writing

Dealing with Death in Life and Fiction

Death is common in fiction, just as it is common in life. It is the highest of stakes, even though ever character, just like you and everyone you know, will end up dead eventually. Different people react to death, or even the possibility of death, in different ways. Fear is the most common emotion associated with it, but it isn’t one that everyone experiences.

Until my child was born, I never feared for my own death. I did, however, fear the deaths of others. There’s an elderly British man in his eighties who I was fairly close with about eight years ago. We met while I was spending a year abroad, and often had philosophical discussions. Over time, we’d fallen out of touch. Yet whenever I feel the desire to call him and find out what he’s up to, I hesitate. I’m scared I’ll find out that he’s not around anymore, and as long as I don’t call, as long as I don’t know his status, I can tell myself that he’s probably still alive.

Because death is a universal experience, it is bound to come up in your writing at some point. When it does, try to remember that not everyone has the same reaction, and not everyone faces death the same way.

I remember my grandmother, a holocaust survivor, telling me that after the murder of her family, she no longer wanted to live. She was jealous of people that didn’t wake up in the morning. When she finally did pass away, I think she viewed it as a relief. Death was something she welcomed. My father realized this, and yes, he mourned her loss, but at the same time he found a sense of peace, knowing that her suffering on this world was finally over.

There’s a book, A Brush With Death : An Artist in the Death Camps, by Morris Wyszogrod (or Moshe, as he was called by his friends). The book recounts the author’s experiences in the Holocaust, and actually bears a few similarities to Yossel, something I pointed out to author Joe Kubert when I had the opportunity to meet him, a year before his death. Of course, Moshe Wyszogrod isn’t around anymore either. Few survivors are. But what makes his book unique isn’t just that it is an account of death and horror, recorded as experienced by someone who faced it day in and day out for years, but rather because of a few paragraphs written here and there, throughout the book. The author mentions a friend of his, who he met in the Warsaw Ghetto, entered into the concentration camps with, and eventually was separated from as the war went on, only to be reunited in America with years later: Mayer Lachman. My grandfather didn’t talk much about his experience in the Holocaust (or talk much at all, for that matter), so a decent amount of what I know about his experiences come from that book. There were of course some things left out, such as his wife and daughter, who never made it. My uncle once asked him what he did when he found out his wife and daughter were killed. He shrugged and said, “I went back to work.” Because mourning would mean death for him as well. Instead her persevered, and lived long enough to see his great-great-grandchild. Not long ago he was watching some great-grandchildren run around in his son’s backyard. “They didn’t win,” he said with a smile.

Mayer Lachman passed away exactly one year ago, at the age of one hundred and five. A sick child who doctors didn’t think would live beyond his first year had lived through two world wars. The anniversary of a loved one’s passing is a time to reflect on life, and celebrate their legacy. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this.

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You Made a Mistake

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Obviously, before putting out a book, a writer will do everything within his or her power to make sure the product is as flawless as possible. That’s why its always a little embarrassing to be told that someone found an error in your book.

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However embarrassing it is, I find myself grateful to those who bother to let me know. Honestly, constructive criticism and being told how you can make your book better is far more useful than praise . As a writer, I want to put out the best book I can. But as a human, I’m prone to mistakes, and when it comes to my own writing, I can often be blind to it. So when something is pointed out to me that should be fixed, be it a typo, a factual error regarding the city layout, or a suggestion regarding possible stylistic improvements, I try to fix it as soon as I’m able. And what is amazing about digital and print on demand is that these errors can be fixed almost instantaneously.

Every writer wants to improve, but we can’t learn from our mistakes if we aren’t aware of them. Slight embarrassment is a small price to pay to put out a better book.

Marketing Failures

A little while ago, I offered a short story ebook for free to anyone signing up for my mailing list. No one signed up. Not one person. I didn’t understand. I had people who view the post and even the mailing list page. Heck, the post that I announced I was giving away a free short story had numerous likes, yet no one signed up to the mailing list. Not a single person. Every time I would check to see if anyone signed up, there would be a this feeling in my stomach over overwhelming dread. And for good reason.

