Character Dynamics in “The Road To Mars”

The Road To Mars follows, for the most part, a trio of characters (trying to be #SPOILERfree here). There’s Darion, my protagonist; Jack, the “thief”; and the Shepherd, my larger-than-life visitor from Mars. Each has his own agenda. Each is searching for something. And each may or may not take issue with someone in the group; unbeknownst to that person.

I know because I wrote it that way.

When I began fleshing out The Road To Mars, I envisioned it like a really bad family vacation. Nobody likes going somewhere – especially far away – with someone they don’t like. Or someone they’re not too familiar with. The Road To Mars is all about unfamiliar travel. Mars, by itself, is already an unknown landscape. But, in my story, it’s a haven. An escape. A place Darion wants to be. He wants out of the mess the Earth is in. The Pulse has damaged Earth with clouds that sap light and energy. The Earth, as far as Darion is concerned, is a lost cause. So he’s trying hard to leave it behind and get to Mars. Not just for himself, but for his daughter as well.

Jack, on the other hand, is more like a baby bird fallen from its nest. He’s survived the fall – survived the Pulse – but now he’s alone. Nobody is looking out for him. Until he meets Darion. And then, ultimately, the Shepherd of Mars. Jack has had little direction in life. He’s a got a bad seed in him, you might say. But, meeting Darion has given him direction. And the Shepherd has given him hope. Two things he’d never had before; and important to any person.

As for the Shepherd, his mere existence defies logic. He’s huge – more than seven feet tall. He’s built like an Olympic gymnast and speaks like he’s lived 10 lifetimes. Yet, all that power and wisdom is a cause for concern. Even for Darion, whose entire journey has been about finding said Shepherd. No man can be all these things in one. There must be a catch or something hidden. But, Darion – and Jack – are willing to see whatever that is till the end.

What I’ve just told you is incredibly important to any story: character dynamics. As much as I like the mythology in The Lord of the Rings and the universe where Harry Potter resides, I know neither of these stories would be worth their weight in salt if it weren’t for the characters. Where they come from. How they interact. Who they are driven to be next to. Or be in conflict with – all are imperative. For the characters push the plot. Push the agenda. And keep your audience interested till the end (Writer’s Digest has a good tutorial on this very topic).

For The Road To Mars I wanted to get this as right as possible. Each of my characters needed to feel natural. Needed to have predictable behaviors, yet be thrown into unpredictable circumstances. For it’s the unusual scenarios where development happens. Characters become more than a name on a page – they become (almost) like real people. Someone you or I can relate to. It’s key to telling any good story. And it’s key to transforming a book from I-read-five-chapters-now-I’m-done to, “Hey, when does the next one come out?”

I, for one, prefer the latter.

What is a writer’s responsibility?

Pilots fly things. Salespeople sell things. And accountants count things (my wife is an accountant so I know this to be true). So, by default, one would say writers write things. Or rather, it’s part of their job description. Write. Write. And write some more.

Sounds fun. If you’re into that sort of thing. Yet, what does a writer actually write about? Or what should he write about?

There seems to be plenty of voices in the world to begin with. There are people with opinions. People with experiences. People with opinions about their experiences. That’s a lot of topics to cover. However, most every book started with interest. What interested the writer. Because what interested them might ultimately interest someone else.

When I first started my writing journey, I wanted to be a satirist. That’s a fancy way of saying I wanted to be a “know-it-all-with-humor”. Think John Stewart minus the television program and New York roots. I thought I’d be able to break into the publishing world that way. There was a multitude of “know-it-all” books at the time too. And that seemed like a good way to “get ahead quick.”

Yet, that was the whole problem. What interested me wasn’t what I was writing about, but what was popular at the time. Yes, I believe I could be a great satirist when I wanted to (read my past work at your own discretion), but I couldn’t keep up the passion for it. Inevitably, I just couldn’t keep forcing it out of myself. I had some interest, but not enough drive. A change needed to happen.

