Friday, August 11, 2017

The daunting world of audiobooks

So apparently, audiobooks are a thing.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, audiobooks are audio recordings of entire books that can be purchased and downloaded online. Typically the books are read by professional voice actors or the authors themselves. About a decade ago, I downloaded a few audiobooks to try it out myself, but didn't get very far before giving up. I chalk this up to the fact that I'm a very visual person. It's the sense I'm most in tune with. It's the way I write (I blogged about this very topic here) and it's the way I read. If the words aren't in front of my eyes, my mind is apt to drift to other matters. So I prefer reading over listening.

For a long time, I suspected I had this in common with most people, but it turns out that I am wrong. A LOT of people love listening to books read aloud. I guess part of this is the hectic pace of people's lives these days. It's rare for readers to have the luxury of a few spare hours to sit around thumbing through a book, so instead, they listen to bite-sized portions of a book while driving, jogging, or running errands. It's not the way I like to enjoy literature, but I get it.

Anyhow, for years now I've been getting emails asking if I've considered doing audiobook versions of my novels. I dismissed the notion outright at first, because recording my own book (obviously I'm not going to hire a non-Witness reader, and I would hardly be able to afford one anyway!) would be a tremendous investment in time and resources. Of course, in the digital age it's much easier for people to record audiobooks at home. Gone are the days where only expensive, state-of-the-art studios could produce quality recordings. Believe it or not, more than a few professional authors use a room in their house, set up a mic and a laptop with some recording software, and throw blankets over everything to absorb the sound and get right to it.

So for me the real cost is in time. It's no small task to record and edit a reading of a 100,000 word novel. Also, there's quite a bit of skill involved, as I've learned while doing research on the topic. A lot of this is encompassed in our Benefit book, but with a reading as dramatic as that of a paperback, there area also other skills that need to be refined, like being able to quickly switch between voices so that the listener can easily tell when the speaker changes (I tried, it's hard!) and conveying the right kind of emotions in dialogue so that the result isn't A) too lackluster or B) too overboard. So really, it's a mix between reading and acting. And I'm not sure my acting chops are up to the task!

But never say never, right? Anyway, I'm looking into it. It's actually kind of an intriguing idea, and if I get enough requests, it'll probably happen. I've set up a little poll to the right of this blog where you can give me some feedback regarding the possibility of audiobooks. (Please keep in mind that due to file management issues, I would need to host them on an external platform like Amazon, so they wouldn't be free of charge.)

So, do you like audiobooks? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Characters over Events

Recently, some of my readers have asked about what appears to be a gaping hole in Critical Times. Where, they ask, was the cry of peace and security?! In truth, the only time the words "peace and security" show up in the novel is in a bit of dialogue between Luke Harding and Agent Meade, who believes that the stamping out of all religion will bring about "peace and security". This, however, is unrelated to the initial cry made by the United Nations as per our current understanding of the global stage set before the outbreak of the Great Tribulation.

The cry of peace and security doesn't feature in the book because the events in the novel take place just after it occurs, as the US, and then other nations around the world (led by the UN), take aim at Babylon the Great. But why, readers might wonder, would I neglect showcasing such a momentous moment in Critical Times?

Answer: It isn't part of the plot. Critical Times begins as social attitudes towards religion are reaching a tipping point. Most people are already frustrated and disillusioned with the churches, making it a fairly simple matter for the governments to step in and strip the harlot of her wealth. The stage is already set to begin Luke's story, and this is the central plot.

More importantly, Critical Times is a story about characters and themes rather than events. I think, as a Witness writer, it can be tempting (and fun!) to write a story that focuses primarily on events. A good example of this was my first novel, All Things New. Although that book was host to a huge cast of characters, they really existed only to retell the events of the Great Tribulation, Armageddon, and Paradise. They were basically just narrating a historical documentary. (This style of storytelling, incidentally, is called an 'oral history'.) As I wrote in the foreword, the project was started with the goal of exploring the answers to such questions as:
"How would the U.N. attack false religion? How would the Witnesses later be targeted? How would Jehovah protect his people? What would Armageddon be like? What (and who) would be left? How would we reorganize? Communicate? Travel? Rebuild? What would return to perfection be like? How would a perfect child think? What would the Resurrection be like?"
In Critical Times, however, events are no longer the primary focus. Instead, the characters and themes are. While we do get a sense of the changing political scene, societal chaos, and anarchy, (events) these are primarily presented through news snippets that the characters witness as they move through their own personal journeys. While the characters are certainly affected by these external struggles, their conflict is fundamentally internal, and serves as the underlying themes of the book: Luke experiences a paradigm shift as he goes from perpetuating an establishment, to doubting it, to challenging it, to opposing it. Amy, on the other hand, struggles with being torn between her husband and the truth.

