Feb 24, 2012

Children's Stories

Each generation probably thinks their television, music and movies were the best but they would all be wrong. Clearly my generation had the best of everything.

However, it doesn't surprise me that fairytales and children's stories seem to cross generations. Parents read their kids stories that had a powerful inpact on them and then they discover new stories together which will then be shared with the next generation.

Not only are these stories multi-generational but they're multi-cultural, tweaked to better fit within the framework of a particular group of people but the morality or the lack thereof remains unaltered. Walt Disney is the most famous exponent of packaging fairytales for the masses and to this day, kids drag their parents around the World and Land created by the famous animator.

Dozens of animated movies have been made featuring characters like Snow White, Cinderella, the Frog Prince, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio and Rapunzel which are based on stories written in the late 1700's and 1800's which in turn were based on stories written in the 1600's. Those tales are all actually based on folk tales from Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and Scandanvia. Four hundred and five hundred year old stories still appealing to kids today is a staggering indication of the power of these stories on young minds.

I still remember when I was very young, my parents took me and my little brother on a tour of the Scottish Highlands in one of those Volkswagon Camper vans. We stopped at a picturesque little rest area where my dad walked me out towards a little stream with a small wooden bridge over the top of it. As we walked to the bridge and stood by it my dad proceeded to tell me the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff and the Troll that loved under the bridge. I remember being both a little scared of the troll popping out but still able to laugh when the Three Billy Goats got the better of him.

What's most remarkable about it is the fact I don't remember one other minute of my trip to the Highlands in a VW camper. I think I was about five years old at the time and the only memory I have is the little bridge, the clear, burbling stream running beneath it and the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

I often consider the impact of that moment as I sit in front of my computer screen trying to write my own stories. I don't write children's stories but I hope to impart such strong characters and evoke powerful emotional moments that my story will leave a little residue in the back of a reader's mind. I love to think that one of my stories might constantly come to someone's thoughts during certain situations or perhaps they just felt so strongly they just end up daydreaming about it.  

The power of a reader's imagination married to the strength of a good story can produce magic. And maybe five hundred years later that magic will still be going strong. Is there a particular story or fairytale from your childhood that resonates with you still? Or is there a speical story you've shared with your children or grandchildren? I'd love to hear about them.


Feb 21, 2012

Movies of 2012 (part 4)

So, I've watched a pile of movies lately, mostly while I've been avoiding my current writing project. I've not been overly enthused by any of the newer movies and so far, this year, the best movies I've seen are all older movies. Here are another 3 reviews for the pile...

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Goofy comedy that won Marisa Tomei a Best Supporting Actress Oscar that about knocked the critics off their high chairs. This is one of those movies I always find while browsing through the channels and always end up watching. It's very silly but Joe Pesci is likable as Vinny, the loud-mouth New York lawyer out of his depth in the South.(As usual Pesci's wig seems to have a mind of its own!)  Tomei also shines as his patient  yet hot-blooded girlfriend. And for those with long memories, check out Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) as the judge! 3 bad wigs out of 5

Attack the Block (2011)

British sci-fi, horror, comedy which got a lot of rave reviews. I wanted to enjoy this movie more than I did. It was a standard alien invasion premise with an interesting setting: a housing block (called Projects in the US) and a different bunch of characters to root for. The effects were decent and the aliens interesting but somehow it just didn't add up to a better movie.

I think it let itself down most with the tone of the movie. In trying hard to be many things it succeeded in being none of them. The comedy element didn't always work and I thought the social commentary was heavy-handed at times too. That being said John Boyega one of several newcomers in the movie, put in a good performance as Moses, showing both sides of his character: the tough hoodlum and the sad, lonely kid from a broken home, really well. Sadly though it just lacked something and I'll have to give this 2 glow in the dark teeth out of 5.

Poltergeist (1982)

A classic from the early 80's, this movie still stands up against modern scary movies. Sure, the effects look a little dated in places, specifically the models and animated shots but you shouldn't let that stop you from watching it. The acting is brilliant throughout, there's an air of the natural about the family and how it operates together which just makes you pull for them all the more. Craig T. Nelson is great as the dad and JoBeth Williams is superb as the mom but the movie is most well known for the tiny, blonde-headed youngest daughter Carol Anne played with devastating cuteness by Heather O'Rourke.