So, I started by asking myself a couple questions. The most pertinent of which was like this: what would I like to read? What would I find to be exciting? And when I asked those questions, desire surfaced. And a book emerged – my first one. And hey, it felt really good. But, to that point, more began to pour out. Interest had brought me there, but passion and desire were driving me to completion.

So what’s a writer’s responsibility? First and foremost, discovering his or her desire. A powerful voice emerges from desire. And captures the attention of others when it does.

Book Signings? Yep.

Well, hello there.

It’s certainly been a while. April, to be exact. That’s the last time I decided to write a blog. And that’s a long time to be away. I haven’t been not writing. But, I have been away from my keyboard a lot, which is a good thing.

Here’s why – since April, my summer has been filled with moving homes and baby-prepping. My wife and I are expecting a 2nd little one. Not till November though. Yet, if it were up to my wife, she’d probably want this baby on express delivery (honestly, the changes a woman’s body goes through during a pregnancy are remarkable and terrifying in the eyes of her husband. Truly amazing). And to add the amazingness, I’ve been the recipient of more good news: invites to various book-signings.

At the beginning of the year, I was doing my best to get the word out about my debut novel, The Road to Mars (have you heard of it? You should). And things were going well. Aside from working to make some sales, I did some guest blogging and even started a few new projects. My 2016 was shaping up to be better than 2015, from a writing standpoint. However, what I really wanted to be doing was making some appearances. Perhaps do a local signing or an event. But, nothing was coming about, or rather, the timing just wasn’t there. Well, “when it rains, it pours”, so they say. And I’m excited to say I have two events coming up. The first will be this Saturday, October 1 at Shenango Valley Mall in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, hosted by the locally owned Leana’s Books & More. And the second will be at the Cuyahoga County Library’s Parma-Snow location Saturday, November 12. This will be my second time at this particular showcase and am blessed to have gotten a return invite.

All that being said, I’m definitely looking forward to what the next few months have in store. Hope to see some of you soon.

J.C.L.

Post-Showcase, More Thoughts

In my last post, I opened up about some things I learned from the author showcase. The environment, the presentation, the reception – all of the good and the bad of what made the experience memorable. And what I need to do to improve for next time.

But, now that I’ve properly digested everything, I want to get down to business. I’ve been self-publishing my work for a couple years and Amazon is my current distributor. Overall, I’m happy to be working with them. The platform is solid and remarkably user-friendly. Those are the pluses. And though I have no aspirations to find an agent at the moment, I’m always open to the possibility of having one.

All that being said, here’s my debacle: talking with others about self-publishing. To any aspiring writer, self-publishing has been sold as “the way to go.” You can “make it big overnight” and do so without the hassle of paying an agent or big publisher. And as I spoke with other authors last Saturday, the consensus was this: “give self-publishing a shot – it’s easy, it’s cheap, and it lets you reach a wide audience, faster.”

I want to address each of these statements separately. And hopefully do so without sounding like a curmudgeon. Here goes:

1) It’s easy. Yes and no. First of all, self-publishing has changed the landscape of the reader’s experience. Aspiring authors can go directly to a mass distributor – like Amazon – and publish a story within hours. This puts their work among thousands of others like it, leaving readers just a search away from finding the writer’s work. That’s the easy part. And it’s the most attractive one to an ambitious writer.

Now, here’s the dose of reality: writing a book is hard. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Most people will tell you, “I have an idea for a story. I’d like to write a book someday.” But, how many people actually go through with that idea? Not many. Why? Because it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to bring an idea to completion. If you want to do it right, you can’t rush your work. Again, this is not easy. I spoke with an individual at the showcase who told me she’d had an idea for a book for the past decade. Yes, a whole decade! Can you imagine beginning a business that takes 10 years to kick start? That’d be asinine. And you’d quickly have to consider other options for your career.

