The Writing Process Blog Hop

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this site, but trust me – I’m not dead. Although this post would be very interesting if in fact I was dead. I mean, trying to figure out the metaphysics involved alone…

Anyhow, I’ve been invited to participate in a spec-fic blog hop, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to get acquainted with some very talented writers like this one:

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Michael Patrick Hicks has worked as a probation officer, a comic book reviewer, news writer and photographer, and, now, author. His work has appeared in various newspapers in Michigan, as well as several The University of Michigan publications, and websites, such as Graphic Novel Reporter and Leelanau.com. He holds two bachelor’s degrees from The University of Michigan in Journalism & Screen Studies and Behavioral Science. His first novel is CONVERGENCE.

http://michaelpatrickhicks.com

Go check him out, folks!

Now, onto the topic at hand: my writing process. I’m sure many of you have lain awake at night, tossing and turning, wondering how it is I come up with my stories. You’ve probably racked your brains trying to discover the method to my madness – I know I have. So when I saw the questions we blog hop participants were being asked to answer, I thought, “How in the world am I supposed to talk about my ‘process’ when I don’t even know what it is?”

Well, since I’ve deemed 2014 my year of introspection, I’m going to attempt to make sense of what’s going on in this crazy head of mine. Bear with me, Dear Readers – this could get messy.

1) What am I working on?

I have several things going at the moment. First, I need to finish one final story for a new short collection (Grindhouse, release TBD) I’ve been working on since November (!). All three stories in Grindhouse are very different from anything I’ve ever written. For starters, they’re more violent. They also have a ton of graphic language and explicit sex – it’s like a 1970s B movie in print. Or a Tarantino film. Same diff.

Then I’m getting back to my roots with an erotic horror novella. I’ll be tackling a second zombie novella, and of course, I’m always trying to craft the best pieces I can for my Dark Tales series. eVolume Three needs to be released soon and I kind of want to mine classic horror tropes again since eVolume Two was more thriller/suspense.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I like to think my work is different, but maybe it’s not – maybe it’s incredibly derivative. I’ve been heavily influenced by film and television, oddly enough more so than books. Maybe a lot of what I put in print is something Carpenter or Craven or Argento have already done. I don’t know; I haven’t seen every film they, or their peers, have made. But I know I take inspiration from them, as do many of my peers, so I can’t claim to be a special snowflake in that regard.

I would also say my stories are darkly humorous, but again, that’s not unique to me. Stephen King does dark humor better than just about anybody. He’s the first author I can remember reading so of course some of his style would rub off on me.

When I read this back, I’m like, “Damn – I’m not original at all.” This realization would probably bother me if I didn’t know there are only something, like, seven plots in literature and they’ve all been done before. Hell, even Shakespeare cribbed things from writers who came before him.

So maybe the point isn’t to try and be original. Maybe the point is to give audiences tropes they’re familiar with, but do it in such a way that it feels fresh and new. Context is everything. If you tweak and twist a trope enough, it becomes something else entirely. Throw in interesting, vivid characters, sparkling dialogue, and a killer hook and ending, then voila! You’ll have a kickass story that nobody else has (assuming you can tell a good story to begin with). I think I do a decent job of this. I’m always striving to improve my craft, though, always pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and always trying new things.

For instance, I never thought I’d write about zombies. I love zombies as much as the next person, but I thought, “God, that’s so played. How many ways can you tell a post-apocalyptic zombie story?” Turns out, there are an endless number of ways to do it, some of which have been brilliant. Others…not so much. Still, I knew I couldn’t do it. If I was going to write about zombies, I had to do it on a more intimate level. So I wrote a novella called Good Eats and took the zombie myth back to its Haitian roots. There’s no virus, no survival camps, no bullets to the brain. It’s all hoodoo and dark magic. I wanted to write a novel about grief and loss; how those two things can drive seemingly rational people to do unspeakable things in the name of love – and the devastating consequences that occur once those wheels are set in motion.

