Saturday, 29 June 2013

Chekhov's Gun - Relevance or Hindrance?

To begin, I should warn any Star Trek fans who may have followed a link, that this post has nothing to do with the only Russian crew member of the Starship Enterprise. It does however, involve another Russian - Anton Chekhov, author and dramatist who came up with a principle that is regarded highly in any form of story telling.

In short, Chekhov's Gun is the principle that a narrative should contain only elements that are absolutely essential to the plot and nothing else. Why the gun metaphor? Well, if a gun is mentioned in Chapter one, then at some point following, said gun must be fired otherwise it has no place in the story at all. It is useless, surplus to requirements and should never have been included as it makes a promise to the reader that is not honoured.

Of course, to say that every gun must be fired is to misunderstand the principle. Say for example, that two characters are involved in a business meeting. One of the characters owes the other money and has come into his office to plead for more time. The money lender is seated behind a large desk, upon which a gun is visible. In this instance, the gun is serving a purpose as it threatens the character who owes the money and it does not need to be fired in order to perform its duty to the plot. The principle applies only when the gun has no obvious bearing on the plot. The classic example is the one that places two characters meeting in a room and the narrator mentions a hunting rifle hanging on a wall. In this instance, the gun is not serving a purpose, it is merely a decoration. Unless, at some point, one of the characters is going to use that gun, it has no business hanging on the wall.

The technique is most useful as a form of foreshadowing. To avoid unlikely coincidence and to make a plot believable, foreshadowing is an essential part of the writing process. An example of the Chekhov's Gun principle in my first novel can be evidenced during a scene about a third of the way in. A group of characters hatch a plot to rob the storeroom of the bar where they are staying. A crate of vodka is taken and stashed under a caravan. This has no obvious relevance at that point in the story, as it does not really have any bearing on the characters ability to partake in the consumption of alcohol. They had access to drinks before they stole the items and they have access to alternate sources after. There was however, a very good reason for having a crate of vodka placed under the caravan, which you will have to read the book to discover (to tell, would be a major spoiler).

The obvious question is that if everything has to have a purpose, how does this affect the author's ability to place red herrings into the story. Could an object simply having the purpose to create a red herring be reason enough to include it in the plot? This is a tricky question to answer and I would have to say no. My reasoning is that a writer should never try to deceive or mislead their readers directly. It confuses them and a confused reader is not a satisfied reader. Intrigue - good, confusion - bad.

So how do you create a red herring or perform an unexpected twist to the ending if you are being open and honest with your reader at all times?

The answer is that you use your characters. By all means, feel free to mislead, cheat and deceive your characters, through whose eyes the story is distilled. If through the characters failings or limitations they are led down a misleading path, the reader will accept this much more kindly than if they had been lied to directly by a dishonest narrator. (I must note here, that I make a huge distinction between a dishonest narrator and an unreliable narrator. The unreliable narrator is a technique used in stories written in the first person and any mis-truths are the result of the narrator character's failings or agenda and are central to the plot. A dishonest narrator would be a third person story, where the author, not a character, attempts to provide a twist by misleading the reader through the mechanics of their writing as opposed to weaving the twist into the plot, as it should be done.)

To summarise, I believe that the principle of Chekhov's Gun is a powerful one and should be adhered to. When you build a house you do not add more rooms than are required and so it is with writing a book. Describe only that what is essential and avoid unlikely coincidence. Above all, never, ever, lie to your readers. If they ask "why did the author mention that" and you do not tell them, then you are going to be in major trouble.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Does Your Writing Pass The Bechdel Test?

Some readers may be familiar with the Bechdel Test and others may not. Before I explain exactly what it is, I want to refer to an article in the New York Times published in 1991 by Katha Pollitt. In the article, Pollitt coined the phrase "The Smurfette Principle". What she argued was that like with the sole female character in the Smurfs, almost all children's television and literature would feature only one female character who would serve the plot in a very stereotypical and passive way. Examples given range from Miss Piggy in the Muppets to April O'Neill in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A link to the article can be found here.

