How to make the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists: Jasmine Walt (one to watch)

Interview with Jasmine Walt by the Self-Publishing Roundtable

If you can spare just one hour out of your life to watch one video that could influence whether or not you ‘make it’ as an author (in the really, really BIG sense), watch this one.

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Jasmine Walt has made both the NYT and USA Today top 20 (including top 10) bestseller lists twice in the last month – firstly with her curated/co-authored box-set ebook Magic & Mayhem, and this week with the first in her new paranormal series, Shadow Born, co-authored with fellow HarperCollins ‘Authonomy’ site alumni Rebecca Hamilton.

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As Jasmine explains here, it’s not simply a case of luck. It’s a lot of marketing via social media and mailing lists, a huge advertising budget (hers doubled in the three month pre-order phase for the box-set ebook release of Magic & Mayhem, in order to have the desired impact) and endless navigating of the restrictions and regulations by the ebook publishing platforms, and criteria of the bestseller lists themselves, when pushing for this kind of exposure.

Because you need to watch the interview to get to the real nuts and bolts of how it was done, I’m not going to discuss the interview content further or give you my opinions, other than tell you, this is tried and tested, it happened, and it worked. If you have the time and financial resources to try it for yourself, and achieve the same initial sales figures in the process, there’s no reason why this business model shouldn’t work for you too.

One prerequisite: You do need to have written the book! And as Jasmine says “It does seem to work best with new releases” – so think carefully before republishing something that’s been lurking on Amazon already for the last five years. Look at the current market interests, and get those brain cells in gear – you’ll need every last one of them.

You can find Jasmine Walt on Twitter as @jasmine_writes

🙂 xx

Hoop Physio

Hoop Physio – neck, sternum & rotator cuff rehabilitation of sports injury

Happy New Year! Here’s what I’ve been up to, most of the last couple of years, since crash-landing on the parkour gym tumble-track in June 2013, folding in half at the neck and faceplanting into my own torso – technically I shouldn’t still be here, let alone walking around, blogging, breathing etc… thanks to yoga for life for the extra bendy spine.

Issues have been many, varied and changeable – pain, stability, vomiting, swallowing, speech slurring, pain, holding head up, walking in a straight line, sitting upright, pain, clumsiness, dropping things, pain, pins and needles, pain, insomnia, boredom, muscle atrophy, nerve signal, sudden eye deterioration (possible vertebral artery insufficiency – having another MRI to investigate neck scarring, discs and positioning in the next fortnight)… strength, dizziness, vertigo, more pain…

I’m about halfway back together now, following sternum surgery and physiotherapy, fixed braces for a year which helped by aligning my bite and reduced neck muscle aggravation by stopping me grinding my teeth, lens replacement and vitrectomy in both eyes just before Christmas, and a very recent gym referral.

Last year I started messing around with my hula hoops, and developed a separate set of exercises that addressed a lot of my issues with muscle tone, flexibility, nerve signal, stability and grip. A few people got interested in trying them out as well, so I’ve just finished making this video tutorial and session run-through to share.

Sitting at the computer editing and rendering the finished version was harder than filming it, pain-wise, but I hope it’s worth it – someone else might need the physio inspiration, you never know.

New Year’s Resolution for 2016 – keep doing more of this stuff, and maybe change my career… 🙂

L xx

Poetry Slam – Dan Holloway ‘How to Write a Bestseller’

Dan Holloway, super-genius 🙂

You can find more of Dan’s writing on danholloway.wordpress.com

(If you want to write and self-publish, you can find my advice by clicking here)

L xx 🙂

“BARE with me,” she said, going upstairs in the bungalow – and other signs that the author has lost the plot…

It takes a long time to write a book.

Seriously. Anything between three hours (going by what is currently being published on Kindle nowadays, and frightening all the ebook customers back into the paperback aisles of Waterstones) and sixty years.

At the end of the day – however long that working day has been – you hope that the author is the go-to expert on their work. Including thoroughly knowing what has been added or removed after an editor has had their grubby mitts on it, if you are one of those lucky authors.

A character’s eye colour or birth-sign shouldn’t change in the time it takes the reader to make a pot of tea between pages. For the writer, who was living in a different time-frame while constructing the story, this interlude between paragraphs may have been forty years. But even in a NaNoWriMo novel, over the course of a month’s hard writing, it’s possible to see where the author’s imaginary world morphed, grew, shrunk, and in some cases emigrated, with no reference point or explanation.

Continuity errors are not limited to film and TV. They appear in written prose all too often as well. But it’s not just continuity errors. It’s reality-check-bouncing too.

For example:

  • A character who lives in a bungalow (or a trailer, tent or caravan) as designated at the start of the story, should not pop upstairs for any reason, sleep in a room upstairs, or hear noises downstairs at the dead of night.
  • A character should remember the names and sexes of their siblings, whether or not those siblings are married, and to whom. They should also remember how many children they have. And if a family is limited to one car, they should own one that they can all comfortably fit into.
  • A character who tells everyone that he/she ‘does not drink’ should not be quaffing Champers at the staff party, or opening the Jack Daniels every night after work and the Beaujolais with dinner, unless he/she is also a humungous liar. Teetotallers do not merely drink less than the average struggling author. They don’t touch alcohol at all.
  • A virginal character should not leap like a porn star onto the first man to compliment her cleavage, unless she is a sperm-jacker hoping to get a council house.
  • A character who remembers his/her parents’ death in a car crash while still at primary school should not also have memories of how embarrassing they were at his/her wedding, have photographs of them at his/her graduation, or receive phone calls from them with unexpected news of other nonexistent relatives (such as siblings of only children), reminders of family birthdays which have already been celebrated and forgotten two chapters previously, or other postmodernist twists in the plot. And while on the subject, twin siblings usually celebrate their birthdays on the same day, so reminders of a twin’s birthday are bizarre, to say the least… we’ll ignore the fact that my own mother once called to remind me of family birthdays looming in the next two days – it was my own, her eldest child’s birthday that was looming. I got a dead potted plant. It must have been too short notice for her 🙂
  • A character in a novel set in 1914 whose husband only gives her ten pounds a day ‘spending money’ should not be roaming the streets of London pleading with shopkeepers to give her a job stating that her family is in need (unless again, she is a great big liar). ‘Ten pounds a day’ to live on in 1914 is roughly the equivalent of £100 in today’s terms. (Even today, sometimes I wish I had as much as ten quid a day just for ‘spending money’).
  • A character should not ‘fly out to Rio’ for a one-stop party weekend and ‘return from his Mexican holiday’ on the Monday, unless his nickname is Speed Gonzales, Fastest Drug Dealer/Liar/Cross-Border Trafficker in the west.

No matter how well you think you know your story, your characters, where they live, the layout of their house/spaceship/camp-site or crime scene (or any other matters of world geography) – or indeed, in how short a space of time you wrote it – you must sit down and read it cover-to-cover once it’s finished. It’s the only way you’ll find all the booby-traps you’ve set for yourself in the process of incorporating all of the add-ons your imagination has furnished the story with since you started.

Did you know that you can Google what time the sun sets anywhere in the world, on any given calendar day? Recently, one of my author clients nearly changed the solar year in Tokyo to be in parallel with Northern Scotland, imagining that the winter days in Japan were as short as those approaching the Northern Lights and the Arctic Circle. I checked, as she had not. It turns out that the shortest daylight span of the year in midwinter Japan is less than 3 hours shorter than on the same day in Nairobi, close to the Equator. Japan may have mountains with snow on, but so does Mount Kilimanjaro. Which is not in the highlands of Scotland either.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I thought Vienna was in Spain. I was sending imaginary holiday postcards between Barbie dolls. I then opened an atlas, looked it up, and had to change it. It’s even easier to look things up online. Don’t use the world of your imagination as an excuse for getting the simplest of things wrong, unless you too want to sound like an elementary schoolchild when reading out your story at your first public appearance.

While looking for continuity/geographical errors, check out your spelling and grammar. Do you know the meanings of all of your favourite words? Is your hero accurately described as ‘a tenuous mass of muscle’ with ‘an autocratic accent’ or did you intend to say something else when you pictured him?

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Lord Dark Helmet of Spaceballs – both tenuous and autocratic

Also, is your prose dripping unintentional double-entendres at every turn? Is your heroine always asking folk to ‘bare with her’ (while she doubtless races to win the strip-tease contest first) or to ‘grin and bare it’ (obviously to collect photographic evidence of the aforementioned strip-tease).

