Monday, June 28, 2010

Self-published Nazism

The current HOT topic of the publishing industry these days is the upcoming (supposed) apocalypse that will hit us on the head just about anytime now. The Gods have spoken: the world of e-book will revolutionize publishing and authors will let go of the gatekeepers (agents) and self-publish all the way, hence realizing their dream. Evil agents who can't see real talent even if it'd hit them in the face will finally be punished for their shortsightedness, right? Allow me to administrate myself CPR before we continue.

There have been many discussions going on Twitter about what the role of agents will be, whether or not they will become obsolete and how they will survive if all authors go the self-publishing route. As a still unagented writer, I'd like to add my perspective to this whole debacle.

There have been many awesome posts about the agent's side of things. In my opinion, the question isn't what will happen to agents in a world where e-books and self-publishing rule them all--it's what will happen to the consumer in all this? We can't really forget the writers either, but we should also look at the motivation behind the excitement they have for this new way of doing things.

Every day, some writer proves he or she is too stupid/unprofessional to make it using official means (query, get agent, submit to editors, get published). Suffice to say, self-publishing isn't going to fix his problems. I certainly don't believe most writers are asshats, but there are a few out there. Jennifer Jackson, a very well known agent in the world of sci-fi and fantasy, recently blogged about how 52% of the queries she receives do not follow submission guidelines. According to her stats, that's anywhere from 90-100 people each week who send in queries and get an automatic form rejection because they couldn't follow simple guidelines. All she asks for are the first five pages and a short synopsis pasted in the body of the query, as many others do. Why is this so hard?

The most vocal ones are usually the complainers. Want to bet that a high percentage of those who so loudly complain will be part of that 52% who often get rejected because they can't be bothered to follow guidelines? That's already a huge part of the problem.

I'm pointing this out because a lot of the folks who are so pro self-publishing seem to be people who are irritated by the current process and frustrated by the amount of rejections that are piling up. I received five rejections in the last four days. My first request for a full came three days after I began querying, a second one a few days after, and since then... rejections, rejections, rejections. I know folks who got a rejection for both a partial and a full on the same day. It's a tormenting process for sure, but that's how it has been for decades. Is technology going to make it easier for everyone? Unlikely, because the medium isn't the part writers have a problem with.

Let's take all the other writers. Those who follow submission guidelines and have done their research, have written a good query and are hanging in there. (Apparently, we're not even the majority). I firmly believe no debut author will consider self-publishing without first trying the query approach... why? We're flimsy little fishes swimming in a tank full of sharks and piranhas, and we know it. Big fishes who will eat you alive if you don't know what you're doing. I once met a woman who overheard me saying I was writing a book while visiting my dad at the hospital... she explained how proud she was when she drove to NYC from Montréal to have a meeting with an editor... who charged her 1200$ for the 10 minute session and a 250 words manuscript critique that took months for her to receive.

Scammed? Yes. Was she even aware it was a scam? No. Did I tell her? I chose not to. She was sick and I overheard the doctor 15 minutes prior to my discussion with her as he delivered a bad prognosis. I didn't want to be the one to give her a heart attack by telling her someone had taken advantage of her time and money by playing on her dreams. How many have been played?

How many crooks will take advantage of the poor souls who want to be published so bad, have been rejected by over 100 agents, and who will turn to self-publishing? How will one navigate those waters without an ounce of experience? It will be a fucking mess. A bloody mess.

I was once "scammed" by Amazon when I bought a book covering a sexology topic. I was doing research for my sexology minor (which I never completed) both because I have an interest in sexology, sexuality and sex altogether and because it complimented my main studies well. That was years ago, I had no idea how the publishing industry worked. I based my purchases on reviews (both off and on Amazon) and that one book had over 70 five star reviews. The cover was horrible, but I thought, it has so many good reviews, let's give it a try and I shed the 20$ to buy it.

It was one big joke. The information was obviously not researched, unfounded, the backcover told blatant lies (you can't see a backcover on Amazon), there were a million typos and the formatting of the book was just amateur. It SCREAMED "self-published", but since I knew nothing about how books even get published, I did not know self-published books could be sold on Amazon and I trusted the system. I trusted a system I thought could be trusted and was royally screwed for it.

I wrote a review to expose the scam that the author was. I tried to find his contact info... I never could. He used a pen name and I could never find a way to contact anyone involved in the creation of this "book".

For some reason, Amazon removed my review. It contained no inappropriate vocabulary and was 100% objective. It took months and many exchanges with them before it finally appeared. I also started a discussion topic to alert buyers that the reviews were totally fake and that no single educated person would learn anything or benefit from the book. It was on this discussion topic I met others like me who had tried to warn the Amazon buyers and each time, their review was removed. I don't know what the fuck happened at the time, but if this is a shape of things to come, consumers should be TERRIFIED of a world where thousands of new self-published books will swarm in and appear beside "real" books. Especially in a world where reviews are so easily manipulated, and I'm not the only one to have noticed this.

Let us travel ten years forward, in a world where self-publishing has taken over.

What will it look like? Consumers will be exposed to the slush pile and after just a few bad experiences (like the one described above, which happened in 2006 by the way, long before people spoke of an e-book revolution) there will be an outcry. Consumers will feel scammed and ask for a way to identify the "real" books from the self-published ones. Will self-published books get a star beside their title to satisfy the angry customers? Are we going to see the rise of some kind of self-published/unagented Nazism, where debut and unrepresented authors will be forced to be publicly identified by the big sellers to alert the customer of the risk?

The idea sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? DOES IT? Really? I don't think so.

There is ALREADY a stigmata against self-publishing, but this one was brought on by the publishing professionals. That's what writers now say, anyway... what will happen when that same stigmata will be amplified to biblical proportions by angry customers? I'm willing to bet my air conditioned ass writers will scream bloody injustice and the shortsighted ones will no longer be the agents, but the customers, according to these same writers. Buyers will demand a way to identify the "real" books from the self-published ones, because reviews cannot be trusted. I'm sure new sites will pop out to help consumers identify the good ones the honest way, but not before some damage will be done.

We're all frustrated and tormented by the wait and rejections, my fellow auteurs. If you truly and really believe self-publishing and e-books will be the next best thing since sliced bread and open the gates to the millionaire league, I'd pace myself and try to see the big picture. Some authors are going this route, but these are writers with years of experience who already know the ins and outs of the industry.

Simply put, my unagented and unpublished writer opinion is that the world is not ready for the revolution that is suppose to come. A lot of people, customers and writers alike, will be swindled. Time will tell if more good than bad will come out of it at the very end.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Outlining


Each Friday, the great QueryTracker releases its success stories in a database. Some people are even interviewed (they fill out a form if they want to) and all of us can read them. Most of the time, they're either inspiring or encouraging. I'm always interested in reading about other writers' writing process. There seem to be two main clans: those who outline in advance and those who write on the fly. I belong to the first group.

Hello, my name is Francis and I am an outliner.

During the research part of my writing endeavors, I read many books on the topic of writing. One of them was Stephen King's memoir ON WRITING, which is both an autobiography and a book dashing out tips. King requires no introduction. He's so successful that he asks for a 1$ advance and starts collecting royalties from the go. The fact he can even make that request and be indulged is proof enough of his stardom. He's also successful enough that he can diss Stephenie Meyer's writing in public and get away with it. That might just be the mark of a very successful writer? Who knows. All I know is that I liked his book.

King isn't an outliner. In fact, he says plot is secondary and not important compared to fleshing out the characters. He just starts writing without a plan and sees where it gets him. I've read a lot of writer blogs, and the amount of outliners versus let's-see writers seems to be split 50/50. Try as I might, I could never not outline.

