Monday, February 25, 2013

Phrases We Love—Where'd They Come From?

We all love words, right? We wouldn't be doing this insanely wonderful and frustrating work if we didn't. So when we have moments that take us to the root of our word love, it can feel like kismet.

Some of the metaphorical phrases we use regularly just trip right off our tongues without us having a clue as to how they originally came about, or even what they mean in a literal sense, but we do know what they mean metaphorically. In fact, they've often become cliché, they're used so easily.

For example:
  • He was down at the heels.
  • She waited for the answer with bated breath.
  • Strewth! (yeah, no one actually says that any more, but those of you writing about medieval knights or Robin Hood have at least thought about putting it in your ms., admit it)

Down at the heels:  literally, when a person's shoe heels wear down . . . a visual sign that they haven't got the resources to get their shoes re-heeled or buy new ones (because, as a matter of pride, a person wouldn't be seen in public with worn out shoes if he could possibly help it—this was true in this country nearly everywhere a couple of generations ago, and still is in many places.) We use it metaphorically to mean poor or in a bad streak financially.

Bated breath:  this one was a puzzler to me in terms of both where it came from and what it literally means. Bated? Should it really be baited with an 'i?' And how can you bait breath, anyway? I just couldn't get the visual on that. I finally asked a British friend (they always know this stuff), and he said he was "quite sure it comes from the longer, traditional word, 'abated.' It was probably originally written with a hyphen, as in, 'bated." Ah, of course. Abated means stopped, so it's a way of saying she was so anxious or excited that she stopped breathing until she got the answer. That fits with what I know the phrase suggests.

Strewth! (I think the exclamation point is mandatory): an oath, often spoken as an exclamation of extreme disbelief or fear or outrage. I felt wonderfully enlightened when I found out it's a contraction of 'God's Truth!'  Heh.

Did you know where these phrases came from? And more importantly, do you have one or two of your own you'd be willing to share? I'd love to collect a whole list and publish it as a post, just for fun (and kismet).

Monday, February 18, 2013

Writing a Character's Dark Side

The dark side is not only for two-dimensional villains and vampires. It's part of everyone in real life who has lived more than a couple of years. To express that in a character—whether villain or hero—to tap into the power that comes from showing truths about the character's deepest self, and thereby creating a complex, conflicted character, is one of the biggest challenges writers face. Why? Well, there are probably lots of answers to that particular question, but I'm going to suggest that it's because our "deepest self," warts and all,  is something most people are uncomfortable examining, much less expressing for public consumption.

But most people aren't writers, you say. We writers examine these things.

Do we? Well, yes, with varying degrees of bravery and skin in the game. I'm just sayin . . . it ain't easy. But it's sure as heck worth it.

The most riveting characters in literature are the deeply conflicted ones—the ones who are driven to behave in certain ways that go against the grain of what they know to be upright and good, for example. Anti-heroes are classic examples of that type of inner conflict. Think Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind and Rick of Rick's Café Americain in Casablanca. 

At least Scarlett and Rick get a chance for redemption at the end of their stories. But then there's the even more complex character, the dark tragic hero who honest-to-god believes himself to be someone who strives to do what's noble (and makes sure the world sees him that way), but is, in fact, driven by lower orders of need and desire. Dick Diver, the brilliant young psychiatrist in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, is such a hero. The tragedy is not that he sacrifices himself for truth or right (as a more conventional hero might), but that he doesn't, in the end, actually see his own truth (although the perceptive reader does). His sacrifice is not heroic, after all. He turns out to be a lost soul and doesn't know it. He just knows things didn't work out for him.

Of course, the same is true of villains—the most memorable, impactful ones are the most complex and conflicted.

What is it, as a general rule, that gives these complex heroes and villains their dark side? If we can answer that question, we can learn how to add dimension and power to all our characters.

We have to consider not only whatever happened in the person's lifetime that affected them—whether they grew up in wealth or poverty, privilege or deprivation, or experienced a broken heart, violence or emotional trauma, for example—but intrinsic character, or personality, as well. It's not as if we can say that two plus two always equals four, because when it comes to character, that is just not true.

What does seem to be true, whatever the character or personality, is that darkness is most often the result of betrayal (large or small).

In simpler characters the betrayal may be represented as entirely external (the character's true love is killed in a senseless act of violence, e.g.), and his response is direct and proportional (he sets off on a path of bloody revenge).

In more complex characters it's never that simple. It just about always comes down to a powerful form of self-betrayal at a deep, soul level. Once that happens, the odds of being able to turn back are practically nil. I think that if we focus on what that involves, we can get to the source of how to write complex, conflicted, dark characters.

Life is messy. No one can go through it without doing some damage to their heart and values unless they live in a bubble. When the damage comes from the usual, average-impact behaviors of unhealthy selfishness or overweening need, it can usually be mended, leaving only slight scars that have the effect of toughening and strengthening the core with their mending. But people can also make choices that do insidious lasting damage to their deepest selves, and that is what our dark, conflicted characters have done.

