Tony’s Rambles: Double Edges

There was a man who lived alone on my street – let’s call him Paul. Paul died recently…he was a nice guy, quiet, looked after his mother when she was terminally ill and looked after another old lady who lived across the road (We live on a street where most of our neighbours are retired and elderly. It’s one of the reasons I love it – no parties until 3am where we live).

Anyway, another neighbour told me that Paul was slowly drinking himself to death; and, as I said, he recently succeeded.

Being a writer is mostly a great time. You get to make up worlds and people who don’t exist and play with them, run them through the mill and see what they’re made of. But it’s a double-edged sword, like with our quiet neighbour Paul.

I can see him, sitting alone in his kitchen every night, staring at a bottle and the silent, silent walls and rooms around him. I can see him reaching for that bottle to try to drown out that silence, then having to do it more often. The absolute loneliness of his life, the spaces he couldn’t fill.

I could be wrong about Paul, of course; he could – and most likely did – have his own reasons for drinking until it killed him. But still the writer in me sees him sitting there, alone, every night and sees the empty tragedy of his life.

Here’s another example: My wife and I had a good friend who died in a light aircraft crash quite a few years ago. (Those things crash all the time, have you noticed?). As a writer, it’s all too easy to imagine her gripping the hand of the person beside her as the pilot loses control and the plane starts to shudder. And to see the rushing trees coming towards her through her eyes, see those last thoughts flash through her head.

And as easy as it to imagine how beautiful a starlight beach is at midnight, the sand rubbing your toes, the infinity of stars above you, that smell of open water and the mist from the surf prickling your skin, so it’s as easy to imagine how it feels to be trapped in a plane that’s being flown towards an already burning building, the Manhattan skyline unrolling beneath you at three hundred miles per hour.

I don’t get to pick and choose what Muse throws at me, and when she does, I feel the responsibility to share that empathy to lonely people like Paul…to tell the stories the way my imagination and experience of life sees them, both the happy stories and the sad: The beautiful beach and the burning building. Both edges of the sword, and both of them cut as deeply when I write.

I’m not complaining about that responsibility at all; in fact I enjoy it. I’ll always try and do the best job I can with the stories I write, because that’s the way I was raised – if a job’s worth doing, then do it well – and I take my writing very seriously, even when it’s just fun and games.

It wouldn’t be right otherwise.

IAM15 Interview…Tony Talbot

    Thanks to everyone for taking part in Indie Month 2015!

Hope to see you next year…

IAM 2015 - Topper

To round out Indie Month, we’re talking to AfW regular Tony Talbot

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TT-2015

Tony Talbot started writing short stories in 2008, after a dream he had and couldn’t shake; Finally his wife told him to write it down or stop talking about it.

He wrote his first Young Adult novel, Over the Mountain, in 2008, and has completed several others and a growing raft of short stories since.

He lives in a village in Leicestershire, UK, with an American wife he met online and two cats. As well as writing, he enjoys reading, playing on the Wii-U and not getting enough exercise.

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What is you favourite way to spend a rainy day?

Listening to it and watching it from somewhere dry. I love a good rainstorm.

You’ve found a time machine on your driveway this morning – where are you going to go in it?

Forward a week so I can sell it to myself on Ebay. 🙂

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want with you?

A laptop, A Kindle with a solar charger and a good internet connection. And an endless supply of Jelly Beans.

What is the one book you think everyone should read?

Oh, so many! To Kill a Mockingbird is just sublime, as good as it gets.

How do you react to a bad review?

Sulk for weeks. Tear my hair out. Then go and write something else. You’re never going to please everyone, so if most people like it, you’re on to something.

How did you celebrate the sale of your first book?

Mostly it was shock! “They liked it! I’m getting paid for doing this, can you believe it?”

One food you would never eat?

Broccoli. It’s just not right, and I don’t trust it one bit. I always feel like it’s judging me.

What has been your most rewarding experience since being published?

Having reviewers saying that something made them cry, or carried them away to another world for a while. That’s pretty amazing.

What was your favorite book when you were younger?

Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton. I adored that book, and I still have a copy.

What’s one piece of advice you would give aspiring authors?

Never give up. And always put everything you have into everything you write.

If you could choose only one time period and place to live, when and where would you live and why?