Although written over twenty years ago, it seems that things have not really changed much. This brings me to the Bechdel Test. The test originated in the comic strip Dyke's To Watch Out For by Alison Blechdel. Basically, for a work not to be considered sexist, it has to satisfy the following criteria:

The work has to feature at least two named female characters who react meaningfully with each other and share a conversation that is not centred around men. - There are many variations of the test, but this covers the basic principals.

It sounds simple, yet if passing it was made a necessity we would be seeing considerably fewer releases coming out of Hollywood. We only need to look at some of the biggest blockbusters from recent years. Take the Avengers (biggest box office of 2012), in this movie we have the character of Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson and er, that's it. Perhaps, the most obvious and extreme example is Star Wars. Two trilogies and each one contains only one female character (Padme Amidala in the prequels and Princess Leia in the originals). How about Lord of the Rings (this was a multiple Oscar winner, so surely cannot be sexist). I can think of two female characters (not a lot considering the three movies have a combined run time of about ten hours!), but no meaningful interaction between them. I could go on, but you do not really need my help - give it a try with movies that you have recently watched.

Of course, I do not want to turn this blog into a rant against Hollywood. Literature can be just as guilty ( I doubt any of Dan Brown's novels would pass the test). What then, about my own novels? Obviously, the majority of writers would not intend to write anything that could be sexist, but are we guilty nonetheless?

I have completed three novels (one published, with the other two to follow shortly). My published novel, The Outback features four named female characters (nine named males, so not as bad as it seems, it is not like I had a cast of thousands (take note George Lucas)). Of these four, two interact with each other and although most of their conversations are relating to the male characters (not only in romantic ways, I add), they do share some meaningful interactions that are not solely about their opposite gender. So, I guess that The Outback passes the test.

David 1 - Chauvinism 0

This takes me to my second novel. This is to be released within the month and I do not want to spoil the plot, but rather ashamedly, I have to say that I have failed the test on this occasion. Although, I do have a strong female lead who is not reliant on the male characters to protect her and can stand up for herself, she does not have any meaningful interactions with other females.

David 1 - Chauvinism 1

It is now all tied going into the final round. Luckily, I do not have to search the text of my novel, Diamond Sky, to find examples of meaningful female interactions. The story features two very powerful female leads and although one of them is sidetracked by a man, they certainly have other issues to talk about when they are together. Several subplots are also fleshed out by named and purposeful female characters that possess more than a one track mind.

David 2 - Chauvinism 1

I passed the test overall, but not as convincingly as I would have hoped. It certainly gives me something to think about. So what about you, dear reader - does your writing pass the test and if not, has this article increased chances that it will in the future?

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Be Careful What You Wish For...It Just Might Eat You

My time in Asia was coming to a close. As a last treat, my girlfriend, Katie, and I decided to take a boat trip around some of the smaller islands surrounding Ko Phi Phi (pronounced Fi-Fi). One of them, Maya Bay, was where the movie The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed. This was billed as the highlight of the tour, but it was the bit after, which I was looking forward to even more. This was a trip to a place named Shark Point.

When visiting a place named Shark Point, one has certain expectations. Luckily for us, these expectations were met very swiftly as upon our arrival, we were greeted by the sight of two frantic swimmers waving their arms in the air and shouting the word "shark" at the tops of their voices. Our tour guide assured us that any resemblance between the swimmers' behaviour and any international distress signal was entirely coincidental. This was merely how people communicated at sea in these parts.

We quickly put on our snorkel masks and fins (I'm PADI qualified. Flippers are for amateurs) and leapt from our boat into the azure water beneath. Due to the coral reef, the boat had to moor a good distance away from where the swimmers had notified us of the shark's presence and we had to swim about twenty five or thirty metres to get there. By the time that we did, the swimmers had calmed down and returned to snorkelling, with their faces now in the water.

I placed my head in the water and tried to look for the shark, but without any luck. I assumed that we had just missed it and so decided to check back with our tour guide for some redirection. When I did, I noticed that he was now frantically waving his arms about and he left absolutely no room for his actions being confused with anything other than a distress signal. He wanted us to get out of the water and he wanted us to do so quickly.