As you can see by the picture of my notes above, I tend to be overly organized in some things. Though it took a few months, I had the entire trilogy outlined before the first draft of the first novel was done. As of now, I know how the 2nd and third book will end (and I'm only 10,000 words in the 2nd book), I have all the backstory figured out and already know what some of the bigger plot twists will be.

I'm not sure exactly why I do it. Probably security, but also because I've read a few posts warning about sucky endings and cop outs. The anonymously fabulous INTERN blogged about the issue a few months ago. I personally take a lot of satisfaction when I watch a movie or read a book that is meant to end a trilogy and all subplots come full circle with dignified answers.

And what I mean by "dignified answers" is when the resolution of whatever the problem is DOES NOT appear to have been pulled out the writer's ass at the last minute because he or she couldn't figure out a better way. Some examples...

Darth Vader: the black costume was cool, but it served a purpose. Though we didn't find out until Episode III in 2005 how Anakin got his burned look, Lucas already knew in 1977 that it was Obi-Wan who had in fact defeated him during a duel on a volcanic planet. Hence, the line Vader delivers during his duel with Obi in episode IV, "I've been waiting for you Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. When I left you I was but the learner. Now, I am the master", finds a lot more meaning. I love that kind of insight, for some reason.

Underworld: Kate Beckinsale starred in the first two Underworld movies as Selene. Rhona Mitra took over for the third one as Sofia, which is in fact a prequel to the first two installments. What I found really interesting about the third movie is that it brought the first two to a full circle. Already in the first Underworld, Sofia's existence was already alleged. We saw flashbacks of her death that would be revisited in the third movie six years later. There was no way to do that unless the backstory was already figured out, if only partially when the screenplay for the first movie was being written. The second Underworld movie hinted at Selene's past and it's link to Sofia even more. Finally, the third Underworld movie showed us what actually happened in the past with Michael Sheen returning as Lucian.

They did get a detail wrong, though. In the flashbacks of movie #1, Sofia is a blonde. In movie #3, Rhona Mitra has black hair. That's a direct contradiction, and though it is a very small detail and most people probably never even noticed, it did bother me a little.

I admit it is completely unimportant in the greater cosmic order of things, but I like it when there is no contradiction. I realize it is entirely impossible to plan years in advance when it comes to screenplays and casting, but I'd be extremely uncomfortable getting into a three books deal without having a satisfactory ending in mind. I would hate to resort to purple goats to resolve a high tension plot I spent three books building. Doesn't it defeat the purpose?

I don't have all 400 pages of each book figured out of course, just the main plot and some subplot resolutions, but what I find really cool about outlining is that you can set up certain plot twists in book 1 that will only come out in book 3. You can hint at things that seem ordinary or meaningless in book 1, then in book 3 come out with an answer that will be that much more satisfactory because all the pieces of the puzzle were there for you to figure it out.

This leaves the risk of having smart readers dissect it and figure it out in advance before you want them to, but c'est la vie. To be honest, when I find myself wondering just who character X really is, that's when I know I'm immersed.

Case in point: I spent hours after hours debating just who the final Cylon was on Battlestar Galactica. I wasn't alone: on certain discussion forums, threads could go on for twenty pages about who the final Cylon might be, with facts and quotes from passed episodes to support the poster's hypothesis. Incredibly nerdy and geeky--yes. Incredibly cool--yes. I could only be so lucky if a novel I wrote would be enticing enough to warrant such interest... but in my opinion, that's the mark of a good story. Ronald D. Moore is right up there with J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon as far as I'm concerned.

What is your writing philosophy? Do you outline, or write as you go?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Speaking your mind

In this section of my website I talk about my inspirations in life and one of them is Carrie Fisher. There's a video interview I posted there when she was on Letterman in November 2009 and I love to watch it once in a while so much it makes me laugh.

Now, I follow a lot of blogs: writers, lit agents, lit agencies and other publishing professionals. I have about three dozens of them in my Google reader, but one I like a lot for its voice is this one. The writer is Hannah Moskowitz and she was published at seventeen. She has another book coming out this year too, with some steamy cover art. She's also writing a new story with gay and bisexual fishes. Where am I going with this?

She just did a blog entry about professionalism and I thought, upon seeing the Twitter update about it: great, another blog entry telling us to shut up, be nice, never retort, never say bad words, become a cookie-cutter writer and you might get published.

BUT NOOOOoooo! It was a wonderful post, which came down to one thing: be yourself, respect yourself, respect your readership and you'll be a professional. I agree 101%.

Hannah's blog can be quite funny because it has a great voice: the voice of authenticity. There's no attention given to political correctness or rose petals thrown in the pool to soften the opinions that are about to fall down the sky... she just says what she means and thinks and the water rolls off her back. I think it's awesome that, in 2010, you can act like yourself and still be published or considered a professional (even if you are young).

The parallel with Carrie Fisher is quite obvious to me, though you'd have to know a little about her life to understand why. Until I saw Hannah's post today, anytime I watched Carrie Fisher talk on interviews (the funniest ones are on Craig Ferguson), I envied her for having earned the right to speak her mind out loud without having to worry about the repercussions. Because I think this is an earned privilege. I think so.

When I was still in medical school I was on a two weeks internship in a hospital. We followed doctors around and it was meant to get us acquainted with working in a hospital (this was the first year). One day, I was working with a super-cool young and hip doctor, with whom I forged a strong rapport with because of how down to earth she was. She asked me at the nurse station how my internship was going so far (after I'd spent 3-4 days with her and we were on a first name basis) and I said something like "It's been really cool so far, but it's heavily dependent on what kind of people you hang around with. If you get to follow a a fun doctor the experience is ecstatic, if you end up with someone bitchy it's not so much fun."

It was a general statement. It was the truth, and I felt like my relationship with that doctor would allow me to be so frank about what I thought. She laughed a lot and said this will be true for my entire career.

Fast-forward two days later. I had not yet been in the company of a bitchy doctor. Just stuck-ups and arrogant snobs who might have thought they were the center of the little world they live in, but nothing so bad you want to quit.

I was apparently overheard and reported, only to have my ass summoned into a room with two other doctors to tell me how inappropriate it was to call the doctor in front of me a bitch. The doctor with whom I had spent less than 4 hours with, whom I had already forgotten and didn't even remember her name.

To this day, I'm still trying to understand how she could have known I even said the word bitchy and furthermore, how the fuck she thought it could have applied to her. I didn't even remember her name or who she was because she was as interesting as a blank canvas. Self-involved comes to mind. I later learned she had found me to be too outspoken in my private discussions with her when we had been together a few days prior and since she's extremely introverted, it obviously got to her.

I used my PR skills to make nice, apologized profusely for the misunderstanding and the next afternoon, I was scheduled to hang around with the cool doctor again. Suffice to say I was a little shaken. I had never in my life been summoned in a room to be disciplined. This wasn't me. I was being punished for being honest with someone who had asked me my personal opinion about my experience so far.

The lesson stuck with me, and will stick with me forever. It caused me a lot more trouble down the line too by the way, all of it because of a misunderstanding. It's kind of sad, and a counselor I saw sometimes also thought the whole affair was utterly ridiculous.

The moral of the story is that you can say what you think whenever you want, but there might be repercussions down the line. Carrie Fisher's been in the business long enough to be able to say whatever it is she wants and get away with it. She earned it, she survived through Hollyweird and unstable parents for decades. Hannah Moskowitz got published and still is getting published because she proved that she could work through all the steps and deliver a kick-ass final product.

I don't think I've earned my right to speak my mind out loud about whatever and whenever I want, but I still don't think I should become a cookie-cutter nerd who acts like the well raised mama's boy. Until I hopefully get published one day, I'll find an in-between and walk the fine line with the agility of Peter Parker.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

CBS fires the two female leads of Criminal Minds

This is Friday. And I have a rant!

It seems TV network executives these days are either all morons of massive proportions or high on drugs. Or maybe the economy forces them to make bad decisions? I really don't like to call people names, it is very unprofessional and is just bad decorum. Miss Snark taught us that.

