writing

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.

They Stole My Idea!

You’re sitting there, reading a book or watching a movie or TV show, when something happens that is eerily similar to something you’d thought of ages ago, perhaps even written down. So naturally you exclaim, “Hey, they stole my idea!”

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Not exactly what I’m talking about.

I must’ve heard this line dozens of times. Heck, I’ve used it myself one more than one occasion. The truth is, of course, that nothing is original. As King Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Chances are, no one stole your idea. You and whoever wrote the other work were likely influenced by the same thing, and as a result came up with a similar concept. The question then is what do you do next?

There’s an aspect of the story in my book, A Spark Ignites, which was done to similar effect in a film that came out last year. When I saw it, I was quite disheartened, especially as I had written the outline that included that very plot point well over half a decade prior. What I ended up doing was keeping the plot point, but downplayed it. It no longer played as big of a roll as it did before, and I figure by the time people read it, enough time will have passed, and the story is different enough, that no one will notice the similarities. That isn’t the only option though.

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It isn’t unusual for two movies with the same plot to come out around the same time, such as Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, Deep Impact and Armageddon, or Madagascar and The Wild. But why is it that only one of those movies are remembered, while the other is often forgotten? And notice that it isn’t always the movie that comes out first that’s remembered. What will stick in people’s mind is what was executed better. So just because someone ‘stole’ your idea is no reason to throw it out. Come out with it anyway. Just make sure you do it better.

Making a Difference: The Reason We Write

I used to enjoy Taylor Swift. I loved how Norman Rockwellesque her early music felt. The innocence. It brought forth images of a simpler life in a small town, where every love is your first love, true love, where every kiss is your first, where life was ideal, simple, beautiful. Perfect. Of course, life is not like that, I know. It never was. Not for us, not for our parents, and not for Taylor Swift. But still, I liked it anyway. Call it nostalgia for a time that never existed. There’s a song though, from her relatively more recent years, that is probably my favorite of hers.*

“All Too Well” by Taylor Swift

There’s a reason why this is probably my favorite Taylor Swift song. Its because it touches a primal desire. Throughout our life, all of us meet people only to fade out of their life after a time, and its nice to imagine you had some sort of impact, that they haven’t forgotten you, that it wasn’t all for nothing.

Its nice to imagine you mattered.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
-Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

The reason we write, the reason we become writers, is very much the same reason we have children. We do it to leave something behind. Not fame or fortune. Rather, a legacy. When all is said and done, when we’re lying there on our deathbed, we want to know we made a difference. We want to be remembered. Because as long as we leave something behind, we can rest knowing that in some way, however small, we mattered.

Our legacy is our immortality.

 

*I should note that her recent single, Wildest Dreams, deals with similar subject matter, but does it in a more shallow way, not to mention the music video, although gorgeously shot, seems to be advocating adultery, which is as unNorman Rockwellesque as you can get.

Using Brand Names and Pop Culture References

There are two different paths folks take in writing. Some folks use stand in brands, such as MyFace, while others will use the actual brand names, such as Facebook. I personally prefer when real names are used. There is a problem with this approach, however. Let’s look the the example I used earlier, but say that instead of Facebook, the writer used MySpace. If you’re reading it today, the book instantly feels dated.

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I was actually reading a book that came out fairly recently. The book specifically mentioned Radio Shack a few times. Radio Shack closed all its stores in 2015, and thus the book itself becomes something of an oddity. Despite the fact that it is supposed to take place in contemporary times, the book is stuck taking place during or before 2015.

When mentioning brands and technology/websites, it is important to keep it vague. For example, using MyFace may sound fake and stupid, while using Facebook may make it dated once Facebook dies, which it inevitably will (though it looks like it’ll be around for the time being). The compromise would be to call it simply a social media site. That type of site will always be around and will not be outdated. (Then again,  if you think your book has a shelf life of ten years or so with relative certainly that Facebook or Google will still be around then, by all means just go for it.)

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You’ve got to be careful using pop culture references. Never use a modern pop culture reference. You don’t know if it’ll stick in the public contentiousness, and it could make your book outdated within a year of its release (please don’t quote Borat). It’s best to stick with older ones that have stood the test of time, like Star Wars or Back to the Future (basically, the 80’s is pretty safe). In the book I mentioned above, with the Radio Shack reference, there’s actually a line that reads “[a]ll four Pirates of the Caribbean movies posters.” Which was accurate when it was written and accurate now. But with a fifth film coming out soon, its about to date the book. So when it comes to referencing a movie series, try to use something that’s been long finished.

Then again, who could’ve ever predicted there’d be more Star Wars? (Basically, unless you’re writing a period piece, you can follow all the rules and still get screwed.)