Category Archives: writing

Help the Author – The Importance of Book Reviews.

book-review

I love reading books. I read a lot. In fact, I usually read one or two books a week. I’m also friends with a lot of avid book readers. But there is one thing that baffles me every time I hear it – it’s when those friends say something like this:

“I loved this book! It’s one of my favorite authors! But I don’t want to leave a review because I can’t formulate my thoughts well enough for it, or I’m afraid that I would make too many grammatical mistakes, or because it takes too much time.”

I’m sad when I hear that, because the BEST thing you can do for that author that you love so much (after buying their book legally of course) is to leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book review sites for other readers to see.

You see, the publishing world is not what it was even 10 years ago. Putting a book for sale on Amazon is incredibly easy now – takes less than 5 minutes. So there is a literal sea of new content being put out there every day. And that book that you absolutely loved is just one tiny fish in that sea, easily overlooked by readers browsing for their next book.

So how can you help the author get more sales, which means she or he will get paid enough to write another book? By making their book more visible to potential buyers. And one easy and free way you can do that is by posting a review.

interior_view_of_stockholm_public_library

Reviews are important because, at least on Amazon, they increase the visibility of the book. The more reviews it has, the better are the chances that it will be included in the different lists or the “also viewed / bought” tab.

With so many books clamoring for my attention every time I go on Amazon or in a book store, I ALWAYS read a couple reviews before I decided if I will spend some of my hard earned money on a book or not. And I don’t only read 5 star reviews either. I usually pick up one 5 star, one 3 star and one 1 or 2 star review to make up my mind. Which should tell you the reason why all sorts of reviews matter.

That’s why authors are so desperate for reviews, and that’s why reviews are so hard to come by because most of the readers think exactly like the example above.

For some reason, a lot of people still think that only professional book bloggers / book magazines can write reviews for Amazon and other sites. This is so not true! Most of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have been posted by normal readers like you and I who loved a book (or hated it, or just thought it was so-so) and took the time to drop a  line or two and give it a few stars.

Yes, a book review doesn’t have to be a detailed analysis of the plot and characters that’s over 1k words long. It can be as short and or as long as you want. You liked something about this book, right? Or you didn’t like something, that’s okay as well. So write about that! ALL reviews are important and useful, as long as they’re honest.

Amazon Reviews

If you are still unsure of whether you should leave a review or how to approach it, here are a few tips:

  1. Write about the book, not the author. Never get personal in your praise or your critique. Never treat this more than a fictional story you read.
  1. Be honest. Write about what you liked or didn’t like about the book. Leaving a glowing 5 stars review on a sub-par book will actually do a disservice to the author in the long run. Others will read the book as well and might not be as forgiving, so your review will attract more negative attention then positive.
  1. Avoid spoilers. Maybe there is a plot twist you absolutely loved in the later part of the book, but don’t mention it in your review. You don’t want to spoil other readers, do you? You want them to reach that point and be as blown away as you are.
  1. Don’t worry if your review doesn’t look professional. So what if you didn’t structure you sentences properly or made some spelling and grammatical mistakes? You aren’t writing a dissertation or an article for New York Times. You are just sharing your opinion with fellow readers.

So now that you read all this, how about you go to Amazon and Goodreads, open the page of the last book you read, and leave a review? Share your love by helping the author get more visibility.

There is no such thing as too many books.
There is no such thing as too many books.

In Memoriam – Alan Rickman.

Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman would have turned 70 yesterday. Unfortunately, Fate decided differently, and he passed away on January 14, 2016, after loosing a battle against cancer.

But I couldn’t let this date pass without honoring one of my favorite actors at least in some way, so today I decided to talk about some of Alan Rickman roles that I loved the most. He has been in so many movies, theatrical plays, and radio shows, and even lent his beautiful voice to audio books, that it’s impossible for me to list them all. And I probably haven’t seen all of them either. So I will concentrate on those that I particularly loved.

  1. Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

I think this was one of the first Alan Rickman’s movies I’ve seen and I was 11 years old then. It just goes to show how impressed (and terrified) I was of Hans Gruber that I remember him even after all those years. Hans was magnificent in his ruthlessness and baddassery with a slight touch of crazy. One of the best villains ever.

Die Hard

2. The Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.

It just goes to show how good Alan Rickman was at playing villains that he managed to transform this rather one dimensional character into somebody I in turn hated, despised, and pitied. He gave the Sheriff of Nottingham a touch of humanity and more than a few doses of insanity. Compared to how dull Robin Hood himself was in this movie, the Sheriff was a joy to watch.