Not long ago, I formatted a family saga – book-club, women’s fiction, that sort of thing – not humour, not parody, but quite serious and stately. It started out in rural Yorkshire, with a patriarch named Dick, host to a large brood and an explosive temper. The book was already published traditionally in print, so it was only the ebook I had to format – no changes, no edits allowed. After a few chapters, Dick’s incendiary nature nearly cost me two cups of tea and a keyboard.

Before she could finish, Dick had exploded.

She opened her mouth, and Dick exploded again.

If you’re writing serious prose, and have to negotiate the waters around some delicate choices of character name, try to exercise caution with descriptive verbs. And maybe cut down on their repetition, if the behaviour is unavoidable, as with Dick’s hot temper.

Otherwise, you may be misleading the reader into believing you’re writing something else.

A few authors become attracted by certain phrases, no doubt picked up from earlier reading habits of their own, which they do not see are also misleading to the reader. One author who consulted me was fond of describing the reactions of his characters in a certain way. They always ‘managed to appear genuinely amazed’ or ‘managed to seem genuinely surprised’ or ‘genuinely appeared to be puzzled’ etc, etc… what the author does not realise, is that these descriptions would be perfect should the characters all be routine dreadful liars and deceivers – yet again, this was not the author’s intention. I said to him, “when you chat with friends and they tell you something amazing, do you say ‘I’m amazed!’ or do you say ‘I am managing to appear genuinely amazed!’ – which of those actually sounds realistic and genuine?”

If your character is amazed or surprised, just say so. He/she was amazed. No-one should ‘appear to be genuine’ in any reaction, unless it is an outright act put on to deceive the other character or characters. Be wary of a fondness for expanding on what should be very simple bits of your illustrative prose.

Authors suffer from short attention-spans as well as overactive imaginations, and that shows all too painfully also.

In third-person storytelling, the author gives away whenever they are bored with the internal thoughts of the MC, or are merely delighted with an incidental character they have just created, by glaring amounts of pointless head-hopping:

The bus conductor looked at the beautiful girl and felt pity for her. It wasn’t her fault she couldn’t afford the fare, riding the strangely advanced London bus in 1914 with only ten pounds to last the day, before going home to her house in Mayfair and tightwad of a husband. Why, if he was ten years younger himself and wasn’t supporting his family of four he would have something to offer her all right, but on this occasion, a free bus journey was sufficient…

What the author thinks they’re doing is directing the reader to feel sorry for this loaded idle wench, as she trolls around the city of London with pockets full of her husband’s money on a daily basis. What they’re actually doing is attaching misleading significance to minor passing characters, while using as many pairs of eyes as they can in every scene to illustrate their own lust after the leading character (or desire to be the leading character, it’s usually one or the other).

If you want to make the readers feel sorry for your character, put them in piteous situations. Not riding buses around town, skirts weighed down with cash, while other characters stare at them and think the things that you want your readers to think.

Head-hopping can also take a terrifying and unforseen turn through ‘the fourth wall’ – away from the characters altogether:

Bella sighed as she got off the bus, and the flower-seller on the pavement nearby took pity on her at once, handing her a rose.

‘Poor girl,’ thought the flower-seller. ‘She looks like she’s been worrying over something all day. And it looks like she’s got off at the wrong stop…’

Yes – yes – see Bella suddenly running now, realising her mistake.

“Wait!” she shouted, but the bus had gone.

Look at Bella now – lost, dejected. Tears pricked at her eyelids. No! She mustn’t cry.

So – let’s watch and see what happens next, as she heads mournfully along the rain-sodden street…

A couple of things happened in the segment above. One, the author stopped writing the story from the point-of-view of the characters, and started addressing the reader directly, as if sitting alongside them in a movie theatre talking over the film. This is often a ploy when there is an annoying ‘narrator’ character, such as a ghost watching over the players, but it doesn’t work when it’s the author themselves.

Do you know why? Because the voice of the descriptive prose dictates the landscape portrayed in the reader’s imagination. If it suddenly switches to the author’s voice, saying in as many words ‘Look at this’ or ‘watch this’ then the reader is immediately teleported out of the location of the plot they were involved in, and into the seat next to the author as they wrote it (and a miserable place it is to be, too).

The reader is NOT INTERESTED IN YOU. Or in what you are thinking. Or in who you fancy eavesdropping on/sleeping with in the story, in any given session of writing. The reader wants to be on that street, with Bella, figuring out her next move with her, and when she’s going to learn that ten pounds will buy her quite a lot of groceries for her Mayfair house in 1914 – if she can only find a shopkeeper who has that much change to give her in return.

The reader does not want the author hanging around at their shoulder, prodding them, pointing at passers-by and telling the reader what each of them thinks about Bella as she freeloads her way around pre-WW1 London.

The other thing that occurred was the jumping of past tense to present tense. Past tense – that’s where the story was occurring (disregarding the head-hopping that was still going on). Present tense was what I used as evidence that the fourth wall was being smashed – that the author was addressing the reader directly. It isn’t necessarily the case – unwary writers can hop tenses as erratically as they can hop into and out of the heads of point-of-view characters – but it is occasionally a giveaway of fourth wall infringement that I’ve encountered as an editor and proofreader.

Remember, it takes a very clever writer to lead a discerning reader in a merry dance through the plot, on an entertaining journey to a satisfactory resolution. But it doesn’t take a genius reader to spot a terrible writer… you have been warned 😉 x

Spaceballs predicts the Clones 😉 x

She said it was only a quickie. The next day, some more dialogue took place…

One of my most successful author clients is currently making the switch from memoir-writing to fiction, and having had a look at it while formatting a proofreading copy for her, I noted that her style hadn’t significantly changed from ‘true-life journaling’ to ‘fiction/action comedy.’


In short, she hadn’t introduced enough dialogue. The only place that the characters were interacting, developing relationships, and building up their parts was still in her own head – which she was then ‘passing on’ to the reader in her own voice, almost as an afterthought.


It was written in what you’d call an ‘anecdotal’ style – lots of third-party reference to conversations, and descriptions of reports on third-party activity occurring away from the POV characters, but no actual conversations in receipt of these reports, or character-building reactions to any of these topics as they became known to the MC (main character) for the first time.


Here’s a couple of straightforward hints on writing dialogue for fiction, whether you are writing in first or third person.


Even in 1st person POV, you must write all of the dialogue. If someone in the novel is recounting a story or news to the protagonist, you must hear it with the character’s ears and let the reader know the character’s reaction to the news – otherwise it just sounds like you (the author) telling the audience what happened, with no actual action or reaction occurring for any of the characters. Whether they were present in the action – or not, and are just hearing about it from a third party. The reader is hearing about it for the first time too. Don’t just fob them off with a passing description of what they just heard.


For example, instead of saying, as you might in non-fiction/memoir:


It turned out that the truck had a flat. Someone had stolen the jack. They were stuck there for an hour.


You would write:


“What took them so long?” I asked, puzzled.
“They broke down!” my father exclaimed. “A flat.”
“But that takes no time at all.”
“The jack was gone. She thinks it was stolen.”


…And you would continue to show the whole conversation. Not just an introductory exchange, or then switch back to you telling the story. Let the characters unfold the story.


The first segment has no character development or character voice – it’s just your voice, the author, telling the reader instead of showing the reader. If you were writing in the third person (he/she) it would be a little more acceptable, but only if used sparingly. Never for first person. You need first person ‘ears and voice.’


It’s fine for non-fiction/memoir, when the reader is getting to know you, the author. But not for fiction – fiction demands that the author be invisible and that the characters do all the talking, even if the action being discussed did not happen to the POV character.


No matter how the news of the action reaches the POV character – telephone conversation, chance encounter, radio report – you MUST transcribe that report/exchange as dialogue. First person is no excuse – I wrote the whole of Death & the City from one POV and there was a ton of dialogue and action, including where Lara hears of action occurring away from her – I still wrote it as dialogue in scenes where she hears it as news for the first time (unless she was summarising a few incidences of a crap night at work, while on her own ruminating over her own mental health).


