Sunday, October 31, 2010

Keeping Character Pages

As I listen to (I've read and re-read and now have books on tape) the Harry Potter Series I am constantly amazed at how identifiable each of J.K. Rowling's characters are and the consistent reminders that she uses to remind us of who each character is. Luna Lovegood is dreamy. Hermione Granger has brown bushy hair. Ron Weasley often says "You're mental." Hagrid is "Too big to be allowed."

I remember listening to an interview with either Jim Dale or Stephen Fry - who are the actors who read the Harry Potter series - and the particular actor said that he had recorded the accents of each of the characters and reviewed them before each chapter and possibly before each segment. We have a recording studio in the back of our house where music is made and I'm amazed at what my son-in-law can do with Protools.

Television series have notebooks filled with information about characters not only for the writers but for the actors and directors to review them for enriching their understanding of the character. It's impossible to hold everything in memory over years and years.

Character Pages are the same thing as recording accents and speech patterns except that you keep the visuals as well as the auditory. On Character Pages you write down preferred swear words, eccentricities, identifying habits and patterns, special things like physical features, or preferred clothing choices.

In Typhoid Mary - which will be the story I am working on for National Novel Writing Month - one of the characters will be very much like a woman I knew in Vermont named Constance Perry. She used to punctuate phrases with "Don't you know?" which has a wonderful old fashioned cadence in my ear. Typhoid Mary is known to have had a foul mouth - well in 1906 foul mouths are much milder than in 2010 - so how foul am I going to let her get without stepping out of period? Since National Novel Writing Month begins tomorrow I'm going to spend today creating and reviewing character pages.

Character Pages are begun as you outline and maintained as you write. With the advent of the computer you can always go back through the book or movie and add in bits and pieces that expand on the knowledge of each character.

Is it necessary to do all this work around writing? Absolutely not. It depends on who you are as a writer and how good you want your book to be.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Real Life and Fiction Meet

This week a suspected Anti-immigrant group sent Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona a suspicious toxic white powder closing his office and reminding us of the Amerithrax attack on September 18, 2001 which is sent by letters to several news media offices and two Democratic U. S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others.

It is always amazing to me as a writer how real life truly does mimic fiction – not always in the best of all possible ways. Years ago when I was President of the National Emergency Care Advisory Council – I worked very hard to get television to correctly represent first aid in programming. The reason I did that was because people were emulating television (which claimed to be emulating people) and doing real harm to injured people. Of course if television was having their professional first aid squads emulate the mistakes of the general population that didn’t make sense but it did keep them from being responsible in their programming. Not much has changed by the way.

In my new novel “Tranquillity Initiative” I wrote about what would happen if the second bomb that the terrorists were planning to deploy was successfully dropped from a sky scraper. Among the things that would happen would be that there would be a collapse of the police, fire, emergency medical services, public health, and garbage collection services with horrendous results. Another result would be that New Yorkers would flee to the countryside which would arm itself against the refugees. We saw that happen in the Algiers Parish of New Orleans as people tried to get to dry land and safety.

In the early 1800s, New York City essentially burned to the ground. There were a number of reasons why that happened. One of them was that the previous summer there had been a terrible outbreak of cholera and the fire department had been decimated to the point where it didn’t have the staff to put out the fire. If an anthrax weapon were to be deployed over New York, the various departments would see their staffs massively cut by debilitating disease and if, for example, there were riots major parts of the city might simply burn. Today we can pull from neighboring states and counties, however, a lot of damage could take place before New Jersey, Connecticut and Westchester could get across the bridges and through the tunnels (providing they aren’t jammed by traffic trying to escape) – parts of Long Island would be taken out by the germ warfare so Queens would probably be decimated as well.

It is fascinating to sit and read history and to apply the lessons of past disasters to the possibilities of present time. The major lessons are that not much changes when a writer applies human nature to catastrophe.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How To Write A Book That Positions You As An Expert In Your Field

This is the opening discussion in my new ebook - now available on Kindle - "How To Write A Book That Positions You As An Expert In Your Field"

To Get A Publisher Or To Self-Publish.

Most writers are not candidates for big publishers. They may be candidates for small niche publishers; they may not be candidates for any publishers. This book, for example, is a candidate for e-books but not for print publishers. In the day of self-publishing, and e-book publishing, getting published by other people isn’t all that necessary. That is particularly important to realize since you, as author, are going to have to do the bulk of self-promotion anyway.

Big name publishers, like Doubleday or Harcourt Brace, are becoming fewer and fewer. Yes, they sometimes give advances, which you pay back out of the sale of your book, but you have to pay back in full if it turns out they don’t like your final product. Yes, they sometimes put money into a national tour, and they take care of all the little problems like lay out and copy writing. But, there’s just one major problem – if your book isn’t a hit in a few weeks, it goes off the shelves, out of the book stores, gets remaindered or languishes forever in Amazon warehouses or you get to buy whatever copies are left. With the advent of the big discounts at the super stores which are in competition to see who can sell the most by lowering the price of your book, you get less profit from your books. The policies in big publishing, and big chains end up being costly for the little guy and it pays to know what business is like in the book world before you enter it.