2) It’s cheap. That depends on where you go and who you shop with. Self-publishing was initially touted as the “new wave” for publishing material. A writer with some change in his pocket could search for and pay a publisher to distribute his work. Yes, pay the publisher to mass produce what he’d written. In the old days, agents would seek out hopeful writers. Now, it’s the other way around. And because of that, many publishing companies have become less concerned with the quality of their authors – only the volume. Possessing a large library of clients is far more attractive than one that’s without. Why advertise when you have hordes of people coming to you?

This is a conundrum. And it applies to more than just new and upcoming scribes. Established writers, those born out of the initial social media explosion, may encourage newbies to share work for free. Advising to do so because their success – the writers – was often found through sharing work on a blog or social media site. This helped them gain a following, but it also made them accessible to agents and publishers. As I talked with other authors at the showcase, most people seemed excited to share their work freely while others were holding their cards close to the vest.

As for me, I’m more inclined to believe in the latter. This blog, for instance, is a free service to any who want to read it. And that’s where I want to draw the line. I can share work all day long, but where is my investment meeting my reward? At what point do I break even and stop giving it away for free? Obviously, it’s when you have a few things going for you: the first being a readership, a definitive following that looks forward to every new piece you shell out.

Financially-speaking, it’s cheap to start up a blog or begin a new website. But, what about the time it takes to write one? There’s the daily, weekly, even yearly grind of posting material that may or may not catch the eyes of readers. This can be draining. And unless you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll find yourself at odds with what you’d been originally sold on: write a blog and the readers will come. Not exactly. Self-publishing is not the “Field of Dreams” on the Internet. A writer must be willing to invest deeply in what he’s begun. Success stories crop up after long hours – even years – of trudging through mud to come out looking clean.

3) It lets you reach a wide audience, fast. Am I going to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to this one too? Yes. And here’s an example why: let’s say you’re sitting on a bench, somewhere at a busy intersection, reading your newly hatched story as people pass you by. You’re talking loudly, loud enough for people to hear you, but no one is stopping to ask what you’re saying. So you talk louder. You repeat favorite phrases or lines from your manuscript, looking for a reaction. And let’s say you start to receive some. If the listeners like you, you encourage them to tell others – share what they’ve heard – and trust that when they walk away, they do just that. And feeling encouraged by this, you keep at it. Maybe you set up shop at another park bench and start reciting your lines again – the ones that worked – and stay at it.

This process, if repeated, may warrant some eventual success. You’ll establish a small following of individuals who don’t mind stopping amidst their busy schedule and hearing you for a few minutes. That’s the good news. And marks the end of this metaphor for social media spamming.

Now, here’s the difficult news: doing it all on your own is an arduous, grinding, and oftentimes, tedious task. Marketing a book requires HUGE amounts of attention and time on the part of the author. That’s why I shake my head when I talk with other writers who say, “Once I get a blog going, I’ll be doing it right.” No, actually you won’t. Where is your reading base? Do you have people all ready interested in your work? Have you created a strategy for reaching multiple channels without extending yourself beyond your means? These are business questions a writer has to be asking of himself, and if he isn’t, then he might want to consider another hobby or vocation. Readers just don’t appear over night.

Agents and publishing companies specialize in doing this kind of leg work. Their success, and their paycheck, depends upon how well they reach more than the passerby. That’s a team effort, not just the efforts of one.

Closing Thoughts: This is the longest post I’ve done in a while, but I hope you’ve stuck around till the end. Truly, the self-publishing “explosion” is something that shouldn’t be overstated or understated. Just keep this in mind: the quick route to something worth having isn’t quick, at all. It’s more than that. It’s full of persistence, diligence, and hard work. Self-publishing is merely another tool available for hopeful writers. It could be the future of writing, but it’s certainly not the easiest one.

