Monday, September 29, 2014

Writing for a Series: Don’t Tell Me What To Do. I’m a God in My Own Mind.

One Enchanted Evening
I’ll let you in on a little secret. All writers have a dark side. Deep down we’re convinced if people would only do everything we say, damn it, the world would be a better place. Eventually each one of us comes to the sorry conclusion we won’t be elected Ruler of the World. The only way to make up for the crushing disappointment is to write. On paper I wield omnipotent power over my fictional realm. I manipulate lives, kill off all my enemies (in print), and create people way more interesting than myself. Not to mention, being adored by millions of fans (in my mind.) The dark forces rise. Mwah-ha-ha.

Then I got the chance to write One Enchanted Evening for a series.   

Writing for a pre-existing series has a special set of challenges. Writers do not necessarily play well with others. We are pasty-faced individuals, bereft of social skills. Banished to unheated garrets with quills in hand, we battle wasting upper respiratory ailments. Writing for a series requires unprecedented cooperation and no small amount of patience. Coughing delicately into our lacy handkerchiefs, we must scurry from the garret to interact with real people. It’s hard.

Build from the fictional ground up.
The first step in the development of the Lobster Cove series for Wild Rose Press was to appoint a coordinating editor. Rumor has it she didn’t duck fast enough and got slapped with the job. Lord knows, it’s not for the faint of heart. Her responsibility entailed devising the original platform; in this case a small town on the coast of Maine. Stories would cover all time periods; past, present, and future. Full length novels, novelettes, and even short stories were welcome along with an array of fiction genres such as contemporary, historical, suspense, paranormal and, yes, even naughty bits of erotica. Like a real town, Lobster Cove would have diversity in spades.

To rough out descriptive details, the editor solicited suggestions early from those who had an interest in writing for the series. Decisions had to be made concerning the size of the town in both area and population. What were the most logical major and minor industries in a Maine coastal resort area? What were typical occupations? The editor created a master spreadsheet with categories and descriptions of places and occupations, male and female characters, town events, and other reference items writers might need. With the basics laid out, next came an actual town map highlighting streets and locations of buildings and service organizations such as the police department, hospital, and public schools. Local landmarks were chosen and situated. Lobster Cove now had a lighthouse, a centrally located park with gazebo, manmade lake, beaches, and an offshore island.

Submissions opened up. Publishing contracts were signed. New businesses and characters were added to the spreadsheet. The map filled in even more. Slowly, Lobster Cove began to resemble a real town. Places, however, need more than people and buildings. Dozens of other details had to be worked out such as festivals, town events, flora and fauna, and the high school mascot. World-building is a pain. No wonder gods are so cranky.

What do you mean there’s no room for Ye Olde Donut Shoppe? Not even a lousy kiosk?
When creating a world from scratch, the author controls the population. Not so in a series. As far as story ideas, it’s first come, first served and all subject to the coordinating editor’s approval. The first person to use a character defines a character. If a contracted story states the mayor is a cross-dressing, Irish-Argentinian cat fancier with irritable bowel syndrome than that’s what goes into the spreadsheet. Anyone else wanting to use the mayor has to take Pedro O’Toole and his kittens, gastroenteritis, and feathered boa as is. Either that or its back to the storyboard.

Lack of control can be a royal pain especially when it comes to the major setting for your story. Food venues seem to be the first to go. It makes sense. Coffee shops, restaurants, or bakeries are all perfect places for social interaction—great venues for story arcs. You may have written a moving, charming, brilliant, and gripping tale about the owner of a donut shop, but if another writer beats you to the punch, and the editor decrees Lobster Cove has enough donut shops, you’re out of luck. Back to the rewrites.

There are additional considerations when coordinating details with other writers. Want your characters to have a romantic walk along the pier on the third Saturday in June? Oops, too bad. Another author has a storm scheduled that day. Have a big denouement in the police chief’s office the last week of September? Pity, another author is having it fumigated.  One sticky problem I had was the name of a particular character. He was a minor, but necessary addition to my story. I couldn’t write around him, but he was not my character. His role had already been defined by another. That meant his name had been selected and it happened to be a name I detest. This is not the name for someone who is an asset to a community. This is the name of a kid who sat next to me in kindergarten, grabbing his crotch and making airplane noises. Seriously, I wouldn’t give a gerbil in one of my stories this name, but I was stuck with it. I gnashed my teeth each time I typed it in.

Another problem is time limits. Writing for a series is not for someone who needs two years to crank out a story. Submission dates are firm. If you can’t finish by the deadline, than you need to shop your work around somewhere else.