But some idiots are just too stupid to let go. I have proof.

First there was NBC and the Tonight Show fiasco. I like Jay Leno, but a guy needs to know when his time has come. The genius behind this bad move was fired at the beginning of the month, but I think we can all agree: too little, too late. At least the Heroes cancellation was a good move.

A subsidiary of NBC is the Sci-fi channel. Oh no, I'm sorry... it's Syfy now. Yes, in the press release in which NBC announced the new name of their specialized channel, they explained that the new name will appeal to a broader audience. They said "Sci-fi" carried a stigmata and had too much of a "geek" feel to it. The answer: SyFy. Yes, I am sure all the girls who enjoy 90210 will now come running home to watch shows on Syfy due to the name appeal.

I know swearing is bad, and we French Canadians are known for our curses. Since English isn't my first language, I seem to be immune to whatever prudishness surround words. Therefore, I had only one reaction to this announcement: are you fucking kidding me? SYFY? Whatever baboon thought of it and whoever cleared this decision should be fired. Immediately. Considering the SyFy channel has no show of quality whatsoever since BSG ended, I wonder why it still exists. Lost and wrestling reruns? Puuuhhhh-lease. The day they decided to replace Emilie Ullerup's Ashley on Sanctuary with some new chick for "diversity" was the day they entered my shitlist. There's Stargate Universe, but I'm still finding the Atlantis cancellation hard to stomach, considering they canceled it because of "high production costs". More expansive than a new show? Rhona Mitra was both fabulous and hot in the last two episodes, so I am willing to give them some leash.


Moving on.

Then there's FOX. Also known as "Joss Whedon" killers, FOX has been known to cancel perfectly good shows because of "bad ratings" after they put aforementioned shows in death time slots, like Friday nights. Firefly was never given a proper chance, Dollhouse was also canceled prematurely. Poor Joss... why does he even pitch to these baboons who obviously CANNOT SEE TALENT EVEN IF IT SMACKED THEM IN THE FACE? Sarah Connor Chronicles... shall I continue?

Finally, there's CBS. Frankly, I never had much to say against CBS. They have great shows and I am not familiar with any major drama. Until today.

In a brilliant move, CBS fired one of their female lead on hit show Criminal Minds and will severely cut back on the other actress' episode count. I know this lady will call in for us all, but I much iterate my feelings. Firing all the female leads and keeping the guys is a recipe for a PR disaster. Forget the feminist movements (who I'm sure will give the network an earful), what about the millions of fans? Ever heard of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it?" Apparently, it was done for creative reasons. Puuuhhh-lease.

Criminal Minds is good because most of the team has been together since season 1. There is cohesion. The team feels like an actual team, and the female characters especially are strong headed. They're not clichéd to death or cookie-cutter female cops.

If you have three guys and two girls in lead roles and you decide to fire the only two girls, what kind of message are you sending? I am a a guy and even I am offended. Apologies, I mean "if you fire one and slowly erase the other."

Joss Whedon is a genius. Networks should beg him for shows, not cancel them. Criminal Minds is a fantastic show, why ruin it by removing two key members of the team.

What are these people smoking?

Rant over. Have a fantastic week-end!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Basics of website design for writers

In this post, I covered the importance of an online presence and the options available for writers to get a website or blog up and running for the lowest amount of money.

As promised, today's post will cover the basics of website design and how to streamline the process to make the time spent on production as efficient as possible. I'm assuming if you're reading this you are either a newbie or a beginner, so I'll be covering the very basics. This will be yet another long post, so bear with me.

Last time, I explained there were three ways to get a website: the professional way, the do-it-yourself way and the hybrid way. If you're reading this now, I assume you either want to do it yourself or go the hybrid way. In any case, you'll have to go through the major steps of website production.

1) Pre-production: figuring out a color palette and general layout (1, 2 or 3 columns, fixed or fluid width, etc.)
2) Graphically design the site in Photoshop or it's free equivalent, GIMP
3) "Cutting" the design and converting it to HTML/CSS
4) Bring the site online
5) Insure cross-browser compatibility
6) Bug testing and final touch-ups

You will spend a lot of time in steps 1-3... FrancisCossette.com took me about 150 hours to make, over 125 of those hours were spent on steps 1-3.

1) Pre-production
This time is spent researching. Find sites you like, notice the general color palette used (as well as its consistency) and its layout.

A quick overview of a website's structure: a website is divided in sections, called containers or divisions. Usually: a header div, a menu div, main div and footer div. Within the main div, you might find 1, 2 or 3 columns are used to display the general content of the site.

Examples: FrancisCossette.com uses a standard two columns layout. On the left I place "panels" with additional information or sub-menus to navigate the main sections. Nathan Bransford's uses three (orange left, white center, white right), Amazon uses three columns, PublishersMarketplace uses a three columns layout as well, but notice that a small section laps over both the main and right column for those who are unsubscribed.

Find images you like, and save them to your hard drive in a folder appropriately named.
Example:
C:/Website/ for all your HTML files
C:/Website/Images/ for all your images (.jpg, .gif, .png, etc.)

Since you'll have to work in Photoshop or GIMP a lot in the next part, find textures and backgrounds you like. Google "free (themed) textures" on Google. Example: "free grunge textures" brought me to many sites that provide free texture packs (usually, a pack is a lot of images zipped in one file) that you can use to design your site. This is how I came up with the teared paper line for the menu, the rocky background, etc. All the images on this site were made from scratch using a texture, sometimes many smashed together, then applying some color and effects to match the overall feel.

Before you begin the design part, good pre-production work will pay off quickly.

2) Design

This part all happens within Photoshop (or GIMP, the free equivalent, which is just as good for what you'll need to do by the way. Don't buy Photoshop at retail just to make a website, it won't be worth it. Consider Adobe Elements instead if you want paid software, which is a dumbed down Photoshop for half the price).

Make a 1200px by 900px new document, or something similar in size. Make a 1000px rectangle that will "limit" your work area and start designing. Before you do, a quick reminder on the general architecture of a website is in order.


We'll cover this in more details later, but you need to know where "stuff will go" while you design it if you want to be efficient.

Since you are a writer, you want to convey personality AND professionalism. You're not doing a personal page here. Professionalism in website design is conveyed by the general cleanliness of the design: it looks structured, it looks mathematically correct and it looks harmonious. You can tell within 5 seconds if a site was made by an amateur in Notepad with MS Paint, or someone who did his research. I am 100% confident you can to.

You'll have to know your way around PS/GIMP for this part. If you have no idea how to use it, consider watching a few video tutorials to get you going with the basic tools. You don't need to be fancy here. Just learn the basic functions (how to use shape tools, brushes, etc), the function of layers, and the different layer effects. This will be of HUGE help and will definitely work for you. Definitely learn to use layers. This is super important. Learn to use layers.

By keeping the above anatomy in mind (the site's, not Heidi Klum's, though I understand why you may think of her sometimes), start designing. Use rectangles, fill them with color, images, texts, and play with layer effects.

In general, you will want:
A) High contrast colors for background and text. 95% of the time, the color of the text should be DARKER than the background for the main column of the site. Black on white is good, white on black isn't so good. It can look nice, but it isn't practical. Some people still have old CRT monitors or LCD monitors with weak brightness and contrast on them, white on black will make it hard to see anything. Surf all of the popular sites: you'll see most have a white background, including Google and Amazon.

B) High contrast colors also means using hot pink text on a lime green background is a terrible idea. It will destroy people's retinas, make it almost impossible to read, screams of amateurism and will look plain unprofessional. Computer monitors display colors very differently from one computer to another. Photographers must invest 400$ in a colorimeter to make sure their monitor is properly calibrated to display colors accurately so our prints look as they did on our screen. Because YOUR monitor allows you to read hot pink on lime green doesn't mean this is the case for everyone. Be mindful of your color choice.