Post-Showcase, After Thoughts

Last Saturday, I was fortunate to be a participant in Cleveland’s Indie Author Showcase, as hosted by the Cuyahoga County Public Library. It’s the second showcase I’ve been to and was really a great experience. I took some photos, had plenty of visitors, and handed out lots of info on my latest works. It was a blessing, but also an opportunity to learn some things. For example, I had no idea you could fit so many writers in the same room (45 to be exact). The initial atmosphere felt like swimming in a shark tank. Thankfully, we all came out unscathed. And with some renewed faith in playing nice with one another, I’m sure.

From a business perspective, having something to give out – like a brochure – was key. This may seem like a no-brainer, but when you’ve got books on your table, the thought of handing anything else out may feel like overkill. However, I’ve been to several trade shows. And I know that unless someone walks away with something in hand now, they aren’t going to remember you later. Doesn’t matter how intriguing you were, people need something tangible to hold onto. Especially if they’re seeing your product for the first time. I am glad to know I was prepared in that respect. And lastly, it doesn’t hurt to have friends come out and see your table (as evidenced by the candid below). These guys gave me some insights and ideas prior to the event too. That was invaluable – thank you again.

Thanks to my fellow scribes, Paul and Immanuel, for coming out last Saturday.

Thanks to my fellow scribes, Paul and Immanuel, for coming out last Saturday.

How to improve? More presentation and pricing. I had an adequate display, but found myself talking price quite a bit. Thankfully, my ebooks are relatively cheap – under $5 at the moment – but as my wife suggested, a pricing chart would be helpful for next time. And of course, have something in paperback. Currently, my work is all digital. I was the only person at the conference permitted who only had ebooks available (much thanks to the Library staff for letting me twist your arm and have me. I trust your elbows and shoulders are healing nicely). Their compliance was great, but after looking around and seeing the majority of tables packed with paperback and hardcovers, the answer was obvious: I should do the same. More on that as the year rolls forward.

For now, it’s an onward march for name recognition – and reviews. If you happen to read any of my work, then please leave a review when you finish reading. I encourage feedback for a couple reasons. For one,  if you’re willing to pay for it and read it, then I’d hope you’d be willing to leave some closing thoughts. Granted, no news can be good news – as people are more apt to share opinions when they feel jaded – but a good review can go a long way for the author. Thanks to those who have all ready! But, that leads me into my second reason: readership. I get emails, texts, comments from folks who read my stuff on a semi-consistent basis and though I appreciate it greatly, I want to encourage those same people to leave their thoughts on Amazon, my blog, or anywhere they can. Truly, the support goes a long way; reaching further than just a bank account, I assure you.

There are some other thoughts I have on the showcase, but these were my initial decompressions. I’ll save the others for another post. Overall, it’s always encouraging to “get out of the think tank” and share your story with others. That was a major highlight last Saturday. As was having my wife help explain my work to others. Kudos to the Mrs. for being such a big help.

Finally, I’ll leave this post with my favorite question from readers who approached me: “So what’s your dilemma anyway?” (in reference to The Scientist’s Dilemma story). I had fun with that one, but another guy went so far as to ask me if I was formerly an astrophysicist. If only! I regretfully had to say, ‘not yet.’ That seemed like the most appropriate response.

 

Bring Your Kindle or Kindle App!

This Saturday, March 7 from 2-4 pm, I’ll be showcasing my latest ebooks at the Cuyahoga County Library in Parma, OH. I’ll be one of 44 other local Cleveland Indie authors getting to showcase work to an open audience. That’s a cool thing.

And hey, it’s a free event.

There will be a few other self-published writers speaking, but hey, you should totally come and check out my booth regardless. Just sayin’.

And oh, did I mention it’s free?

Here’s a link to register for the event itself if you like. Otherwise, hope to see you at my booth. With a mobile scanner ready.

 

Cleveland Indie Author Conference

Author Conference

As the picture suggests, a FREE author conference is coming up in Cleveland. And I’ll be fortunate enough to be there. Not just as a spectator, but as an author with a table full of goodies.