The classic scene where Carol Anne announces the Poltergeist's arrival: [clip] "They're here."

There's a lot to enjoy about this movie and in particular the appearance of the peculiar Tangina is favorite of mine. Well worth it if you've got a spare Saturday night. I highly recommend this classic horror.

4 tennis balls out of 5

Feb 12, 2012

eBooks and FreeBooks

After I finished writing "Monsters" the thing I most wanted to do was make it into an actual physical book. I'd never finished a novel-length story before and this would be the icing on that particular cake. My friend Andrew already had some experience working through the Createspace site (owned by Amazon) and suggested I go that route.

Createspace will print your book on demand and sell it through their own website and then it will be picked up by Amazon. Paying a few more dollars will give you access to the "advanced distrubution network" which promises you the biggest possible audience.

I wanted a couple of copies of my book and I knew friends and family wanted copies but would anyone else? I didn't know, but I figured it would do no harm to pay for the full distrubution and whatever happened would just be a bonus. My book went "live" and over the next few months I sold 14 copies. I could tell you the name of every one of the 14 buyers too. I knew them all. I worked with them, was friends with them or was related to them in some way. This actually made sense since I wasn't advertising. How would anyone know to buy it if they didn't know it was for sale? Another negative was the steep price: $17.99 I had to choose that price so that I could earn a royalty from each book. Any lower and I wouldn't make any money.

So, there it was, the elephant in the room: MONEY.

When I wrote the book I wasn't interested in making money off it. Even once I set the price of the book to allow me a tiny royalty I still really didn't imagine wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. I looked at it as a way to finance another book - since I'd spent about $40 making "Monsters" into a paperback.

It became clear from what I read on the internet that eBooks were gaining a foothold on the market. The number of blogs and websites devoted to self publishing was increasing dramatically and I kept reading about Twitter and how it was helping Indie or self-published authors market their books.

I made a decision to look into it and finally decided to experiment further with "Monsters". I figured it was a decent book, so converting it to eBook formats and selling it for a small price would be something worth doing, if for no other reason than to test the format and see what would be involved. I was serious about writing but unsure which path to take. Getting an Agent is notoriously difficult but doing it yourself is not.

Again the ugly MONEY question reared its head. Many writers were putting books out for FREE. Others had their books priced down at 99c. What should "Monsters" sell for? I didn't think too hard on it, attached a 99c price tag and sat back to see what might happen.



Turns out not much happened.

My friends stepped up again. (Most of them now own my book in every format imaginable it seems.) However, with no advertising; without me telling someone about it, I wasn't going sell any. So I started mumble-tweeting, and hoped someone would take pity on me.

I continued reading about the pricing of eBooks and finally came to the conclusion that I should sell my book for FREE or I should sell it for a fair price. There was no in between. By setting the market standard to 99c I felt too many writers were selling themselves short.

It's not easy to write and harder to write well. It takes a long time for many of us and that's usually because we have a whole other life to take care of before we can burn the midnight oil and get a little writing done. I'm not the industry standard, but for reference purposes I can tell you I took two and half years to get my book finished. And really the writing isn't the most time consuming part. Once it's written it has to be edited, checked and rechecked. You are in charge of your own quality control. Put out a badly written book and people will tell you so without hesitation. Worse, they'll tell everyone else through bad word of mouth or reviews. So, you work hard to make the book as good as it can be.

That's a lot of work for 99c. And not even 99c because the usual royalty range for that price level is about 35%. You're looking at only making $35 for every 100 books sold and when you find out what the average sales for an eBook are you know you're never making a lot of money. However, that's not the main point. The point is Amazon/iTunes or whatever company you use to publish through makes twice what you make on every one of your books you sell. I don't have the figures on it but I'm sure they're making a killing since they continually expand their services.