Robn Hood prince of thieves

3. Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility.

As good as Alan Rickman was at playing a villain, he was absolutely swoon worthy as a romantic character. Colonel Brandon was a man of few words, but his eyes spoke volumes. He could melt your heart into a puddle with just one long soulful look. I kept yelling at Marianne to open her eyes and grab on to the treasure that this man was instead of chasing after Willoughby.

Sense and Sensibility

4. Metatron in Dogma

And if you thought he was excellent at playing villains or romantic heroes, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen him in Dogma. He was awesome as Archangel Metatron, The Voice of God. He was so full of sass and sarcasm and quick wit that I’m not gonna include a picture here, but a whole video clip instead. You’re welcome.

5. Professor Snape in Harry Potter.

This is probably the most iconic role Alan Rickman ever played. I’m safe to say that for my generation,  and for younger generations, the name of Professor Snape will always be associated with Alan Rickman. He embodied that character so perfectly, that I can’t imagine anyone else as Severus Snape.

Severus Snape

 

And there you have it, my five favorite roles Alan Rickman played. What are yours? He was a wonderful actor and human being who touch countless hearts. Our world grew a little duller now that he is gone.

Happy Birthday, Maestro! I miss you.

Signal – what Korean dramas can teach us about telling a compelling story AND keeping you on the edge or your seat.

With this blog post, I want to continue my series of posts about what Asian dramas can teach us about storytelling. You can check out my first post about it here.

This time I want to use the example of Signal, an ongoing Korean drama that, so far, is the best example of a crime procedural done right. It tells us a compelling story which includes an overarching arc relating to the characters, but also the “cases of the day” so to speak and it manages to do so with so much heart and suspense that you can’t help but get invested in every case. More than that, it makes each hour long episode a heart-pounding, edge of your seat, adrenaline ride.

Signal, a Korean Drama by TvN.
Signal, a Korean Drama by TvN.

Here is a brief synopsis of Signal:

Park Hae-Young, a young profiler and detective in 2015, manages to connect with Lee Jae-Han, a detective from the past with the help of an old walkie-talkie. Together they try to solve cold cases.

That sounds intriguing, but nothing stellar, right?

Well let’s add some more details to that. The walkie-talkie only works at 11.23pm and stays on for about one minute. And it doesn’t do that every day either. Neither cop knows when the connection will be possible again.

Also, while time for Hae-Young is linear, for Jae-Han it’s not. The first radio transmission connecting the two detectives happens in August 2015 for Hae-Young and in August 2000 for Jae-Han. At that time, Hae-Young has no idea what’s going on and thinks this transmission is a giant hoax, but Jae-Han knows exactly whom he is talking to and even calls the present detective by name, like they had spoken several times before. The next transmission Hae-Young gets though connects him with a Jae-Han from 1989, back then just a rookie cop, and it’s Hae-Young’s turn to persuade the other detective that he is not pulling his leg.

Moreover, Lee Jae-Han, the cop from the past, went missing shorty after that very first (or very last, depending on the point of view) transmission in August 2000. His official file says that he had been under investigation for embezzling money and fled the country, but the more Hae-Young digs into that, the more he suspects that it was just a carefully crafted cover up. So this is the first mystery driving this series. What happened to Jae-Han and what can both cops do to change his fate?

And finally, any changes made in the past tend to generate a ripple effect that leads to unforeseen (and often disastrous) consequences in the present.

Butterfly effect.
Butterfly effect.

When Hae-Young warns Jae-Han about the location of the next victim of a serial killer, Jae-Han manages to save her, but because of that the killer accelerates his killing spree and 3 more people die that were alive in the unaltered version of events. And one of those new victims was someone Jae-Han liked.

When Jae-Han begs Hae-Young to give him some tips about a string of burglary cases that remained unsolved even in 2015 and uses those profiling tips to catch the culprit, the repercussions are even more severe – the culprit’s daughter dies in front of his eyes in the past and he goes on a revenge killing in the present that takes the life of another cop…

This sense of immediate repercussion adds urgency and suspense to the stories, because you never know if by messing with time, the protagonists will make things worse or better. They might save lives, but they might make it so that more lives are lost as well. So both have to choose just how much to reveal and how much to leave out during each of their radio transmissions.

