Thursday, March 20, 2014

The End

The two words every writer has mixed feelings about - The End. It's hard for a writer to say good-bye to the world he/she created, yet there is an excited anticipation for where things will go next. It's in that spirit we end our blog posts here at ADR3NALIN3. Demands tipped the scale on our workloads and deadlines until we had to cry, "UNCLE!"

We will keep our posts online since we get traffic every day to the many topics and conversations we have posted here over the last several years. Thanks to all the authors who contributed to this blog and for the readers who followed it.

Best of luck to every one in 2014!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Big Picture vs. Little Details

First, you should know that I’m extremely easy going in almost every way. I’m not a picky eater, I’m happy with whatever temperature you like on the thermostat, and I enjoy movies for what they are. (If it’s a smart movie, I enjoy its smartness. If it’s Sharknado, I switch off my cerebrum and just enjoy the airborne sharks).

But in my current stage of writing, I obsess over every little detail. I fuss over miniscule plot points and little character traits. I’ve even been known to spend 20 minutes deliberating about the perfect punctuation to deliver a joke or accelerate the action. Sometimes, I’ll sketch a diagram of a gizmo that my characters have invented, just so I can understand what it looks like or how someone would interface with the control panel. Go ahead: call me crazy. I’m used to it.

Thing is, this is only one phase of writing. I’m not always like this, only when I shift the mental gears into “nitty gritty.” Right now, I’m in the final stages of revising The Non-Zombie Apocalypse (the long-awaited sequel to Mad Science Institute), and hence my attention is directed to the microscopic. My editor, the very talented and patient Jane Kenealy, courageously returned after editing my first book to help me trim almost 5,000 unnecessary words from the new manuscript—words I can now save for later books and short stories (combating the “info dump” is a topic for another post). I obsess about her edits, too, as I wonder how little changes might shift the balance of character, suspense, humor, and pacing.

If I had the opportunity, I might be pleased to work strictly on big picture stuff—plot, character, and world. But that’s a different phase. Right now, if I have a big idea, I need to jot it down in a notebook and get back to the main project or else I’ll never finish anything. On the other hand, when I’m in the “big picture” phase, spending time spell-checking and grammar-policing scares off my ideas before they can get safely to the keyboard.

Stephen Wallenfel’s prescriptions for writer’s block got me thinking about why I don’t seem to suffer from blocks. I have certainly experienced writer’s block in the past, but it’s been a decade since it’s afflicted me. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe I don’t have enough time to write so the ideas build up inside of me until I get the chance to blast them out onto a page. Or maybe it’s because what some people consider writer’s block is what I consider to be a distinct and important phase of writing. To the outside world I might look like I’m staring off into space, but really my brain is on fire with plans and possibilities.

I have a question for all you other writers, amateur and pros alike: do you find your writing has distinct phases? Do you have the luxury of working on a project one phase at a time, or do you need/prefer to mix up detail work with big-picture work?

Be good, and dream crazy dreams,

Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on, Facebook, or Twitter.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Myth Matters

A few weeks ago I spent a day with 5th graders talking about story structure and writing. My writing  partner and I started with a skit. I pretended I didn’t want my picture taken. He tried to take it several times and every time I’d complain, turn away or try to grab the camera.  Then we asked the students why I might not want my photo taken. At first their answers were predictable. You’re shy, you don’t want to be on Facebook, you don’t like the way you look. But when we told them we were writing a ghost story suddenly they had permission to wander into a wilder landscape. What if when he looked at the photo, I had no face?  And if that was the case, what might it mean?

As they brainstormed, I thought of stories of aliens, invisible people, masked faces and even the urban legend of the Slender Man.  It wasn’t long until I was wandering into the territory of myth. Webster defines myth as “a story that was told in an ancient culture to explain a practice, belief, or natural occurrence” or “a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.” But in reality it is so much more. Myth adds subtext to a story. It leads the reader into primal woods where others have traveled before. The writer and reader join a conversation that has been whispered for centuries:  where did we come from, where are we going, is the world a safe place.
How do we know when we’ve entered the territory of myth?  I like author Robin McKinley's definition.
 “But myth, to some extent, is where you find it; and you know when you've found it by the way it goes right through you -- like the first heavenly, shocking mouthful of ice cream on a hot day, or falling in love. Whew. Zowie. I always want my stories to be cracking good stories; but I always hope that for some readers there's a resonant depth to them too.” 

