Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Pitch Perfect

(Image:  Seattle Mariners starting pitcher, Felix Hernandez)

Sorry sports fans, I'm talking about literary pitches, where an author discusses his, or her, book to perspective agents and editors.  But as long as you're here, you may as well read the rest of the blogpost, right?

The Pitch Perfect workshop was hosted by Janna Cawrse Esarey, author of The Motion of the Ocean.  (If you've read my last PNWA 2012 blogpost, or even if you haven't, you should be able to guess what the setting is in this book.  I won't even get in to who's obsessed and who the protagonist are...)

But before I discuss Janna's seminar, let me give you something of a (Oh no! The dreaded) backstory...

This year PNWA ran its pitch sessions differently.  They were called "Power Pitches,"  which were conducted in 90-minute block-times on Friday and Saturday.  Each author had 3 minutes to win the heart and mind of an agent.  Kind of like speed dating.  It was under these rules of engagement, that Janna tailored her workshop.

We now return you to our (ir)regularly scheduled blogpost...

A pitch, Janna explained, simply tells someone what your book is about, as succinctly as possible.  The basic parts of the pitch are:

--Be clear
--Be interesting

Within the 3-minute window each author had with an agent, they had a mere 60 seconds to pitch their book, which is often called the Elevator Pitch

Janna's tips on maximizing this time included the following tips, which can apply to anyone you're scheduled to meet and pitch an idea to:

1. Do your home.  Research the agent, or other person of interest, you're scheduled to meet.  Read their bios and website and find out what they're interested in.

2. Never give an agent or editor any hardcopy material--they don't want to lug it back with them.

3. It's okay to hold a notecard, but maintain eye contact with the agent your pitching to.

4. Pitch only one book.  Now is not the time to discuss your trilogy.

5. Pitch to fellow writers every chance you get.

6. Be professional, prepared, polite and brief.

#6 should go without saying, but stories emerge from lots of writers conferences about people violating this rule. 

Pitch Delivery
--2-5 sentences within 60 seconds or less.
--Answer any questions--briefly.
--If you get no response, ask if you may send additional material.

If you do get the go-ahead to submit your work, be sure the subject line in your e-mail reads:  Requested Materials Enclosed.  This will remind the agent about your meeting, and will save your submission from being cast into the spam filter/recycle bin.

There are two basic pitch formats, one for fiction and the other for non-fiction.

Pitch Format (Fiction)
Intro:  Title and genre.
Set up:  Protagonist and setting.
Conflict:  A problem or compelling turn of events that changes everything for the protagonist.
Resolution:  A wrap-up that evokes an emotion or big concept.

Pitch Format (Non-Fiction)
--Title and Genre.
--The book's concept.

Formatting is one thing.  You still need to deliver a good pitch to woo an agent.  Janna had the following tips for delivering a good pitch:

1. Be clear about the title and genre.
2. Make it read like the back-cover of a book.
3. Provide set-up and resolution.
4. Don't talk ABOUT your book.  Instead IMMERSE the reader into your book.
5. End your pitch with a big concept using an active voice.
Since "practice makes perfect,"  Janna had all the attendees write their pitches, then break into small groups to read aloud and gain feedback.

I wasn't pitching anything this year because I'm writing a webcomic.  However, I thought I could use the practice and maybe get use to doing in-class writing exercises.  (I normally hate these, because it takes me longer than a few minutes to get "in the zone").

Even though we worked on pitches in Pam Binder's Popular Fiction-I class, I'm glad I participated, because I received a couple of great tips that I incorporated into my narrative.

So, if I were to pitch my webcomic, it would read like this:

Breakout from Bongolaan is my Star Wars graphic novel.

Callithea Lockridge, administrative assistant to her ambassador, is on the planet Bongolaan to help negotiate a trade deal for her world.  However, negotiations are cut short when the Galactic Empire invades the planet.  Now trapped, Callithea must find her way off war-torn Bongolaan and make it to the custody hearing on her homeworld.  Otherwise, her ex-husband will be granted sole custody of her son.