Katie and I exchanged a nervous glance. We could now see that the rest of our group (about twenty people) had also received the guide's frantic instruction to return and they were all swimming back in a state of near panic. It was now not simply a question of where the shark was, but how big and how many? I grabbed a hold of Katie's hand and together we started to swim back to our boat. We were eager to return and kicked our fins wildly, like frantic seals. With each few strokes, I would look back to see if a shark was stalking us. For some reason, I was convinced that the danger would come from behind. I was wrong. The real danger was directly ahead, between the pair of us and the boat.

To describe what happened next, I want you to try and picture a scene from the Disney Pixar movie Finding Nemo. If you have seen this movie, then I know exactly what has come to your mind. There is a scene in the movie when the lead character, a clownfish named Marlon, comes face to face with a very big, very scary great white shark named Bruce. It is the image that is carried on most of the posters for the movie and it is truly terrifying (albeit, in a Disney-fied cartoony way). It is completely the wrong image for now. The part that I want you to think of, comes much later in the movie.

Have you guessed it yet? I'll give you a clue - "Swim through the trench, not over". I am of course, referring to the scene when the heroes find themselves completely surrounded on all sides by jellyfish. Given the choice, I would have taken the shark. At least you can punch it on the nose. With a jellyfish, you cannot fight back. You cannot do anything really, apart from swim like crazy and hope that you do not get stung. Which is exactly what we did.

After the most nerve wracking swim since obtaining my 25m swimming badge at primary school, we finally made it back onto the boat. Luckily for us, neither Katie nor myself suffered stings. A pair of Brazilian girls were not so lucky. Their legs were covered from ankle to waist with ugly red pock marks from the stings they had suffered. Both girls were in considerable shock and pain and the atmosphere among the group was heavily subdued on the way back to shore. That is, except for two Swedish guys. They had exited the boat on the other side to the rest of us, into jellyfish free waters. They had also found a shark, which they were proud to show off on their underwater digital camera's display.

The lesson that I have learned from this experience? All I can think is that the most dangerous threat is not necessarily the most obvious one. Fear is greatly amplified by the unexpected. If a reader knows where the real danger is going to come from, then your writing has gone wrong somewhere. Readers will always try to second guess us as authors, but we should not allow them to succeed. The next time that you are writing a horror story and the hero is tiptoeing along the corridor of a creepy old house, expecting an axe murderer be lurking around every corner, don't give them an axe murderer. Throw in a tiger instead. That will really scare the Hell out of them.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Running Man

Every few months, I will dust off my running shoes, dig out my running shorts and make a genuine effort to get fit. Recently, I have even been following a strict running plan. I will start off slow on the first day, alternating between a light jog and a brisk walk. Over time I will increase the workout, until finally, I am at the stage where I can jog freely for as long as I like.

The problem is that something usually seems to get in the way. More often than not it is the weather (running in the rain is no fun) and sometimes it is something literally in the way, like a branch (I have lost count of the number of collision caused injuries that I have sustained over the years). Suffice to say, I quite frequently end up back at square one.

The running plan that I follow is spread over 12 weeks, but due to the setbacks, I have done week one many times more than any other. I have noticed a similar pattern forming in my writing. Some writers are disciplined, but not me.  Like it is with running, my writing takes place with a lot of stops and starts. And like the running, every time that I stop writing, I always have to go back to the start when I take it up again.

I tell myself that I am merely re-reading the early chapters to get back into the flow, in order to continue on with the story, but the truth is that I can never leave them alone. I always see something that is not quite right and then I start editing and re-writing and by the time that I catch up to where I was in the novel, something comes up and I end up leaving it for a prolonged period. When I do get back to it, I end up right back at the start, going over and over the same early chapters.

It is six weeks since I last went for a run and in that time, I am sure that my fitness has dropped so far as to place me back at week one on the schedule. It is a little longer since I have worked on my current novel (my time has been taken up by redrafting my other novels to bring them up to scratch for publishing) and so when I get back to working on it, I will have to reread over everything that I have written so far, from page one. 