So what does myth whisper? Too much for one post. I’ve made a list of some of things I’ve learned from writers like Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper, Jane Yolen, Lewis and Tolkien: 

  • ·         The inside is often so much larger than the outside

  • ·         Like Bilbo Baggins, we are all more than meets the eye

  • ·         There is no easy way out of the maze

  • ·         We can fight dragons and win

  • ·         The world isn’t tame

  • ·         The things we fear are often the wrong things

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” What truths have you learned from myth?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Getting the Word Out: The Taylor Swift Equation

A couple months ago, James Franco wrote a fantastic piece for The New York Times on selfies, those self-generated glam shots you can post of, yes, yourself doing whatever and in which you think someone might be interested.  It's only a dyslexic step away from Twitter, come to think of it, only completely visual.  Read Franco's article all the way through; this is one smart guy.  Above all, he's an entertainer and understands the draw of--and our fascination with--celebrity.  If you remember nothing else of what he says (and granted, we're talking about a celebrity who understands image and how to generate the illusion of intimacy), this is your take-home: 

"In this age of too much information at a click of a button, the power to attract viewers amid the sea of things to read and watch is power indeed. It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want — hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power. And if you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something very powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible."  (emphasis mine)

Successful entertainers understand the value of attention and how to grab it.  You want an example of someone who's a master?  Taylor Swift.  I kid you not.  Maybe four months before Franco's piece came out--or it might have been longer--I recall listening to an NPR piece on social media and Twitter, and the reporter singled out Swift as someone who really understood how to use social media effectively.  She specifically mentioned that Swift was excellent at mixing in the private moment to further a public agenda.  The example she gave was Swift tweeting something like, oh, making sugar cookies because I'm so happy my latest single was just released.  (I'm paraphrasing here.)  And Swift is very good at this; take a look at this photo montage of her and Kelly Osborne making chocolate peppermint cookies.  

Now the reporter suggested that Swift is comfortable with this because she grew up with it.  Maybe . . . but in this publicity arms race--and it is an arms race; all of us are constantly upgrading and scrambling after the next best thing, which writers have doing since Dickens single-handedly started the celebrity-author tour and authors before him gave lectures to drum up publicity for their other works--I'd suggest that Swift, like Madonna and other consummate entertainers, understand the value of the attention-grab.  Do these people blog?  Not only your life.  Swift tweets; she knows the people she wants to reach only want/need that much.  What she and other entertainers like her do is trade on image, understanding that their image is what fans want because it furthers the sense of pseudo-intimacy: a carefully scripted, ostensibly "private" moment.

For a while now, I've been talking about marketing, the value of certain venues, etc.  Boil it down to its essentials, and what I've been talking about is grabbing attention for you and your work.  (An important distinction: grabbing attention for you is not necessarily the same as snatching this for your work just as different platforms draw the attention of different audiences.)

In her business blog this past Thursday, Kris Rusch talks about the usefulness of social media; as always, she's spot on.  Although I'd suggest that everything on the Internet is potentially a social media site, and that includes your blog.  The folks who might stroll by are not necessarily the same people who will admire a Sunday cake or pictures of your cats.  So, again, we're talking developing your idea of a target audience and which venue best gets whatever you want your message to be across.  (I also disagree, just a tad, with Rusch's points about teens and Facebook.  Yes, it's true that the majority of American teens don't find you on Facebook, and there's some data to suggest that teens are ditching Facebook for other social media sites, specifically Instagram, Snapchat, and--in my experience--Tumblr.  But that doesn't apply to all teens.  Specifically, all those kids I met overseas a couple years back found and have stuck with me through Facebook, on which we routinely interact.)    

Yet what Rusch describes in terms of publisher expectations has been my experience, too.  Now, neither publisher has ever told me how many times I must blog or tweet or Facebook or whatever, but I was told I had to mount a website, get on Twitter and Facebook, and "join the conversation."  For the longest time, I had zero idea of what that meant.  I thought it meant figuring out key websites--you know, the ones that might have bearing on what I was doing--and then jumping in with comments.  (Remember I mentioned in an earlier post how bloggers look at blogrolls to see who you're following, and (for some of them) if you're following the right people?  So that's what I was doing: trying to follow the "right" people the same way a new kid tries to figure out who's with the popular crowd.  It's actually all rather sophomoric.  Anyway, I did that for a while, but I couldn't see the utility, plus it took a lot of time and, frankly, a ton of those sites catered to books in the wrong age and demographic.  I certainly didn't see that I was adding anything to the conversation, and we all remember high school, right?  The more you wanted to hang with the popular girls, the harder they made it for you.  