Whenever there is more than one person in the scene, THE DIALOGUE MUST BE WRITTEN. It doesn’t have to include every word spoken to a passing waiter, or regarding a ticket purchase for the bus. But all dialogue between recurring/important characters who are relevant to the events of the plot and outcome of the story must be shown.


With multiple POVs, including all of the dialogue is the best way for the reader to identify individual personalities as well. Otherwise, your own author voice is the predominant one, and the point of having first person/third person multiple POV is lost.


Remember it’s all about emotions and responses for the reader, especially in first person POV. Not the author telling the reader a story, sitting by an outdoor workshop campfire. It’s a play, being acted out in front of the reader. The reader is reading ‘I’ and ‘me’ in their own head – they want to know what that ‘I’ and ‘me’ is hearing, seeing, saying, tasting, smelling and feeling when they learn something for the FIRST time.


Not what the protagonist is picking over later – that’s not a story as it happens, it’s an anecdote (as in memoir writing) – of no emotional consequence to anyone.


Imagine you are writing a feature movie script. You wouldn’t write Scene One: X and Y sit in the restaurant booth and discuss their relationship. Scene Two: X and Y repaint the nursery together and discuss baby names. Scene Three… unless your movie is intended to be completely ad-libbed. You don’t ask your readers to ad-lib your novel. Even in the most artsy-fartsy literary fiction, it’s tedious when that happens (trust me, been there, read it, tried writing it, bored myself to sleep).


If your favourite author never writes the dialogue, try reading a few books by different authors. (And stop trying to emulate your favourite authors. They occasionally get things wrong as well).


You can see some further examples in an earlier post I wrote on Romance fiction writing.


New – Free on Kindle until midnight Wednesday 28 Oct, PST

3D WritingPublishing

Writing & Publishing For Yourself: The Indie Author Handbook, Self-Publishing Toolkit, and Staying Sane Survival Guide – or ‘The Adventures of an I.T. Helpdesk’ by Lisa Scullard (non-fiction/humour)

FREE on Kindle for a limited time (regular price $2.99 or equivalent) – Write a decent book, Tweet a few times, accept any spontaneous reviews graciously, and keep all of your friends…

Hi folks! Seeing as I didn’t know what I’d really done to earn recognition as a top blogger on here, a while ago I went through all of my posts on Writing and Publishing and compiled a list (see my Tutorials pages). Following that, and reading them through, I realised I had a whole lot more to add – to update – and articles elsewhere that were relevant. As well as journal entries of everything I’ve learned on the indie author rollercoaster.

I’ve now`organised them, fully-revised and updated, into this eBook above – containing my earliest advice on writing (reviewing the 27th Brussels International Film Festival, in 2000) to the latest. The eBook was was published yesterday, and I’ve just finished the final tweaks after uploading.

Here’s the blurb:

This isn’t a ‘How to sell a million copies’ or ‘How to be a New York Times bestseller’ guru session. This is not for seasoned ‘Authorpreneurs’ looking for new promotion and sales tactics. It is NOT a tried-and-tested formula for writing a blockbuster novel. And it will not tell you how to become a billionaire through exploiting your hidden USP (Unique Selling Point).

Neither is it a Zen lifestyle guide, telling you that it is simply a case of convincing the world (and yourself) that you are the world’s top author, and you will be showered with money, Nobel prizes, Oscars, Specsavers Daggers, retail sponsorship, street-value turnips, or whatever else takes your fancy.

None of the above. It’s a journal of the everyday life of a modern, under-the-radar indie author since the global self-publishing trend started, and a few confessions of advising others while being a Useful Technical Person to Have Around…

It is also a book for beginners, giving tutorials and case studies – on the subjects of inspiration, motivation, genre, legal hurdles, research, editing, and identifying your ideal market audience – along with the rocket science of formatting your documents, embedding illustrations, creating and linking to external content (such as audio and video), uploading them, and some gentle cautionary advice on publishing issues and promotions.

There will be laughs. There will be tears. There will be revealing examples made (and for readers with browser-enabled tablets or PC/phone reading apps, links to working samples of multimedia content).

Above all, it’s designed to save you time, hassle (and ultimately, save you money) when joining the indie author phenomenon.

Lisa Scullard went online one day in 2014 to find she was suddenly (and without warning) a WordPress-promoted top blogger in Reader on the subject of ‘Writing & Blogging’ – and promptly understood the full meaning of the phrase: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This subsequent book is an organised compilation of relevant blog posts, tutorials, articles, experimental book trailers and journal entries made over the years, covering the topics of writing, researching, editing, publishing and promotion. It has been an undertaking of mass rewrites, edits, revisions, expositions and updates, and some keyboard-crunching efforts at formatting, in order to justify such an unprecedented amount of recognition.

…And it’s FREE until midnight PST, Wednesday 28th October 2015, on Kindle worldwide. Grab it while you can.

Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukAmazon.deAmazon.frAmazon.esAmazon.itAmazon.nlAmazon.co.jpAmazon.inAmazon.caAmazon.com.brAmazon.com.mxAmazon.com.au

It’s already available in print on Lulu directly (postage £2.99 basic shipping) and should appear on Amazon in paperback form over the next few days.

Last updated: 14 November, 01.30 GMT – The latest updated version is now live. If you’ve downloaded your copy already, make sure it’s automatically synched to the newest version. You can use the Kindle Customer Services ‘Contact Us’ by chat/email method to request it to be re-delivered free to your app/tablet if it doesn’t update automatically from your reader settings. You’re always entitled to request the newest revision of an ebook for free, even after a paid purchase.

One of my supporting examples of fiction is also available FREE on Kindle for the same time period, for reference – Death & The City: Cut to the Chase Edition. (Also worldwide).

3D DATC CTTC cover

I hope you all have a great weekend, and for those of you off school and college, enjoy half-term break (and happy forthcoming Halloween) 🙂

L xxx

Genre Jazz: Re-cut – copyright, parodies, homage, tributes, image rights and public domain

The Story of Technoviking: The Film

technoviking

The Story of Technoviking, release date today, 15 Oct 2015 (50m06s, free to watch online): http://technoviking.tv/film

Writing parody mash-up on my blog while looking for inspiration in movie scenes made me realise two things: (1) That it’s still my strongest point writing-wise, and (2) Youtube kicks everyone’s ass!

In terms of public use, Youtube is the home of re-imagination. Whether the original muse is a movie, news story, pop promo, video game, or social commentary meme, it’s where users upload their re-interpretations, parodies, mutations, reactions, songs and art inspired by images appearing in the curated mainstream and entering the awareness of the social media sphere.

Perhaps the earliest cult internet muse inspiring an ongoing global artistic phenomenon is the Youtube uploader Subrealic.

Subrealic is the user name of Matthias Fritsch, a film-maker from Germany who took what appeared to be random public footage in a series of different locations, and posted them independently some time before joining Youtube.

The video in question was a candid single-shot in-camera sequence called ‘Kneecam No.1’ captured by Matthias at the Berlin Fuck Parade, a protest street event in response to what many underground EDM (electronic dance music) fans considered to be the over-commercialised Love Parade taking place in the city at the same time in 2000.

Matthias says: “The reason why I filmed this was to document the Fuck Parade as an event. Why I published this sequence was not to show the Fuck Parade but to raise a question for the audience: Is what you see real or staged? To create an uncertainty. I named it ʽKneecam No.1’ and ʽNo.1’ stands for a series of experimental videos that deal with the role of the camera… I started to upload my videos to YouTube to make them more accessible because it was much easier to host videos there than on my own website.”

The Kneecam No.1 video showed a short segment of the street protest party, filmed from the back of a moving trailer playing a mix of rave tunes by Can-D-Music and Winstan vs. Noia, while party-goers followed.

It captured a small moment of conflict, and its resolution by a figure intervening on the distracted parade with undeniable alpha-male status, who then reasserts the purpose of the event by leading the group in dancing behind the trailer for several minutes, before disappearing again.

Although the earliest reactions to the video came only in the form of comments debating the authenticity of the piece and whether it was an arranged set-up, once it began to be shared and re-posted on forums and other websites, the cult of personality of the alpha-male ‘character’ in Kneecam No.1 developed.

Matthias was on a trip to China when he received this email comment: “The video has been posted by someone 2 days ago and now there are 1 990 256 view. I have never see that before on the web. What is the name of those songs in the film? He needs to be on a T-shirt too. Thank you very much.”