Finally, there’s the issue of who gets the profits. If you get 1 - 5% of the sale of your book with a big publisher you’re lucky – and that’s not entirely unfair. They take the risk, make the advance, eat the returns if the book doesn’t sell, have the book edited, copy edited, printed, distributed and, if they do happen to publicize it, keep the staff to do that on their payroll. They have big buildings, big staffs, international representation and a lot of overhead. So you take your couple of bucks profit and keep your day job.

Since you’re going to have to store a bunch of your books anyway – for back of the room sales – you might as well publish it yourself and keep the profit. Unless you are already really famous, and have a great publicist on your payroll, books that have been published by big publishers usually don’t usually have a long life – although that’s somewhat less true with the advent of where 49% of all books are sold. If you are using your book in your seminars and workshops for back of the room sales, you need to have copies for the duration of your career (which you buy at half price from the publishers as long as they’re in print and then you self- publish). Unless you have a big name and a large following, it’s probably best to consider self-publishing early in your decision-making process.

NOTE: Even if you are going to submit your project to a publisher, it’s a good idea to have a copy editor look it over before you send it in. Editors don’t like misspellings, awkward English and typos.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

My grandson who is eight liked this movie. I thought it slooooooooow, thin and dependent on the 3-D as a substitute for true content.

When Soren, a young owlet, falls from his nest one evening, he’s plucked up and taken to the sinister St. Aegolius Academy. Once there, he must use his wits and bravery to escape his captors. Soren and his new band of orphans fight their way through many dangers, hoping to find refuge with a group of brave owls thought only to be a legend—the Guardians of Ga’Hoole! They find the Guardians, and return with them to the Academy in order to defeat the masked and evil owl and save all the other owls from evil domination. That sounds a lot more interesting than this movie turned out to be.

The first rule of good script writing is to keep the plot turning as it advances and each turn must be different and interesting of its own accord as the plot is revealed. This movie fails to do this. It flipped back and forth but the flips were rarely very different. A major plot point – the time line of hypnotizing Soren’s sister and handing her over to the traitor among the Guardians, was developed backward what we say being the reverse of what was reported – sloppy and lazy in a movie with so few plot points. I don’t believe there was enough to the book to keep the movie interesting. Watching owls fly over different scenes does not fill that need for change and development the plot of a full length movie requires. It might have done better as a television series where the dearth of material wouldn’t have been so obvious. It was occasionally beautiful, marginally interesting, not once exciting and at times utterly boring.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Why I love making villains sympathetic

I'm about to embark on the National Novel Writing Month competition with a subject that has been languishing in my computer for years. I'm very excited about it. What's interesting about the subject of Typhoid Mary is that it echoes today with decisions that have been made about public health, with prejudice and bias about disease and misunderstandings about the cause of disease.

I'm going to write about Typhoid Mary - one of the world's great medical villains. Mary was the first person identified as a healthy disease carrier. This is such a twisty story it's going to be interesting to see if I can bring it off.

Just as the early handling of HIV-Aids was colored by prejudice against the gay population, so Mary's case was mishandled by the prejudice against Irish Immigrants. A bias against Immigrants that resonates today.

Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) always claimed that she was persecuted. And she was. Other typhoid carriers killed and infected more people and they were not locked in quarantine for life. The supposition is that she became famous because she was Irish at a time when Irish immigrants were not widely popular. She was a woman without children and not regarded as a "bread winner." She was powerful, violent and profane. She used salty language that the people who dealt with her found offensive. Most of all she denied her condition (and had the medical findings to back her up) and fought for her freedom. My theory is that George Soper the man who discovered her and isolated the cause of a disease that killed 23,000 people in America (when only 10% of those infected died) used her to make his fame and secure his place in medical history well beyond the simple fact that he discovered her. The interesting thing is that her fame persists while you only learn his name by reading about her.

My job as a writer is to make her sympathetic. George Soper, because we wrote and spoke about her extensively, controlled her story. Much like the losers in a war, Mary Mallon became a villain in the perception of the general public of her time. But Mary as villain is too easy a story and not nearly as interesting as Mary Mallon whose life would be destroyed if she ever admitted even to herself that she was a carrier. Mary Mallon the proud woman, valiant victim, who had learned to support herself at the top of her profession. I plan to get her up a tree and throw stones at her. I plan to strip her bare and pour salt in every wound. I plan to make you love Mary even as you understand that she made very bad choices.

I have never liked two dimensional villains or 100% sympathetic heroes. Pure evil might be frightening but it is not nearly as much fun as villains with foibles and contradictions. Childish behavior. Passionate if unlikely love interests. Behavior that everyone in the play, film or book interprets as a good child or good person that masks the evil below. In my book George Soper will be Mary Mallon's nemesis. A physically short, Jesuit-like person with OCD who is very interested in being really famous. Although he has already achieved a certain status as a Typhoid Expert, Mary is his ticket to true and lasting fame. During his life he enjoyed that fame but it has not outlasted her.

The joy of this story is that it skates along the time line of history and my job is not to make up the whole story but to bring these characters to life - to fill in the blanks and make the characters alive and interesting. It is also my job to put things like the science of the day into perspective. It was just the beginning of microbiology. The chemist who regularly tested Mary for Typhoid at her own expense found her to be consistently negative - quite possibly because his science was not as cutting edge as the Department of Health. Lots of mysteries to explore. It will be a marvelous month.