Letting the Characters Drive.

I’ve been advised against writing in first person several times. The general advice seems to be that publishers don’t like it and it’s harder for readers to get into the story. I could never understand that because I’ve alway loved reading first person. It pulls me into the story. When I’m reading first person, I get so absorbed in the story that I forget I’m reading.  It feels like the story is simply in my head. The narration of third person constantly reminds me that I’m reading words on a page. Thinking back, it seems that all the books I would binge read were in first person, while third person was easier for me to put down and function like a normal person (which is important sometimes).

I felt like there was something missing in that advice. I wasn’t going to presume to tackle the entire publishing industry, but there was something that wasn’t getting passed along. Maybe it was lost somewhere in the translation of ideas into cash. Then I read something and a choir of angels burst into song. It said first person point of view, POV, was for character-driven stories, while third was best utilized for plot-driven stories.

What keeps me up all night, eyes twitching from strain and exhaustion, is the characters. What they’re thinking and feeling, the way they relate to each other, how they handle the challenges before them, how they grow, how they crumple, how they overcome, how they fail. There needs to be a plot, of  course, but my interest is in how the characters tackle that plot.

When I’m thinking up the foundations for a story, it always starts with a character, or group of characters. I’ll spend a few days considering and exploring these people. It’s not until I’ve got the characters figured out that I start looking for a world they fit into and a plot for them to work through.

Finding such a simple explanation for how POV drove stories made it feel like my whole life made sense. I like first person so much because I love character-driven stories.

When I first tried to look into the differences between a character-driven story and plot-driven story, there seemed to be as much disagreement about that as every other single part of the whole fiction process. Some places suggested that character-driven stories were reserved for literary fiction, while others said Star Wars was a great example of characters driving the story. Again, I’m not going to take on the entire industry, but it seems to me a good way to tell is what the reader remembers most.

 

Unconventional Ramblings, An Interview

I recently shared the exciting news about having my first book, Of Fire and Steel, picked up by a publisher and wrote about the unusual way that happened. Shortly after that, I sat down with Aaron Hughes, the Managing Director of Rambunctious Ramblings Publishing Incorporated to talk about his unconventional approach and how he plans to turn the publishing world on its head for reader and writer alike.

Q: When first coming up with the idea for RRPI, what was the thought process? If you could pick a few things that you wanted to do differently than the competition, what would you say those are?

A: The thought process behind the creation of RRPI was to end the elitism. I was a real estate agent after I got out of the Marine Corps, as such I provided a service to buy and sell homes. There was no legal requirement behind our position, only the tradition and ease of completion to use an agent. The same is true about the current publishing industry. There is a sense of “You need us”.

Not anymore. Anyone can publish a book through a wide variety of means. So what do you need a publishing company for? What point is there to have one sign you? Exposure? They commonly target authors who have a large social media following. Marketing assistance? Not much. Generally they’ll plop a few shares and that’s it. So this is where I thought of something different.

I want to open the flood gates and mentor authors. I want their bright and wonderful ideas, I want to help mold them into something that can bring merriment to the masses. I want to help them grow into something fantastic. So I thought “How do you do that?” I bounced ideas off of my wife and Ashley, our Branding Director, and came up with a solid concept.

RRPI is a company that goes after the small fry to help them complete their dream of becoming a professional author. We figure out how they work, how they think, and what they need that they can’t easily do themselves. Some people need a boot in the rear end, whereas others need to know that what they’re writing isn’t garbage, while some just need a timeline for completing work.

Every unknown author has been tread upon by society, their friends and family, publishing companies or more. With each submission for a contest, or query, I give them an answer, “Yes” or “No”, but more importantly, why. I detail what I liked and disliked about their story. Where I would go with it and what they should do. Currently there are two people who submitted to me for publishing and I told them to go back and fix things then I’ll sign them. It is a test to see if they can adapt.

So in short, RRPI is about the author bringing their best, adapting their best to give the reader the easiest path into their mind. A path to see the worlds and characters that are hidden away. A path to bring joy and love, adventure and intrigue, and so much more to the world.

Q: When you say you accept all submissions, that means you’re giving everything a fair chance, right?

A: Correct. We accept submissions for consideration to publish from any genre and experience level. We also do not limit submission times to certain dates like other companies. We believe this hinders the possibility to have creative people come to us. Creativity doesn’t know timetables.

Q: So would you say you focus more on creativity than the average company?

A: We focus on the author and their creative process. We take time to understand their abilities and limitations and work with them to bring out their best for the reader.

Q: My understanding of traditional publishing is limited, but it seems like authors have more input with RRPI than the average publisher. How intentional is that?

A: One-hundred-percent intentional. When I created RRPI, I wanted authors to work with us through the process and learn what needs to be done. Not sit in the dark and wait for orders. If they know what it takes, they build trust with RRPI and it becomes easier with each book that comes through the mill.

Q: You don’t have genre limitations and you have said you don’t go after an established author. Is there something particular you’re trying to offer readers that you feel like they aren’t currently being offered by the industry?