This is not the first “author event” I’ve been to though. A couple years ago, I was at Mount Union University for a similar function. Designed for alumni – that’s me –  I got to have my own table, surrounded by other alumni with published works of their own. It was a good experience and I was happy to be a part.

However, I won’t be on “home soil” this time around. This is a public event and full of folks that have probably never heard of me before. But hey, I’m willing to try and change that. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll encounter. And that’s exciting in its own right.

The Cuyahoga County Public Library showcase starts at 11 am and ends at 4 pm, Saturday, March 7.

 

“The Scientist’s Dilemma”

The Scientist's Dilemma Cover

I’ll be releasing this short story in just a few weeks. It’ll be available for direct to Kindle only – so no paperbacks. It’s not as lengthy as a full scale novel and it’s not the first in a trilogy, but it’s a story that has a significant place in my heart. And that’s as good a reason as any to share it, I figure.

The title alone isn’t meant to be a complicated one. This story is actually about a scientist and it’s actually about a dilemma too; one that just so happens to belong to the scientist (told you it was simple, didn’t I?). That’s the premise of this tale and it’s a premise I believe so many other people – even those without the title of ‘scientist’ – find themselves struggling to answer at one point or another: just what the heck are we all waiting for?

It’s a huge question to tackle; overwhelming to some and perhaps strangely intoxicating to others, yet it’s a question I find simmering under the surface of practically every person I run into. Or have the pleasure to read about. That strange hunger that rises up within and says, “I don’t know if I belong to this world alone. Is there something else?” In my case, it’s a question I’ve pondered on many-a-starry night, which is why I like the cover so much. It represents that curious nature any person possesses and it’s an image that ultimately brought legs to this story. What’s waiting out there to be discovered? Is there anything at all? 

The universe is a big place and has plenty to offer while we’re here, but sometimes looking out is an easy alternative to looking in.

So to quote Shakespeare and wrap this up, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

 

Written Rapport and Why I’ll Never Apologize

It’s tough trying to get noticed.

If you’ve ever been a salesperson, you’ll agree. If not, try and level with me a while. Because if you are salesperson, you probably spend a good deal of time trying to attune yourself to the melodies and rhythms of your target market. You learn the ins and the outs of what makes your prime customer operate and in doing this, you’re after something crucial to making the sale: who they are. What are their interests? How is their personal life? What do they do for fun? If they’re into baseball, you may invite them to a baseball game. If they enjoy golfing, then you might go golfing. Or if they love food, you take them out to eat – provided you can. So you do this with the expectation you’ll gain their confidence. Shared experiences – fun ones – establish rapport; a rapport that says, “Hey, I’ve paid attention to what brings you joy.” And sharing joy is what strengthens trust. It keeps a person coming back. Great sales people know this. Whether they’ve stumbled onto this understanding or not – they’ve learned to hone the process as their own.

So, now comes my writer’s tie-in.

Effective writers must – and I mean MUST – establish a rapport with their reader. But the question is – what does that even look like? How does someone create rapport with somebody they’ve never met? An author can’t exactly take a reader out to eat or invite them to a baseball game – unless they know each other personally. Sure, the author can write a decent story about going out to eat or enjoying a ballgame, but that’s an entirely different thing. What’s more, anybody can do that. My niece who is five can write about eating (not downplaying her English skills, just making a point here). So, once again, what are we talking about when we say, “create a rapport” between you and the reader?

Well, it starts with the author. Specifically, an author who is honest. Not only with himself but with the audience he is speaking to. That means, saying what you intend to say and not apologizing for it. For example, how effective would J.K. Rowling had been had she been confused about making Harry Potter a wizard versus a vampire or an elf? Before the Potter series took off, modern culture wasn’t exactly excited about magic. Heck, it wasn’t even excited about reading. But hey, J.K. was. She knew she had a good story to tell, but the only way to make others see that good story was to own it – to not apologize for writing about wizards, witches, and all manner of imaginary creatures. She plead her case and won. She went deep with the mythos she created and her unapologetic attitude paid off. In a big way, too.