I’d love to be right at the place and time where we know, without a doubt, that aliens are communicating with us. To look into the sky that night, point at a white dot among the millions and say, “There they are.”

What is your favorite Quote?

Currently, not one from a book, but from a maintenance plate on an elevator / lift: Keep well oiled to ensure satisfaction.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you “grew up”?

A librarian for a while. An undertaker (I thought: it’s great job security!). It was always something always bookish and indoors-y.

If a movie was made about your life, who would you want to play the lead role and why?

Wil Wheaton. He’s about four days older than me, so the age is right for a start. He’s a great actor, very under used talent. I think he could pull off playing the Shining Light that is Me. 😉

Who are your favorite authors of all time?

Dean Koontz for seeing the tragedies of the world with humour; Stephen King for seeing the horror that lurks inside normal people; Charles Dickens for his characterisation.

Can you see yourself in any of your characters?

Oh, all of them are parts of me, the good bits and the bad. The lovers of rainstorms and the socially awkward teenagers.

What’s the craziest writing idea you’ve had?

There was a photo essay the other week in “The Atlantic” – they have a cool photo section – and it was people who dress as zombies and then go and parade through cities. I thought: What about if real zombies were in there as well and no one noticed – they all thought they were REALLY good at staying in character while they ate people’s brains…And how would the cops know who to take down or arrest?

Hidden talent?

Double jointed thumbs – both of them. It’s a little freaky.

What movie and/or book are you looking forward to this year?

Star Wars Episode VII. It’s going to be BIG.

Cats or Dog?

I have two cats now, so I’m heading towards cats on this one…

Apples or Oranges?

Oranges if they don’t have pips. Apples if they aren’t too mushy.

Cause or Effect?

Oh, effects. They’re much more fun, aren’t they?

Heads or Tails?

Heads. Always heads.

Facebook or Twitter?

Facebook. Twitter is a strange, truncated world…

Truth or Dare?

Truth. Or maybe dare. Is there a third option?

Text or Talk?

Talk. I can’t get the hang of text speak…

Favorite quote from a movie?

“Why is the rum gone?!” Captain Jack Sparrow.

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Guest Post: Short Stories 101

I was emailing an Australian friend the other day (Anna Hub). She’s written four novels and just finished a fifth (The Ninth Hunter, well worth looking for when it comes out). But…she’s not sure where to start with short stories.

Most writers start with short stories and progress to novels, so it’s curious to see it the other way round…

“Bigger” (54 words)

“Mick? Did you hear that?” Elbows him awake.
“Wassup?”
“Something downstairs.”
“Bloody cat.”
“No. It sounded bigger.”
“Bloody dog then.”
“No! Bigger.”
“Bloody kids.”
“Bigger!”
“Bigger?”
“Yeah. Lots bigger.”
Mick purses lips. “Burglar?”
Eyes wide. “Yeah.”
“Big burglar?”
“Yeah.”
“Good.”
“Wot?”
“Then he can take the bloody cat, bloody dog and bloody kids. Goodnight!”

 …the trick with short stories is to use your reader’s knowledge of the world to your advantage. I didn’t need to say these two are in bed and asleep when the story starts; I didn’t need to say it’s most likely the middle of the night (Most burglars don’t work afternoons, after all). “Elbows him awake” takes care of most of that in three words. Mick has a name, but his partner doesn’t. Trim the fat and leave what you need.

Short stories don’t need to be that short either. Technically, anything under 20,000 words is ‘a short story’, so you have a lot of room to move around in. Most of mine come to between 1500 and 3000 words, for example.

The real fun with short stories is to take what the readers assume and find a way to twist the end. So a short story about a man exploring an alien world turns out to be a robot exploring earth, for instance. Or drop in a humorous spin, like “Bigger”.

Here a great one from science fiction master of the twist and short, Frederic Brown:

“Earth was dead after the last atomic war. Nothing grew, nothing lived. The last man sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

Everything you need is right there. We know who the story is about, we know the world he lives in, and there’s even a hook for suspense. Twenty seven words to create a world and tell a story.

Shorter than that? Here’s a (possibly apocryphal) story from Ernest Hemingway:

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

Short stories are a great way of perfecting the art of keeping the bits you don’t need out of your novels as well. Sharpen your skills on them and it will always serve you well.