C) Harmony in colors. This means if your site generally tends towards cold colors, stick on this side of the wheel. My site has used a lot of shades of brown, beige and orange. These are warm colors. The wheel I refer to is this one:


Lime green and hot pink can actually work well together, but be weary because sometimes, color associations are burned in people's head and might send (Warning: link might be NSFW if you work in a prude office) cross signals. Whenever I see red and yellow packaging I might think of McDonald, for example. Orange and green rarely fit together, nor does white and yellow because of the poor contrast.

Play with colors and see what feels nice AND works.

D) Use gradients. This is a trick I've used for years and works wonders. GIMP has a gradient tool. Though they can be subtle and people might not even notice, the eye will. The orange panels on the left side actually use a gradient for their background. It's subtle, but if you compare the sides and the middle, there will be a light difference. The quote box I've used here also uses a gradient. As do many, many other sites. Next time you're browsing, look around for gradients you might have otherwise overlooked.

Gradients "soften" the overall look of a page and adds diversity. A monotone site (a monotone anything actually) is boring to look at. AnandTech is a professional site that makes the use of gradients really well.

E) Proper use of backgrounds. In photography, "busy" backgrounds are ones that might distract away from the subject. In these cases, we'll either choose another shooting location, use a backdrop or use a bigger aperture on our camera to get a shallower depth of field so the background is made blurry.

In website design, you have to be careful not to use a background that is too busy and that might distract from the overall feel, or make it difficult for people to read text. The gray box you are reading this text on right now: you might have noticed there is a subtle paper texture to it, but it's so subtle you might have missed it. Were it NOT there, you'd definitely see the difference if we compared them side by side. My point is, it does not distract. It's there to add an organic feel to the site.

A LOT of professional sites (Google, Amazon, Heidi Klum) use white. Barnes & Noble use white for their wrapper container (where the entire content is), but BEHIND this wrapper, they've used green with... wait for it... A GRADIENT! It's subtle, but the gradient is there. The colors work in harmony, and you know right away it B&N.

F) Fixed versus fluid width

A fixed site is one where the wrapper container keeps the same width no matter how big the browser window is. Some people surf the web with 2560x1600 resolutions (30in LCD monitors). A 1000px site will take half the page's space and leave 1560px (780px on each side if the wrapper is centered on screen, like mine, B&N and yours should be) of free space for those people. They are the exception.

In general, a fixed width layout is easier to design (you save a lot of hours), so this is what I ended up going with. The W3C statistics for browser resolutions are here, if you care to know which ones are popular.

3) Cut & convert

This is the final (and most difficult) step before you get the site online. Now that you've created something nice in Photoshop or GIMP, you need to cut that image in sections. So far, I've called them sections, containers and divisions. They all mean the same, but the proper term is a div, from the HTML code <div>.

Think of a <div> like a box. You open the box with <div>, put content in it, then close the box with the </div> tag. Example:

<div>This is the header of my site. This is where I will put images or text</div>

Though KompoZer will do the HTML for you, it's still good to know some of the basics. A graphic reminder of the anatomy of a site (learn it, it's important):

Site layout

In my case, this is what FrancisCossette.com looked like after step 1 and 2 were done. Click on it for a bigger image:


It's not identical, but you can see I already knew where I was heading. For this part, you will need an HTML editor such as Dreamweaver (400$) or KompoZer (free). In my last post, I highly suggested KompoZer, and I'm doing it again.

Both editors have WYSIWYG capabilities. What You See is What You Get allows you to place your sections graphically without writing a single line of code, and KompoZer will write it for you. You need to understand that all sites are written in HTML, which is the mother language of website design. CSS is used in conjunction with HTML to make things prettier. Javascript, XHTML and Flash can later be used to add special effects or animations. But remember that HTML is the foundation of it all.

HTML is very easy to use. I mean it. It's not a complicated language at all. Coupled with CSS, which is also easy to use (though more complex than HTML), you could do a LOT. KompoZer will translate your graphic design to HTML, but knowing the language yourself will give you surgical precision on your site's design. Consider laying the foundations with KompoZer (as far as setting the containers is concerned), then switch to the "Code View" to see your page all in code and make a few tweaks.

The books I used to learn CSS are now outdated, but this one comes highly recommended from a good friend of mine who teaches the stuff in university.

KompoZer has a "preview" feature that allows you to see how your site will look in a browser. Check it constantly to make sure it appears as you want it to. If you need help, I've frequently visited these amazing forums. A lot of professionals and knowledgeable people hang around there and take time out of their day to help you if you're stuck. Show them courtesy and gratitude and they'll happily help you. If you behave like an asshole, you'll be shown the door with a foot up your ass.

4) Bring it online

This is where the host you paid for will come into play. If you used Godaddy, your welcome e-mail will include information on how to publish your site. The usual method if via FTP, using a FTP client. This site runs yearly polls like this one on which software the members like best. It will help you choose which FTP client you want.

Godaddy also allows you to upload files via their control panel. The first page any site will display first is the one named index.html. Rename your homepage to index.html, upload it and type in your address to access it.

Don't forget to upload your images using in the same folder structure you used on your PC.

5) Compatibility testing

Most people who don't do any web design don't know this, but all webmasters know of it, and it's hated as much as synopses are hated by writers. Internet Explorer has been, for many years, a total train-wreck and a fuckcluster of massive proportions.

The standards for web coding are maintained by the W3C (introduced earlier) and most browsers, including Firefox, always respected them. Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom (none), never cared until Firefox became hugely popular.

Unfortunately, some people still live in the dinosaur age and use IE6 or IE7, which are both extremely insecure and bug ridden. W3C statistics for browser popularity. Enjoy.

In the past, making a website show identically across all browsers (Netscape, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer 6, Internet Explorer 7) was a huge pain. It required several hacks in the code, because each browser interpreted the code differently.

Then Firefox, the savior, swept in. Firefox is an open-source project, which means anyone in the World can see the code behind the software. It has always pledged to respect the W3C standards, it is continuously developed by hundreds of people all over the globe in a joint effort, is free, and is the most secure of all browsers.

Firefox now holds 46% of the market share for browsers and my hope is that it will one day achieve 100% and be the death of IE. Internet Explorer is the biggest piece of shit Microsoft ever did (after Windows ME perhaps). They never bothered to respect the standards and they didn't listen to the security experts who told them their browser had holes all over it. Not until Firefox came and started luring away many millions of users.

Even Google has stopped to support IE6 and IE7. The latest version of Internet Explorer, IE8, now respects the standards of W3C. It is more secured than it used to and actually works great. Now. After decades. You know what? TOO LITTLE TOO LATE, BILLY!

Chances are what you see in Firefox will be identical in IE8, and that's a good thing. Your site might appear differently on IE7, and appear as a monstrosity for those dinosaurs who still use IE6. While Amazon can't risk losing business because of IE6, you don't have their pockets or time. Insuring your site displays 100% well on ALL browsers may take weeks of additional efforts, if not months.

My suggestion? Make sure the site shows well in Firefox and Internet Explorer 8, maybe IE7 too if you're a masochist, then move on. You're a writer, you don't have time to pay for other people's shortsightedness. I do suggest you move to Firefox (it will import all bookmarks and stuff) if only for all the themes. Google Chrome is a good option too, but it is still young. Plus, I don't thing Google should be allowed to conquer everything. Skynet must be kept in check.

Yes folks, the fox revolution HAS BEGUN! Yeeeehaaaaaaaaaa!

6) Final touch-ups

Also known as debugging, this is when you go through every section of every page and try to find bugs. Then you fix them.

Let us conclude...

I know this was a long post. I did my best not to include any techno-talk (I think I did well there), but wrapping your head around all this information might not be easy. I understand that. Learning something new is never easy.

