Monday, November 7, 2011

Read it, Read it a Second Time

Read it, Read it a Second Time

To learn how a skilled author puts together a novel, don’t just read a novel once -- go deeper. Sure, read the STORY the first time, but then read the novel again for a deeper understanding of the author’s technique. For example, in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, most people get the main theme of prejudice against the accused black man, Tom Robinson. They might even see a parallel of Scout, Jem and Dill’s prejudice against the mysterious recluse Boo (Arthur) Radley. On a second read, look closer. Notice how virtually every scene has something to do with one type of person having something against another type of person – examples of intolerance, injustice, or misunderstanding. The whites look down on other whites that are not from their county, or if they accept welfare, if their history is not up to snuff, or if they were on the wrong side in the Civil War. Scout’s teacher doesn’t understand the plight of the poor white families, and when her teacher talks about the horror of the Jews in Nazi Germany, we find out that she has her own prejudice against blacks. Townsfolk are prejudiced of the mixed race family, and their children. The white women’s missionary guild looks down on the poor backward people of Africa, and they also look down on other white women who don’t conform to their statndards. Even some of the black people are against allowing the white children in their church. It seems like everyone has some prejudice. And yet, Atticus, Calpurnia, and a few others stand out as trying to accept people for who they are. In all of it, Scout is trying to find her way in life – to grow up, but not to grow up with all of the flaws she sees in the people around her. Her character arc takes her on a journey where she will grow up with a view of people that allows her to “walk around in their skins” – that is, to understand the issues different people have in their own quest for happiness and meaning in life. The book doesn’t imply that there are no evil people. The message is not that everyone and anyone can do as they please. It is that we should not be too quick to judge others simply because they are different. (Obviously there is a lot more to the book than I’ve mentioned here – I’m only pointing out the well-conceived characterization in the story.) Thus, as you read To Kill a Mockingbird the second (or third) time – peer deeper and deeper into the author’s mind to grasp what she must have gone through in her many drafts of the book to create the well thought out characters and situations that make up the story. Do this same exercise with any other successful book that you love – read it for pleasure. Read it second time to dissect it and discover why and how the story was constructed. This can be a powerful tool for any author – to learn the tools, techniques, and story construction elements used by master novelists.

For information on my latest story please go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My eBook Adventure

My eBook Adventure

It was bound to happen. I’ve dipped my little toe into the big ocean of eBooks. After I attended a talk by writers Jan Peck and David Davis (who have stuck all four of their feet into the eWaters) I decided to give it a try. Here's what’s happened so far.

First, the bottom line. What better eStory to start out with than a tip-of-the-hat to all creative writers. The short story is called Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare. It is my offering to all writers who spend time in the ether of creativity struggling to create exciting characters that come alive for a story that starts out quick, builds interest and tension, moves toward a climax, and ends with a satisfying conclusion.

After looking a several options, I settled on using Smashwords to put my eBook into shape and get it out to as many eReaders as possible. The site has a number of helpful guides to walk you along the eBook path. Here are my experiences.

It’s a little tough to get your manuscript formatted correctly so that it can be converted to eBook format. This is because of all the gunk that Microsoft Word puts into the background of each document. Basically, you have to get rid of all of the Word formatting to make the thing work. I made a valient effort to remove all of the offensive formatting, but I gave up. Instead, I used the “nuclear option” which means copying the entire document to a plain text editor (such as notepad) to remove all formatting – then copying it back into Word, and putting in only the recommended indents and centering. (You can also hire something to do the formatting task.)

For Smashwords, once you get the document cleaned up, you submit it and they put it through their handy-dandy meat grinder that spits out the story in Kindle and other eReader formats. It's then sent to the formatting police who check to see if it passes the grade. If it's okay, it is accepted and “published.” But wait, there’s more. Once it is "published", Smashwords submits it to various sellers such as Amazon, which may take several weeks. All in all, plan for it to take a month before you can look it up on Amazon. So much for instant gratification.

There are other details that I’ve left out, such as getting an ISBN number for your book and creating a cover, but that’s covered in the Smashwords guides.

Now the plot turns to the subject of ePromotion. (Don’t you love all of the eWords?) Of course this isn’t a new thing. For every book I’ve written, I’ve had to beat the bushes to get it noticed (and bought). Please consider that this blog has now shaken your bush in the hopes that you will click here, and spend less than a buck to be entertained and amused -- maybe even inspired. A brief description…

Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare by A.C. Elliott -- Is she insane, or trapped in her own story? Darla is thrown into a writer's nightmare where she struggles to keep characters from taking over her story. In a quirky romp through an action-packed adventure with a surprise at every turn of the page, Darla finds herself up against the pen of an unseen literary adversary in a battle to the finish -- and only one writer can win. It's creative writing gone berserk. Click for more information.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hot sauce, pickles, and writers

Yesterday, a girl about 2 years old sitting next to me at a Mexican restaurant dipped a chip into the hot sauce and took a bite. Her eyes lit up like large olives, she raised her hands above her head, and froze; taking the experience in. We couldn’t tell if she was about to scream, or take another bite. She took another bite. It reminded me of an incident I’d seen years ago when a similar young kid took a bite out of a dill pickle. You could swear that tears were about to burst from her eyes. When the look of pain left her face, she took another bite.