I eventually stuck with Kindle and decided on $3.99 for the price of the book. That pricing level gave me a bigger royalty cut (75%) but still without advertising and word of mouth its hard to create sales. I will continue to look into marketing ideas and feel out an audience for my work.

For two days in January, my book was offered for free and 1300 copies were snapped up between the US and UK sites. So far this has generated a couple of positive reviews on the Amazon site which help promote my book.

After the FREE sale, the book returned tot he $3.99 price range and sales tailed off as expected but I did still manage to sell more books (at $3.99) that month than all previous months put together. I'm not sure why except with decent amounts of my book being snapped up for free, my book rose in the Kindle charts and maybe got some notice. I don't know for sure.

I haven't figured out the sales side of writing and must admit it is something I never realised I'd have to know when I started doing this. I have read a lot of advice but there's no quick and easy solution for this or there'd be far more successful authors out there.

Sales for eBooks are expected to keep increasing over the next couple of years and I hope I can have something figured out by then! 

If you're a reader, how much do you feel is fair to pay for an ebook?

If you're an author, how do you attract readers to your work? Twitter? Facebook? Let me know.


Feb 8, 2012

Books that made me want to write (Part Two)

Here we go with the second installment and this time a writer I'm pretty sure you've heard of:

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

My parents had a piece of furniture in the house that worked as a display case, had drawers for music tapes, a drinks cabinet and a cupboard for storing bits and pieces. Most importantly though, there was a horizontal section along the middle which could be used as a small library shelf. This shelf was filled with paperbacks that my parents had picked up over the years and it included a large amount of science fiction stories and short story collections.

My eye was drawn to them because of the vivid covers: colorful and psychedelic images of spacemen and aliens; of alluring alien females and deadly spaceships, the covers were always rich and interesting and made you want to find out what was inside. I learned the names of a few of the giants: Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein.

Clarke was most well known to me at the time. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World was a show I watched on television and from there I learned he had written 2001, a movie I had seen (but not really understood). My dad was a big fan of Asimov, or appeared to be. He would recommend I read his stories, explained the Three Laws of Robotics to me and seemed to enjoy the intellectual challenges in some of the harder science stuff Asimov wrote. One of my dad's first recommendations for me to read was the Foundation series. Bradbury was mentioned but I never really took notice. The other guys just sounded more interesting.

English class at school was usually always about the classics like Bronte's Jane Eyre or one of Shakespeare's tragedies. However, one day the teacher gave us a short story to read called "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury. The concept was simple: Time Travel to the past to hunt the giant predators of the dinosaur age. A guide would take you back and there would be a floating path you would stay on so that you wouldn't interfere with things you shouldn't. The creatures would be pre-tagged, chosen specifically because they were about to die anyway. Care was taken to emphasize: Don't stray from the path.

Of course, on seeing a large Tyrannosaurus growling at them, one of the hunters gets scared and runs from the path back to the time travel machine and the future men start their trip back to the future. Only now do we discover that the man who ran had trampled on a butterfly which was now stuck to his boot. When they arrive back in the future, they see that everything is the same...but different. Crushing that one butterfly caused ripple effects through time which effected everything.

I was hooked. Immediately upon my next visit to the library I picked up two thick anthologies of Bradbury short stories and nestled amongst stories like "A Sound of Thunder" and "The Scythe" were a group of episodic tales about Earth men trying to escape Earth and colonize Mars. Once I found out where those stories came from I then returned and loaned the Martian Chronicles.

From the very beginning it was clear to me that there was more to these stories than simple "Spacemen on Mars" ideas. Bradbury wrote the stories as a future history against a background of the impending destruction of Earth through nuclear war. Often the stories touched upon man's hubris and the idea of Martians as an Aborignal race trying to stop the settlers from staying on their world.

What I loved about these stories was how the Martians were presented. Although they looked different from the humans and possessed telepathic powers, in stories like "Ylla" the Martian female is in a loveless marriage and when she telepathically starts to dream about the approaching astronauts, her husband becomes so jealous that when the First Expedition lands he kills them. To me there was something very human about the way the Martians were presented and this actually foreshadowed stories later where the humans become the new Martians.