A: Open creativity. With genres and established authors you get preconceived notions. With a mix of genres or new authors you get surprises. It’s a way to bring new things to the world of literature and show that not everything needs to be put neatly into a box. The real world is messy and so are the worlds that our authors create. RRPI wants to bring a whirlwind through the literary community and we want every reader to be caught up in the flow.

Q: With that in mind, what is your process for deciding if an author and work would be a good fit with RRPI? What kind of issues are you willing to help an author work through that more traditional publishers would move past?

A: I don’t look at the word count or the genre. I don’t care about that. A good story is something that speaks to you. If I get that feeling of hunger to read more while reading someone’s submission, I love it. If I don’t realize how long it took me to read it, I dive after the author to get them to sign with me. I will work through most any issue with an author. We have a few authors that have severe anxiety issues, others with families that take precedence, not to mention day jobs. Our job as a publishing house should be to make sure that our authors are happy; happy authors equal productive authors. Authors who feel included, who feel communicated to, who feel that their needs are important to the publishing house will work harder than anyone else out there. Its how I’ve always treated people I work with and people in my personal life. It’s how I got my wife to marry me, well that and constant pestering until she said yes.

Q: How does RRPI balance the unforgiving business world with the creative process? Those two things usually seem at odds with each other.

A: They very much are. We work with the author to establish what real life requirements they have and set dates, goals, deadlines, etc. based off that. It’s like balancing a truck on a toothpick, but it is possible. The key is to be as aggressive as your life allows you to. To plan far ahead of time so that you have plenty room for error and adaptation.

Q: You mentioned being a real estate agent and there is definitely an undertone of the Marine Corps in some of your answers. Are there things from these other fields that you think offer an edge?

A: I think that one must experience life before they move into what they want and are meant to be. As a real estate agent I had to field my own business opportunities by finding clients out of the blue. It allowed me to work independently and develop my own style of business management and leadership. As a Marine, of course it lends a lot to my perspective. Everything in business needs to be looked at coldly and my training taught me how to look at a problem from an outside perspective.

Q: Awesome. That leads directly into my next question. How do you plan to do that? We’ve talked a good bit about what you’re offering authors, but what about the competition? Do you view other publishing venues–traditional, indie, self–as competition?

A: I don’t believe that they are competition. They have different talent, different books, and different perspectives. RRPI is unique just as every other publishing house or self-publisher is unique. We bring our own sense of flare and style to the scene just as they do. I plan to revolutionize the publishing scene by producing quality books while shoving against the stigma that you must define your own niche in publishing in order to develop credibility. I believe consistency and customer service creates credibility. That is what I plan to offer and plan to execute by our daily existence as a company.

Q: What advice do you have for people who are still trying to get to the point of being ready to publish and maybe feeling overwhelmed by the whole process?

A: The answer is always “no” unless you ask. Just stop, breathe for a moment, and move on. If you get rejected, it’s all right. Everyone has been rejected, they know how you feel. You aren’t alone. I’ve fought just like you have to find my place in the world. I’ve fought to accomplish my dreams, to come back from nothing. I and many others are right there beside you. You may not see us, but you’re on the same trail as we are. Remember this and persist. I want to see what story you have to tell, and so does the rest of the world. Keep writing, things will get better.

Random Story (flash fiction)

PROMPT:  Grab the book, magazine, or newspaper nearest you and open up to a random page. Start your story with the first line at the top of the page and end your story with the last line at the bottom of the page. 500 words or less.

“Ten men or more cannot kill such a man.”
“You are also a man.”

*********************
Ten men or more cannot kill such a man.

Sloan read the inscription again. Heaviness settled in her chest, making her heart push harder. She tightened her grip on the hilt, focused on her breathing.

“What do you see?” Cian offered no patience.

“Nothing.” It was hard to lie through the prophecy.

The smooth hilt surged with power that radiated up her arm. The parries and thrusts made with the weapon fatigued her own muscles. The blood it spilled felt to drain her own veins.

Sloan could see whole armies fail to strike down any man who wielded the Jade Hilt.

“Sloan.” Cian made up in perception what he lacked in patience. “You’re seeing something.”

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Cian’s were waiting; two private seas beckoning her to dive in. Sloan pushed that aside. “The inscription is true.”

A grin, like a flash of sunlight, broke across his face, and like sunlight, was careless of its affect. Cian pressed his mouth to her cheek, an oblivious, habitual gesture. Then he stood and was gone, leaving Sloan’s hut feeling hollow and dull. His presence was always a little like being drunk, and his departure too much like being hungover.

Sloan pushed herself off the floor to go wash away the weight and burn of the sword. Her legs protested and her head swooned. She caught herself against the central post of her hut, making the spirit bells tinkle over her head—that’s what she willed herself to believe.

Water did nothing to sooth her hand. Turning it over, Sloan found blisters rising to speckle her palm. There was no one else in the village Sloan would have touched that thing for. She did wish it had been anyone else who brought it to her, though.

***

Twilight was bleeding color out of the day when Cian leaned inside Sloan’s doorway, offering another burst of brightness. Her pallid complexion paused what would have been a passing greeting.