Like most things I write, most people either love Good Eats or hate it. Some folks thought it was just “eh.” I’d never written a novella before so I thought I did a decent job of it my first time around. Plus, I love the story. It resonates with me; it’s one of the few things I’ve written where I’ve been physically moved while pounding out a scene. And the rising action all the way through to the denouement was wicked fun times.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I’ve said it once before, but it bears repeating: I love to be afraid. It’s perverse, I know, but facing Big Bads in fiction and coming through it (relatively) unscathed makes me feel I can do anything in real life. I like to think there are others who feel that way too, so I write for them as well.

4) How does my writing process work?

Okay, this is the part where things will probably be nonsensical (note: you were all warned at the top this was coming).

I don’t have a process per se. If I did, it would probably look something like this:

– turn on laptop

– stare at blank screen and flashing cursor on white page for twenty minutes

– stare at the ceiling and count how many cracks are in the old plaster

– stare out the window at all of the fancy rich people going in and out of the private club across the street from my apartment

– wish I drove an Audi or Jaguar like those fancy rich people

– go back to staring at my blank laptop screen until I go cross-eyed

– slam the laptop shut and turn on old Buffy episodes and wish I could write anything half as inventive and witty

– two hours later, weep because I’ve made zero progress on my WIP

See? This is why I dread questions like this because that’s legitimately how my actual “process” works. At some point, I’ll get hit with enough inspiration/energy/luck/whatever to get off my lazy ass and put words to page, but for the most part, the above is how I spend my evenings when I’m supposed to be writing.

Hey – maybe if I am dead, I can be reanimated as a more efficient, more disciplined version of me?!

Ah, who am I kidding? I’d come back even slower, and more brain dead, than I already am.

***

Next up on the blog hop?

S. Elliot Brandis has studied both psychology and engineering. He can tell you not only how they built that bridge, but why they felt the need to in the first place. Or so he would have you believe. In truth, he enjoys the little things in life: Bloody Marys with too much tabasco, and jeans that haven’t been washed. He often wears a cowboy hat when he writes. It keeps the light out of his eyes.

In May he publishes his first novel, Irradiated: a tale of two sisters living in Brisbane, Australia, post-civilization. He invites you to visit him at selliotbrandis.com.

***

Before signing off, I’d like to thank all of the writers, editors, publishers, cover artists, etc. who nominated “Child’s Play” from Dark Tales: eVolume One for Best Short Story for the 2014 eFestival of Words Best of the Independent eBook Awards! I had no idea this was a thing, I only heard about it Saturday for the first time on KBoards, so imagine my shock when I clicked on the link and saw my story listed as a nominee. I still keep refreshing the page expecting it not to be there, as if it were a figment of my overactive imagination. But it’s there and I couldn’t be happier. Even if I don’t make it to the finals, I’m thrilled to have been acknowledged since I’m still a noob to the industry. I had no idea other indies knew I existed, let alone read my work. So thanks for the shout out. I’m in good company.

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Please Help Disabled Author GB Banks Start a Zombie Revolution

Hi folks:

Please take a minute to visit the following Indiegogo campaign for author GB Banks. He’s trying to fund the launch of his new novel, Revolution Z, and he has 8 days left to reach the modest $5000 goal. I discovered GB on Kboards and he always has some great, positive advice to give beginning writers so please – check out his campaign, and if you can, consider giving a donation. He’s a fantastic guy and I want to do my part to help him get his book off the ground.

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-a-disabled-author-start-the-zombie-revolution

– Elle Chambers

NaNoWriMo Progress Report

Here we are at the end of dreaded Week 2 of NaNoWriMo. Frankly, I don’t know why everyone thinks this week is the hardest – I find that this is the time of the month where I’m most in the zone. But that may also have something to do with the fact that I loathe beginnings. I really do. The three years I’ve done this main NaNo event, I’ve barely cracked 1,000 words in the first week.

This year I did slightly better, but I didn’t really begin digging into my first project (I’m doing two – more on that later) until Tuesday. I took off Tues.-Fri. so I could write and I’m proud to say I kicked NaNo ass – my first novella, Good Eats, was completed yesterday at 35,000 words. It will be released around Christmas this year and here is the cover:

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and the synopsis:

Good Eats is a 35,000 word novella that tells the story of the Crawford family in 1960s Louisiana.