Your website creation will require a lot of effort and time, especially if you never did any of this before. Before we part ways, let us review the steps in one go.
  1. Pre-production: research, collect images & textures.
  2. Designing: done in a graphic software. This is where you design (duh) the overall site, while you keep the anatomy in mind. Don't forget the anatomy.
  3. Cutting: Transposing that image you made into web code, using a HTML editor .
  4. Bring the site online: Publishing your pages on your host's server.
  5. Check cross-browser compatibility: Firefox and IE8 only. Fuck the rest.
  6. Bug testing and final touch-up: Where you call all your friends and family and pop open a bottle of champagne, because you're done and you're proud!
I hope this was informative and helpful for you. As always, I stand by to answer your questions in the comment section!

Have fun!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tweet your way to publication and building your online self

Celebrating a blogging milestone today: I have FIVE followers! :D

After spending a day working on my website, I still see code whenever I look away from the screen. Since I'm in the mood to talk about it, I thought I could blog about building websites, but from a writer's perspective: what are the best options depending of your situation and budget?

I recently came across this amazing success story while I was doing research. This writer had already been rejected by her dream agent, but kept tabs on the agency and followed the agent's Twitter. After a few exchanged tweets, she caught the agent's attention and lured her to her blog. This prompted the agent to send her an e-mail and an invitation to re-query, because the agent thought the voice of the blog was enchanting. In short: this writer tweeted her way to an offer of representation from her dream agent.

I'm not saying this happens every day, but it shows that an online presence can be beneficial. I'm neither published or agented, so I'm not in a position to give any advice about writing other than what I've read elsewhere. However, I've been designing websites for the past 12 years and I am in a position to help you with that. This will be a long post, so bear with me.

1) The Importance (with a capital I) of an online presence
Before I began to build my website, I questioned whether it was a good idea. I thought an agent might find it arrogant that an unpublished or unagented writer felt the need to build himself an online shrine.

I quickly discovered this was very negative thinking and was completely off the track. Several agents or figures of the publishing industry have repeatedly blogged about this, and all agree: in this day and age, every writer absolutely needs a website.

The amazing Eric at Pimp my Novel had good advice as he explains what he thinks is important in a writer's website. Not all agents agree you absolutely need a site before you get published though. The equally amazing Jessica Faust of BookEnds LLC answered a reader's question involving the importance of websites. Since you're working so hard to get published though, why wait? Nathan Bransford's blog has covered this many times, but this entry is particularly good.

You can research this further if you want (in fact, I encourage you to), but I just wanted to establish that a website and/or blog will be a necessity down the line.

2) Figuring out your budget and your options

A quick and easy option is to get a blog. Blogger and Wordpress are the two options. I chose to go with Blogger because it is owned by Google and it integrates fabulously well with all the Google tools out there. Both are just as good for what a writer needs to do, so in the end, it boils down to personal choice and whether or not you already deal with one of these platforms.

Blogger: fewer templates to choose from (including 3rd party templates), harder to template yourself without experience, but is the most popular platform for writers and has a much better commenting system, which makes it easier for users to follow you and leave comments.

Wordpress: A lot more versatile and easier to template, can be hosted on your own server, but is much less popular among writers and the comment system forces registration or requires anonymous posting. This is really bad for blog readers who want to leave a quick comment using their own Blogger profile (which they spent time personalizing).

Be warned: if you know you won't have time to blog regularly, having a dead and empty blog could be counter productive. Eric at PMN explains it well: The Ten Commandments of Blogging.

If you do plan to pay attention to your blog, there are a lot of options, and most are free. You should immediately work on personalizing your blog's style to make it yours and easily recognizable. Consider getting or buying a professional template, because the standard ones all suck. This site offers free templates, as well as here, here, here and here. Explore the widgets that are available to make it more into your own.

If you want a no-strings-attached online presence, it'll have to be a website.

3) Getting a website: what it costs and the options

Building a website from scratch is a lot easier than it used to. Using softwares such as Dreamweaver, you can create your very own layout and design with no HTML/CSS coding skills whatsoever. WYSIWYG editors (What You See Is What You Get) are the easiest to use, but learning it will still require some effort for any beginner. I highly recommend the free HTML editor KompoZer if you're a newbie. Dreamweaver is the most powerful editor out there and the one most professionals use, but it retails at 400$. If you're a student though, you get significant Adobe discounts, so look into it.

A competent webmaster who builds websites for a living will cost, at a bare minimum, 20$/h. Most webmasters charge a flat fee for a basic package, which includes a fixed number of pages (usually five). A usual fee is 100$/page for the first five. I personally never take contracts under 500$ because of all the time involved in setting a brand new site up. It's just not worth it.

There are three ways to get a website.

A) The professional way
Find a professional in your local ads. Be weary of incredibly cheap offers. Alternatively, you can post a "project" on sites such as Project4Hire and CodingForums where developers will bid on your project, and you get to choose who you want to work with. I've found good clients this way, and the method works. You can have a very basic but professional looking website for 200$ if you deal with students who study in the field. They'll be looking to build a portfolio and will accept cheaper contracts. Be on the lookout for those.

A professional will also offer hosting options. Do know that registering a domain name costs 10$/year at registrars such as Namecheap (this is where I get and manage all my domains), so be careful of webmasters who charge 100$ to do it.

Before approaching a professional, surf the web and save the addresses of the sites you like. Showing these to the hired webmaster will help him figure out what style you're looking for. Think of the color palette you'd like. You can even draw it (with a pencil, on paper) then scan it. Even if it's just to show the structure you want it to have. It'll shove many hours off the total production time, thus saving you money.

HOWEVER. From a writer's point of view, I think hiring a professional is not a good investment if you're willing to put just a little effort and do it yourself. I know this must sound ludicrous coming from a molecular biology student who lives on website designing, but I'm not here to spoon-feed you bullshit. The difference in quality from a professional site you'll have paid 200-500$ for and one you'll have put time into is not worth the money.

If you REALLY can't do it yourself, consider getting a blog only and wait on the website creation until you have found an agent and gotten a book deal. Then hiring a professional will make more sense, because a 1500$ site will look a lot better than one you'll have made yourself.

B) The do-it-yourself way
Using editors such as KompoZer and starting from scratch. The advantages are obvious: you do it on your own time, it'll be a reflection of your style and it's free.

You'll need webhosting to host your site on the internet. Godaddy is a good, reliable and cheap option. If you sign up with them, you can register a domain at the same time. Suggestion: get an address that resembles www.yourfirstnamelastname.com. It's much more professional, only costs 10$/year and it allows you to have your own professional e-mail address, such as firstname@yourfirstnamelastname.com. This is better than sexykitten69@gmail.com. For about 80$/year, you'll have hosting, your domain, and the ability to make as many e-mail addresses as you want.

Getting your own domain also allows you to have a personalized Blogger address. For example, my blog address is http://blog.franciscossette.com and it looks like I host it myself. I don't. It was styled to match my website's design, but the blog is entirely hosted by Blogger.

The process of making a website isn't the scope of this post, but I will cover it in a future entry.

C) The hybrid way

You can buy pre-made HTML templates and modify them to fit your style or needs. Avoid flash templates at this time. The technology will soon be replaced by something new, and it is not supported by mobile phones or mobile platforms such as the iPad. This means anyone looking at your site on these devices won't be able to surf it. Considering the popularity of these devices nowadays, this is bad marketing for yourself. Stick to HTML/CSS templates.

Getting a pre-made template is easier than building something from scratch and is more easily modified. Popular sites to get these (most are not free, but they're cheap: 40-80$): here, here, here and here. The last one is probably one of the most popular and user-friendly, and is free.