Nothing improves me as a writer more than editing and as such, I am likely to see much that can be improved since I last worked on the story. I have roughly 30,000 words to date and I suspect that by the time that I have rewritten them to a satisfactory standard, something will come up and require me to put the project on hold yet again. When I return, I know that I will be unable to avoid going right back to the start.

(Above picture was taken in Auckland. We were at the top of a very steep hill, when we saw this guy who had not only jogged the whole way up, but he did it whilst walking his dog and having a tire dragging behind him!)

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

I Loathe You Philip Morris

I just heard on a news report that the current Hollywood blockbuster; Man of Steel, has broken the record for the most money earned in a movie from product placement. This follows news last year that Heineken had paid the highest single fee for product placement in a movie to the makers of the James Bond thriller, Skyfall. The figures involved are reported as £110million and £28million respectively.

This is obviously a lot of money and for such an investment, the companies involved will be expecting significant returns. We must therefore assume, that product placement is a very powerful tool indeed. This says a lot about the powerful influence of the media in any form (product placement is not unique to Hollywood. The music and publishing industry are also prime targets for exploitation.)

A similar tactic used in advertising is for companies to supply their products free of charge to well known figures and celebrities. When the public see their idols wearing a particular item of branded clothing, they immediately covet that item too. What I have always found ridiculous, is that whereas the celebrity has been given the clothes for free, the member of the public who buys the branded clothing is effectively paying the fashion company to advertise its clothing for it.

When marketing our books, we all know how expensive advertising can be, but imagine if a marketing company approached you as an author and offered to pay you for the privilege of advertising your work! This is pretty much, how the fashion industry markets its products. The customers are paying to advertise on their behalf.

I can see parallels between the celebrities who are paid to wear particular clothes and the movie studios paid for product placement. I also see parallels between those fashion victims who pay to advertise clothing brands and a writer who tries to make their work realistic by mentioning certain products in their work without receiving any commission for it. You may argue that the writers are not paying the companies to promote their products, but the companies will still benefit nonetheless. These writers are unintentionally doing something for free that others are paid vast sums of money to do.

Of course, a lot of writers will use generic, not branded terms for products. A character will more often drink a “beer” than a specific brand. They will smoke a “cigarette” as opposed to naming the manufacturer of that cigarette. The thing is, especially in the case of cigarettes, this makes no difference. It is well known that tobacco firms flood YouTube (spot the unwitting product placement. Google pay me nothing for the exposure I am giving them here) with videos of trendy and attractive celebrities smoking. No brands are shown, but they do not need to be, they will all benefit anyway.

Now, although I am no fan of smoking, I do not hold any resentment towards those who do. I do however, despise the tobacco industry and all that it stands for. Rather than climbing onto a soapbox and preaching on the evils of the tobacco industry, I will simply add the following link to a report commissioned by Philip Morris (the world’s leading tobacco company) in 2001.
For those who do not wish to have to read the full document, the basic conclusion is that smoking can have a positive impact due to the savings made in pensions and healthcare from the early death rate among smokers:

“Public finance benefits from smoking indirectly, via mortality-related health care, pensions, and public housing costs savings.”

I should add that this report was in 2001 and the company was quick to offer an apology at that time, but I do still think that it clearly demonstrates the fact that the tobacco industry is, quite literally, evil.

I stated earlier that the inclusion of a product in a movie or book can still have a positive impact on sales even if it was included for artistic reasons and not a paid placement by any particular company. If a company expects increased sales every time somebody smokes in a movie or book, does that mean that I am indirectly advertising tobacco products when I feature a character who smokes?

You could say that it is simplest to not feature any products that you do not approve of. You could also use the opposing argument that it is important for writers to portray the world realistically and it is an unavoidable fact that a lot of people smoke. Personally, I would prefer to go with the first stance and not include smoking at all. The problem is that my first novel is full of instances of people smoking! In the context of the story, it was impossible for them not to. The book centres on a bunch of pot smokers and a drug deal with terrifying consequences. True, bad things tend to happen to the characters who smoke, but I still feel a bit shitty about including (therefore, possibly promoting) so vile a product.