(Reblogged from Musings: The Blog of Tony Talbot)

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Where can we find you?

Find me online at Amazon, @authortony, http://www.tony-talbot.co.uk – or drop by for a chat at Goodreads.

Thanks for taking part in Indie Month, Tony!

Tony’s Writing Tips: Remember every scar

 

“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.” – Stephen King.

 

I was e-mailing an Antipodean writing friend the other day. I’d sent her the first page of my WIP and explaining a little where it came from, when that quote from Stephen King popped into my head.

A little backstory: The first page of my WIP has a character shoot someone. It’s a kicker of an opening, but what I was telling my friend was where it came from. I’ve never shot anyone in my life (You’ll be delighted to know), never even held a gun, loaded or otherwise. Air pistol and air rifle – shot at a few empty cans – but never a gun.

The shooting isn’t the important part, and not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about the person who did the shooting, which will – trust me on this – get me back to the quote at the top.

I have a not-seen-in-years cousin in the police. More years ago than I can date, he told me (or my dad while I was listening) that he’d had someone point a gun at him. At the time, he was as professional and calm as his training taught him. But he said after the incident, he was still shaking hours later.

So my character shoots someone, calmly and professionally, as they were taught. Then they realise what they’ve just done and the effects hit them.

Which brings me to my point (told ya!) and the quote above: Writers never forget anything.

We can, indeed, point to every scar and tell you its story. In detail.

Everything we’ve ever seen will probably end up in one of our stories somewhere; from the shop assistant who compulsively stretches her sweater cuff over her wrist (Eight Mile Island) from someone who loves rainstorms (Over the Mountain). Everything gets stored and sifted in a writers head and pulled out when we need it.

I’m very lucky in the regard that I have a pretty good memory. I do remember the most obscure occurrences years later – even if I can’t accurately date them. It’s not so useful for real life – I can’t remember how to fold bath towels for instance, which drives my wife mad every week.

But if you don’t recall things as well, then write it down. Or sketch it. Or scribble yourself a note when you come across something. Do whatever works so you remember it.

You never know when it’s going to be useful.

 

Tony’s Tech: A Front end for KindleGen

For those of you going, huh? at that title, you can skip this post. The Kindle authors out there can dig in and enjoy…

Last year, I had to demonstrate to a small group of people the way to create a .mobi file. I’d been using Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) for a while, but it seems like Amazon are tightening up on creating files without using KindleGen (Certainly the last time I used Calibre, the Amazon uploader kicked it back out).

The only choice was using the lousy Amazon command line KindleGen program (Seriously, what is this, 1998?). But trying to explain command lines and file paths in DOS to a group of people who had barely used a computer was really out of the question.

So I Googled and searched around for a while…and I wrote my own front end for KindleGen in .hta and VisualBasic.

Untitled

 

It’s pretty self-explanatory. Tell it where the KindleGen application is, tell it where the document is you want converting to .mobi. It takes that input, makes a compound statement and spits out the .mobi at the end in the same location as the document in the second box.

No fuss, no bother.

I really have to wonder if someone with as little coding experience as me can make something simpler than fighting your way through DOS pathways – in less than a week – why couldn’t Amazon?

Feel free to modify it as you like, but let me know if you make it all singing and dancing – I’d love to see it (Especially if someone figures out a way of adding a cover).

Download it here.

Writing Tips: Tony Talbot: The Brand

When I started self-publishing back in 2008, I came across an interesting concept: The writer as a brand item and marketed as such.

It seemed a little odd to me at the time, but I see the logic of it now: Your readers see very few images of you, or even better, just one. Think of McDonalds and you think of Golden Arches and wheat field yellow and red, for instance.

Quite a few years ago, Stephen King decided he wanted to sell books under a different name, for a variety of reasons. So he quietly sold books under the name Richard Bachman with minimal publicity. One book sold about ten thousand copies or so…but when he re-published the book as Stephen King, it sold an order of magnitude more. That’s the power of a writer as a brand, as a consumer item.

So all writers do it, even the big six. They all have a Facebook page, a Twitter hashtag, a YouTube channel and countless other ways of getting their name out there. We’re all waving our arms and shouting as loud as we can, after all. And it helps that everywhere you go, it’s always the same thing you’re looking for.