There's something our character wants, something he desperately needs. When he sees the opportunity to grasp it he does so, and damn the consequences. Maybe it's love at any cost, or revenge, or power. Maybe it's safety, which he can get by remaining silent in a volatile situation. Maybe it's to be revered by others. We all want and need something like these things sometime. It's part of being human. But our character's need is ramped up. The stakes are high. When he reaches out to grasp what he wants, there's a little voice telling him that there has to be a better way—it is wrong to get it this way. That voice comes from his deepest self, but it is silenced by the need. The character takes what he needs in spite of the warning from deep within.

A deeply conflicted character can only exist in someone who is aware of and in touch with his deepest self and knows the purity that existed there, then behaves in a way that is contradictory to that knowledge. That is self-betrayal. And you know it's going to come back to bite. A shadow begins to grow.

Voilà. The inner conflict. The complexity. The dark side.

Who are your favorite dark heroes or villains in literature?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Do You Have Rules for Success?

How do we achieve success as writers? We are relentlessly drawn to reading advice on this subject. After all, finding our answer to that question is elemental to our drive and our desire. 
The literary industry may be spinning in space right now, turned on its head by changes, and searching for its own identity and its own way to either hold on to or recapture success, but for writers, it always comes back to the work. (That should be The Work, I guess, to distinguish it as the writing itself, as opposed to all the extraneous factors involved in getting published.)
I recently came across an article* in which a 19th Century woman, Amelia Barr, who became a successful writer after many years of toil, offers nine rules for success. You'll notice some of them feel familiar, like favorite slippers we've broken in and depend on to keep our toes warm on our journey. My favorite is her wrap-up at the end. That last paragraph is going up on my writing wall. :)
Here, for your reading pleasure, is Amelia Barr's advice on how to succeed:
9 Rules For Success by British Novelist Amelia E. Barr, 1901
    by Maria Popova
“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.”
The secret of success — like its very definition — remains amorphous and forever elusive. For Thoreau, it was a matter of greeting each day with joy; for Jad Abumrad, it comes after somenecessary “gut churn”; for Jackson Pollock’s dad, it was about being fully awake to the world; for entrepreneur Paul Graham, it’s aboutpurpose rather than prestige; for designer Paula Scher, it means beginning every day with a capacity for growth. But perhaps, above all, success is about defining it yourself.
Still, those who have succeed — by their own definition, as well as history’s — might be able to glean some insight into the inner workings of accomplishment. From the 1901 volume How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves (public librarypublic domain) comes a wonderful essay by British novelist Amelia E. Barr (1831-1919) who, the despite devastating loss of her husband and three of their six children to yellow fever in 1867, went on to become a dedicated and diligent writer, eventually reaching critical success at the age of fifty-two.
At the end of her essay, under a section titled “Words of Counsel,” Barr offers nine tips for success, echoing some familiar themes — Tchaikovsky’s insistence on work ethic over inspiration, Ray Bradbury’s case for perseverance in the face of rejection, the importance of having a good routine and working with joy, and the necessary reminder that success requires a deliberate investment of effortand good writing takes time.
  1. Men and women succeed because they take pains to succeed. Industry and patience are almost genius; and successful people are often more distinguished for resolution and perseverance than for unusual gifts. They make determination and unity of purpose supply the place of ability.
  2. Success is the reward of those who “spurn delights and live laborious days.” We learn to do things by doing them. One of the great secrets of success is “pegging away.” No disappointment must discourage, and a run back must often be allowed, in order to take a longer leap forward.
  3. No opposition must be taken to heart. Our enemies often help us more than our friends. Besides, a head-wind is better than no wind. Who ever got anywhere in a dead calm?
  4. A fatal mistake is to imagine that success is some stroke of luck. This world is run with far too tight a rein for luck to interfere. Fortune sells her wares; she never gives them. In some form or other, we pay for her favors; or we go empty away.
  5. We have been told, for centuries, to watch for opportunities, and to strike while the iron is hot. Very good; but I think better of Oliver Cromwell’s amendment — “make the iron hot by striking it.”
  6. Everything good needs time. Don’t do work in a hurry. Go into details; it pays in every way. Time means power for your work. Mediocrity is always in a rush; but whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing with consideration. For genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.
  7. Be orderly. Slatternly work is never good work. It is either affectation, or there is some radical defect in the intellect. I would distrust even the spiritual life of one whose methods and work were dirty, untidy, and without clearness and order.
  8. Never be above your profession. I have had many letters from people who wanted all the emoluments and honors of literature, and who yet said, “Literature is the accident of my life; I am a lawyer, or a doctor, or a lady, or a gentleman.” Literature is no accident. She is a mistress who demands the whole heart, the whole intellect, and the whole time of a devotee.
  9. Don’t fail through defects of temper and over-sensitiveness at moments of trial. One of the great helps to success is to be cheerful; to go to work with a full sense of life; to be determined to put hindrances out of the way; to prevail over them and to get the mastery. Above all things else, be cheerful; there is no beatitude for the despairing.
    Apparent success may be reached by sheer impudence, in defiance of offensive demerit. But men who get what they are manifestly unfit for, are made to feel what people think of them. Charlatanry may flourish; but when its bay tree is greenest, it is held far lower than genuine effort. The world is just; it may, it does, patronize quacks; but it never puts them on a level with true men.
    It is better to have the opportunity of victory, than to be spared the struggle; for success comes but as the result of arduous experience. The foundations of my success were laid before I can well remember; it was after at least forty-five years of conscious labor that I reached the object of my hope. Many a time my head failed me, my hands failed me, my feet failed me, but, thank God, my heart never failed me.