Commenters on forums responded to it with custom memes and reaction images, and shortly, reaction videos. In one forum, the ʽstar’ was nominated for a title:

“He doesn’t dance to the music, the music dances to him. His name: Technoviking.”

As soon as the nickname Technoviking was coined, the cult status of the video was confirmed. The character was given the type of hero status reserved for action movie icons, compared to Chuck Norris.

Matthias began to collect and document Technoviking references to study what was occurring in the virtual world once it became apparent that this was a viral internet phenomenon.

“A whole Technoviking universe seemed to appear. So what I did was collect all those responses to my video. And of course most of them were remixes of the original video. So I put together an archive based on this Technoviking meme in order to study the behaviour of users online.”

Youtube users, artists, cartoonists, toy-makers, printers, songwriters and console gaming fans were soon using the original Kneecam No.1 film as a muse to create objects and scenarios in art based around the perceived leading character. The subsequent productivity and social awareness that surrounded Kneecam No.1 far outweighed the original – it had a self-regenerating, self-perpetuating, self-mutating life of its own.

Kirby Ferguson, from the film Everything Is A Remix Part 4, 2011: “This is evolution. Copy, transform, combine.”

Over the years, the film has been re-contextualised with alternative music, animations, re-scripted subtitles and voice dubs. It has been re-enacted hundreds of times over, with students, dolls, hula-hoop performances, in living rooms and outdoors, and uploaded by Youtubers sharing their enthusiasm for the Berlin Fuck Parade encounter scene and the mysterious individual known only as Technoviking, originally curated in Kneecam No.1.

Heinz Drügh, Professor of New German Literature and Aesthetics at Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, states:It is a bit like the butterfly effect. Something that was not created for a big dimension got such a huge echo. Especially by taking into consideration that most things in the Internet are not getting any attention.”

Technoviking as a cult celebrity figure has been printed on mugs, t-shirts, appeared in graphic novel sequences, and even as in-game characters, epitomising the alpha male action hero – only as inspiration taken from real life, not a Hollywood movie set.

Matthias, his film only the trigger for all of the extended creativity that followed it, made a modest sum of money over a period of two years when Youtube invited him to monetize his video with advertising, and by selling a few t-shirts. The majority of his efforts were focused on studying the viral influences of Technoviking, where the marketing of products by others based on the video’s character were more visible and aggressive, and where other individuals in the world were sharing and reinterpreting its influences.

He was also making efforts to trace the man himself, hoping to share the phenomenon with him and ensure that the benefits of the original video’s cult status were available mutually.

“…After the video went viral in 2007 I started to search in different gyms by calling them, because I thought he is from Berlin and a body builder, so he must be known in one or the other studio…”

He kept coming up against dead ends, but eventually after a number of years, contact was made – in the form of a Cease and Desist order from the individual’s lawyer.

The most famous unsuspecting internet cult hero of the early 21st Century only wanted his privacy and ‘the right to be forgotten’.

Matthias had to agree to remove the original Kneecam No.1 and all of his own ancillary products.

That part was simple enough. For the complainant, there are a myriad more cases of ‘use of his image’ and constant re-postings of the video by other users to pursue.

It’s a case of ‘Life imitating art imitating life’ – a character inspired by a real individual, given the themes of justice-seeker and superhero by the public, arts and the entertainment world, prompts the individual concerned to pursue his own global justice and protect his own right to privacy.

The man formerly known as Technoviking will indeed take you down, just as the many memes suggested his character would.

Remember also that this is a private individual – not a celebrity. He has nothing to lose by pursuing enforcement of his image rights.

Antonio Broumas, Digital Rights Attorney, Digital Liberation Network: I am very interested in the result of this case. It actually determines many things regarding what we are doing on the Internet. What can be uploaded to YouTube? How can we use people’s photos in public places? What is permitted and what is not? And I believe that the aim of the court in these cases will have to be to make things clear for the citizens.”

Meanwhile, Matthias Fritsch, the Youtube uploader formerly known as Subrealic, has made a case-study documentary of the Kneecam No.1 viral video’s influence to date and the worldwide phenomenon it prompted, leading to the image rights case being brought against him by the perceived ‘star’ – the individual concerned. It’s both a cautionary tale and an evolutionary one regarding the global arts community, including commentary and interviews with legal, social and arts experts.

The documentary covers issues an artist will encounter when using material ‘found in reality’ and regarding visual image copyright and distribution when the image contains persons and their rights. There are forms of explicit consent required for specific further use of the images, beyond merely collecting them.

It explodes the myths regarding the right to use images or footage from crowd scenes, namely the ‘Five or more persons’ myth.

Louisa Specht, Personality Rights Expert, ZAR Karlsruhe: The ʽ5 Person Myth’ doesn’t exist as a law. I am allowed to record parades and demonstrations without the agreement of the depicted people, but when an individual stands out from the crowd this exception doesn’t apply anymore.”

It also dissects what is essentially art and public property – such as whether an individual can claim rights over an image that contains elements of earlier appropriation, whether those are actions or personal style, or the context of their appearance and behaviour. The argument over ‘fair use’ has grounds in whether art inspired by individuals and scenes found in reality, whose own inspiration for image is inspired by earlier identifiable arts and personality icons, can even be claimed as a private or personal image in any new context that an artistically-revised version gives it.

Felix Stalder, Professor of Digital Culture and Net Theory in Zurich: The owner has to be aware that he takes or that she has taken from the public – so he/she has to grant the public also the right to take from him/her.”

Something that’s inspired me in the past is the trend on Youtube for re-edits of trailers and movie clips, by fans. My brothers and I used to do our own re-dubbed voice-overs for Star Trek when we were kids, on an ancient VHS rental with a Play/Rec/Dub setting. Must have been the earliest invented!

For example, I published my parody The Zombie Adventures of Sarah Bellum after writing it chapter-by-chapter on my blog, linking to movie scenes that were my muses and mashed-up music remixes on Youtube. I wanted to show where my influences lay. While searching for the scenes, with the most popular ones I would come across dozens of alternate versions in a creative online explosion, similar to the demographic portrayed by the ʽspawn’ of Kneecam No.1.

I don’t just mean ‘re-edits’ as in, a fan’s favourite bits of the movie put together as a tribute or slideshow. I mean where they’ve used the original as an artistic prompt, and changed the implied genre, or storyline, as a transformative work. Look up the political-thrillerised version of Splash’. That’s really creative, and the great thing about Youtube is everyone can share and appreciate a different slant on what Hollywood does.

And completely reinvented mash-ups, taking an existing concept and changing the context, like the re-imagined works initiated by Subrealic, aka Matthias Fritsch. One example is Youtube uploader Ryan (user name: nigahiga), known for a spoof of the social media game Candy Crush Saga by re-inventing it and shooting it as a Hollywood movie trailer.

It has been done in books already – most notably with Death Comes to Pemberley’ by P.D. James, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Two different interpretations of the same Jane Austen romance. James took the original characters from Pride and Prejudice’ but not the original book or prose, and penned a murder mystery in place of a happy ever after – but her imitation of Austen’s style is spot on, so it is the genre which has changed, but not the voice as such.

Grahame-Smith took the original text – legally, as it is in the ‘public domain’ meaning out of copyright worldwide (literary copyright expires in most countries at the wonderful-sounding date of death [of the author] + 70 years’ or in a few cases death [author] + 100 years’) – and added butt-kicking martial artist zombie-killer action to it.

If you plan to do similar, as in either of these examples, make sure the original content you are planning on mashing up is in the ‘public domain’ (as defined by the time-spans above). Public domain does NOT mean ‘the characters have been discussed in the Daily Mail’ or that they have fan pages on Facebook, or profiles on Wiki. One thing I was asked about by a cover artist – no, images on WikiCommons are not ‘public domain’ – they are provided for contextual use only.

Be wary of falling into the trap of assuming ALL books who fulfil the ‘date of death of the author’ are in public domain. Estates are often set up for prolific or famous authors – for example, the late British author Arthur Ransome.

Under normal circumstances, his books would enter public domain status seventy years after his death. However, the existence of an estate to protect his work, and an existing fan-base, means this is unlikely, and copyright may be renewed before it expires. This came as a surprise to at least two authors I have worked with – one who mistakenly assumed you could appropriate anything ‘from any book over seventy years old’ (misinformation about copyright lifespan, see above for definition), and one who thought you could publish new stories about an author’s famous original leading characters and situations so long as the author was dead (post-burial optional). As discussed before, that’s fan-fiction, and can’t be published for financial gain.