Then I wised up and realized: the idea was that should be the one getting the conversation going, not some random voice chiming in about whom no one else gave a damn.  (People may still not give a damn, but I can live with that.)  I would have to become an entertainer of sorts, someone who could walk into a crowded room, get the ball rolling, and start to turn eyes my way.

Oh . . . is that all?

Look, not everyone can do this.  Most of us don't have the gazillion assistants standing by to take that perfect Taylor Swift glam shot (or Franco's compositional sense).  Some of us are shy.  I, for one, have zero ability to vamp for the camera.

So what this means is that, regardless of which media you choose, you have to understand what's required to get the most out of it.  If you want to do selfies, then you might follow Franco's lead, carefully titrating the personal and non-personal, for example.  (It also helps if you don't hate the way you take pictures; I have a supremely goofy smile.)  In other words, you have to give some serious thought about how to make the media work for you instead of you struggling to figure out what the media's for--or worse, working against it.

Take Twitter.  I forget who said that it's a place where writers can connect with other writers . . . and I've certainly never thought of it that way for myself, but I have noticed that the most popular folks do what Rusch also points out: the best tweets are funny.  Author Maureen Johnson knows how to do this; she also does things I wouldn't dream of because they're just not in my nature.  For example, I remember a tweet a couple years back of her newly painted toenails.  Me, I have ugly feet.  (Frankly, I think that anyone who looks at her own feet and doesn't laugh . . .  I'd never dream of posting a picture of my toenails.  Opossums, sure.  Cats and cakes and orchids?  No sweat.  But my toes?)  It works for Johnson, though, because she knows how to work it--and she's having fun.  Or she's appearing to, which is all that matters.  Appearances are all that matter when it comes to the truly ephemeral nature of most social media.  

Rusch makes this point, too; if you're going to do social media, for God's sake, have some fun while you're at it.  Yes, yes, it's marketing; it's work . . . but it is also your chance to let your hair down a little.  My co-blogger Jordan Dane tweets bon mots as she watches Sleepy Hollow.  Me, I'd miss half the show while trying to keep my tweets pithy and sweet--although, lately, I'm not above getting all snarkazoid about House of Games.  Of course, that show is something I can watch when I've got time, so I don't have to multi-task.   I have a publisher-friend who gathers up all her Facebook buddies to watch American Idol together.  I once had the experience of FBing during a Packer playoff game; it was totally random and thoroughly fun.

Random is the key there, too.  Think about this: a post to Snapchat disappears within ten seconds--and teens love this site.  So you're talking about grabbing teens with the attention span of gnats.  Which means humor works.  The outrageous works, and the shocking.  It also means that snagging anyone's attention is thoroughly random . . . at least in that venue and maybe in them all.

Paying attention to audience is also important.  The teens who adore Snapchat--and given my experience of them, I'd say that would be most--are not going to come to your blog to read what you have to say.  They're just not; they don't care.  For them, your blog/website is the gateway; they will come to find you so they can get a conversation they care about started.

Read that again: teens and most fans will come to your blog in order to talk to you about what they care about.  They are not coming to your blog to talk about what you care about--at least, not initially.  (That can happen.  It certainly has for me.  I've had some wonderful interactions with kids over environmental issues, for example, and after posts on Facebook, I would add.)  But I know these same kids are not spending the time to really read anything I say (especially when they ask questions that I've written whole long blogs about) . . . but that's okay.  I've come to accept that, for teens and most young adult fans, my website is a place for them to find out how to talk to me.  

And that's just fine.  I can live with that.  What I have to decide is something we all must: how many platforms; what content for which; and how much time we really want to give this.  Marketing/grabbing attention/vying for power is time-consuming.  You can trick yourself into thinking that it is work, and as valuable as, say, a finished short story or novel.

But blogging is not work.  Flitting around various social media platforms is not work.  Writing is work.  Producing that book is your work.  Without your books, you're just another person who's always wanted to be a writer.  You could be anybody and everyone.  You have to make people care about your books, and in order for that to happen, you have to write them.  Call it the Taylor Swift equation, if you want, but bear in mind that the only reason a gazillion eyes care about Taylor Swift's cookies is because she's Taylor Swift.  Without her songs, Taylor Swift is nobody but another lady in an apron.