The Haitian Creole people, their religion, Vodoun, and the rumors of hoodoo rituals have brought esteemed cultural anthropologist Michael Crawford, his nine-year-old daughter Libby, and his Haitian Creole nanny, Virgine Santiago, to the area. Michael’s a skeptic of the Vodoun faith and hoodoo in general until the day his daughter is discovered lifeless at the bottom of a creek. Devastated and unable to let go, Michael makes a deal with the local bokor – bring his daughter back and the bokor’s debts will be paid for life. Two days later, Libby comes back. The question is: as what?

I am in need of beta readers for this story so if anyone’s interested, drop me a line using the contact form at the top of the blog, leave a comment with your email, or email me directly at indiespiritpress@yahoo.com. I need one or two betas who can give me a pretty fast turnaround (like a week) and I’ll be providing a questionnaire with the story so I can direct the feedback. Betas will receive a free copy of the ebook and a mention in the acknowledgements section. Plus – good karma 🙂

Now, got to get ready to finish this challenge with three short stories for a collection I’m releasing the end of next month. The cover for that is awesome and I can’t wait for people to see it.

Good luck to everyone participating in NaNo this year!

Before You Self Publish….

Research the indie market. Go on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Study the covers of the books in the genre you write in and take notes on font use, kerning, color, imagery, aspect ratio, and titles. Ask yourself the following questions: Is the cover well designed or does it look DIY? If it does look less the professional, what changes could be made to make it better? Does this cover make me want to read the blurb or sample pages? Why or why not? If you read the blurb, does the cover adequately convey what the book is about? Then do the same thing with the blurb. Read it and then ask yourself: Is the blurb compelling? Do I want to read more? Do I care about the story being presented? Why or why not? Also, take a look at the prices of these books so you can get a feel for what other indies are charging for similar products. You don’t want to lowball yourself, but you also don’t want to set the price so high that no one will buy it, either.

Once you’re done researching the indie market, research the traditional market. Go back to the aforementioned distributor’s websites and study the covers, blurbs, and prices of traditionally published books in your genre. Ask yourself: Can my cover sit next to these covers on a virtual bookshelf and be virtually unrecognizable as a self-published novel? Is my blurb as enticing as the ones written by a professional sales team or could it use some work? Is my price too high or can it be lowered and still compete with other reasonably priced ebooks?

You don’t have to know all of these things ahead of time, but it will save you some time in the long run if you’re aware of what’s out there and what the public is buying. Pay attention to keywords and metadata while you’re at it (this is something I’m still working on myself and trying to get right – maybe with the next book?).

Make a business plan. We’d all like to be overnight success stories, but for many of us, that won’t happen. So think about where you want to be in five to ten years and plan for that. Make a budget for each book and/or short story that you plan to publish and try to stick to that budget if you can. Then figure out what you would like to be making per hour as a writer (this will be different for everyone) and calculate how many books/short stories/nonfiction articles/whatever you need to write and sell to make that money. Figure out how much money you’ll spend each year (and again, this will vary depending on each individual’s production schedule) and how long you have to write to break even, and then turn a profit.

I also can’t stress enough: plan for emergencies. My planned production schedule for 2013 was cut down from three complete novels and some short stories to one novel  and short stories because I wound up getting slammed with medical bills for a then undiagnosed stomach issue (I’ve since discovered I have celiac disease and a lactose intolerance) – I couldn’t afford to buy three covers, pay for editing, etc. Things happen sometimes and you have to have a backup plan (and a cash cushion) for when they do. You don’t want to derail your momentum.

Build a readership. A blog isn’t enough. From my own experience, I can tell you that 90% of the people who read this site aren’t average readers – they’re writers. And while I appreciate the eyeballs, other writers aren’t likely to buy (and read) my book. Same thing with Twitter. Most of the people who follow the @indie_spirit account are writers. 99% of my daily feed are tweets from those writers hawking their own novels. How likely is it that any of those people are going to see similar tweets from me about my book or Elle’s micro fiction collections (she has another one due out at the end of the month) and go purchase them?