You also have to be aware of when a central character is not public domain, while the source story might well be. The fairytale of Sleeping Beauty is ancient and can be re-imagined by anyone. But Maleficent the character, based on the original ‘evil witch’ from the fairytale, as portrayed in all forms by Disney, was created and is owned by Disney. Again, this is similar in context to Stalder’s comment he takes or that she has taken from the public – so he/she has to grant the public also the right to take from him/her.”

Maleficent - before and after 1

Genuine Disney merchandise doll in original packaging on the left, with my re-dressed and repainted custom OOAK version on the right, made for myself as a fan of the character. Even more relevant – the doll on the right that I customised was not a genuine Disney original, but a bootleg version manufactured elsewhere and found online. So the Maleficent doll design has been ‘re-mixed’ twice.

It is possible to develop a new, copyrighted product inspired by public domain work. You cannot legally reproduce Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty or Maleficent, or any of their named character designs, and equally neither you or Disney can claim the copyright status of sole use of the original fairytale. But you can write your own version of the original fairytale from scratch, change the title, change the point-of-view, add new characters of your own devising (called O.C.s by fan-fiction writers) and you may copyright your own unique version.

This is where the debate rages over transformative works, especially when they cross back and forth over the transmedia line, from imagery to written word to gaming to product marketing and back again. It happens with cultural appropriation in music and fashion – mutual admiration or artistic appreciation of lifestyle across communities leads to imitation, reworking, a new and temporary ownership of those styles for a period of time, and then transition again.

Domenico Quaranta, Art Critic and Curator, Link Art Center, Italy:The idea should have the right to evolve, and who did something shouldn’t have the right to value, to judge the following variations of the idea that he contributed to. Because if this contributed in a significant way to the evolution of the story, this contribution itself must be significant.

Parody, as made by National Lampoon, and the Barry Trotter books etc, is a reworking of a genre, of a recognisable copyrighted current franchise – but with new characters, which may sound and act similar to the originals, and also importantly, with jokes in. Although ‘parody’ is still not recognised in all countries. Some territories consider it copyright infringement where readily identifiable, and deem them not publishable either, as with fan-fiction.

Many books and films, especially fantasy/humour (including Pratchett’s Discworld series) pay homage to earlier works in ways that the reader or viewer can identify with.

For this to work, the parody element – or the tribute, or homage – has to be something that connects broadly with the audience. Kneecam No.1 gave the audience the ʽsuperhero’ identification scene. In generally accepted storytelling, you have a scene with a damsel in distress, an injustice, a battle or a risk to life involved, and a mysterious, larger-than-life stranger swoops in to save the day. After succeeding and re-establishing the status quo, reminding the rest of humankind to look out for one another and what their current priorities are, the superhero vanishes again. He has other places to be and problems to solve. This is the story archetype for that character, and the role that Technoviking immediately fulfilled in the imagination of the audience.

Maxa Zoller, Film Curator, Cairo: “I think it’s a certain male desire to become this CGI, muscular, protective archetype of a man. These guys, when they imitate the viking, film, edit, upload and watch other examples – and that’s also where the fun comes in – there is an affective context that is not just popular culture, that has a certain quality.

Although these stories and scenarios exist as common archetypes, Hollywood homage and copyright is a fine line. George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino are artists in their own right who have included style reference to their influences in their work. Steven Spielberg too. Hollywood director Chris Columbus used his own Young Sherlock Holmes cast and script as reference for many scenes and characters when directing Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone. My mother recalls watching Young Sherlock Holmes on TV as ‘that old Harry Potter film with the unconvincing Dementors running around in dressing-gowns. The one where Hermione gets shot at the end.’

A line is crossed in film when an entire story and its parallel sequences are seen to be ‘lifted’ from one other recognisable work – you can look up Disturbia/Estate of Alfred Hitchcock vs. Sheldon Abend Trust to research how one such case of two films and the original story was raised.

Any writer automatically owns their own prose. That’s word order on the page. Not title, not idea, not basic plot. If someone is proven to have Ctrl+C-ed and Ctrl+V-ed (copied and pasted) from another author’s non-public-domain work, or reproduced chunks of it verbatim, that is written copyright infringement in a nutshell.

A well-reported case in the last few years involved passages lifted from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, among others, by a hasty crime thriller writer, drunk on the lucrative new publishing contract he had received (Assassin of Secrets by Q.R. Markham, pen-name of Quentin Rowan, 2011). The portions of work that were stolen were quickly spotted in review copies by existing fans of the originals, and shared publicly in online reader forums. The plagiarising author’s book was withdrawn, and thousands of orders and pre-orders had to be refunded.

Titles, and names such as Discworld can be protected by registered trademark. You can go on that journey if you wish – trademarking is not automatic, unlike copyright, and must be applied for. You will have to prove ownership, originality, and that the word, image or phrase is not in common public usage. Look up the following two words together – ‘space’ + ‘marine’ copyright, for a good example of trademarking which has had plenty of online coverage (see Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 v. M.C.A. Hogarth)

It’s rare to see trademark owners attempt to get it enforced retrospectively, but it does happen.

However, unpublished and indie authors occasionally come out with the well-roasted old chestnut: “I’d love for a huge publisher to steal my ideas, because then I would sue them and be rich.”

When is the last time you heard of this happening? I haven’t – yet I have seen several instances over the years of where a case might be made. The only case I saw followed through and resolved, hopefully to mutual satisfaction, was in the case of an indie author’s unique and personally commissioned cover art on the Authonomy website (now defunct), which was clearly imitated on a different book announced for release by the host publishing house. The publisher blamed the individual working for them on cover design, and had not checked their sources or inspiration – even though they owned the promotional website that the design was lifted from.

Major publishers and film companies always have to be prepared for a deluge of copyright claims, and legally, the complainant has to prove the theft, that the opportunity was in hand. If you research JK Rowling and her product distributors regarding individual authors’ attempted copyright cases against her work – there is a whole Wiki page’s worth – you will discover that the claimants have been bankrupted by such efforts, not enriched.

Even if the small fry have afforded their losing legal costs, the big fish may counter-sue subsequently for tarnishing their reputation, or something called ‘lack of good faith action’ requiring substantial damages to be paid to them by the original complainant. Cue small fry bankruptcy…

You may also be in trouble if you use a celebrity as a character in your published work, never mind a private individual, such as the Technoviking case. This comes under ‘appropriating and distributing a person’s image without consent’ – a French traditionally published author fell foul of this recently, using a current Hollywood actress as the person his female leading character was mistaken for and used to her advantage in his story. He had to pay damages to her as his book was found to have defamed the celebrity’s persona, tarnishing her public image (by his character’s behaviour in the story), while further damages for appropriation of her likeness and personality had also been sought. (Scarlet Johansson v. Grégoire Delacourt re. La Première Chose Qu’on Regarde, 2014). A major console gaming designer was subjected to a similar case by another Hollywood star, who claimed that she and her clothing style, including specific visual images and a recognisable corruption of her name ‘confusing to fans’ had been used as a model for an in-game character, without licensing or consent. (Lyndsay Lohan v. Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive re. GTA V, 2014).

Lyndsay v. GTA V

Lyndsay Lohan in a selfie-style pose on the left. GTA V in-game character Lacey Jonas mimics on the right.

Alexander Paschke, lawyer for Technoviking:My client asserts the rights that he is entitled to. And if this includes a claim for compensation – then it is part of that. But again: He is not after money – it would be much easier to make money out of this in other ways – but this is about others not exploiting and commercializing his persona. If you look at it from the other side: If the violator, who is marketing somebody else illegally, if he can even keep the profits coming out of the violation – what kind of understanding of rights would this be?

In non-fiction, there is the established referencing system for quotes and sources. Even if your own work is a paraphrased version of the source and not quoted directly, a lot of non-fiction requires supporting evidence, not just credit to the originator. Verbatim quotes will still need permission, including for credited song lyrics. Look up the Harvard method of referencing to fill out your bibliography of research to include in the endnotes of your book. (See Dr Raj Persaud plagiarism case).