I’ve seen this again and again from writers…they’re asked to be A Brand. To promote their books themselves as part of that brand, go on lecture tours, do readings from bits of their books, and so on. To give people a face to attach to the name.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, a few weeks ago I changed my author picture from this 2012 pic (A very hot day in Washington State):

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…to this 2015 one (Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire)…

 

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Doesn’t seem like much of a deal, does it?

But think about it again…this author picture is the virtual image I send out to the world and the one that sits on my little business cards I give out to people. What do I want it to say about me? What brand image do I want to have?

It’s a serious business when this picture is how most of my readers see me most of the time. After all, ninety-nine percent of what I am as a writer is virtual; I’m mostly just binary.

So I asked for comments on Facebook before I went with it, and someone suggested I lighten the pic, so I did that. I cropped it a little as well and I cut off my feet (Hurt like hell). The same person also commented the stones and the countryside make me look like a writer of fantasy…see what I mean about branding? I decided I could live with that though.

There are also technical considerations. How does this picture look when it’s shrunk to a thumbnail or on one of my little business cards, for instance? How does it look on a mobile device?

And there are also the number of places this picture has to be updated: Goodreads, Booklikes, Twitter, WordPress.org and WordPress.com. Facebook, Amazon US, Amazon UK. My Gravatar avatar. Two places on my website. Physically, I’m going to have to change my business cards as well.

It might look like a small matter – changing one picture to another – but even for a small writer like me, that’s a dozen or so places. If I get it wrong or change my mind, I’ll have to do all those pictures again. There are places I can’t change – reviewers who have my old picture on their site, for instance – but you do what you can with what you’ve got.

Why does it matter? Being Tony Talbot, The Brand means everywhere you find me, I look the same.

Just like McDonalds: You’ll always know what to look for.

 

(Reblogged from Musings – The Blog of Tony Talbot)

Tony’s Tips: Explain yourself!

When you write a story, at some point, you’ll probably have to step out of the narrative and tell your readers what a piece of equipment or technology is, or give them some backstory. In literal terms, this is exposition – “the portion of a story that introduces important background information to the audience.”

There are a couple of ways of doing this, some good and some to be avoided at all costs. Let’s start with the awful one.

Imagine your character at a red stop light, and have them explain to your passenger – a driver of twenty years – that you weren’t allowed to go until it went green.

 “As you know”

“So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him, and I pointed out the red light.

“As you know Arnold, the red light is to allow better traffic flow. It gives a chance for other traffic streams to merge.”

“By making you stop, Chris?”

“Yes, and giving the other traffic a chance to go. Celia said she would think about it.”

Ugh. Euch. Why is the character explaining things to Arnold if he already knows them? Why is Arnold replying like that? No one talks like this.

For a really bad example of this, there’s a scene in the middle of “North by Northwest” by Alfred Hitchcock where a character explains what’s going on…to a room full of people who already know it.

Also, there’s another really clumsy exposition device in there – the name of the other character in the dialogue:

“Hello, Adam,” said Bob.

“Hello, Bob,” said Adam.

Just….no. Find another way to give your reader your character’s name. Please.

Infodump

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him at the red light. The phased light system allowed better traffic flow and gave other traffic streams a chance to merge with our own by making us stop and giving them a chance to go.

“She said she’d think about it.”

That’s not that bad actually, but I’ve dumped a whole bunch of information right into the middle of the plot…it’s still a little clumsy and awkward. And imagine if this went on for more than a paragraph. Or a page…or two…or if the writer gave you a complete history of the traffic light system from antiquity. It has its place, but use it cautiously.

For an example, see Hitchcock again…watch the last act of “Psycho”, and there’s not much in there but a character giving an infodump on what made Norman crazy.

 Basil Exposition

This is the most common form of exposition, one we’re all familiar with, I think. James Bond (or Austin Powers) walks into his office and a man behind a desk tells him what he has to do. Bond goes off and does it.

It’s simple, and it gets the exposition out of the way fast. It works in more than Bond films as well. The first part of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” after the boulder dash isn’t much more than US government guys telling Indy what they need.

In a literary sense, this is your prologue. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”) Prologues, though, have pretty much gone out of fashion in stories, and given way to exposition that goes on throughout, and throwing your characters and readers in at the deep end right at the start.