Give it up for the team.
I had reservations about working on a series. Writing for me has always been a solitary art and I wasn’t sure I could be a team player. I was wrong. Despite minor irritations, working on One Enchanted Evening was a blast. It’s good to step out of your comfort zone. It stretches those literary wings.

The foremost pleasure comes from the collaboration with other writers dedicated to infusing life into a fictional town. Lobster Covians (yeah, we had a discussion about what to call inhabitants, too) are an eager talented group ready to share ideas and research. An innocent query into the writer’s loop about a character or place brings a plethora of links, pictures, and helpful hints. Need someone to read a passage from a work in progress to see if it rings true? Just post a query. Someone will answer and give you the benefit of their experience. It’s a warm, supportive community with an enthusiastic cheering squad. I’m proud to be an honorary citizen of the Cove.

Click on the Rafflecopter Giveaway link to enter for a $25 gift certificate to Red Lobster and a $50 gift certificate to Wild Rose Press. Hurry! Giveaway ends Tuesday, September 30.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review of Doctor Who: The Blood Cell

The Blood Cell by James Goss is an original novel based on the most recent Dr. Who television incarnation. By choice I haven’t watched any of the new episodes and will rate this book merely on its own merits. The narrator is The Governor, the warden of a prison on an asteroid. A new prisoner has arrived. Although known by the number 428, it’s quickly apparent he is The Doctor. As the story unfolds The Governor’s past is revealed along with the reason for The Doctor’s incarceration. Both are convoluted and neither particularly convincing.

Who would like this book?
Readers who are die-hard Dr. Who fans and those who enjoy a light fast read would get the most out of it. The story has value with good dialog and pacing, but it’s not the best example of Dr. Who. The surprise ending when it comes is no surprise at all. The innate charm of the television show doesn’t translate well to fiction. Even if the new doctor is a grumpy know-it-all, a good actor can still work with personality quirks and turn them into an appealing characterization. The printed word is harder and, in this case, not as successful. Quirks easily become annoyances. This is not a book that would make the reader want to watch the TV show. The most interesting character is The Governor which is a darn shame. It’s a Dr. Who book. The most interesting character should be The Doctor. The least interesting character is Clara who is bland, colorless, and has no appeal whatsoever. Let’s hope the television version is better.   If not, she needs to be booted off the TARDIS as soon as possible.   

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis

Given solid encouragement and a template I can make a pretty darn good smiley face. Needless to say, I don’t call myself an artist and have never produced either a comic or graphic novel. However, I have a lot of respect for those who do. Fortunately, Words for Pictures is not a how-to-color book. Unusual in its approach, it explores the business end of both comics and graphic novels. They are odd art forms. Sometimes the writer/illustrator is the same person, sometimes not. The writer’s work is more reminiscent of a script. The artist’s work is similar to that of an action movie director. While a fiction writer writes for a faceless unseen audience, the comic book writer works for a single person—the artist. If the writer doesn’t tell a good story, illustrations won’t save it. If the artist can’t generate the right level of excitement, the story falls flat. Each contributes equally. It is a unique collaborative effort not seen in other types of fiction.

There’s a lot of ground to cover and Words for Pictures does a good job of briefly outlining the pitfalls facing a budding comic book writer or illustrator. Wiggling free from a straitjacket while bound with chains and trapped under an ice floe is a snap compared to breaking into any form of publishing. The odds are stacked against you from the get-go. Bendis is one of the big dogs in the comic world and much of the advice is applicable not just for his field, but others such as fiction or screenplays.

Even though this book purports to approach comics from the business instead of the design end, there is only one chapter devoted solely to nuts and bolts practical advice. That chapter is written by his wife and business manager and reads too light. Other chapters are interviews with different comic book writers and artists. Unfortunately, just because someone can write or illustrate a good piece of fiction, doesn’t mean they can translate that skill into words or provide cogent observations. While Bendis’ work is readable and insightful, some of the interviewees come across as ‘Yo, dude, chillax. Let the creative juices flow and, like, good stuff will happen. Dig?’ Not really, bro, but your artwork is cool.

Who’d like it
Despite the problems, the book has a lot to offer. The pages are filled with dynamite illustrations and Bendis gives an insightful, although brief, overview of the business. He is an enthusiastic and engaging writer with a cheerleader’s ‘you can do it’ attitude. Sometimes that’s all a budding writer or artist needs to get started. While the average comic book fan might have no interest in this book, I’d recommend it for anyone who enjoys comics or graphic novels as art forms, or anyone with the desire to create either one.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.