That’s the bare bones of it. The part I can shed a positive light on today is the genre twist option, accessible to authors. Where, like P.D. James, you take an old public domain tale, and tell it for a different audience. I hear that very kinky things are currently going on in the world of crusty old romances at the minute, never mind murder mysteries and zombies.

By the look of things happening elsewhere in fictional mash-ups and re-inventions, Technoviking got off lightly. The audience in general respected him.

Wolfgang Ullrich, Professor of Art History & Media Philosophy, Karlsruhe:If one wanted to speak very traditionally and philosophically, one could see a phenomenon such as the Technoviking as a nice piece of evidence for a thought that was first prominently formulated by Immanuel Kant in his book ʽCritique of Judgment’ in the year 1790, where he asks himself the question: “How does one recognize a work of art?” – and he explicitly means a great work of art, the work of a genius. And the criterion for him, which is actually the only criterion for him, is the reception, the effect of this work. For him it’s clear: The work is a work of a genius if there are copycats, if there are a lot of copycats, if it has something compelling that other humans can’t resist its effect. This would be an indicator of the original’s power, that created new rules and established new forms, and for Kant this would be the proof for a really great art work in the case of the original video of Technoviking.”

Supposing as a writer, for example, you became such ʽa copycat’ and took the genius of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, re-writing him in the style of Bridget Jones’ Diary or Are You there, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Or Frankenstein in the style of a CSI police procedural, analysing all of the body parts going missing. I’d like to see Kathy Reichs do that one… It was done fantastically with Johnny Depp as a police forensics expert in Sleepy Hollow’ – so it’s not an entirely new concept (just look at the action-style on show in the last Sherlock-based TV and movie releases, which are frequently re-invented for new audiences), but potentially there are many forms of almost-unexploited literary mash-up yet to reach the mainstream bookshelves.

You just need to find your genius to emulate – that’s unless you manage to become one, in your own right.

Matthias gives the impression that he still hopes to share an open dialogue one day with the reluctant star of his early film project.

“There is not only ʽmy intellectual property’ but also his, the work of the DJs, the people who made the music, the background dancers – they also were part of the creation – and therefore I don’t see myself as the only originator that owns everything.”

However, if you’re an author investing your time in words on the page, you’ll have to run to catch up with the creativity of online users making re-cut trailers and their own tribute videos on Youtube. That’s if the man formerly known as Technoviking doesn’t get to them first.

The documentary by Matthias Fritsch is released today on http://technoviking.tv/film – it’s free to watch, and compulsory viewing for anyone interested in the future of artistic interpretation, image rights, copyright, global cultural appropriation, viral marketing, and the individual right to privacy and maintaining the personal context of one’s own life, given today’s open social media culture. It’s a fascinating case study, showing how the phenomenon grew chronologically and in its exponential aspects, in which Matthias, the originator, had no promotional role.

Felix Stalder: Transformative uses – using something to make something new out of it… In a way this is covered theoretically by fair use in the US. But the way fair use has been interpreted in the court, it is very very narrow.”

Thanks to Matthias Fritsch of technoviking.tv for permission to quote from interviews in ʽThe Technoviking Story’ and to share the documentary

Head in the Clouds

Some visitors to my main blog here might have noticed ‘Planetoplasty’ in my links. It’s an open-source blog I started for anyone to visit and take ideas from for use in their own SF and fantasy, by developing the schematics and social geography of random concepts for planets as writing prompts – treat it as if it’s Earth, in other words, write anything you want about it. See the ‘About’ page for a better explanation 🙂

https://planetoplasty.wordpress.com/about/

Enjoy the visit, compiled with a smattering of my usual nonsense, and I hope you gain some inspiration too.

I’ll be posting my first story based on this alternate world fairly soon – you’re welcome to send me links to your own versions as well.

Happy writing 🙂

L xx

Planetoplasty

tepui 24

The Cloud Islands on planet Crud, part of the Shatter that divides the eastern and western hemispheres, overlook both the Crater Zone (impact region) on one side, and the Shambles (lowlands) on the other. The Islands are a loosely interconnected chain of countries at high altitude, mainly in competition with the inhabitants of the ravines and canyons, miles below. The Cloud Islanders strongly dispute any mining of the bedrock beneath them, while the Canyonians resent fly-tipping and contaminated rainfall/effluent from above – even though it does add a remarkably sought-after fertility to their topsoil.

IMG_1680

You would think that the Cloud Islands are barren and arid, but although at the poles they are ice-covered all year round, at the equatorial region there is as many as three months of the year with clement weather. Industry is focused on food (mainly of the game bird and poultry variety) with a huge…

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Crocodile Tears and Crying Wolf – the negative effect of repetition on your writing

Bird… bird… bird… Personally, I prefer the Skrillex/Trashmen mashup versions 🙂

There are two types of unintentional repetition in writing. I’m not talking about intentional repetition, related to storyline or humour (the only thing you need to be concerned about there, is that your plot makes sense for characters to revisit scenarios more than once, and that your hilarious repetitions in dialogue and description are in fact funny).

Unintentional repetition comes in two forms.

The first is word-blindness, where you have used a key word more than necessary in a passage, making it sound clunky to the new reader. These are usually forgivable, and easy to miss for the novice writer while rushing through a proofread:

She shut her eyes as she heard the door shut behind her. Why was he shutting her out like this? She shut the thought off immediately. She decided to go to the store instead, but then remembered at this time of night it would already be shut.

This type of repetition is usually cured by checking a thesaurus:

She closed her eyes as she heard the door slam behind her. Why was he excluding her like this? She blocked the thought immediately. She decided to go to the store instead, but then remembered at this time of night it would already be shut.

Not every word you replace has to have the exact meaning. Note that ‘slam’ is more descriptive of action and emotion, while ‘blocked’ is a different internal action, but serves the same purpose in illustrating the protagonist’s attitude. You don’t have to replace every incidence of your ubiquitous word – it’s fine to keep one in where appropriate, and you’ll find it becomes much less of a nuisance when pared down to the minimum of appearances per scene.

Another form of word-blindness is The Room Full of Pillars:

She stepped out from behind the pillar, and faced the pillar. Pressing her back to the pillar at first, eventually she stepped bravely away, passing the pillars, until eventually she reached the pillar in the middle. The pillars stretched out in all directions. She looked back longingly at the safety of her pillar.

The same scene could take place in The Forest Full of Trees or The Auditorium Full of Seats.

If you have a scene which involves more than two of anything – pillars, kittens, cars, nameless children, police officers, protesters, apples, pubs – find some way of describing the scene to your readers so that they can see what you see in your mind’s eye without feeling as though they’ve been left in a stock warehouse of your writing without an inventory.

With children, animals and crowds, it’s easy enough to give them names, or a passing description. Even a car can be described shortly, without sounding clunky or dated – ‘the red car’ or ‘the red muscle/sports/hatchback car’ is sufficient, while ‘the red Audi R10 with super-slick wheels’ will have your readers recalling how it caught fire on Top Gear several seasons ago. So unless that’s your intention, try to limit your taste in consumer product envy regarding briefly transitional objects.

People can be described in all sorts of ways. Depending on the tone and attitude of your protagonist/narrative voice, accompanied by varying levels of political correctness or offensiveness. You would be safe to describe a child in a woolly hat, or a man with a limp in order to identify them. You might cause a few bloodstreams to boil if you referred to the child’s ethnic group in slang terms, or the man’s conveniently obvious mental condition in the same way, when his only purpose in your plot is to fill a gap in the crowd. But with satirical novels, as with the author Tom Sharpe, even that borders on acceptable in context.

Mix it up a bit, though. You don’t want your crowd scene to be depicted as a parade of differently-coloured woolly hats – you’ll run out of colours, for one thing…

The child in the red hat was being chased by a dozen children, the ringleader in the pink hat, closely followed by one in a yellow hat, one in an orange hat, and then three of them were wearing very similar blue hats, but Officer Rainbow could see that one was turquoise, one was Royal blue and one was aquamarine, a child in a magenta hat was egging them all on, especially the one in the peach hat, and the only one who appeared to be in any doubt was the one in the chartreuse hat, which the Officer would later describe in his report as ‘Forest green, possibly Kelly, but not quite Khaki’.

…In the same way, a crowd scene can be crippled (pun) by over-enthusiastic issuing by the author of quirks, disabilities and passing viral infections. Do not hand out warts, boils, speech impediments, age-related conditions and man-flu in a cavalier fashion. For a start, why would any of these people be in a crowd scene, unless they’re keen to catch something new???