Another way of providing exposition is to provide a glossary. Although this is a little clumsy again, it does help. I read an Australian John Marsden book and didn’t know that a “ute” meant a pickup truck until I read the glossary, for instance.

 Bounce it off someone

This is a variation on the Basil Exposition, where Basil is new to the world of your character, and acts as a sounding board for the exposition…Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example.

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt.

Arnold looked around him, puzzled. “Why did we stop?”

I pointed out the red light. “The red light is to allow better traffic flow. It gives a chance for other traffic streams to merge.”

“Oh. We stop on green on my planet.”

“Really? Anyway, Celia said she’d think about it.”

You can also make it more explicit in a first person story and have them break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader:

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt at a red light. I should explain that the phased light system allowed better traffic flow and gave other traffic streams a chance to merge with our own by making us stop and giving them a chance to go.

Don’t do it at all

Let your readers figure it out – show them, don’t tell them. Tricky for new worlds and universes, but you might be able to get away with a variation like this:

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt at a red light. When it turned green, I accelerated again.

“Celia said she’d think about it.”

 

As a last piece of advice, as much as possible, I would always put exposition when something else is going on:

 I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him at the red light.

“Why did we stop? Celia is still behind us.”

“If we jump the light, we’ll hit the merging traffic for sure. We need the car in one piece. Better to wait for the green light and then punch it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony’s Writing Tips: The only rule of writing I know

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham

 

Maybe not, but there’s one rule I have discovered…almost by accident really. It’s going to seem strange to people just starting to publish that they shouldn’t do it, but here it is:

Don’t respond to a review.

That’s it; Good or bad, do not respond to a review of your story. Ever.

Of course, the nice thing about rules is that they’re made to be broken, and I’ve broken this one a few times…but here’s the modifier: The reviews I’ve replied to are only to people I know. Don’t do it somewhere like Amazon, as tempting as that ‘Reply to this comment’ button is.

There are times and places to thank your readers for leaving reviews, and you have to pick them using some judgement.

So why not respond?

It’s a good question. You spent weeks or months (or years!) writing your beautiful story and someone doesn’t get the fuss you kept making about Sam’s dress being green. They missed the symbolism of it all, The Big Image You Had in Your Head.

Two sentences, you can clear it all up for them, right? That Reply button is looking so tempting…

But don’t.

It’s frustrating, I know. I’ve had someone leave a one star review saying a short story “Wasn’t true and was too short.” I could have pointed out that the story is A) Clearly listed as fiction, and B) Clearly listed as a short. But I didn’t, although I still have to restrain myself every time I go and check my reviews.

Console yourself with the knowledge that you did the best you could. Try harder next time, and accept that most people aren’t going to be on the same mental wavelength as you (Another reason editors and beta-readers are so useful, by the way).

It’s going to sound odd, but the minute someone reads your story, it isn’t yours anymore.

People take reading very seriously…and what they take away from the story might not be what you wanted them to take away. Get to live with that, because it’s true. I didn’t take anything away from The Road, for instance, but a damn dull time. I’m sure Cormac McCarthy had something else in mind when he wrote it.

If someone didn’t like your story, do not tell them what they missed. Do not tell them you’re the best writer since Shakespeare or Dickens. Brood over a bad review if you have to. Rend your garments and thrash about on the floor for a while.

Just don’t do it in public or to the people who left you a review.

Replies to reviewers scare them away.

I discovered this one on an Amazon board where the question What do you think of authors replying to a review? was asked.

I was quite shocked by the drift of the comments. One person said they felt as though the author was breathing over their shoulder as they read; another said they had trouble saying how much a story sucked for fear of hurting the author’s feelings, knowing they were checking in.

But they said such nice things!

This one is harder to deal with, I think, than a bad review. Someone gives you five stars and said your story made them cry. I can tell you, that feels damn good. Even better if it’s your intent. ;-).

But take the good with the bad. Go out and celebrate for a while. Come back to the good reviews when you feel like what you’re writing is Bantha Poodoo and take heart from them. But don’t reply, even to the good reviews.

Reviews – good and bad – aren’t there for you as a writer to gloat or weep over (although, of course, we do). It’s the obvious point, but it wants restating anyway: A review is for readers. Remember that and stand back.

 

(Reblogged from Musings – The Blog of Tony Talbot)