. I've showed it to a bunch of different people that I work with - different ages and genders, and received their feedback and initial reactions. It led me to change a font and also darken a few things so that the contrast looks better. Last night I spent a few hours tweaking the cover so that it will be the correct dimensions and file size to be included in my actual eBook. It was so exciting to load that thing onto my Kindle 2 and see how it looked! I also used the Kindle Previewer to see how it will look on different devices. I am totally prepared to use both my Kindle 2 and Kindle Fire to test this book when it is finished. That is my biggest fear - that some of the formatting will come out jumbled. So far that has only happened in the case of a few em-dashes that are not the correct character. So that's why those little question mark symbols show up!

It's such a blessing to have so much control over how this book will look. I have the ability to learn so much as I do it independently. That's a reward in itself.

It's very exciting to be making progress. I don't feel the weird, depressed stage that I struggled with just before I muscled through the end of the first draft. This is all new to me, since I haven't finished anything novel-length since high-school, and that was just for fun. This is a bit more serious - but that doesn't mean I don't love every minute of it! Hopefully there will be more updates soon.

On the flip side - has anyone actually checked out the new Lindsay Lohan movie, The Canyons? I'm about halfway through it and I gotta say, that is some strange stuff. I can't look away!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Almost There...

I am coming towards the completion of my first draft of the tentatively titled Macyntire & Hough. It's a really exciting and exhausting time for me because this is the first novel I've completed (or will complete...soon) post-college. I've finished novels before, but those were all during high school and none of them are publishable. They are, however, fun to look at when I want to reminisce about my old characters. It's almost like visiting old friends that I haven't seen in a while!

Coming to the finish line of my first draft, I feel like I've just run a marathon. It reminds me of being in track (the one year that I actually gave it a shot...and didn't like it very much). I've just run the three full laps around the track, but I'm nearing the end of the fourth and final lap to make it a complete mile. Still, the trick is that even though I will finish this event, I still have another one coming up: the revision.

I promised myself that before I gave anyone my draft to read for feedback, I would do them a huge favor and go through my first draft and correct all the spelling and punctuation/word usage errors that I know are there, and then, once finished, present them with a semi-cleaned up draft to read.

I also have to prepare to trust my chosen beta readers because they are looking at this thing with fresh eyes and will hopefully give me the feedback that I need to tighten and clarify and, dare I say it, cut away the fat that isn't needed. It will be tough. I've never arrived at this point for something that I vowed to publish. Some of these beta readers have been waiting a long time to read this draft - one of them at least four years. True, it wasn't this particular story, but she has been prodding me to get my fingers on the keyboard every time we go out to get ice cream or drinks. I can't wait to set the stack of paper in her hands and tell her to be brutal to it!

Now, enough time wasting on writing about writing. I need to sit down, listen to my characters, and write their "final" actions in this first novel so that they can be fixed a few weeks down the road! They've put up with me for this long, I just have to leap across the finish line and take a cool-down lap. And maybe some water, too!