That’s an outline for successful writing. Commercial, saleable writing MUST pop, zing, sting, irritate, excite, provoke, and otherwise make us happy, sad, mad or glad. God even agrees. He’s quoted as saying he’d wish we were either hot or cold in our belief – those that are lukewarm get spewed out of His mouth. Yikes. We don’t want that kind of writing.

Sol Saks wasn’t God (otherwise he wouldn’t be dead, bless his soul) but I was reading something by him the other day where he said you can’t go too far in making comedy zany. It has to be over the top to be effective. I’ll add to that. To catch the attention of readers today, you have to push the limits in one way or the other – either your writing has to flow better than a poem by Robert Frost, your plot design has to rival the eye-catching architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the rhythm of your phraseology has to engage the soul like a Beatle’s song, your scenes have to challenge the mind’s eye like a Picasso painting, or your story has to frighten the reader with the tension of an Alfred Hitchcock movie scene.

Face it, there are new hundreds of thousands of books, stories, ebooks, and the like available to the public today. What catches the reader’s imagination? What makes them cringe, laugh, or pucker at what they read – then go back for more? That’s what we as writer have to strive to achieve. Set yourself free. Go over the top. Let the creative juices flow.

Please see my latest ebook, Takeover: A Writer's Nightmare

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs and Walt Disney

I’ve hated cancer for a long time. It has taken away my own loved ones and many other people that still had contributions to make. Steve Jobs was one of those people. As writers and artists, we are particularly touched when a creative spark is snuffed out. In our own writing, when we are in the middle of a project, we wonder what would happen to it if we were hit by a bus. Will our creativity live on? Steve was “hit by a bus” called cancer, and died at age 56. A lot people compared Steve’s creativity to that of the previous generation’s Walt Disney. It is no wonder that his Pixar partnered with Disney in so many successful projects. One wonders -- what would Steve have accomplished if he’d lived longer? Walt lived to 65 (barely) – what if he’d died at 56? Walt would barely have gotten Disneyworld open – it would be his iPhone. In Disneyworld, some of the projects he pioneered would never have happened – Pirates of the Caribbean, the Matterhorn, the Haunted House, and many others. Would Disneyland have even survived without the Wonderful World of Color on TV promoting it every week? The Florida project (Walt Disney World) would certainly never have happened – and probably none of the other Disneyland projects (Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai.) The (now classic) movies “Old Yeller,” “The Shaggy Dog” and “Mary Poppins” would never have been made. Who knows if the Disney creativity that exists today would have survived if Walt had died at age 56? There would be no Little Mermaid, no Beauty and the Beast, and a host of other movies, events, rides, and other entertainment innovations that we’ve seen from Disney over the last 50 years. In the next 50 years will there still be a legacy from Steve Jobs? From Apple and Pixar? I’m sure the spark of his creativity will outlast him by a considerable number of years – we’ll continue to see innovation from his legacies. But what more would we have seen if his light had not been extinguished? I hate cancer.

Please see my latest ebook, Takeover: A Writer's Nightmare

Friday, September 30, 2011

Love in Writing

Effective writing stirs the emotions of the reader. Love is a powerful emotion with many dimensions. For the emotion of love to impact a scene, the writer must grasp how love influences the thinking of the characters involved. I recently witnessed a grandmother see her just-born grandchild for the first time. The countenance of happiness on her face struck me as an example of instant and unconditional love for this baby. It made me wonder about how we choose to love a person. It seems to me that it is a choice, and a deliberate one. Most grandmothers (or grandfathers) would give their lives to protect a grandbaby they barely knew. How can that magnitude of love exist so instantly? It was their choice. Romantic lovers rarely make such an instant choice, but at some point in their relationship they (often) experience a decision to fully commit to one another. Of course, there are different kinds of love – one definition of the primary type of love is: affection, friendship, erotic, and unconditional. (See The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis as an example.) It is this last type of love that I observed in the grandmother -- unconditional. This ultimate type of love doesn’t often happen so quickly (as in the case of the grandmother.) It can start out as any of the other three – based on familiarity, friendship, and/or romantic attraction. At some point the give-and-take type of love can become something more. A decision is made(maybe even subconsciously) to overlook the other person’s flaws, and this leads to unconditional love. Now the love is an illogical love that discounts circumstances, overlooks obvious defects, and forgives every infraction. A sweet, innocent girl can fall for an evil guy, and do anything and everything to comfort and protect him, even if he is a killer, a swindler, and a cheat. (A nice guy can also fall for a vixen.) In a story, having characters who are locked in mutual (or one-sided) unconditional love can result in illogical and irrational thinking – a perfect situation for conflict and drama. Of course, as humans, we are flawed in our attempts at unconditional love. Situations may become bad enough that we “break our vow” of unconditional love, and see a person for who they really are--again, a situation that lends itself to story conflict and drama. As you build characters, consider how they think about one another – do they exhibit one of the four kinds of love? How is it manifested? How does it cause the character to make decisions, how do they act in a crisis, how to they choose cover-up a truth, or to protect their lover/friend? What does it take to make them break their commitment? All of these are ingredients that add to the dimensionality of your characters.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