The fact is that when I read stories such as the one about product placement in Man of Steel, it just makes me aware of a side to the industry that I do not usually give much thought to. As a writer, I think that I need to think more about how my work can impact upon and influence those who read it. Sure, they have a free will and I am not encouraging people to do anything that they would not otherwise, but the thought that I could, albeit indirectly, be benefitting the kind of large, immoral corporate industry that I truly despise, does bother me.

There is a lot more that I could say on this subject and it is a difficult topic to address. I have always been a member of the school of thought that life mirrors art, rather than the other way around. I think that the greatest art does not paint a picture of the world as it is, but how it could be, how it should be. When going over the final edits of my second novel, I noticed that not a single character smokes. Was this intentional? Consciously – no, subconsciously – maybe.

I am aware that I am probably now sounding a bit preachy (despite my best efforts not to). I will therefore, take this opportunity to say farewell. Besides, all of this writing has brought on a huge thirst and I need to go and pour myself another Heineken.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Personal Touch

It was my fifth day on the job. When I got out of bed at 5:00am to await my lift to work, I had no idea that it would also be my last. A series of unfortunate mechanical breakdowns would cause a 2 week suspension of the contract. We were all given a choice. We could either wait it out and stay rent free (but also salary free) on the farm for two weeks or we could take an early trip back to the city. I opted to leave, but that was a decision that was made long before it was offered to me.

With hindsight, the signs were easy to see right from the moment that the bus pulled in to take us to the field and Smitho was not on it. Smitho was not only our regular chaperone to make sure that we made it to work on time, but he drove one of the tractors too. In his place was Miko (pronounced Mike-O), an Aboriginal local who at the age of just twenty two, had only spent 4 months outside of prison since his eighteenth birthday. The charges were always the same; drunken assault, but I had never seen evidence of his temper whilst working with him. I had also never seen him intoxicated, until that is, I got on the bus.

It was one of the few times that I was grateful for the Aussie penchant for Stubbies - small bottles or tins of alcohol that are the same size as a can of soda in the UK. If he had been drinking from a larger, UK sized can, things might have turned out even worse. As it was, we would be let off with just a near disaster. After finishing his can, he then attempted to convert it into a type of bong. I do not think that he was too successful as he soon gave up on it. If you are wondering why I did not ask to be let off the bus at this point, all I can say is that the outback is not really a place that you want to hitchhike in.

As was usual, we were split into two teams - one per tractor. I was relieved that I was not placed into the group with Miko. My roommate back at the motel, Will, was and I did not envy him. I may have made a few jokes at his expense, but once I was put to work, I forgot all about it. The contract was to pick sticks. Not the most engrossing job that I have ever done and it was a killer on the back, so I gave in easily to my usual tendency to drift off into a daydream. Because of this, I was the last one to realise what had happened. I just looked up to see some sort of commotion going on over by the other tractor. Miko was storming off back towards the bus, I did not know why until I noticed something else that was a miss. Will was on the ground.

The purpose of stick picking is to clear the field of all debris in order for a new plantation to take place. Once the wood had been gathered, we would simply burn it. Will had been disconnecting the trailer so that the wood could be deposited for burning, when Miko had suddenly caused the tractor to lurch forward. Will had reacted quickly and as such only received a bruised shoulder, but it could have been a lot worse. It could have been fatal. Will was all too aware of this and he made his opinion known. Miko did not react kindly to the criticism and he let Will know it by flooring my unsuspecting friend with a powerfully delivered uppercut.

I will not go into details about what followed, but suffice to say that a few of us were grateful when the tractors packed in later that day. It gave us an excuse to get out of there and we could not have been more grateful. Looking back, the whole enterprise was a disaster. I had planned on spending 2 months working there to finish up my visa extension, but in the end I only got 1 week out of it. Of course, since then I have managed to take something else from the experience. I was able to take that one incident described above and use it as the inspiration for my debut novel.

The Outback, is a very personal story for me. Not only because it was my first novel, but also because it was based on my own experience. As such, I have always wanted to keep that personal touch going throughout the project. That is one of the reasons that I chose to design my own cover. It is important for me to use an image from my own experience to keep the personal connection going. Although I have had the book available for two months now, I have recently started to play around with the cover. One of the reasons for this is to create a brand identity for myself. I revealed the cover to my second novel last week and I think that it is important that they both link together somehow.