Friend and foe alike, will learn that not even a galactic empire should stand between a mother and her child.

It might be a while before I actually pitch a book to an agent or editor.  But at least I have a template to work with.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Playing God and Creating Wonderful Characters

(Image:  Detail from The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo)

One of the most enjoyable aspects of role-playing games (RPGs), is creating, or as it's known in game-terms, "rolling-up," a character.  Some games provide detailed charts and narratives to develop a player-character (PC).  While other rules leave the inner details up to the player's imagination to conjure-up what his PC is like and what he's been doing, right until the initial adventure.

While I've rolled-up several characters for games, I'm still a newbee at rolling them up for fiction.  But thanks to Bob Dugoni's workshop, Playing God and Creating Wonderful Characters, I have a better understanding of character development, beyond how proficient they are at wielding a broadsword or blaster pistol.

First and foremost, it is the characters that entertain the reader.

But what about the plot/theme/story?

Bob countered that readers remember characters more than story lines.  Besides, there's very little difference between stories.  To illustrate his point, he compared the following three books/movies:

What's the theme?  Obsession.
Setting:  The ocean.
Who's obsessed?  Captain Quint
Who's the protagonist?  Police Chief Brody

What's the theme?  Obsession.
Setting:  The ocean.
Who's obsessed? Captain Ahab.
Who's the protagonist?  Ishmael.

What's the theme?  Obsession.
Setting:  The ocean.
Who's obsessed? Captain Richardson.
Who's the protagonist?  Lieutenant Bledsoe.

Rarely will there be a book with a unique theme.  It's the characters that will make the story. 

Make readers fall in love with the characters in your story.  However, in order for such love to blossom, the characters need to change over the course of the novel.

Why is this so important?

Because most of us ordinary mortals rarely change during the course of our lifetime.  People don't want to read about the ordinary goings-on of ordinary people.  So to be successful authors, we need to write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. 

Both ordinary and extraordinary characters need to evolve.  There are Five Levels of Change:

Level 1--The protagonist only cares about herself.
Level 2--The protagonist becomes concerned about another person or thing.
Level 3--The protagonist grows to care about a group.
Level 4--The protagonist now cares about the community.  (Not every character will reach this level).
Level 5--The protagonist now acts out of love for mankind.  (Very difficult level to achieve, if at all).

If you make an empathetic character, then the level of change can go in the reverse direction, because readers will understand why the protagonist is "backsliding."

 Ask yourself the following questions when developing a character:

1.  What is their personality?  What does the character want at the beginning of the story?
2.  Is the character capable of change?
3.  What experiences/obstacles is the character going to go through in order to undergo change?
4.  What does the character want at the story's end?  (This may not be the same as at the beginning).

Minor characters often outshine the main ones, because writers may often be concerned readers will view the protagonist as an author's veiled self-portrait.  To help avoid this, incorporate characteristics of the people around you; ones that you know, or read about.  Bob even recommended reading the obituaries, because they contain succinct character sketches.

How do you introduce characters into a story?

Avoid the data-dump biography.  DO NOT stop the action in the story for a character sketch.  Instead, weave character details into a scene by getting him to speak and move, through dialogue and action.  (Regarding 1st Person narratives, one can get away with a little more personal exposition, than in 3rd Person).

Another way of introducing a character, is through the eyes of another, like the way Sherlock Holmes was introduced to the reader via Doctor Watson.

Characters must have strength.  Not only some physical strength, but a willingness to forgive and to be self-sacrificing.

On the otherhand, with the exception of Mary Poppins, no one wants to read about "practically perfect people."  Characters, like real people, should come with flaws.  Ask:  What is the character's inner conflict? 

The key point is:  Make the characters sympathetic, better yet, even empathetic; just don't make them pathetic.

To avoid looking pathetic, characters should have some self-regard.  Make them care about what's going on--and get them to take action.