New writers – and even the more seasoned ones – tend to forget this. There’s no magical formula and most readers don’t even know what’s happening even when it’s happening! They’ll knowingly enter into a book without any knowledge or expectation of what may happen should they – the reader – be convicted of the author’s own conviction. The reason being? Every reader is subconsciously sizing up what he is reading. He is internalizing the story, feeling out its presentation, and ultimately assessing whatever stake the writer has in the ground. And if it’s a weak stake like a Ramen noodle, then adios – the reader is off to find someone who isn’t afraid of risking vulnerable pieces of himself for the sake of saving face or offending someone. I find this decision tied to a core belief: a writer’s true voice is not about breadth of audience, but about depth of audience – even though this may not appear to be the immediate issue. For example, what good is your voice without a platform and plenty of ears to hear you? Well, people stick around if they are more engaged by what they hear or read. Consider trying to marry someone who says, “I’m only available Sunday through Tuesday and the rest of the week I don’t want to see you.” Of course you’ll think twice about committing yourself to this person. There’s no reward coming for you in that scenario so consider how a reader feels when an author gives only half of what he can offer?

Yeah, not a fun arrangement.

The author must not be apologetic towards his audience. He must be willing to say, “this is it” and not shy away from it. Otherwise he’s just another screaming voice among the masses. A place that’s every writer’s hell – no apologies here either.

 

Coming up for air

So, have you taken in the new year yet? It’s been 2014 for a little over a week now. Actually, it’s been about two weeks if you’re counting correctly. Anything changed for you yet? Anything worth reporting on? Celebrating, perhaps?

Well, as for me, I made some small goals last year and I was blessed by having several of those goals realized. And as a bonus, I had a few others come my way that I wasn’t expecting. That was very exciting. This is not to say that I didn’t experience some unexpected problems. I cut ties with my publisher; I gave up several social things (such as coaching and my wonderful bowling team) and my car was in the shop more than it was on the road. But if that’s all that I have to worry about, then I’m doing rather well.

In my last post, I stressed how I was going to not stress about the big goals I may have. To be better at taking things as they come. Turns out that’s a really hard thing to do for a Type A like myself. But that’s what I also love about it – the challenge. And because of said challenge, I did something to further stretch myself in the new year: I fasted from writing for a week. And when I say “writing”, I mean anything creative. No making notes, no blogging, no preparation – nada.

That probably doesn’t make much sense considering how I’m a writer. I need to write in order to survive – both financially and for my own peace of mind. So taking a break from writing may appear to be something like professional suicide. Like an employee who takes a week’s vacation without pay. But I knew this was a needed appointment with myself, regardless of my apprehensions towards the decision.

Why? Well, it’s simple: we need breaks. Fasting is more than just the act of being fast. And it’s more than just giving up something for a short while because you were told to do so. It’s a release. Too many times we find ourselves in the same old, same old. We repeat patterns of behavior, for good or bad, and we slowly grow accustom to the familiarity of whatever process we’ve adopted. What started out as inspirational may become routine; thus, lacking any heart, any conviction, or any proof of passion. That piece of us, the reminder, becomes buried beneath all the busy work of the objective. Pursuit is cast aside and the vision becomes clouded.

Knowing this, I took a breather. Writing can be a spontaneous yet grueling trade to take up, but I love it all the same. And as with anything that’s anchored in creativity, we need to take a hiatus once in a while. If nothing else, to be reminded of the call that we were given a long time before passion was replaced with procedure and process. Not that those things are bad – procedure and process – we need both to effectively live our lives, but we also need to have the passion to live it fully.

So here I am, a week later, and the writing juices are free to flow once more. I’m excited to see what happens.