On the left is the original design. The colour scheme looks very amateurish and the smallness of the author name is also apologetic. For the redesigned cover on the right, I enlarged the font for my name in order to make it stand out, but also to create a brand identity. The cover also more closely matches my earlier vision and also a recurring theme in the book when describing the outback - "blue at the top - red at the bottom".

On the left is the original design and it did not go down well when I revealed it to the potential audience. With hindsight, it is easy to see why, but as with everything in this business, it is a steep learning curve and we learn the quickest from our mistakes. The redesigned cover is on the right and looks much more professional. As you can see, the font of the author name mirrors that of the previous novel above and enhances the brand identity.

I hope that you like my covers and if you read my books, I hope that you enjoy those too. There will always be people who say that I am crazy for attempting to do my own covers, but I stand by my decision not to conform. Self publishing gives authors a chance to do things their own way and they should take advantage of this. Like I have said before, it is very rare that I see a book cover (either indie or trad) that I like. At best, I find them too conformist, too generic. In music, album covers have long since been experimental and dared to break from the norm, so why should book covers be any different? People will disagree and say that the cover is merely a marketing tool, but I think that it is called "cover art" for a reason. So what are you waiting for? - Get artistic.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Reconsidering the Cover

After yesterday's post on cover design, I have received some helpful feedback and some not so helpful feedback. One thing that was clear though, is that my cover needs a lot of work. I have therefore decided to go back to the drawing board, but I will continue to work on it myself. My latest effort can be seen at the bottom of this post.

The main problem when coming up with a cover, is that there really are not that many that are very good. I am not solely talking self publishing here, but the majority of published books, for my mind, do not have very good covers. It seems that the best covers contain just two components - the title of the work and the authors name. Of course, this is only good if the name is famous enough to sell itself.

Why do I think that this is so (apart from my personal reaction to books covers)? Well, it is really to do with the nature of writing fiction. The author does not so much paint a picture in the reader's mind, but merely provides the necessary "code" for the reader to paint their own picture. It is a very subjective business and to try and sum up a book into one cover picture is far too objective. An image is real, it is fixed and immovable. Imagination is ethereal and fluid. The two simply do not go together.

So should we do away with the cover, it is after all, the title and the blurb that provides the true cover (the initial picture that the reader forms in their imagination)? Unfortunately, it is not that simple. We do have to have something, but we must also remember that our covers are mere placeholders for the day when they can be dispensed with altogether and our name alone will be all that is required to advertise our book.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Cover Story (revisited)

As I am getting closer to being ready to release my second novel, I thought that it would be a good time for another cover design feature. As with The Outback, I am still working to a limited budget and will be opting for a self-designed cover. The final image has actually been up on my blog for some time, so here, I will share the step by step process of how and why I chose that particular cover.

I have stated from the outset of this blog, that a major part of the attraction in self publishing is in the personal aspect of the do-it-yourself approach. Sure, I could pay somebody to use a stock image, but call me an egoist; I like the idea of creating my own cover in much the same way that I enjoy creating my own stories. Of course, some time down the line when I can actually make a living from my passion, I may change my mind. But, what the Hell - artists are allowed to be fickle.

Above - This is the base image. It was taken by myself on the island of Koh Phi Phi, in Thailand. I chose this picture because the longtail boat is a recognisable symbol of Thailand and this instantly more accurately pinpoints the location of the story (the title is actually a wordplay on the name of the female lead as well as the continent). I also like the placement of the boat and the fact that there is an island in the background, which suggests mobility within the setting.

Above - Here, I began to play around with various effects. (As with The Outback, I used I thought that the resolution of the original photograph was too high and I wanted to give it a more unreal feel. I liked the effect, although it is still, at this stage, a long way from capturing the tone of the story.

Above - Experimenting with placement of titles. The final font was yet to be chosen.

Above - The image has now been resized and a stronger font chosen. Asia has been written in a text that suggests a ransom note, which begins to hint at the plot. (I tried to have the full title in this script, but it was not clear enough in thumbnail format, which is what most potential readers will see first.) The colour needs work as at this stage it looks more like a travel book than a thriller.