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Failing is horrifying. It reminded me of when I used to make animated shorts. I would spend months animating a little 4-7 minute animation, and I was lucky if I could get 50 views after a couple of months. What’s worst of all is seeing horrendous books and youtube videos that are way worse than mine, yet get more views or sell better. But every time, I lift myself up. And her I am again. Last week I released my first novel. Will it sell? I don’t know. It hasn’t been selling as well as I’d hoped up until now. I do have other marketing plans though, which I have not yet put into effect. Additionally, I’m still working on the second book, and they say the more books in your backlog, the better the series as a whole does. Here’s hoping there’s some truth to that. Unlike the mailing list idea, I’m not ready to write my book off as a failure. Not yet. But regardless, my failures will not define me, and I genuinely believe that with enough work and effort, I can make A Spark Ignites a success. I’m putting myself out there. Because I’m a creator, and that’s what creative people do. Failures be damned.

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Description:  Matt was just a regular teenager, dealing with homework, hormones, high school drama, and an obnoxious older brother. He found his life complicated, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. Then, when Spark, the city’s greatest superhero unexpectedly dies, Matt finds himself in possession of the hero’s costume and gadgets, with a note asking him to carry on the legacy. Finding himself unable to refuse, he reluctantly begins his superhero career, hoping he can live up to the name of his predecessor. Not knowing the first thing about being a superhero, Matt soon finds himself overwhelmed. Will he find himself in an early grave, just like his hero?

Meanwhile, an aging supervillain, the Inventor, creates a powerful device capable of killing thousands. An elaborate plan is put in motion that could lead to the destruction of everything Matt holds dear. Will he be able to figure out the how to stop him in time? And when evidence arises which indicates that Spark’s death may not be the accident everyone believes it is, Matt finds himself consumed with trying to uncover the truth. Will he be able to get to the bottom of this mystery? And if so, will he be able to handle the dark reality behind it?

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Endings and Non-Endings

cliffhangerHow do you end a story? Coming up with a good ending is probably the second hardest part of writing (the first is getting started). It’s important to end the story. It doesn’t have to tie up all loose ends, but it has to be satisfying if the reader stopped right there. Now, this is obvious when it comes to a stand alone novel. But what about a book series? A trend I’ve noticed in book series lately (and later series movies, where the last book is split into 2 parts) was to end on a cliffhanger. I understand the reasoning behind it- you want to force the reader to pick up the next one. Personally though, I usually end up feeling cheated. Now, it’s ok to have a slight cliffhanger tacked on at the end (like the reveal of Thanos and the end of the Avengers, or the reveal that Magneto still has his powers at the end of X-Men 3), because the reader still got a satisfying, full story. The lest few seconds can easily be ignored, and is more of a trailer or preview for the next movie/volume. Some cliffhangers though, make you feel as though you’re missing half the story. The second Hobbit movie, for example, has such a sudden and jarring ending,  I sat in the theater wondering if the projectionist messed up. I don’t want to be force to buy the next book. If you write a good story, with a good ending, then I’ll buy the follow up. You don’t have to try and trick people into doing.

Book Update and Request for Advice

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My upcoming book, A Spark Ignites, is finally edited. The paperback version is formatted, and I am currently waiting for the proof copy to arrive while I work on formatting the digital version. I’m new to publishing and I’m not entirely clear as to what goes into releasing a book, so I’ve been doing some research for the marketing. I’m thinking some paid advertising (though I don’t have much of a budget), maybe some guest posts on other’s blogs, and possibly a review or two from other bloggers. Any advice from those with experience would be helpful.

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A glimpse at the upcoming book trailer.

Your One Good Idea

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(Not representative of A Spark Ignites. At all. You can tell this was written by a teenager.)

“Everyone has at least one good story in them.” I don’t remember who it was who said that to me (and no, I’m not talking about the Hitchens quote, who might I add was not actually the first person to use it), but I remember I thought about it a lot in high school. I had been working on a webcomic which would eventually become A Spark Ignites, and I was beginning to worry that Spark was my only idea, my only story. Allow me to explain.