*from the website:

Monday, February 4, 2013

Cover Design: Thumbnail Design a Key to Discoverability

Discoverability—how readers are most likely to discover your book and become interested in it—is a term that is showing up everywhere in the publishing industry. If you Google the term, you're likely to get lots of links to blogs and articles on the subject that came out of the recent Digital Book World conference. DBW is the natural place to dig into this discussion, because it is digital publishing that has turned the traditional paradigm of publicity and promotion on its head. How is your book going to be discovered by readers if it's just one of thousands of new books out there in a sea of offerings that don't have the benefit of traditional marketing and promotion?

One way is your cover. Your cover is the first thing readers will see, and it will have an impact on whether they want to open the book. In fact, it is absolutely key to discoverability, especially for debut authors.

Here's a crucial fact about cover design that is different now than it used to be: as a result of the power of e-books and their marketing to shape the industry, the most likely first look that many, many readers will get of your book cover will be a thumbnail version, online, on one of the major book sites. (Even if you publish traditionally, you're going to sell your book online as well, right?) And effective thumbnail cover design is different than design for a larger cover.

But why thumbnail? Aren't those book covers on and amazon bigger than a thumbnail? Yes, if they are for the featured book. But your new book, unless it's a breakout or a blockbuster, is not likely to be seen by potential readers as a featured book.

Instead, your book cover is likely to be seen for the first time by readers as one of a string of books that the reader "might also like" if they're looking at a particular featured book. The books in this "you might also like" string are, as you know, pictured thumbnail size under the featured book. (While this might sound unsatisfactory to some, it is actually a huge plus—one to be coveted—to get your book listed this way so that new readers can discover you by associating you with an author or book they know they're interested in.)

At the Digital Book World site Elle Lothlorien did an outstanding post on this topic. It's a bit on the long side but I think it's an essential read for anyone who wants to publish. (It's also very readable and entertaining.) Here's part of it, which shows what I was trying to tell, above:

The Siren’s Call

Pretend you’ve just walked into a bookstore, except this bookstore only has one bookcase and it’s so far from where you’re standing that the covers appear to be just over one-inch tall. Just one shelf has books on it—all of them turned so the covers are facing out. Now, from where you’re standing, pick one of those books to buy:

Ludicrous, you say? Well, here—let’s replace the bookshelf with this:
Look familiar? This is Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” suggestive selling ribbon and it’s ubiquitous on that site (and other e-book sites a well). Whether you’re browsing for a police procedural or spicy erotica, the suggestive selling ribbon serves up a tempting, seductive, and near-constant barrage of suggestions to its customers at every turn.
In Part 2 and Part 3 of my series “My Date Using the Almighty Amazon Algorithm,” I  explain how the suggestive selling ribbon on Amazon is transforming “discoverability” (the way readers inadvertently “stumble upon” a book) and the way authors need to think about cover design with these overarching points: 
  • Designing a kick-ass book cover  for the Kindle Store is one of the most valuable marketing and discoverability opportunities your self-published book is likely to have.
  • When designing an e-book cover, you MUST assume that every potential reader will see it first as a thumbnail on Amazon’s suggestive selling ribbon and not as a full-sized graphic.

There were a couple of things in the full article that surprised me, maybe because I haven't kept up on the latest research and thinking in book cover design for a little while:

  • The title of the book and the author's name are not important in the thumbnail cover—they don't need to be readable or take up any extra precious space. Why? Because, once again, this is not a featured book, it is one of a string of "you might also like" books, and the reader will be looking first for the concept of the book, not who wrote it or what it's called. If they're intrigued by the cover, they'll click on the thumbnail design to get more information. (If you are an author with a well-established large readership, it obviously is important that your name be readable, though.)
  • The concept of the book should be represented as simply, clearly, and largely as possible in the given space. This, actually, is something I think we all understand pretty well, but the ability to create a visual cue that accomplishes these requirements in the thumbnail size comes with its own requirements. Again, Lothlorien not only explains this, but shows great examples.
I know some of you out there have delved deep into these ideas and put them into practice. What can you share with us that keeps us thinking about how to make our covers not only beautiful, but effective?