4) Understanding the process

Since this was a long post, I thought I could sum it up in an easy to read list.
  • Consider what suits you best: a blog, a website, or both
  • Figure out your budget and weight the options that are available within that budget
  • If you're getting a blog: personalize it with professional templates and widgets. Remember to blog regularly
  • If you're getting a website: decide if you'll do it yourself or if you want to hire someone
  • If hiring, take your time in finding out the right webmaster for you. Consider their experience, portfolio, wages and determine EXACTLY what you're getting so there are no surprises
  • If you're doing it yourself, you'll need an HTML editor, a domain name and hosting
I will blog in more details on how to build a website and how to streamline the process to make it more efficient later this week. Since I want to avoid the pitfall of diving into techno-babble, I want to take my time in writing it so I don't confuse rather than help you.

Any questions? Use the comment section, I'll answer every and all questions to the best of my abilities.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rant: lightsabers getting out of hand

Alternative title: When Hollyweird Bashes Creativity.

I love Star Wars. I've already said that. I just love this franchise so much I must reiterate my feelings for it.

I would love to go back to 1977, using the time machine my future self will have invented, and relive the launch and the hype that surrounded it. I don't think George Lucas had ANY idea he had imagined a world that would ascend to legendary cult classic. What about the lightsaber? IS THE LIGHTSABER COOL, OR WHAT? I wish I had thought of that.

Now, the franchise itself went through one heck of a change between the sequels and prequels. Episodes I and II especially were a big let down, but this is not the topic I wish to discuss. However, I do urge you to watch this 7-parter review of Episode I: The Phantom Menace on YouTube. It's pretty hilarious, and pretty on the money!

The geek within me has always had a soft side for battle scenes, regardless of what genre or movie they're in. From Saving Private Ryan to Braveheart to Star Wars, I really like it when they're well executed. Lightsaber duels were always great.

-Episode IV, A New Hope (1977), brought us the first lightsaber fight ever. It was kind of lame, but being new, it was exciting.
-Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), brought us a duel between father and son, and some good drama (LUKE, I am your father, but rest assured, the wardrobe is NOT genetic).
-Episode VI, Return of the Jedi (1983), offered us a climaxed duel between father and son again, a lot more emotion, some lightning thrown out the old emperor's fingers and an emotional ending.

It's obvious that CGI and the lightsaber stuff wasn't the center of attention when they made those last three movies. That's probably why they're so much better than the prequels.

Let's keep going.

-Episode I, The Phantom Menace (1999), brought us many lightsaber duels, introduced the double-staff-lightsaber and a tattooed villain with horns on his head.
-Episode II, Attack of the Clones (2002), gave us frickin Yoda owning Saroumane. I swear I was drooling when watching it, and that scene alone was worth the admission price.
-Episode III, Revenge of the Sith (2005), brought us So You Think You Can Dance With Lightsabers, lava, frickin Yoda being owned by the emperor and a lot of cheesy and badly delivered lines.

Though I found there was too much focus on CGI, I won't complain about the lightsaber scenes. Lightsabers are innovative and cool, they're unique to Star Wars and they're iconic for that very reason.

The Star Wars franchise spawned a lot of novels and video games. I've played 93% of them. Now that E3 is under way, developers use this opportunity to unleash new material on the universe. Currently in development is the massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-game, also known as MMORPG in the private club, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Based on the single player game Knights of the Old Republic (you can see they went all out on the title brainstorming for the new one), it is set for release in 2011. Also known as Cash Cow Lucas Says Thanks, the Old Republic has the potential to make billions of dollars. It goes without saying Lucas Art has been busy building up the hype for this game.

In 2009, at E3, Bioware revealed a new cinematic trailer, made by kickass Blur Studio. It is pure CG winsauce with slow motion thrown in. Word is it costs 850,000$ to make that. I will totally sell a kidney so Blur can make a book trailer for me, but I shall preserve this topic for another post.

As you might have noticed by studying my little timeline, the further we go, the more extravagant Lucas Art gets. Word has it that Georgy himself must clear EVERY video before they can be released. It's hard to believe this, as no one in their right mind would have allowed Jar Jar Binks to EVER exist.

But let's assume it is true, and that George Lucas sees all material and clears it for development.

NOW! In 2010, at E3, Bioware revealed another cinematic trailer. Also made by Blur Studio. Still high quality and CG winsauce. However, I do have a problem with it, but you must watch it first.



I know Jedi are badass, but seriously: STOPING A LIGHTSABER WITH THE HAND? WTF!?!?!? If that's how it is in 2010, what is it gonna be in 2020? Curved lightsabers so Jedi can now IGNITE THEIR FARTS and throw fireballs out of their ass?

Jesus Christ, guys... there's creativity and there's GOING OVERBOARD! Maybe Yoda can stop lightning with his hand, but he's a über-Jedi, a bit like Janet Reid. STOP A LIGHTSABER WITH HIS HAND HE CANNOT.

Show some restraint, for the love of Gods (of Kobol).

Monday, June 14, 2010

The WTF moments on the road to publication

How about that True Blood episode yesterday, huh?I thought it was a pretty good one. Not perfect or the best, but true to the show's style and quality. Good way to start the summer TV season!

Today I was reading Rachelle Gardner's über-amazing blog and her post on contradictory feedback. At this point in time, anyone who even reads my blog is probably a writer and will know the process to getting published already, but for archiving purposes, let us refresh our memories.

Word of warning: YMMV.

-Try to write and finish the first draft of your novel. Finishing it is already a milestone on its own. Bravo!
-Hang out on icanhascheezburger to pep yourself out of the state of depression the mediocrity of your first draft has pushed you into.
-Improve the first draft.
-Delete all the improvements and start over, because the improvements suck.
-Start drafting a query letter. Just FYI, if "query" was a person in another life, his/her last name surely was "Bitch".
-Start drafting a synopsis. Just FYI, if "synopsis" was a person in another life, his/her last name definitely was "Fucking Bitch".
-Seek out critique partners who will brutally burst your bubble of hope.
-Diss the critique partners who are too enthusiastic about your work. Now is not the time for rays of hope. You need whiplashes and though love at this point. Read the Shark for advice.
-Use the feedback of your critique partner to draft a better 2nd or 3rd draft.
-Seek a beta reader (or many).
-While the beta readers read, research agents. Via Twitter, literary agent blogs, QueryTracker, P&E, AgentQuery, etc.
-Use the feedback of the beta reader(s) to write your 3rd or 4th draft.
-By now your query should be in good shape. Star querying.
-Wait.
-Wait some more.
-A request for a full manuscript! Congrats!
-Wait some more.
-Make a cappuccino.
-Still waiting to discover what the next step is...

Sounds tedious, doesn't it? It is. Would I do it again? Absolutely! The entire process has been AMAZING! I've sworn, cried, laughed and screamed, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It is extremely fulfilling and rewarding to get even a request for a full after all this hard work.

I can only imagine how writers who have landed an agent must feel. Though I'm still waiting and in the querying stage, I've had two fulls and a partial out, all of which came within the first week of querying. Since then it's been slow, but I'm keeping my head up.

Now, back to the contradictory feedback thingy (I've got to learn to structure my posts better than that). The biggest "WTF-want-to-pluck-my-eyes-out" moment has been, without a doubt, writing the fucking synopsis and the advice that goes with it.

My dream agent, who happens to have my full now, sounds even more amazing because SHE THINKS SYNOPSES ARE EVIL! And with good reason. I've done A LOT of research before I began writing my book. Both on my material AND the publishing industry.

Here is proof that I've done a lot of research (I just wanted to show you a part of my library). This was taken as of 25 minutes ago. All of these books were purchased from October 2009 until two months ago. Click for a high-res version.


I know it's not A LOT, but those text books aren't cheap, mate! Back to the synopses...