Finally, take into account some practical considerations:

1. Character's physical appearance.
2. How does the character dress?
3. What is the character's physical behavior?
4. How does the character speak?
5. What is the character's insight/perspective/view of the world?

Most likely you won't, or at least shouldn't, use every scrap of data in your character sketch, to fill the pages of your story. 

But, remember--don't throw anything away.  You may use this material in subsequent stories--like a continuing series.

Promoting Books in a Visual Age

I was several minutes late for the very first workshop of this year's writers conference because I spent several minutes talking with PNWA's president, Pam Binder and Managing Director, Kelli Liddane. 

Despite my chattiness, I was able to catch-up on the Top Ten Things Authors Should Do to Promote Their Work, hosted by Andrea Heuston of Visual Quill:

10. Have a website--so agents, publishers an most importantly, readers, can find you.

9. Provide links--to other applicable sites.

8. Have a blog, so you can keep your people updated on your between books activities.  A blog should focus on providing some sort of service to the reader.  Popular blog sites are: Wordpress, Blogger and Tumbler.

7.  Provide "Marketing Collateral."  That is, have material you can hand to people you meet, such as business cards, book marks, trading cards, or any other such cotchkie or doodad that will make people remember you--in a positive light.

6. Professional book cover.  Even if you're self-publishing, it will behoove you to invest in high-quality cover art, that should reflect what's inside your book.

5. Start a newsletter.  Like a blog, this should be about providing a service to the reader.  Good newsletters should have--
--a feature article
--an added element of value
-- calendar of events
--contact information
--a professional look and feel.

4. Have promotions and contests--to get readers excited about your upcoming work.

3. Get involved in social media.  Sites include:  Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and the newest kid on the internet block, Pintrest.  (Does anyone go to MySpace anymore?).

2.  Create a book trailer.

What's a book trailer, you ask?

It's like a movie trailer, only about--well--books.  It was at this point, Andrea treated us to some of Visual Quill's breathtaking trailers.

Some tips on creating book trailers:

--They should be 30-90 seconds long, max.
--Do not use actors or voices, it will give preconceived notions to readers on what the characters sound like.
--Do not give away the plot.

In addition to Visual Quill, Circle of Seven is another book trailer producer, along with the Seattle-based production company Baby Wild Films.

1.  LISTEN.  Get a feel for what your readers want, by conducting surveys, or any other means of gleaning feedback.  The more interaction you have with readers, the bigger the opportunity you have to sell books.

A side-note about headshots:

Since we now live in such a digital/visual age, at one point in the workshop, Andrea gave us the following tips about book-jacket/press-kit photos, known as "headshots:" 

--High resolution, 300 dots per inch (dpi), or higher.  Camera phones lack this kind of resolution
--Full color
--Single subject, with a neutral background  (no family/vacation photos)
--Wear solid color clothing

This implies another investment--getting a photo done professionally.  One of PNWA's sponsors is Bennington Headshots and often have representatives at each year's conference. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

PNWA 2012 Writers Conference: Characters in Motion

No, I wasn't at a Star Wars convention, but something even better:  PNWA's 2012 Writers Conference. 

This year's theme was:  Characters in Motion.  Even though I hijacked the Star Wars mural, I thought it would be an appropriate introductory image, since I write so much about Star Wars gaming.

I learned a lot and even got--not one--but two--homework assignments from Christina Katz, our Sunday Morning Keynote speaker.

In the upcoming weeks, I'll post about my misadventures and about each of the workshops I attended.  There's a lot to sift through, so please be patient. 

The PNWA staff did a top-notch job coordinating this convention and deserve high praises from all the attendees.  So I was able to enjoy myself, despite the mild migraine attack on Friday and the dead battery in my Jeep on Saturday. 

The Jeep needed an emergency battery transplant at a local Les Schwab shop, which made me two hours late.  I missed the first workshop I wanted to attend and the initial 20 minutes of the second workshop. 

Once I sat down, instead of taking notes, I scribbled a page-long rant about my ordeal, which made me feel better afterwards.