003PromoWhen I was seven years old, I created my own comic book character, and began writing and drawing my old comic books. Every year until I was thirteen, through one thing or another, all my comics would get destroyed or go missing. And so, I’d start it all over again every year, promising myself to outdo the years previous. Mind you, I didn’t just try comics. I wrote scripts, animated cartoons, and even programmed video games, all about Spark. By the time I was halfway through high school, I began to wonder if that one lone idea was all I had.

002PromoPieceSo I stopped. For a couple of months, I didn’t work on Spark at all. I just let my mind wander. I kept a small journal where I’d jot down whatever popped into my head. And by the end of those two months, I’d had ideas for a book, a television show, and another comic book (and not one of them involved superheroes). That’s why every year I’d allow myself a break from whatever it was I was working on, just to think. Sometimes I would revisit the journal and play with those ideas (I’ve taken the old tv series idea and used it to outline six books, which will be my next project after the third book in the Spark series), and other times I’d come up with entirely new ones, like the animated short below:

The trick is to just stop working on what you’re working on. Think about another genre. Something totally out there. Brainstorm. Read. Watch. Listen. Daydream. Just get your head out of you “one good idea.” Focusing on the one thing can be stifling to your creativity. You shouldn’t be afraid to let yourself get out there, out of your comfort zone. You cant worry about failure. Ultimately, while I decided to write my first novel based off what evolved out of what I considered my first good idea, I know it wasn’t my last, and that there will be many more to come.

The thing is, no one is uncreative. Everyone has an original thought. An original story to tell. And who knows, if you just push yourself away from your first idea, maybe you’ll find you have more. You won’t know until you try.

Free Ebook!

Now when you sign up to my mailing list, you will receive a free ebook of my short story, A Sparked Interest. This is not the free short ebook (Walking the Wire) that will be given away on Amazon and Smashwords when my novel, A Spark Ignites, comes out. It will only be available for free here (elsewhere it will be 99 cents). Unlike the novel, which is a straight up superhero story, this short story is in a totally different genre. I was apprehensive about releasing it (at least the widely distributed free short story will be closer in content to the novel), but it just flowed out of the characters as I was writing them, even though it didn’t fit in the book itself. So it became a short story, which I now give to you. Enjoy!

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Description: Dan Raye finally has a date with the girl of his dreams. When the date doesn’t go as Dan planned, he realizes that dreams and reality are two very different things.

Disclaimer: This is a short story that takes place after the events of A Spark Ignites. It is a stand-alone story, however, and it does not require knowledge of A Spark Ignites to be understood or enjoyed. Another thing to note: despite this story taking place within the universe of The Spark Superhero Series, there are no superheroes or mention of superheroes within the story. It is simply the story of a date that doesn’t go entirely as expected.

Religion in Books

Putting religion in a novel is always a tricky thing. Unless you’re specifically writing Christian fiction, it can be easy to turn some people off. That’s probably why most fiction tries to avoid the topic of religion, other than the odd mention of a holiday or whatever. More often then not, especially in fantasy, if religion is mentioned, it’s just a product of the author’s imagination.

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Numerous books use fake religions, such as a Song of Ice and Fire, Forgotten Realms, The Stormlight Archives, etc. Some of the religions are completely alien, while others are thinly veiled copies of actual religions, and are used to deliver commentary. I feel using a fake religion is often best if you want to avoid offending anyone.

Mentioning Christianity is something that should be avoided in most cases. Either you’ll get a lot of eye rolling or angry folks, depending on what your write and who’s reading it. Now, if it is essential to the story  or the character (like Matt Murdock, for instance), then by all means, go ahead, but remember to tread lightly. Most of the Western world is Christian, or at least familiar with Christianity. As such, it’s ok to be vague. It can be easy to say the wrong thing and offend your audience (unless that’s part of the point, like The DaVinci Code). I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t make a character religious, I’m just saying you should try to avoid going into detail about it if you can. (Just look at Harry Potter. They celebrate Christmas, but Jesus is never mentioned.)