From some of the best sites and blogs in the universe, here's what I could find on synopses:

-Nathan Bransford suggests 2-3 pages and says it should be enticing but not a full report of every plot arcs
-Jessica Faust suggests 4-5 pages, but if you have 15 pages and it's really good, it's OK. It has to be enticing.
-Janet Reid says a synopsis should read like a FBI report and have little to no verse or style.
-Marg Gilks suggests 2-10 pages, but an average of 5 is better. You can have 10 pages, but it better be good.
-Miss Snark reviewed 106 synopses and most had less than 1000 words, which is about 4 pages (250 words/page). Some didn't cover the end, she loved them anyway.
-Kristin Nelson says synopses suck and that she doesn't use them, because it seems most of her clients can write a heck of a novel but suck at the synopsis (shocker!!!).
-Writing Synopses for Morons suggests you drink 4 Long Island Iced Teas before attempting any synopsis writing experience.

Here it comes. WTF?

I ended up writing three versions. One short of 2 pages, one medium of 5.5 pages, and one long synopsis of 15.5 pages. I must have spent as much time on these as my query letter, which I believe took 7 dog years out of my life to write, and it's still far from perfect.

99% of agents who ask for synopses in their original submission guidelines (at the query process) never mention the length it should take. Considering all the contradictory feedback and advice I've read on the vast interweb, it was very a bit frustrating.

I am seriously happy I knew NOTHING of the publishing industry and the road to publication when I began writing. I think it would have impaired my creativity so early in the writing process. I was well beyond the half of my first draft when I learned about query letters and the evil synopses.

I think what REALLY prepared me has been a lot of thorough research. Books, blogs and forums... you have to know what to take and what to leave aside, but so far, it's paid off, and I'm hoping it'll keep doing so.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Don't judge a book by its cover

is a ridiculous line, if you ask me. We ALL judge a book by its cover. The only difference will be whether you do it consciously or not. Book covers are important, they convey the first impression. Not everyone agrees of course, but I think most people will say a terrible cover or jacket design might be enough to persuade them to put the book back on the shelf.

When I began to learn the technical rules of photography (such as the rule of third, which wants a break in horizon to either appear at the bottom or top third of the frame. Putting the break in the middle is the mark of an amateur... apparently. Breaking the rule works SOMETIMES, but rarely. It worked for my Central Park shot, which is why I chose it), I found it difficult to see the small differences the photographers said made a huge impact.

When you're done with the "shooting" part, post-processing comes next. This means, for digital SLR cameras, transferring the RAW negatives on your hard drive and veto them one by one. This used to take me an hour per 100 shots. Now I can do 300 shots in the same amount of time. Why?

Perception. I think that's what it is. If you constantly go over the same exercise over and over again, your mind will eventually catch up with your eyes and you'll finally see what you couldn't before.

Whether you like it or not, your eye sees everything even if you don't. A few months ago I started a thread on a forum and asked people what their cover pet peeves were. The results were interesting.

I heard authors have very little say about the cover of their book, and it's sort of unfortunate because if authors could voice their concerns or opinions a bit more, such disasters would NEVER occur.

Take the Twilight cover. Instant classic. The artist hit the nail on the head with that one. It's simple, classy and catches your attention instantly. Title, arms, apple, done. No need for ridiculous looking bimbos in spandex outfits, a shirtless guy with a nice pack of abs and a big sword to remind us of his virility. I'm not going to link to any of those covers (in case, God forbid, I'd have queried an agent who represents that exact book), but you know exactly the covers I speak of. It became virulent, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genre. I don't see the appeal, especially since, 90% of the time, the person on the cover doesn't match the description of ANY character in the book (see disaster article above).

Now, for a shameless plug (heh, it's my blog after all! :))

cover

I really like my cover. I knew before the first draft was even done what I'd like my cover to be like. When I contacted the Argentinian artist who modeled this sword, I sent him a lot of drawings (which here HORRIBAD) and a lot of descriptions. It took about two weeks, but everything, to the smallest curve, was like I had imagined it. The sword, named anicus, is an iconic part of the TRINITY mythology, like the light saber is iconic to Star Wars. My intent was to make a dramatic, mysterious and original cover that would convey a sense of mythology being present in the book.

I approached the idea of writing a novel with one goal in mind: write something cool. It might sound childish, but this is really what I wanted. Remember in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the movie, when Minas Tirith is being sieged by the forces of Mordor? Then, the riders of Rohan show up and they charge under the sound of horns? I remember the feeling I had when watching that scene; "THIS IS SOOO COOOOLL!" Hence this cover: I think it's cool.

I have no idea whether a publisher would allow a cover designed by the author to be used. I hear their budget for cover arts is 4000$; it cost me less than ten times that for mine, and it's an original. Maybe they'll welcome the $$$ savings?

What are your cover pet peeves? Any cover you find amazing?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The visual arts & description

I really don't like lengthy description in novels. Not unless it is important to the story, or it is somewhere entirely new. That's one of the reasons I had trouble getting through Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien could go on for five pages about the color of the sky, the amount of leaves on the floor and the shadows being cast by the mountains. I loved LOTR anyway, but I knew TRINITY wouldn't be filled with description. My critique partner, Holly, is probably laughing her ass off if she's reading this right now. I've almost been badgering her for writing so much description in her own novel as part of our arrangement; no-gloves-100%-honest-and-brutal critiques. It's been of tremendous, help to be honest. If you're reading this Holly, you're a godsend!

Back to nos moutons.

Too much description isn't really my style. Donald Maass, in his amazing book Writing the Breakout Novel, advocates for as little description as possible unless it helps moving the story forward or to introduce new settings. Provide just enough so the reader can imagine the scene, but not so much that you alienate the reader's imagination. This is what I've been striving for, and I think it worked well.

When I created Toturia, the vast underground megalopolis of the Tutor haven, I had a clear picture in my head. I had good reference material, but it wasn't enough. AFTER I finished the first draft, I began searching for artists to illustrate the city itself. It was a long process: I had to decide on the style (3D, painterly, matte, cartoonish, etc.) and then go through the portfolios of two dozen artists who had postulated for the job after I posted an ad on the conceptart.org forums.

I ended up going with four different artists for four different interpretations of the city. I provided book excerpts, reference material, technical "data sheets" and personal notes. Only one matte painting is done so far (keeping it for later), and the three others should be done by July. The artists will have been working on it on-and-off for three months. This was more for my own enjoyment (and the reader's) than to help me figure out how the city looked like. I've seen the work in progress, and they'll be amazing.

Two months later, I began looking for fashion artists to illustrate the clothes and robes of the city inhabitants and what royalty or military folks would wear when in their city. In the current draft (which I consider complete even without robe descriptions. If I feel it adds to the story, I'll add them later and consult the editor), there is less than ten words worth of description concerning the clothing: I just didn't know exactly how it would look like, and I preferred to give a generic description for the time being.

I ended up going with two artists, who draw in two different styles. One paints digitally, the other with pencil and graphite. Tonight, the latter sent me the first finished sketch (out of five) for which he was hired. It. Is. Awesome.


It took us a while to get there. I'm an anal and perfectionist when it comes to details. I knew what I wanted and I was very precise, which I think he appreciated. Kip is an amazing artist and he is so talented, I feel blessed to be working with him.

Aside the "OMG THIS IS SO COOL!!!" vibe, doing this helps me create a world that feels even more organic and authentic. Describing robes for the sake of describing them just isn't good enough for me. I wanted to see. With my eyes and not just in my head.

For most of the book (I'd say 70%), all the characters wear civilian clothing (aka normal). For the scenes (very important ones) in which the reader has to be immersed in the sci-fi world of the ancient Maya, I wanted something cool, something beautiful, and something believable.

Hence the awesome drawings.