The reason I wanted to focus more on characters and themes than on events in Critical Times (and the reason that I will likely continue to do so for future books), is this: to me, the lessons we learn from characters' actions are more valid than guesswork of events that have not yet occurred.

Of course, writing detailed accounts about what may happen in the near future is interesting, exciting, and even thought provoking. But beyond starting conversations, how beneficial is it? This is the question I was forced to ask myself after the completion of All Things New. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy the book, and if it helps readers to picture themselves in the New World, then mission accomplished.

For Critical Times though, the emphasis was shifted intentionally. Speculation is kept to a bare minimum as the focus shifts: Would Amy be honest with Luke about her studies, or string him along, leading to confrontation? Would Luke turn a blind eye to the violence and militarization of the police, or would he wake up to the insidious aims of his organization? Would the characters rely on Jehovah and listen to the brothers, or would they attempt to do things their own way?

By making the book primarily about the characters and their decisions, I hoped to write a novel that was both entertaining to read, and a tool for self examination. Because regardless of whether or not any of the events mentioned in the book will resemble reality, the lessons contained therein certainly will.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

New book synopsis

What do you think of when you hear the word flee? Perhaps your mind conjures up images of an officially-mandated evacuation as a natural disaster looms on the horizon. Or you might think of something more ancient–something Biblical–in which a person (or, more often than not, a group of people) fled from one location to another by divine decree.

I imagine, since the announcement of my fourth novel two weeks ago, there's been some curiosity as to the nature of this new story, and I'm happy to finally provide the synopsis here:

As the Great Tribulation begins, a series of puzzling instructions from the branch tests the faith and resolve of Witnesses worldwide. Follow the experiences of Peter Burton, an elder in a congregation in Northern California, his wife Rachel, and their extended family and friends as difficult decisions and heart-wrenching sacrifices are made to be obedient and loyal.

The novel is progressing well, and if all goes according to plan, it should finish with a length of 90,000 words. (That's right between the length of All Things New and The Unrighteous). However, for FLEE, I'll be trying something new: a trilogy.

Now, I know trilogies (whether film or literary) can be a bit cringe-inducing for audiences, as they  sometimes take what could have been condensed into a single installment and stretch it into a more profitable franchise. Rest assured, that's not the motivation behind my decision. (I mean, I give my books away for free, after all.)

In outlining the story, I realized that I really wanted something that had scale to it. Whereas Critical Times sort of rushed through some of the elements of the Great Tribulation as the story charged along to its climax, I wanted this one to really let the readers savor all of the details. I wanted to show exactly how the populace (not just governments) turned against religion, and I wanted to depict more of the behind-the-scenes work of how the organization cared for Jehovah's people every step of the way. Additionally, I wanted to explore a larger cast of characters, and really give readers a chance to get to know them over a longer period of time. Simply put, if Critical Times was the movie adaption of the Great Tribulation, FLEE was to be the miniseries.

That said, I suspect this series won't be for everyone; I'm planning on releasing a book a year, so readers will need to be patient to get the full story. But hopefully, that means the payoff will be all that much more rewarding. Either way, it'll be an experience for both of us!

Stay tuned! 😁

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Sneak peek at book number 4...

I'm happy to finally release the cover for my fourth novel, FLEE. The design went through many iterations before I finally settled on what you see here. Hopefully it aptly conveys the mix of tension and hope that I was aiming for.

A full synopsis will be shared here soon, but in the meantime, you can probably figure out the general gist of the novel, no? ;)

Monday, May 22, 2017

What's in a name?

It's a question worth visiting when it comes to storytelling and novel writing: what's in a name? Are some names better than others? Should some names be avoided?

First off, it's important to note that names are highly subjective; each reader will approach a name with different preconceptions. For example, a character named Jesus in a fictional novel would be strange–offensive, even–to readers coming from a native English background. For Spanish speakers, however, Jesús is a fairly common name. (It regularly ranks among the 100 most popular Spanish boy baby names each year.)

For that reason, it's a good idea to know your audience before naming your characters, especially the characters who will take center stage. What names will elicit the right kind of emotion? And just as important: what emotion or connotation are you trying to portray? What kind of a person is the protagonist? Is he/she courageous or timid? Forthright or subtle? Outgoing or introverted? Confident or shy? Certain names have an intrinsic strength to them–they may be associated closely with well known characters (real or fictitious) who did heroic things. (Of course, these types of names tend to be overused in modern literature, so I personally try to choose from the fringes of these more popular options when naming protagonists.)

Also important is how a name feels when you say it. Some names have an almost onomatopoeic or textural characteristic to them; they may sound similar to a word that evokes a sound, feeling, or even taste that is connected to an emotional response. An example of this was the antagonist of Critical Times, Agent Meade. I went through a lot of options when trying to find the right name for him, but in the end I settled on Meade because of the way it felt. There is something intrinsically sinister–even predatory–about this name. Perhaps it is the fact that it sounds similar to smear and mean while rhyming with greed, bleed, and feed. These were all mental images I wanted the character to evoke: a slippery, manipulative, double-crossing serpentine man with greasy, slicked back hair and gaunt features. (Hopefully this all came across! Also, hopefully this isn't your last name!)