Not very. Writers need to go where the actual readers are. There are many places online that people can post their complete stories or works in progress like FictionPress or Wattpad. There are online magazines and anthologies looking for everything from flash fiction to serials. If you prefer to venture outside of the interwebs for an audience (or if you want to do it in conjunction with online writing), there are many reputable short story markets you can send your work to. Wait times vary as does pay – some publications pay up to $700 for an accepted piece, others don’t pay at all or they only pay in contributors copies, but writers license their work with these pubs anyway for the increased visibility. Whatever avenue best meshes with your long-term plans is the one you should take.

Blogs aren’t completely useless either. They can reach readers if the writer in question does more than self-promote 24/7. Releasing free fiction on your site is a good way to get a following started, posting excerpts from published novels, maybe even doing an exclusive serialization will make your blog an attractive destination for non-writing readers. Experiment – see what works best for you. The more eyes you can get on your work prior to self-pubbing your own books, the better your novels will do sales wise. Do you need to have ten thousand Twitter followers to get on a bestseller list or have decent sales? Not really, but it doesn’t hurt. People are creatures of habit and comfort – we tend to seek out things that are familiar to us. If we already know an author and like her work because said author posts free stories on her blog every week, we’re more likely to read something else she puts out later on and may even pay for it!

Finally, read more. And more importantly, read books in the genre you plan to write in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across writers who’ve said they either don’t read at all or they don’t read in the genre they’re writing in. My mind boggles every time I hear that. How in the world can you expect to understand narrative structure if you don’t read? And if you’re writing genre fiction that relies on tropes to work, if you don’t read the genre, how will you know what they are and whether you’re doing anything new or interesting with them? You don’t have to read five hundred books a year to be a writer, but you do have to read something. The more you read, the more ingrained in your brain the storytelling process will become and that will ultimately make your writing cleaner, clearer, and easier.

*Please note that all points above are opinions based off my own (admittedly brief) experience as a self-published author. Feel free to ignore the points you don’t agree with. Publishing is not one size fits all and there are certain things that will work wonders for one writer and fail horribly with another. Use your best judgment when seeking advice or help of any kind.*

Question Corner: How to Become Your Own Publisher

Dear Indie Spirit Press: 

I’ve just finished my first novel after years of writing short fiction and I’m not sure whether I want to send the manuscript out to agents. In fact, I’ve been reading some blogs that have suggested self-publishing may be the way of the future and so I’m thinking of bypassing a traditional publisher altogether. Can you tell me how much it costs to become your own publisher and to produce your own books?

– Newbie Ned

First of all, congratulations on completing your first novel! That’s very exciting. No matter what you ultimately decide to do with it, celebrate the fact that you did something many people dream of doing and never manage to accomplish.

Now – this question is very complex because the truth is, it’s different for everyone. Some people can indie publish and spend little to no money and others have to, or choose to, spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get their work out to readers. We’re going to talk about the different steps of self-pubbing and the many ways you can try to make this cost effective if self-publishing is the avenue you choose to take with your manuscript.

1.       Find some good first readers to critique your manuscript. This is extremely important as you need to know before you put out any money to publish whether or not this manuscript is publishable. What we mean by that is, does the story work on a base level? If it doesn’t, you will need to find a way to rework the draft so it does. Readers will forgive spelling errors and grammatical slips if the story behind these mistakes is a good one. If the story is severely flawed or flat out nonsensical, readers will be less forgiving. You want to make the first best impression on readers you can so get some betas, preferably people who know your genre well, and find out where your story falls apart (if it does at all).

2.       Research distributors. Not all self-publishing outfits are created equal. Some are so expensive they might as well be vanity publishers, which is a means of distribution you want to avoid at all costs if you want to be taken seriously as an author and have a career. The biggest print distributor of self-published works at the moment appears to be Amazon’s CreateSpace. Lulu was pretty popular for a while, but we haven’t heard much from indie authors on them, good or bad, for quite some time.