The man with the running nose and thinning hair picked up the pool cue and launched himself at the one-legged lady. The boy with the rampant teenage acne snatched the dartboard from the wall, and knocked the girl with the lisp unconscious. Three seconds later, two children in a red woolly hat and an aubergine woolly hat respectively, one of them eating a Dairylea Dunker and the other one with Asperger’s Syndrome, picked up the snooker table, threw it across the bar at the barman who couldn’t speak English (not the one with the Rastafarian toupee, weeping facial bedsores and an aunt with morbid consumption), and all hell broke loose.

N.B. The above scene might work if it takes place in a doctor’s surgery or hospital waiting-room.

Back to the embarrassment of scenery/furniture that has bred beyond all control in your story. Of course, you can’t put woolly hats on pillars, name them Fred, give them chicken pox or an allergy to small coinage. Pillars, coffee mugs, front doors etc. can be any colours you want, made of a wide variety of materials (although again, once you’ve gone from sandstone to bronze, you’ve still got to fit in a story around your vast knowledge of chemical compounds and load-bearing solid matter). The best way to get around a multitude of identical inanimate objects is to think outside the box – what their properties are, their purpose in the story, and their effect on the characters:

She stepped out from behind her shield of stone, and faced her target. Pressing her back to the pillar at first, eventually she stepped bravely away, passing through the tall shadows, until eventually she reached the featureless tower in the middle. The other pillars stretched out in all directions. She looked back longingly at the safety of her hiding place.

‘Other pillars’ is a manageable reference to the first pillar – but you can only get away with using it once.

This leads us neatly into the other form of repetition – the repetition of Actions, that our characters seem to think is what makes them three-dimensional, living, breathing, frequently sighing, eye-rolling and bottom-lip-chewing flesh and blood beings.

From The Room Full of Pillars we dive straight into The Lovers’ Arms:

Her eyes filled with tears as she leaned forward and took his left hand in her right hand. In her right hand she had hold of the horse Shalimar’s reins, and in his left hand was his briefcase and her Harrod’s hat-box. A tear rolled down and landed on their joined hands. “Oh my dearest,” he sighed, leaning forward and cupping her chin with his hand. “You have no need to cry.” Tears sprang to attention in her eyes as he leaned forward towards her, while his eyes shone with tears. He wiped them away with both hands, sighing in frustration. “But you are the only one!” she sighed, leaning forward and seizing his lapels passionately in her fists, weeping profusely. Their fingers still entwined, tears pricking at her eyelashes, he leaned forward, simultaneously brushed back her hair, gave the horse Shalimar a sugar-lump and a friendly pat on the hindquarters, clasped her face between his two hands and leaned forward to kiss her. “My darling,” he sighed, and his tears torrented forth while she bravely held hers in check – he mustn’t see her as weak! “I believe you!”

Unless your characters are the ten-armed aliens of Betelgeuse, remember that your characters are limited to one pair of hands each. Try to remember where they are, and when they were put there.

Also, try to recall the correct sequence in which crying happens.

How often are your character’s sighing, and is it related in any way to a medical condition?

And also – there are only a fixed number of times that a person can lean forward before they have prostrated themselves fully on the floor.

Prostrated

The same goes for characters who frequently ‘turn to look out of the window’ or ‘turn away to gaze at the distant mountains’ either mid-speech, between contemplating their own navel, or to function as a narrative pause in any other events at the time. If your character is directed to look away from the plot and out at the scenery at any point, make sure something is going on out there requiring their attention. (If it’s distant mountains, they had better be massively significant later on).

I know how it works. You are watching the scene unfold in your head, the dialogue is flowing, and you know, at key moments, that your characters will show some form of reaction, illustrating their emotions or mind-set. So you reach for your ‘realism’ toolkit of shorthand reactions. Rolling eyes. Biting lower lip. Scratching head. Wringing hands (as many as they’ve got). Scuffing toecaps. Farting nervously? No – better stick with rolling eyes again. That’s realistic enough… If your character is a rabbit with myxomatosis, go for your life with the optical twitching and chewing on one’s own body parts.

If you find you are fond of a trait you have ‘invented’ for your character, try counting the number of times you show this trait in your prose so far. Whether it’s that she chews on her hair, or he fingers his moustache. Why authors find these sadly-afflicted nervous wrecks attractive as protagonists (and antagonists) is a mystery, but a reader should not be brainwashed by the end of your book into pulling their own hair out by the roots one at a time, or letting their eyes roll around like marbles, particularly while driving. Keep your character’s nail-biting, earlobe-tugging, mouth-chomping, foot-stamping and hair-tossing to a minimum. More than once, as with anything else, and it loses its impact.

That’s the point. You want your story to have impact, and you want your characters to leave an impression.

A love scene is not defined by the number of times the characters say “I love you” – more than once each in exchange, and the power drains out of it. The same goes for sighing, storming out, slamming doors, stamping, bursting into tears, and blatant attempts at attention-seeking.

Someone who suddenly cuts out 6000 calories a day and reduces their portion sizes is on a diet (or possibly a hunger strike). Someone who has only eaten a lettuce leaf a day for the past 20 years just has a small appetite (or is a rabbit, hopefully not with myxomatosis). The difference is change.

If your characters are constantly demonstrating repetitive ways of illustrating their mood, mindset, and characterisation itself, they are static – even predictable. Nothing about them changes, moves on, develops, affects the plot, or in turn, is affected by the plot in your story. Just because your protagonist chews gum while she thinks, or flicks his Zippo on and off when trying to control his temper, doesn’t make them enthralling characters to the reader. Not after the sixth or seventh time it happens, especially.

Does your heroine cry crocodile tears every few paragraphs, and is your hero crying wolf with his adolescent tantrums? How are you going to make the reader care when something really dramatic happens – and if you’ve used up all of their ‘personality’ already, how are you even going to portray it?

How do your characters put up with one another?

The other problem for you as the writer, is that repetitions at this scale mean your book is not ready for an editor to look at, let alone an agent or publisher. It does not yet contain enough of your writing. It merely contains a bit of your writing, replicated a number of times and in various word order. If you ask an editor to fix it at this stage, the result of such major surgery will not be your writing – anything they create to replace your repetitions will be their writing (you will basically be needing a co-writer or ghost-writer to rewrite your book for you, rather than an editor to proofread, correct grammar, and spell-check). These additional, necessary ‘edits’ will be reflected in the huge unsightly gaps that subsequently appear in your bank balance.

In other words, address the problem yourself first, before reaching for your wallet and the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.

Realism is smart. But repetition is not.

L 🙂 xxx

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How to write romance fiction – or, “Come and Have a Go if You Think it’s Hard Enough…”

SHE TO HIM

by Robert Graves

To have it, sweetheart, is to know you have it

Rather than think you have it;

To think you have it is a wish to take it –

Though afterwards you will not have it –

And thus a fear to take it.

Yet if you know you have it, you may take it

And know that you still have it.

Robert Graves, who wrote the most terrifying Emo-Gothic love poems, somehow nailed it with this short one above. It summarises the bonding and commitment, trust and faith that true love between soul-mates brings, which so many of the human race are still pursuing.

Another couplet of Graves’ at the end of the poem The Finding of Love, “With end to grief, With joy in steadfastness” illustrates how humanity as a whole – not just readers and writers – endlessly seek the comfort and escapism of a ‘happy ever after’.

If it evades us in reality, magical words on the page, perfect words read aloud, and words of everlasting love, whether spoken or sung, are summoned to feed our empty unrequited souls. Grief is what we experience when love is unattainable or impossible, even if we’ve never experienced it first-hand. It’s one of the universal experiences that as a human we can feel or sense is an entitlement, and although some of us have similarly strong feelings about obtaining success, money, fame and other artificial achievements created by humankind, love remains the most mysterious and elusive to pin down.

All the best Hollywood blockbusters rely on it. Blockbuster novels rely on it. Whether it’s romantic love, family love, love of pets, childhood love of toys, love of friends, love of country, love of one’s own faith, love of knowledge, love of art – love is the glue that sticks eyes to the screen or page. Even when we think it’s not there, or think we’re enjoying an amazing story without all that slushy stuff, truly epic writing has a way of sneaking it past us. These writers know that the magic and mysteriousness of uncompromised ‘love’ is the true universal language of the narrative spirit.