“Are you unwell?”

Sloan finished tying off the drawing poultice before forcing a smile. “Just a little tired.”

“Did you cut yourself?”

She glanced back to her wrapped hand. “I—yes.”

Cian noticed her eyes pull to the sword he still carried. “This? You didn’t even look at the blade.” He pulled the sword free of the scabbard to admire its gleam in the fading light.

“I didn’t need to.” She was about to feign another smile when he frowned over at her, but stopped. She knew the words would be useless, like so many of the words she’d told Cian, but like all the others, she felt compelled to say them. “The prophecy of the Jade Hilt—the whole prophecy—is ‘ten men or more cannot kill such a man. Any man who wields this sword brings his own destruction’.”

He flashed a reassuring grin. “I’m a warrior, Sloanie.”

Defeat settled into her bones. “You are also a man.”

Unexpected Call (Flash fiction)

PROMPT: Your phone rings in the middle of the night. An indiscernible voice speaks: “There is a car waiting for you outside your house. Get inside. You don’t want to ignore this.” Your spouse rolls over, eyes squinting, and says, “Everything okay?” What happens next?
********************
I sat up, groping for the lamp by the bed.

“Everything okay?” Naomi rolled over just as I clicked on the lamp. She muttered something inaudible and we both recoiled from the brightness.

“They’re here.” Adrenaline pushed the sleep back and left me with the hollow, shaky feeling of low blood sugar. “There’s a car waiting down stairs.”

Without a single complaint about the abruptness, or time of night, she rolled out of bed, standing and tugging off my t-shirt in the same motion. Adrenaline seemed to serve her better than it did me.

The car smelled like damp cigarette smoke—like someone had taken it to a self-serve upholstery cleaner. The 90s Taurus didn’t leave me much leg room in the back, but I wasn’t going to complain. If it weren’t for the cramp running up my leg, I don’t think I would have noticed at all. Naomi didn’t.

Streetlights washed her in flashes of yellow light, then she fell away to darkness only to be bleached out the next moment. Her face was drawn and haggard, and I couldn’t place all the blame on the streetlights.
She didn’t talk.

I didn’t talk.

The driver didn’t talk, either. There was a discolored square on the windshield where the mirror used to be, it left the driver as little more than the outline of head, ear and partial profile as we drove along. I didn’t care about that, either.

I didn’t care as our sleepy town fell away to cow fields and barns that knew how to survive a few tornadoes. It was the kind of place that hung twenty-year old wreaths and angels along the street every Christmas. The kind of place where the bank, grocery store, and new firehouse were all done in the school’s red and silver. It was the kind of place that was supposed to be quiet and safe. When it turned out not to be as safe as you hoped, they did a good job of keeping that quiet.

The Taurus turned onto a dirt road and rumbled over a cattle guard. For two or three miles we jiggled along over gravel and pot holes, nothing but a speckling of young cedar trees to break up the stars. They were so much brighter out here.

Finally, the outline of a pole barn emerged before us. I’d only seen it once, and it was nothing but a black square against the night now, but I remembered the way the weathered boards bowed away from the sides, and the way the tin roof had rusted through in a few places. Both did their share of letting in the animals and elements, but it wasn’t enough to erase evidence.

The faceless driver eased the Taurus to a stop and a figure stepped away from the barn’s shadow. Opening my door and standing, I found my knees were made of water. It was an effort to haul Naomi out, it seemed her legs were giving her trouble, too.

“Mr. Blankenship, Mrs. Blankenship.” Mr. Tillwell nodded to us. “Sorry for the hour, but we’ve got to be done by noon and I thought you’d want to see him before my man really got going.”

My stomach turned at the prospect, but it was a giddy kind of sickness. Yes, we wanted to see him. We wanted to watch him squirm and bleed and beg. We wanted to see him left faceless to the mercy of coyotes and rain. The next time we went to sleep, we wanted some sense of justice and satisfaction.

Standing out here among the grass and cow manure, I could feel it was going to be a hollow kind of satisfaction.

“Stephen will keep the car here, you can stay as long as you like.” Mr. Tillwell gestured for us to lead the way to the huge gaping hole of a door. “You can watch or join in, if you like. My man’ll even give you instruction if that’s something that appeals to you.”

Yes, it did appeal to me. Hollow satisfaction would be better than nothing.

Reconsidering Covers

Some things to keep in mind.

The Phoenix Quill

Reconsidering Covers – By Christopher Taylor

About a year ago I wrote a piece about book covers in which I thought about a few concepts regarding a good book cover and how important it is. In the time since then I’ve continued to study and consider this topic and have learned more.

Book covers are the only real way you have to reach out to readers. You can hope for word of mouth, you can pay to advertise, you can make a “book trailer” video and post it, you can give away copies, but ultimately, with over six billion potential customers around the world living on 57,000,000 square miles of land, you’re not going to reach them all.

What you can do is make a compelling, intriguing, and effective book cover so that when people look for something to read, they will notice and become interested in your work. In…

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