Above - My first experiment with colour. The brightness is far too strong, but it begins to create a more unnatural look, which helps to tone down the strong resolution of the photograph. I always feel put off by books that use undoctored images, as strong realism is more suited to non-fiction than fiction. I believe that a writer should help a reader to conjure up their own pictures to go with the story as opposed to merely showing them theirs. It is this uniqueness that every reader experiences, which makes the written word superior to celluloid.

Above - A darker tone this time. The negative quality to image marks the story out as a thriller, but I was not happy with the white font.

Above - The final design. The colours, I would describe as off-natural, which creates a haunted, things-are-not-quite-as-they-should-be tone.

So, there you have it. My ultimate goal is to create something original, which stands out from more generic covers, but that does also not appear amateurish (although, technically, I am merely a humble amateur). ebook covers are always a tricky thing to get right and I suppose, ultimately, it will be sales that dictate the value of the cover.

It could just be me, but I am actually happier with both of my covers when I view them side by side (as they will be in Amazon) than when taken on their own. I also find it easier to warm to covers on print books (ebook covers always strike me as slightly odd). As ever, please feel free to let me know what you think.

All images copyright David Clarkson 2013

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Giant Killer Bugs!

Today I am going to take you back to another of my former travel escapades. Firstly, I will need to set the scene. At the time we were staying on the island of Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand. We had spent the afternoon on the beach, because there was not anywhere else that we could go unless we hired a motorbike. With Katie having very little confidence in my driving ability she would certainly not have taken the risk of trusting her fate on a motorbike with me, so the beach was actually the only option.

It was coming up to lunchtime and we moved to a table by the bar to prepare for dinner. We had only just taken our seats to order, when Katie noticed movement in the surf.

'Is that a bird drowning over there?' she asked, pointing not more than ten metres away.

I could see that there was definitely something in the water. It was hard to tell from that distance, but it certainly looked big enough to be a bird. She urged me to investigate further. When I got there, I could see instantly that this was no bird.

'It’s a big moth thing,' I called back to her in the understatement of the century.

It was in fact, the biggest moth thing I had ever seen. The Japanese make movies about these things attacking Tokyo was how big it was. Convulsing wildly, it was clearly going to drown in the surf if nothing was done quickly. I scooped it up out of the water with one of my thongs. (Note - I had not removed an item of inappropriately tiny swim wear. What I call thongs other people will call sandals, jandals or flip flops. The first pair I owned was in Australia, where they are universally known as thongs. And to me thongs they will always remain.)

‘That is the ugliest thing I have ever seen,' said Katie, as I lay the thong down for the insect to dry out.

It was at least three inches long and had a wingspan possibly double that. As we stared transfixed, it slowly rose to its feet and began to test its wings. The noise was like an underwater electric razor.

'What the hell is it?' asked a horrified Katie.

She followed this question with a high pitched squeal as the creature unrolled a disproportionately long tongue. It appeared to taste the very air around it (or our fear), no longer seeming so helpless after all.

'I don't like it, David,' professed Katie.

Before I could respond, we were forced to duck as the moth flew into the air and twirled wildly above our heads, before launching itself full force into the back of a chair. There was a loud thump and then it fell limply to the ground, where it lay lifeless in the sand. Katie and I shared a look of complete disbelief. We assumed that the impact had smashed its brain to a pulp. So much for saving it from drowning, I thought.

A superstitious person may think that it was fate. I stopped the creature from dying, only for my actions to eventually lead to it...dying. It certainly sounds like fate, but that is not the reason for me telling the story. What I am more concerned with is the fact that my good intentions (in trying to save the creature from drowning) ultimately served no good at all. This gets me to thinking as to how my intentions as a writer are received.