Another rule that I adhere to when it comes to naming conventions is this: Don't double up on similar sounding names within the same story. That means being alphabetically impartial; I try to avoid multiple characters having first names that begin with the same letter, because having a book with a John, a Jack, a Jimmy, and a James is just plain confusing and is likely to get your book thrown at a wall by a some poor, frustrated reader. I also try to avoid similar sounding names (no John/Don, no Sam/Pam, no Trent/Brent). Again, this is for the sake of clarity.

To accommodate the above naming conventions, I often add foreign names (and characters) into my books. All Things New was the most obvious example (I literally wrote that novel with the goal of cramming in as much ethnicity and culture as possible to reflect our international brotherhood). Apart from allowing access to a larger naming pool, using foreign names helps to keep the characters neatly separated in the reader's mind (the reader comes across a foreign name and immediately assigns a corresponding mental image).

If I'm making it sound like it's hard to name characters, IT IS. It is frequently one of my most second-guessed elements in a story. I have, with each of my novels thus far, gone back and renamed characters after a good chunk of the story had been written, because I realized the name was evoking the wrong emotion, or was having some other sort of undesired effect on the story (or me). It is likely for this reason that the "Find" > "Replace All" function of modern word processors was invented, and I make good use of it!

Another great tool is the plethora of name generators found online. My favorite is this one, which allows you to search not just by gender, but by commonality, and even generates last names. (Some of the characters in my newest book have names that were generated completely by this wonderful tool)

Of course, in real life, names certainly aren't everything. But when it comes to fictional characters that exist only on the page and in the reader's mind, an effective name can make a big impact on the overall success of the story!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A busy last few months...

Whew! It's been a long time since my last post. Apologies for that. It's been a busy few months, especially April, which was crammed with activity including the Memorial, a C.O. visit, and an assembly! But with May finally here I've had a bit more time to get back to writing.

To be honest, I think the break was just what I needed. Critical Times, while a wonderful experience, was my biggest project to date; it required the most research, the most writing (it's 30% longer than The Unrighteous and about two thirds more novel than All Things New) , and the most editing. It was an emotional investment as well. So after all that, a break was in order.

The thing is, I don't consider myself a professional writer. I don't do this for a living (my day job is teaching, and when I'm not in the classroom I'm usually out in service). Perhaps if I were doing this full time I'd be more on the ball with my writing, be it progressing on my latest novel or updating my blog, but I'm happy to not have that pressure. I'm a strong believer of keeping hobbies in their place. I've found that once they start taking center stage they stop being fun and start just feeling like work.

That said, I'm happy to say that the new novel (I'm not ready to reveal the title yet, sorry!) is well under way. I've been working on it on and off now since December, and it's starting to gain momentum and taking form into something that could be exciting.

At any given moment I usually have a few different writing projects going. I frequently write the first chapter (or scene) that pops into my head, then leave it alone on my MacJournal to either a) marinate into something worth revisiting b) stagnate into something fit only for the trash bin.

I find that having a steady flow of new ideas (I like to think of it as an "idea farm") is helpful in the creative process for a few reasons. For one, it keeps writing from becoming too tedious. When I start feeling burnt out on one idea (this happened frequently for the last novel, almost to the point where I scrapped the entire project altogether), I can switch gears and tinker away on a new story, or revisit one of the fragments I've written previously. It's a much needed breath of fresh air.

Secondly, it gives me something to look forward to when I'm nearing the end of a project. As I've mentioned before on this blog, penning the last words of a novel is always a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, I'm happy to see the journey come to a successful conclusion, but on the other, I feel like I'm saying goodbye to old friends–the characters I've spent so many months with have begun to feel very real, and as strange as it may seem, I feel attached to them at some level.

Another thing is that this "idea farm" technique gives me something to research on my spare time, and if you haven't figured this out, I really like doing research. Often because research sparks new ideas and new lines of inquiry. And all stories start with a simple question: What if...? For me, research usually starts in a scriptural vein, reading old publications and Biblical accounts to determine the best precedent for a certain circumstance I'd like to write about, and then it bleeds into other kinds of research: checking dates and maps, reading science journals and news clips, watching documentaries, and in the case of Critical Times, poring over copious amounts of online materials on police procedures.

Anyhow, as of January of this year, I had four potential ideas worth pursuing and was having difficulty picking one, but I'm now comfortably settled into one and happy with my selection, so we'll see. At my current point of 30,000 words I've still got a long way to go, but hopefully I'll have something to start sharing by the end of summer.

No promises, though! ;)