When it comes to other, less popular religions, such a Islam, Hinduism, or Judaism, you can afford to go more into detail. Chances are, most of your audience isn’t so familiar with it, and will find it interesting without being offended or the like. After all, much like fantasy religions, they don’t have a horse in the race. Friday the Rabbi Slept Late or the new Ms. Marvel aren’t just interesting because they’re good stories that are well written, but also because you feel like you’re exploring a new religion. It gives you a bit more leeway.

Personally, other than the odd throwaway comment, I try to avoid mentioning religion in my writing for very much the same reason I avoid language. The less people you upset, the wider audience you have.

Using Short Stories

So you want to offer a free sample of your work in hopes people like it and buy the stuff you’re actually selling. Sounds good. A popular marketing technique is offering the first book in a series for free, and charging for the second one. That’s all well and good if you have two or more books in your series, but what happens if, for the moment, you only have one? You don’t want to offer it for free, because then you’re essentially wasting your time, as there’s no other product for sale to lead people to (yet). The solution is to write a self-contained short story that ties into to book you’re selling, and offer that for free. Hopefully, folk will download the short story, enjoy it, and buy your full-length novel as a result.

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In the digital age, anyone can self-publish a short story!

The short story should be between 5,000-15,000 words. Anything further is pushing it into the realm of a novella. You should want to get started on your second book, so limit the time you spend on the short story. Remember, it’s a marketing tool, used to sell your novel. It isn’t, in and of itself, a product you’re selling. The advantage of a short story is that it doesn’t require much of a commitment from you or the reader. I wrote a 5,000 word short story in under a week (which I intend to release simultaneously with my novel). They’re also easy and cheap to edit, and because they can be done quickly, from start to finish, you can publish it mere weeks after (or even at the same time) you publish your full-length novel.

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The story should be about a side character, preferably (you’ll want to save the main character for the main series, although he or she can make a cameo), or a prequel, and you should take pains to ensure that nothing that important happens in it. It should be a side story, a nice little adventure that isn’t necessary to read if you’re reading the novels, nor do they even need to be referenced. Not everyone will read the short story, and if it isn’t numbered, it probably won’t show up on your Amazon series page, so it is important to make sure there isn’t major character development that would effect later books. But just because you’re limited doesn’t mean you can’t tell a good story that’s short, sweet, and to the point, makes your audience that to find out more about your character(s) and most importantly, has a satisfying ending.

That last bit is vital. You do not want to have the story end on a cliffhanger. It will just frustrate the reader. They’ll feel scammed. You want your reader to leave the book with a good taste in their mouth. And if you’re lucky, they’ll hunger for more before long. One final thing, make sure to link to the novel you’re trying to sell at the end of the short story. It’s no good having a reader like your work if they can’t find it.

Writing What You Don’t Know

write-what-you-knowThey say write what you know. Sounds simple enough. But when writing fiction, you’ll inevitably have to write about things you’ve never experienced. What do you do then?

You can always do research, and read about other people’s personal experiences. It can be helpful, but often it can come across as just spitting back something you heard or read, not something you experienced, and sometimes the reader will be able to tell that the feeling behind it is hollow.

Your own personal experiences are the best wells to draw from. Just because you didn’t experience something exactly doesn’t mean that you can’t approximate your experiences and adapt them to suit the story. For example, I did not go to a public high school. I went to a private religious boys-only school. As such, I never experienced a high school romance. In fact, teenage dating is alien to me. However, my high school experience was not without drama, and my college experience was not without dating. By drawing from my high school and college experiences, I was able to write scenes taking place in a public school that felt grounded and real, even if I did not have those exact experiences myself.

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When it comes the the more fantastical elements to a story, one can still draw from personal experiences. It just requires a little exaggeration. I may not know what it’s like to turn into a seven-foot-tall green rage-monster, but I know what it’s like to be angry. I know what it feels like to have that power and adrenaline coursing through me, and how easy it can be to lose oneself to the blinding rage, doing as one pleases without thought of consequence. I don’t know what it feels like to fly, but I know the feeling of exhilaration when the roller coaster drops, leaving my stomach behind as the ground rushes by me, my face fighting against the wind. Just take what you experienced and exaggerate it, and it will read better than simply imagining it and writing that down.

Whenever able, write what you know, even if you don’t know it.