In between are some brilliant short stories about the initial expeditions and their failures and then the discovery that the Martians all died out because of the germs brought to Mars by the humans. The humans colonize the planet but then return to Earth where the threatened war ravages the planet and cuts off contact with Mars. The final stories show how the small group of humans on Mars deal with the aftermath of the war and become the new Martians.

My descriptions do the stories little justice. There are several wonderfully crafted tales in the book and it was after reading The Martian Chronicles that I realized how powerful a short story could be. The idea of each short story being a small part of a bigger over-arching tale just made the ideas more compelling to me.

From there I read everything I could get a hold of with Bradbury's name on it including his classics: Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man. However, I would always come back to The Martian Chronicles and read it in bits or as a whole and it fueled my own creativity as I tried to write my own stories. Even offering inspiration when I wrote music.

Bradbury is a giant in the field and easily my favorite short story writer. The Martian Chronicles is a masterpiece of science fiction in my opinion but I would recommend you browse through his extensive catalog because he has written other fantastic stuff.


Feb 3, 2012

Books that made me want to write (Part One)

If you will indulge me, I'd like to start a semi-regular piece on books that rocked my universe so hard they still influence me with my writing. They won't all be classics, by my or anyone else's standards, but they have all affected me positively as a writer. Here's the first one:

Dr. Who and the Robots of Death by Terrance Dicks

Much like everyone has their favorite James Bond; everyone has a favorite Dr Who (In the UK at least). The show has been around since the 60's, on and off, and had 11 different actors playing the lead character: The Doctor. My favorite was the enigmatic 4th Doctor: Tom Baker, with his floppy hat and mile long scarf, easily the most fun portrayal of the character.

It was a scary show for a young kid at the time, but that was a huge part of its appeal. The BBC and Target books were well aware of that fact and commissioned a whole line of novelizations of the show. If you saw it on TV, you would eventually be able to find the book version in the library.

Now, it may not surprise any of you that I had a library card or two as a youngster. While I lived on a small island called Shetland (where the Ponies come from), located North of mainland Scotland, we didn't exactly live near a library. However, we had a library van which toured the little communities and gave me an opportunity to grab a couple of books to read at my leisure. I lived on Shetland between the ages of seven and ten so my diet of books at the time included silly joke books, comic formats like Tintin or Asterix and then something like a Dr Who novel to actually READ.

The Robots of Death wasn't any kind of literary masterpiece but it was a good, scary, fast read like most of the novelizations. What's important about this book is that while I lived on Shetland I got to meet it's author: Terrance Dicks.

I don't recall too many of the details of that day but it happened at school. Terrance Dicks showed up, signed some autographs and answered some questions. I was a shy kid so I stood in line for an autograph but I didn't ask any questions. He signed a small, cheap bookmark for me and I remember he was left-handed. I just thought it was really cool meeting a guy who had written a bunch of books I enjoyed.

It turned out that not only did he write the novelizations but he'd served for a while as script editor of the actual TV show, but I remember him primarily as a writer of books. Dicks went on to become the most prolific writer of the novelizations, writing more than sixty of them. And I continued to pick them up from libraries and enjoy them. They were short, fast-paced and captured the essence of the TV show without getting too bogged down in back-story or trying to recreate the show in minute detail. The Dr. Who books were my first real foray into science fiction books and when Dicks wrote other stuff I'd try that out too.

Dr. Who and the Robots of Death might not be the best story Dicks wrote but I remember it the best of all his books. I read it more than once and the characters are still etched in my memory. And having met the man who wrote them, I found myself reacting as any nine year old would after meeting someone they admired: energized and inspired.

I can't say I immediately ran out and started writing my own stories but it made me read more. And in a roundabout way lead me in the direction of the ABC of Science Fiction stories: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke.

Somewhere in my mum's collection of family photos is a small, blue bookmark with an autograph on the back. Still got it after thirty years. Dicks remains, to this day, the only author I've ever met face to face.

Have any books or writers inspired you? Let me know. Comment below.