Stories that pretend to depict emotionless lead characters often have a supporting act, somewhere (if not an outright sidekick), who is secretly, sympathetically, and irrationally in love with them, causing the audience to believe that this sociopath is not just coldly charismatic but also lovable, beneath their tough outer shell.

We all want what that secondary character wants. Through their eyes, we think we can see through the icy armour too – even as the emotionally-dysfunctional protagonist denies it in as many words. The only emotions they can express are anger and frustration, usually at the sidekick’s insistence that they really are warm and fuzzy inside like a cashmere hot water-bottle cover, instead of being a calculating mess of grudges, hourly work rates, and logic.

If you take the love-struck idiot out of the story, er, I mean, the romance angle, viz, the infatuated sidekick/concerned neighbour/timid single parent (stereotypically new to job/town), you’re left with the Grumpy Old Psycho Codger – who was usually unmasked at the end of Scooby Doo.

So at least one of your characters has to be the manifestation of the most relatable human condition we are aware of.

By that, I don’t mean we introduce them asleep, or on the lavatory.

Imagine if going to the toilet was considered to be the universal narrative – no wonder artists and poets had to invent the concept of falling in love, so much more scope for plot in the complexities of relationships than in solitary bodily functions! Even DH Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover dissected this question. What if as much discourse in life and literature was dedicated to the analysis of lavatorial visits as it is to love and sex? Would over-attentiveness to any other simple necessity of life transform it into the vast, mysterious, lucrative, umm, intellectual and artistic industry that love and relationships are today?

(Looking at any comedy written in the 20th century, many people would say that scatological humour certainly had its heyday).

So we know that love and romance appears in various forms in most of what we consume. There may be different degrees of passion and wholesomeness, but it’s there, to tease, tantalise and inspire.

Even the most introverted, inexperienced desk-pilot like me will have the occasional rose-tinted steampunk-goggles moment, unexpectedly, in real life.

Those moments have to be treasured. One day I might have the need of a rose-tinted romantic analogy for my writing, in between toilet jokes, zombie anatomy, pop-culture psychology, and basic engineering mathematics and principles…

Barbara Cartland was the British doyenne of romantic literature in the mid-1900s. She was prolific, pink, frilly, the heroine of many real-life humanitarian campaigns in her lifetime (including fair wages for midwives and nurses, strangely enough an issue highlighted again today) – and perhaps economical in her writing practice. In her 1978 art history hardcover ‘Book of Love and Lovers’ focusing on art and its romantic subjects through the centuries, you can detect the skill she had in sparse, glossy (of the time), attention-grabbing, scandal-suggestive (but not explicit) prose – brief and to the point, rather like the gossip columnists of today’s celebrity magazines:

Napoleon: “On the night of the Coronation in the Tuileries, ablaze with thousands of lights, Napoleon dined alone with Josephine. He thought her crown ‘suited her so well’ that he made her wear it during dinner. Afterwards they went to bed.”

Napoleon, continued: “Eighteen, with slanting cat-eyes, Marie-Louise was more sensual than Josephine. On her wedding night, delighted with Napoleon’s love-making, she asked him to ‘do it again’. Impatient to have a son, he carried her off to bed before she reached Paris.”

I wonder if she knew she was pre-empting her own parodies?

Matt Lucas as Barbara Cartland in Little Britain

“Chapter One… The End.” Matt Lucas dictates as Barbara in ‘Little Britain’

Today’s romance novels are aimed at a wide range of interests and age groups, but the main thing they have in common is their function as brain-candy. Feelgood hormone promoters such as serotonin and oxytocin, stress-reducers and blues-busters. Whether it’s a romantic comedy, a historical epic, a paranormal or SF romance, a coming-of-age drama or a romance/crime thriller, your target is reaching the emotional context that other plots and prose do not reach.

Romance is all about positive pattern-matching for the characters and the reader as the relationships in the storyline develop, so you may have to write in an ‘alert’ state if you are new to the genre. This means being aware of your similes and your descriptions of the protagonists’ reactions and internal responses to one another. Your own writing has to be congruent with the mood you want to set – your whole book is presenting the ‘mood’ to the reader.

Unless your mood is ‘wooden’ or ‘flat-packed furniture’ you wouldn’t set your scenes by basic stage direction:

He walked in and closed the door behind him. He went to the chair in the living room and sat in it. He turned on the TV. She came in from the kitchen and asked what he wanted for dinner. He said pizza. She went back to the kitchen and switched on the oven.

…And stuck her own head in it, most likely, at that point.

What would you do with this paragraph? Does it sound like a paragraph from a romance novel? If it was a romantic comedy, what could you make happen? Can he smell another failed baking attempt as he walks in? Has she been caught washing the dog in the kitchen sink? What the hell has happened to his favourite chair? Where’s the dialogue itself?

You don’t have to go over the top, either…

“Honey, I’m home!” he announced as he burst into the hallway, a torrent of autumnal leaves following him in off the street. He was just in time for Storage Hunters! He dashed to the living-room, scattering leaves, coat, briefcase, pants and shoes in his headlong run, and dove flat onto the sofa, grabbing the remote. He nearly careered straight over the far end – damn wax furniture-polish on the leatherette again! “Where are you? And what’s that smell?”

“Nothing sweetheart! Must be the new doggy kibble mix,” she greeted him, appearing in the doorway, drenched from head to foot, holding a sink plunger in one hand and a dog-lead in the other. To him she looked as amazing as ever, and her scent today was Eau de Petit Chien. “We’ve only just got in from our walk. Shall I start dinner?”

“Great! Can we have pizza?” Only the thought of a piping hot spicy pizza was stopping him from jumping on her right now, and subsequently missing Storage Hunters.

“Sure!” she beamed, and went to make a lot of noise in the kitchen, turning on the fan oven and rummaging in the cupboards, while she discreetly rang Domino’s and ordered a large stuffed crust Pepperoni and two rounds of garlic bread…

Well, I’m already hooked, knew I shouldn’t have started that one… anyway, you see the difference? Same scene – two different ways of writing and setting the mood. It’s the same approach when writing any genre fiction. In horror you want to instill fear, in crime thriller you want to excite, in comedy you want to raise a chuckle (or at least a wry smirk). You don’t have to go as far as my bit of parody above, though…

What you want, is to imagine or remember a romantic mood – sometimes those can be the briefest flashes of inspiration, a piece of music, a dream you once had (as I did with One Stolen Kiss), a face you once saw… and keep that mood alive as you write. Don’t let other moods spoil it. The author’s mood will dictate the style of writing, so if you need certain music, or a scented candle beside you, or a hot chocolate, indulge yourself while writing romance. (You can go to the gym later).

Treat your romance writing as you would your actual romance.

Make it ‘special writing time’ – if you aren’t convincing yourself, who are you going to convince? It doesn’t mean you have to have the Ann Summers website open in the browser, or a wealthy dating guru’s webinar on dating NLP techniques channelled into your headphones. Treat yourself well while writing, think happy thoughts, plan how you’ll spend that first 99p you earn from your book on a treat from eBay (seriously, I won designer shoes for 99p that no-one else bid on!)

Imagine how happy you’d want to feel after reading a good romance – and work with that.

Romance is one of the genres that is easy to promote and has reader peer-recommendation networks already in place – you don’t have to stress about that. Put aside any thoughts about promoting and selling at this stage. Just enjoy writing the story.

Some authors, who are married or in relationships, find that writing romance fiction for the first time can be awkward, worry about being judged when it reaches the public, or, in contrast, are keen to use it as a form of sneaky self-disclosure.

Basically, write what you’re comfortable with – but if you’re feeling the strain, or the words coming out appear to be pointing back at you in an accusatory fashion, try being someone else while you write. Invent an author name for romance fiction.

That’s what I did. I find while I’m being Lauren the romance author, I’m a completely different writer. I don’t have my usual insecurities and hang-ups, I don’t worry what my writing says about me, and I’m not thinking about cars and dieting and exercise and zombies instead. That last one, definitely the important one, in my case.

And if you’re concerned about the nitty-gritty, or the pressure to join the more explicit ranks of books out there, you can find advice on writing bedroom shenanigans here, in a post I wrote a while back before I attempted it myself. I mean writing it, of course 🙂

L xxx

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