Timey wimey stuff
Timey wimey stuff

What adds to the suspense of this series is the fact that all the cases, even the case of the day, are tied to the members of the cold case squad one way or another either by what happened in the past or by the ripple effect of the time-altering intervention, so the viewer can’t help but be emotionally invested in the investigation because all the main characters in this series have their own backstories and lives which we get only small glimpses now and then, but which make them more than just “member X of the cold case squad” but real people with their own problem, aspirations, and heartaches.

Take the very first case, for example. Fifteen years ago, a 10 year old girl was kidnapped from in front of her school and found dead a few days later. The culprit was never found and the statute of limitation on that crime expires in 3 days. This case is very important for Hae-Young, because he was the only witness of that kidnapping, because he was the girl’s classmate and happened to see a woman lead her away. He even went to the police station right away, but nobody would talk to a 10 year old boy. He came back year after year, but nobody was interested to listen to what he had to say. That case shaped his character – he became a profiler and a cop to right a wrong, but he despises cops he works with, because in his experience, they are more worried about closing cases quickly and looking good in the public eye than actually trying to find the truth. So he doesn’t mince his words and clashes with most of his colleagues. There is no love lost between him and the other detectives, even though his profiling instincts (and the help of a magic walkie-talkie) help them solve cases.

This is how you make a series that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let you go – engaging characters that feel like real people instead of walking labels, intricate and interesting story with stakes that are actually important for the characters, and a certain amount of unpredictability that is still consistent with the inner logic of this created world.

Outlines – When it’s time to throw the map out of the window.

Roadmap

So remember when I talked about the importance of outlines and that having a roadmap will help you get to your destination faster while writing the first draft… Yeah, well somethings things happen that throw a wrench into the well-made plan and you are left scrambling to put pieces back together. And they usually form different pattern in the end.

 

It’s like when you plan out a route to get somewhere only to get halfway and discover that the bridge is out. Now you are left trying to negotiate a myriad of backroads to get to your destination, and your GPS is out. Scary right? But admit that it’s also a bit exciting. Because just like driving, spending several months simply following along a rigid outline can become boring.

 

I know I was getting a bit tired of my well-planned out story when I finished Part 2 of Shadow Hunters and started on Part 3. And that’s when the writing gods threw a wrench in my plans and made my writing time exciting again.

 

It all started when a character whom I didn’t have any big plans for decided to not only appear early, but also to take an active role in the story.

 

When he showed up, I said, “Well hello there! What am I supposed to do with you?”

 

He smiled and blew up my carefully constructed bridge leading to the final destination.

 

So now I and the rest of the characters are stuck on the backroads of the story. We see the destination, but what stretches between us and shining light called THE END is terra incognita.

 

But you know what? I’m looking forward to my writing time again now. I know that I can still use some of the plot points and scenes I had outlined, but they will have to be arranged differently and probably have an unexpected outcome. But a lot of this Part 3 will be totally new. Who will live? Who will die? How will the situation be resolved? Shit, I have no idea now! How cool is that?

 Terra-Incognita

So this is my long-winding way of saying that while having an outline is important because it lets you really think your story through to the ending, sticking to it like glue can be a bad thing. Use it as a guideline, but never be afraid to step off the beaten path.

 

When a character starts doing something unexpected? By all means, let him! And cheer him on too, because chances are, he is giving you narrative gold. When a carefully planned scene suddenly reaches an unplanned outcome, don’t delete it and try to rewrite so that it fits your outline. Let it run its course and see where it leads. Even if it doesn’t quite make sense at the time, even if that means you will have to rewrite parts of the story you have already written down afterwards. Let it flow, because this is your story telling you how it wants to be written.

 

So throw away the map and jump into the unknown with a smile on your face, just don’t lose sight of the end game! You might meander a little and take a detour or two, but you will certainly find some hidden gems along the way.

 

Write on, my friends, write on.

WordCount

Evolution of a character or not all princes are jerks.

Paiting a new world, what's more exciting then that?
Paiting a new world, what’s more exciting then that?

Last week I talked about the importance of listening to your characters and letting them evolve. Today I thought that I would give you an example of that, since I had to let the characters take the reins in my current WIP – Shadow Hunters.

 

When I was outlining and plotting Shadow Hunters, I knew that my protagonist would be a prince. Not only that, but that he would also be a jerk. After all, this kingdom lives under absolute monarchy, which means the king and the royal family have a heck of a lot of power. On top of that, there is a rather rigid caste system with the royal family on the very top of the food chain.