Anyway, there are also outfits like BookBaby that state they will do everything from cover design to marketing for the self-published author so the author doesn’t have to. Personally, we don’t recommend these types of distributors because a lot of the things they charge authors for, like formatting, are things the author can learn to do himself if he takes the time to learn the functions of Microsoft Word.  Our philosophy is that the indie author should try to keep costs to a minimum, especially if the author intends to publish more than one book a year, and do as much as you can on your own. We don’t even recommend using CreateSpace’s design or marketing services, assuming you choose to go with them as a distributor, because most of their additional services are ridiculously overpriced.

However, CreateSpace is free for authors to use. Yes, that’s right – free. If all you want is your print novel in Amazon’s online catalog and your own separate e-store to sell books, all you have to do is upload your manuscript to CreateSpace, fix any formatting errors their system may find, proof your final document and press publish. You will now have standard distribution of your work through Amazon for free. If you would like to see your print book in other online retail stores such as Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, or The Book Depository, CreateSpace charges you a fee of $25 per title. Cheap, right? It’s a pretty good deal if you ask us.

If you are asked to spend more than this for trade paperback books from a self-publishing unit, we would strongly advise you to reconsider. You are the author – money should be flowing to you, not away from you. And run (don’t walk) away from any company claiming to help you self-publish and distribute your books in exchange for rights to your work. Self-publishing means all rights remain with you the author, NOT the distributor.

3.       Hire help. Now, if you decide to self-publish but you know that you don’t have the time to edit, format, design, and do layout all on your own, you can always farm out this work to a professional. But like we said above – you want to do this in the most cost effective way possible. Most first novels will not earn back the money spent on them right away so never put out more money than you’re willing to lose. With that said, there are some very talented freelance editors, designers, formatters, and public relations gurus out there looking for work.

Take the time to make a budget of how much you want to spend producing your novel, then get online and check out other indie published books. When you see covers you really like, check the credits or the front matter of the book to see if a designer/illustrator is listed. If so, Google that person and try to find an online portfolio of their work (many graphic designers will have this available on their own sites). Make a list of your top designers, then ask the authors they’ve worked with for references. You want to know how fast this person is, how much they cost, how willing they are to listen to ideas and how well they take direction, how many cover choices will you get to choose from, what their refund policies are, etc.  Then once you’ve figured that out, do the same thing for editors, formatters, etc.  

If you can do any of these things listed above yourself, do it. We know there are writers out there who are also graphic designers by trade or work as editors or copy writers. Think about what you can reasonably accomplish on your own given your time constraints and then make sure your skills are at a professional level before you proceed. You want your final product to be able to stand next to traditionally published novels.  If you’ve only been playing around with Photoshop for a week, you may want to have someone else step in and help you with your cover design.

Good freelance designers can be found online for as little as $20 or $40 and if you write YA, chick lit, or mysteries, we highly recommend you contact designer Allison Marie for help. She charges $60/hour for cover design, works fast (she finished the Preppy Little Liars cover in a few hours), and also designs other author must haves like Web site graphics, bookmarks, and business cards.

As far as editing goes, we’ve said it before and will say it again: if an editorial service is asking you to pay two cents a word or more for basic line editing, run in the opposite direction. Unless the editor in question has edited multiple New York Times bestsellers and has worked with traditional publishing companies, they have no business charging those prices to independent authors for their services. Do the math: if you have a 60,000 word manuscript and you’re being charged two cents per word, you’re looking at over a thousand dollars for one book. Now, if you have a substantial savings account, a rich spouse, or a trust fund, that price might not seem so outrageous to you.

But if you don’t have those things and your budget per project is modest, we suggest you get creative about having your manuscript edited. For example, if your local newspaper or magazine has a copy editor and proofreader (or someone who does both), why not reach out to the editor and ask if he wouldn’t mind looking over your work for a small fee? Then offer to pay him a reasonable wage that is within your budget. The worst that can happen is he says no. If that happens, there are free critique sites like Critique Circle where you can put your novel up, chapter by chapter, and get edits from fellow writers. And if you’re willing to pay a small fee, Critique Circle will allow you to have your own private reading queue where you can invite a select group of people to read your WIP without the general CC audience being able to see it.