Now I see why some (all?) writers say:  Writing is cheaper than therapy. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Webcomic Chapter 4 Posted (Finally!)

After a considerable delay, which I posted about here, Breakout from Bongolaan's Chapter 4, starting on page 85, has been posted. 

This chapter is longer than the previous ones, because it introduces three characters simultaneously.  The story is based on my first Star Wars Role Playing Game (RPG) session and the trio seen in the above photo were run by the players.  For this reason, I felt extra time and space was needed to delve into the circumstances that force these characters together.

The soundtrack interlude to this chapter is: When the Levee Breaks, by the ladies of Zepparella. I thought this tune evoke the sense of danger and despair in the face of an approaching storm. 

Regarding the blogs themselves, I've made two major changes to the way I'll be posting my graphic novels.

First, I've included the title page and chapter pages into the page count.  This way, the page numbers in the normal viewing mode coincide with the page numbers in slideshow mode.

Second, I'll only be posting the webcomic on my Redshift Chronicles blog.  The reasons for this decision can be found on the Breakout From Bongolaan Link Page

I hope these changes are an improvement for everyone.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Product Review: Star Wars--Star Warriors

Last month, I took my girlfriend on her first visit to Half Price Books, near the Tacoma Mall.  Our timing couldn't be better, as we got there on the last day of the Memorial Day Sale.  Everything in the store was 10% off. 

So when I saw this copy of Star Wars Star Warriors for $50.  Even though the sticker said "as is," I grabbed the game without hesitating.  When I got home and opened it, I was relieved to see that, besides the box's dinged-up corners, the only thing missing was the 6 x 6-sided (d6) dice.  (Whew!).

Last year, I downloaded and printed the counters listed under the Boardgame Geek's Files Section.  The original counters are larger and include asteroids and turbo-laser turrets, but the downloaded version has a more variety of color backgrounds for the fighters and even includes a couple of Corellian Corvettes. 

I don't know if I'll play this game per se, but I plan on using the counters for fighter combat in my Redshift Chronicles campaign.  The game itself, has received a decent rating on Boardgame Geek, so either way, I'm definitely happy with my purchase.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Pass and Review: Risk Pieces Converted to Miniatures

Several months ago, I purchased some playing pieces to Risk, the Star Wars and Clone Wars Editions, through The Miniatures Page Marketplace.  I figured these pieces were close enough to 6mm and asked my friend Adrian to paint them.

I told Adrian to separate the pieces into a couple of factions and give them a basic paint job.  Here's a sample of the final results:

The vehicles are mounted on pennies, to provide some weight and stability, which were then flocked with sand. 

The "before" photo was taken using playing pieces from my own copy of Risk Clone Wars Edition.  I don't have a copy of the classic Star Wars Edition, so I don't have a comparative photo to show off Adrian's craftsmanship on these figures:

The snowspeeders on the left, were mounted on pennies, while the AT-STs were mounted on thick cardstock, previously used for terrain boundaries.  These figures appear to be closest to 6mm, so they should blend in with my other sci-fi miniatures.  I still plan on using the figures shown in the middle photos, but will use counters to represent any supporting infantry.

I'm very happy with Adrian's work and will be utilizing these figures for major battles in my Redshift Chronicles campaign.

Thanks Adrian!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Independence Day Festivities

(Image from:  Aces Flying High)

Yesterday, my girlfriend and I met my friend Joe and his daughter at Tacoma Freedom Fair, which is held on the picturesque Ruston Way.  We were just in time for the afternoon airshow, which consisted of a couple of acrobatic demonstrations, and fly-by demonstrations by an F-18, C-17 and F-22 (pictured above with a P-51).

The weather along the waterfront was warm and clear--a perfect day for an Independence Day celebration.  My girlfriend and I left after the airshow to attend a family barbeque, while Joe had "staked a claim" earlier in the day and was planning on watching the evening fireworks.

Here's a photo my friend Joe just posted on line:

I hope everyone else had a safe and enjoyable 4th of July.