 

So it made sense that a guy who was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and had servants cater to his every whim would grow up to be a self-absorbed and entitled jerk. So his initial character journey was to meet a girl from a very different environment, fall in love and slowly become a decent human being through a series of more and more staggering trials and obstacles.

 

With that plan in hand, I started writing my first draft and my protagonist immediately rebelled against me. He absolutely didn’t want to be a jerk. After fighting with him for the first three scenes of the first chapter, I threw the towel and let him drive the narrative. And I discovered some very interesting facts about my prince.

keep-calm-and-start-the-rebellion-2

Yes, Akemi’s family is all powerful and his father rules the kingdom with a firm hand, but Akemi himself is the youngest of five children. As such, he is so far down the inheritance line that nobody even considers him a contender. His eldest brother is the Heir in waiting destined to succeed to their father and has been trained as such. His sister is the perfect lady destined to be married off to form an alliance with one of the neighboring kingdoms. He could go into the military, but his second brother already beat him to it and he is, by all accounts, an exceptional warrior. And even the scientific field is covered with his last brother the genius inventor.

 

Akemi couldn’t even enter the clergy because there is no clergy per se in this world. And it’s not like he has a particular talent for anything. So in the eyes of his family, he is useless. He grew up seeing indifference in his parent’s eyes and annoyance from his eldest siblings.

 

On top of that, he learned at a very young age that no friendship is free. All the kids that wanted to be his friends in the past and even now that he is studying at the Royal College want something in exchange for that friendship. It’s either status, influence, money, or a way to get closer to his more influential siblings, and once they get what they want, they will jump ship in a heartbeat.

 

So Akemi learned to wear a mask of indifference and condescending aloofness and not let anyone close enough to see his real face. Heck, he doesn’t bother to learn the names and faces of most of his followers because they change from week to week. He remembers 3-4 that stayed longer than most and even gets attached to them more than he should, despite knowing that it’s a bad idea that would only lead to heartbreak.

Guidelines

So instead of a self-absorbed jerk, I discovered a decent and even rather kind guy who is just so lost and disillusioned about his place in this world that he hides behind a mask. His family thinks he is useless, so he ends up believing the same, and just kinda floats with the current, not making much effort to find a road to follow in life.

 

So his journey through the book transformed as well. Instead of being just a plain love story where guy meets girl and she makes a human being out of him, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Throughout the events of this story, Akemi discovers where his allegiances lies, what his dreams are, and how far he is willing to go to protect those he loves.

 

I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of story a lot more interesting than the one I had planed to write in the beginning.

 

Let your characters grow and evolve.

WordCount

For me, the two key ingredients of a good book is an interesting plot and engaging characters that I want to follow through the highs and lows and growing pains until the end of the book.

I must admit that characters come before plot for me. I am willing to follow well-made characters through even the most boring plot if I like them enough, because they become like friends to me to the point when I’m sad to say goodbye when the book ends. I think that’s part of the appeal of fanfiction – we readers love the characters so much that they loathe to let them go after the official story ended and invent new stories for them. Or explore side characters that the author didn’t have time or book space to delve into.

But I’m getting side-tracked here. I read a lot. A lot lot. And I’ve noticed that there is one thing that will make me drop a book like a hot potato EVERY SINGLE TIME – when I can’t find a single character, even a side character, to like.

I’ve also identified several reasons for that. I think that keeping them in mind while writing my books will make me a better writer, and reading about them might make you guys think about it as well.

 

  1. Characters never evolve past static cardboard cutouts.

We’ve all picked up a book where the characters have no personality, no life. They are just a bag of walking clichés, or they were created to fulfill predetermined roles – the brooding hero, his love interest who is sometimes a damsel in distress and sometimes a badass girl who nevertheless needs rescuing, the super bad who is bad because of reasons, etc. Or sometimes they are just bland and blah. When I read a book and can’t even picture what the protagonist looks like in my head and how he / she behaves, I’m not going to stick with the story.

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr
  1. Characters are well-developed but they don’t evolve.

This one leave a bitter taste in my mouth every time because the stories begin with great characters that I usually get invested into, but by the time I reach about halfway into the book, I suddenly realize that they hadn’t grown up at all. That despite all the adventures, the difficulties, and the heartbreak they go through during the story, they stay exactly the same. There is no emotional growth. Worst case would be when they never learn from their own mistakes and continue doing dumb things over and over again.