6 Habits of Successful Writers

Although I'm sure these aren't the only six things that make a writers successful -- they will definitely push you toward your goal of getting published.

1. Brainstorm without limits. I recommend that your take time every day to write (I prefer by hand) three pages of random notes about whatever you're thinking about at the time. Some people call these morning pages. Write anything that comes to your mind. Don't limit yourself. No one will ever read what you've written (I tear my notes up and throw them away) so don't limit yourself. During these brainstorming sessions, I guarantee that you will produce ideas that will be useful to your life, your work, and your relationships. If you can't think of anything to write, write gibberish, write your name, write your dog's name -- anything. It clears your mind and opens you up to thinking more creatively than you can imagine. Try it for a month -- then continue it forever.

2. Decide what you want to accomplish, and move toward it every day. Alice asked the Cheshire cat for directions and he asked her where she wanted to go. When she said she didn't know, then he rightfully answered that it didn't matter which way she went. You have to have an idea what you want to accomplish before you can get there. Set a goal -- to finish your novel, to get a magazine article published in a paying magazine, to get a contract for a novel, to get on the NYT bestsellers list. Whatever your goal, be as specific as possible. Once you've set your goal, be obsessive about reaching for it. Do something EVERY DAY that moves you closer to your goal. Take a class, make a friend, learn a technique, read a book -- whatever moves you closer to your goal. I like the picture in Isaiah 50:7 that says "For the Lord GOD will help me . . . I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed." It illustrates how you must be to accomplish a goal -- set your face like flint -- in other words -- like a hard stone that will not be moved -- until you accomplish your objective. Also, make your goal something that is possible, but is not easy -- a goal should be used to accomplish something beyond your normal capabilities. DECIDE, then DO.

3. Visit bookstores -- know your market. Most writers do not pay enough attention to the market. You must know not only what is selling, but who is publishing. Go to a large bookstore once a month (at least) and browse around the area that contains books or publications similar to what you write. You MUST know where your book would be placed in the bookstore. Once you know that, you can see who is publishing similar books (look for recent copyrights). You might also be able to determine what editor or agent worked on a particular book. All of this information is VALUABLE to you to get your book into the hands of the publisher that is most likely to want your work. If you are writing for the web -- visit websites that use the type of material you want to write.

4. Desire. Without desire you will rarely accomplish greatness. Suppose you have a goal, but do little to make it happen. Then it is unlikely that you'll find success. You must DESIRE with a STRONG DESIRE to accomplish your goal. You must sacrifice other things. Your writing goal must take priority over other less important goals. Observe how someone diagnosed with a cruel disease does everything in their power to find a cure. Observe how a person who falls in love does everything in their power to woo their lover. Observe how a person facing a calamity (such as a flood) will cast aside all other worries and do what it takes to save their life, their family, and prized possessions. These people have DESIRE. Do you have that level of desire to accomplish your goal?

5. Write. Write. Write. A writer must write. A writer must write often. You hone your craft by writing (and rewriting.) Like a person learning to play a musical instrument, you must study and practice. Don't write in a vacuum. Join a critique group. Study good books about writing. Study excellent books in your genre. Pick them apart. Understand them. And write like that, adding your own flair. Everyone writes crap initially -- but if you keep learning and practicing, you will be able to construct a manuscript that sings your story.

6. Finish your work. There are many, many writers who write, and write well, and never get published. You must finish your work and submit it before you will get published. Learn about the submission process for your genre (books, website guidelines, etc) and SUBMIT. Set aside one day a week or at least one day a month (say Friday or first Friday) as submit day. Submit something. If you aspire to be a novelist, perhaps you can submit a short story. If you want to write a non-fiction book, how about a magazine article on the same subject. Get out there -- learn the ropes -- finish projects -- submit. The other part of the process is to learn from rejection. See them as stepping stones to acceptance. Don't let them discourage you, keep submitting (and improving your submissions) until you make progress toward your goal. If you never plant a dream seed, your dream tree will never grow.