As you can see, Newbie, there are many things you have to consider if you decide to go the self-publishing route (and this post didn’t even cover half of it!). But if you’re smart, and willing to put in some legwork, self-publishing your novel doesn’t have to be expensive. Amber Turner’s first novel Preppy Little Liars only cost $210 to produce – that is $150 for the cover, $25 for CreateSpace’s expanded distribution, and $35 for her copyright. We spent a whopping zero dollars producing Dark Tales: eVolume One by Elle Chambers. Her cover was designed by a writer/artist friend in exchange for future editing services and a photo credit.

If you want to learn more about self-publishing, we recommend you check out Dean Wesley Smith’s site for more in-depth information. Happy reading and good luck!

Halloween and Dark Tales: What Inspires You?

And All Through The HouseHere we are in October, my favorite month of the year. Soon the leaves will be turning that crisp brown, gold, and/or burnt orange color and will be falling off the trees into large, inviting piles just waiting for some giddy child (or a silly adult such as myself) to jump on in ‘em.

But the best part of October is Halloween. The costumes, the candy, the haunted houses and hayrides – I love it all. Even better, most stations this month will be running horror movie marathons leading up to the 31st so there will never be a shortage of things to watch to send a subtle chill up your spine and keep you up at night.

I’m working on my next micro collection of dark tales for release around Halloween and while brainstorming ideas, I realized something I hadn’t thought about before: most of my stories are inspired by film or television, not by the horror fiction I grew up reading.

As my bio stated, I lived for Stephen King novels as a kid. I remember being six-years-old going to the library every weekend with my mom and brother, heading straight back to the horror section and bypassing all the children’s and middle grade literature. I’d read the back cover copy on his older books in the section, read the jacket flaps, and if the cover was frightening or strange, I’d put it in my “to read” pile.

Once I had an armload of books, I’d head on over to the librarian at the circulation desk and plop my bounty up on the counter, sliding her (because it was always a female working the desk) my library card. She’d look at me, then up at my mother, then back down to the titles I’d laid out for her, then back at mom.  Mom would just shrug and say, “She likes scary stories.”  The librarian would sigh, shake her head, and check out the age-inappropriate material, handing the books to me with a concerned and bewildered expression on her face. I’d smile, thank the judgey librarian, and happily jog out to my mother’s car, cracking open one of the tomes to read on the short ride home.

Movies, however, seem to have had a greater impact on me and my sensibilities as a writer mainly because they operate on a visual level. I’m a visual person. Images I see get burned into my mind and never leave (seriously – I have almost perfect recall of things I’ve seen, and been horrified by, as a child) and while I’m writing, these images come to the forefront of my mind and inform the tone of whatever it is I’m working on.

For example, in Dark Tales: eVolume One there’s a story called “Child’s Play” about a young boy and his imaginary friend who might not be quite so imaginary. After I wrote it, I came upon Thomas Ligotti’s short story “The Frolic” and was surprised by how similar my ending of “Child’s Play” was to his – but not very. Because ultimately, my ending was a take off a Tales from the Crypt episode I’d seen as a kid called “And All Through the House” (and I hadn’t consciously intended to do that when I sat down to write the story by the way).  I won’t spoil the endings of any of the three stories mentioned here, but needless to say, I think Ligotti and I must have been inspired by the same story (remember – Tales  was a popular comic book series in the ‘50s and ‘60s and “And All Through the House” was taken from the source material). The image of a deranged serial killer standing in your house dressed as Santa, drenched in blood is a powerful (and chilling) one. As is a woman screaming. These images are perfect jumping off points for a horror story.1_TCSOTL

I don’t have any hard proof Ligotti ever read the comic (and his short story was written before “And All Through the House” was filmed for the Tales HBO series) but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had seen the comics as a boy and had been partially inspired to write dark fiction because of it. Since I know now that I create based off things I’ve seen, TV shows and films that have stuck with me, I wonder – does anyone else do this? And I’m not talking about writing fanfic; that’s a whole other issue.  What I mean is, does anyone else unintentionally write a story and then go back, read a book or watch a movie and think, Gee, I think I might have cribbed that totally awesome idea I had earlier from here? I’d love to hear from writers of any genre on this, but especially horror/dark fiction writers since the genre we write in oftentimes tends to be a bit more graphic and atmospheric than others.