By the time you realize that there is no forward momentum in the character’s evolution, you’ve already invested several hours into the book, so sometimes you feel compelled to power through to the end, often wishing you could get those hour back and spend them on something more productive.

 

  1. Characters that behave out of character because the author tries to fit them into a story they’ve outgrown.

When we set off to write a book, we usually have at least a vague idea of where this story is supposed to go and how we would like it to end. Problems arise when our characters take a life of their own and start telling their own story that sometimes clashes with what we had initially in mind.

What I’m about to say is my personal opinion only, but I think it would be a mistake to try and herd them back into the fold and bend them backwards in order to fit the story we had created. It’s like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Even if you hammer it in there, it still won’t feel right.

That’s when otherwise very logical and well-written characters start behaving in such a manner that makes you scratch your head and wonder what they or the author was smoking. When a heroine how was known to use her head and analyze everything carefully and formulate a plan suddenly rushes into the enemy lair without even a weapon. Or when a cold-hearted jerk suddenly turns into a puddle of goo and declares his never dying love for the heroine WITHOUT any buildup to that change of feelings.

This is what makes me throw a book away in frustration or want to strangle the characters for suddenly becoming mere shadows of themselves. That’s where I feel most betrayed because I loved them how they were and all of a sudden I feel like they had been replaced by a doppelganger.

hourglass_parchment_quill_cover

 

I think that characters have to come before the story. If they are fleshed out enough, they will tell their own  story that will probably be even more interesting than what you initially set off to write. So let your characters speak. Let them grow and evolve. And when they suddenly decide to step off the road you had outlined before them, let them do that and follow them down that rabbit hole.  That’s where the most interesting conflicts lie.

Getting back in the saddle.

Hibernating-BRB

I spent most of my month of December in a slump. Like I had said in my previous post, I might as well have hibernated during those 31 days because I couldn’t scrap up even an ounce of motivation to do anything. Needless to say that my writing suffered from that slump as well.

 

Oh, I still managed to put some words on the page every now and then, so I wouldn’t feel too awfully guilty. I could tell my conscience, See, there’s some new words, so hush now. Problem was that those were maybe 200-300 words a day. So I had written 50k words in the month of November and barely 15k in the whole of December. That’s a DRASTIC fall in productivity for me.

 

So on January 1st, I finally pulled out my Excel word count spreadsheet that I hadn’t touched since sometimes in the beginning of December and updated it with the pitiful word counts I’ve had. The results were rather depressing. If I kept going at this rate, I wouldn’t be done with the first draft of Shadow Hunters until end of March. And that provided that I manage to wrap it up in 100k words, which I never do on first drafts.

 

Now I don’t have a deadline or a publisher breathing down my neck. There is no editor waiting to tear into my draft. Technically,  I could take as much time as I want. I used to enjoy that freedom, but I think it’s done me a disservice in this instance – it made me too complacent.

Lack of Motivation
Lack of Motivation

Yes, I could putter around with the draft, adding 200-300 words here and there and finish the damn story just in time to start a new one for NaNoWriMo 2016. But I have other writing goals for 2016, like editing and rewriting other works, writing several short stories, and publishing at least one book. I can’t accomplish any of these if I drag my feet.

 

So I gave myself a mental kick in the butt and set myself a hard deadline. I need to finish Shadow Hunters by February 15th. This means I need to write at least 800 words per day every day until then, no matter what. No matter how I feel, no matter how (un)motivated I am, I will sit my butt in that chair and I won’t take my fingers off the keyboard until those 800 words are on the page. And I will make sure to update my spreadsheet everyday as well to keep track of my progress.

 

Setting up that deadline actually worked wonders for my motivation too. I had written more in the past 4 days than in the 10 last days of 2015. And I actually feel excited about my writing and my story again. It’s not just meh, need to kick that can down the road anymore. It’s wow, let’s see what shit I can land my poor characters in this time. Rubs her hands together with an evil grin at that thought

Accountability

And since I’m finally out of my slump, the motivation to write blog posts is also back! So expect regular updates on this site once again and the return of book reviews every Friday. I have at least good books screaming to be reviewed right now.

 

I am so sorry to all my readers that I let the blog fall by the wayside in the past few months. I could give the excuse of work and NaNo and winter blues, but the reality is that there is no excuse. It was just plain laziness on my part. I will do better in 2016.

 

Pfew, that’s it for my 2016 resolutions. How about you, my loyal readers, what resolutions will you set up for this new year?