Every story has a natural arc. Every character has a pre-designated fate. To try and interfere with this can have disastrous consequences. It is important to serve the best interests of the story and not those of the character. As a writer, it is very easy to become attached to one’s characters. The important thing is not to become sentimental about them. If a story works best without a happy ending, you should never try to create one. You may think that you are saving your character, but in reality you may be simply delaying the inevitable and trust me, if a character is supposed to die, you have to let them. Like the crazy, oversized moth monster, they will still inevitably find their fate, but this time the death will be in the minds of the reader. They will be dead, because your betrayal to the story will render them unbelievable. An unbelievable character is an unsympathetic one and for a reader to lose all emotional connections to your characters is the worst death of all.

Okay, so the picture does not really do it justice! Just bear in mind that you did not see its tongue or hear the noise!

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Tales of the Unexpected

As readers of this blog will know - I have recently become a married man. The engagement leading up to the wedding had been for 10 months, but the planning had been going on for much longer than that. Suffice to say, I had a lot of time to think before tying the knot. I had a lot of time to build up my expectations about what marriage would actually be like. These expectations could not have been more wrong.

A question that everyone seems to be asking me now that I am a married man is "do I feel different?" The short answer is "yes", but a slightly longer answer may not quite be what people are expecting. You see, I used to think that Marriage was a very grown up thing to do. After taking a vow, you are not just in a serious relationship, but a committed one too. In getting wed, a couple promises to remain together no matter what.

I have lived with my now wife, Katie, for six and a half years. We have been a couple for six of those (don't worry, you did the math correctly. We are just an unusual couple.) Although, I have never not lived with my wife since I have known her, I do still realise that living together is a big step for many couples. You have to share everything. Not only the good parts, like the bed, but the boring stuff too, like bills and cleaning duties (unless you are a chauvinist or a writer - updating the blog is a brilliant excuse for getting out of doing the washing up!) Moving in together is a grown up and responsible thing to do. If it does not work out, it is also easy for both parties to go their separate ways without too much acrimony.

Marriage on the other hand is not so easy to get out of. A divorce can be very costly, time consuming and stressful. Given the high divorce rate (2 in 3, give or take) it hardly seems worth it. In fact, statistically speaking it is quite a risk. As we all know, anything that is risky is also usually fun. Who doesn't love being a bit reckless every now and then? The question is as to whether the "risk" of marriage also makes it fun. This may sound like a crazy idea, but allow me to explain.

As I stated earlier, I have lived with Katie for over 6 years. Getting married changes nothing to our lives (except Katie gets a new surname). Yet, when I looked at her for the first time after exchanging our vows, I did feel different. I did not feel more responsible, more grown up, but the exact opposite. I felt young and reckless. We had taken a very safe and stable relationship and traded it for one of the most uncertain institutions there is - marriage. All of a sudden, there were so many legal consequences to any possible breakdown of our relationship. In the spirit of Las Vegas - we are now all in. So confident are we in the strength of our relationship, that we have effectively bet everything we have on the fact that our love will last. We did not have to do this, yet we did. Why did we do it? The only possible answer that I can think of is pure, unmitigated romance.

A few years ago when the first of my friends got married, I did not envy them. I thought that they were becoming old before their time, but now I understand. They were not being responsible, they were being rash, reckless and romantic - just like Katie and I are now. So many times I hear arguments against marriage because it is "just a piece of paper". There was once a time when I might have agreed, but not now. Marriage is so much more than that. It is an ideal, it is an adventure and it is also a risk (although very few would admit this when they do it. Even those 2 in 3 who end up divorcees think that theirs will last). We do not do it because we are being responsible or because it is "the right thing to do". We do it for one simple reason - love. It is a lifetime commitment made without giving a thought to the future. We are not thinking that we want to be together tomorrow, but that we are together today and we want today to last forever.

I stated earlier that this is not how I expected to feel as a married man. I always thought that it would age me. That I would finally be a "grown up". The fact that I was wrong about this, not only pleases me, but it reminds me of the greatest tool that I possess as a writer. The unexpected. It is important for a book to not only exceed the reader's expectations, but the author's too. Yes, we need to plan a story, but we also need to allow it to take it's own course. Like all great musician's who perform live, sometimes a writer needs to improvise. We have to stop plotting our story and begin to feel it, to live it and let our hearts guide our fingers rather than our minds. The results may be surprising and unexpected and that is a good thing.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.