How do you guys handle description?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Writing and video games

I am a self-declared sci-fi geek. I have no problem living with that label. In a society where etiquette and labels are important (sadly), this is one I even wear proudly. My hometown of Montréal is the home of many brilliant companies, some of which are extremely popular in the gaming industry. Sure, we have Céline Dion and the Cirque du Soleil (which are all amazing), but Ubisoft Montréal and Eidos Montréal have forged their reputations as the leaders in the video game development industry.

Where am I going with this? Yesterday, I watched the trailer for an upcoming 2011 game. Deus Ex 3, the third (duh!) game in the popular Deus Ex franchise, which is a hybrid of FPS/RPG like Mass Effect. I've never played any Deus Ex games, they are however hailed as classics, especially the first (which came out in 1998).

Deus Ex 3 is being developed by Eidos Montréal, and at the popular E3 Game Convention, they revealed a brand new CG trailer. ANY video game addict will drool, but what really captivated me was the music.

Composed by Michael McCann (Montréal based composer! I told you we have a lot of talent here!), the cue used in the trailer is phenomenal. I've already dedicated a page to music and explained how vital it was to my writing process. ESPECIALLY trailer music. Before I go any further, you need to listen to the trailer. Then a second time, but only concentrate on the beautiful music, and how it creates a dramatic atmosphere that would be entirely different was it not there.



Isn't it amazing? I've found video games have been the subject of terrific storytelling and writing. Sadly, the misconception that video games are usually deprived of content and only deliver bloody violence has shed a dark cloud over the gaming world.

Games like The Witcher (PC, based on a novel), Zelda:Ocarina of Time (N64) or Knights of the Old Republic (PC) have won countless and prestigious awards for a reason: the immersion they provide is absolutely complete. It is like reading a novel IN WHICH YOU ARE THE PROTAGONIST! They provide experiences that are unlike any novel can provide, and this is especially true of Role-Playing Games (RPG) like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect or the ever popular World of Warcraft (which I never played because I can't stand it).

Blizzard, the company that continuously develops World of Warcraft (WoW), has hired hundreds of fantasy writers to fulfill the storytelling needs of their game. Stories that hundreds of millions of people have explored in their gaming sessions. For the past five years, epic fantasy writers have had better luck getting hired by Blizzard than finding an agent through the query process (I'm making this up, but the opinion is shared by many).

Even simulation games like The Sims have spawned legions of fanatic followers. The Sims is probably one of the most successful gaming franchise in history (ask @hannahmosk why!), and a true money printing machine for Electronic Arts. Why is that?

Immersion.

I hear a lot of criticism towards gaming, especially when E3 is underway. There are as many bad games as there are bad novels, but there are as many classics and gems as well. Writing for a game, a screenplay or a novel isn't all that different when you're creating a setting.

I approached TRINITY in the same way. I needed to create a world in which readers could immerse themselves, somewhere entirely knew they could explore and get to know as they turned the pages. Toturia became that place for me. Then, the fidemeles and Olaf were born, I took an entire week to design the anicus as I wanted it, and so on... to the smallest details, like video game developers do.

In a very real way, gaming has changed my life on more than one occasion. When I watch and listen to trailers like the Deus Ex 3 teaser, I remember why. Can you look me in the eye and tell me you did not find the music uplifting?

What games DO YOU play? What's your opinion about gaming? Did you ever play a game that influenced your writing?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

People lie

Yesterday on FOX, Lie to Me returned to the air. Finally. It's an amazing show. Tim Roth is a fantastic actor, sarcastic and funny. Plus, each time I see him, it makes me think of Pulp Fiction, which is easily one of my favorite movie of all time.

I'm also a Dr. House fan. As in overzealous fanatic follower. What do Dr. Cal Lightman and Dr. Gregory House have in common? They tell the truth. In your face, with no regard to political correctness. Honesty is a rare commodity these days, and I'm afraid Dr. House is right when he says "everybody lies".

All of my friends and family know I'm a "no bullshit" kind of person. I don't like it when there's a huge pink elephant in the room and no one dares to talk about it out of fear or whatever the excuse is. I like to face things and get it over with. In Lie to Me, Dr. Lightman is a human lie detector: he can read the micro-expressions on your face and 99.9% of the time, he'll be able to determine if you're truthful or a big, fat liar.

If such a thing really existed, I'd sign up for a Harvard class or something, and become exactly that. Busting people for lying would be the best job in the world. Wouldn't it be fun? Then again, I have to confess: I lie. Yes, I can be a liar sometimes.

The topics of honesty versus lying versus protecting someone from harm versus telling the truth no matter what have been discussed to death for centuries. I happen to believe the World could never function if lies did not exist.

It's a bit soon to talk about philosophy so early in the blog's life. I'll revisit it someday, but I AM curious as to what other people think about lying. Necessary evil? A travesty? A good thing?

Speak up!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Contests make me gaga

Ever since I discovered I loved writing, the writing universe online is just as fantastic as the experience of writing itself. I've began to follow over twenty blogs, some religiously. You get to meet awesome people. You also come across AWESOME CONTESTS!

Some get you query or manuscript queries, others get you ARC (Advanced Reading Copies) or galleys... some bring you SIGNED BOOKS!

Sara Mcclung (thanks to Suzie Townsend for tweeting about it) is having a contest (with no strings attached!) to win signed copies of vampire books from the popular writers, such as Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, Christopher Moore and Charlaine Harris!

Yeah, I already said I have no idea why I like vampires and why I LOVE True Blood, but I got my eye on the Charlaine Harris books!

Good luck to everyone who has entered!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

In which writers go crazy

I think ANY writer will tell you how nerve wracking the query process is. I've started to query about three weeks ago, and I've already bitten all my nails to extinction. A habit I've been struggling with for the past 20 years. At least I don't drink or smoke (that's what I tell myself when I rationalize my faults).

I was ecstatic when I got a request for a full by no less than my dream agent two weeks ago. We get plenty of rejections in this process, but requests for the full manuscript are always encouraging. It's the hopeful ray of light you wait for. The worse is the waiting: I can be patient, but patience isn't really the issue here. It's waiting for the ANSWER.

What do you do to deal with it? I do everything but think about it. Revise the MS, write the next book, watch TV, sports, go out,... you do your best not to think about it because there's nothing you can do ANYWAY.

A few hours ago, I was catching up on my blog reading. Then, my dream agent's Twitter was hit with an update. "It's official. I am in love with the ms I just finished."

HUH-UH?!?!?!?!?!?

No genre. No more info. It's safe to say, anyone who sent their full in in the past month and a half will be going crazy thinking "what if it's mine!". It didn't take long before I headed to query tracker and looked at the comment page: four other people had also posted saying they saw the twitter update and were excited.

The BEST thing? Everyone seems genuinely happy for everyone, me included. If an agent is excited enough about your manuscript to post about it on Twitter, that person is really lucky, and probably deserves it. That's why I love writing. All the emotions and the roller coaster.

It's not always like this, but a lot of writers help each other out. The cohesion is wonderful, you get the sense you belong to a big online family. I love it, I love writing, and I love this entire experience!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

2012


Yesterday evening, I was invited to a special dinner to celebrate my dad's girlfriend's birthday. We went to her daughter's brand new condo and had a lot of fun. We had too much wine and delicious food, and the overall evening was festive and enjoyable.

During dinner, I heard the daughter's boyfriend Alex refer to the prophecies of 2012. Now, only three people at the table even knew I'm writing a book right now (correction: querying a book, while writing the second) and I didn't want to get into it. After all, it wasn't my day.

The temptation, however, was agonizing. He kept referring to "documentaries" he saw on TV all week that explained how planets will align and explode and send star dust in our atmosphere, or whatever.

While I ate the DELICIOUS food he had prepared, I kept screaming in my head "NOOOOO! or "COME ON, WTF IS THIS!", whilst smiling at the drunk woman on my left I didn't know and having a conversation about the importance of green grass.

I was dying to converse about 2012 with him. Especially when he began to talk about Aztecs and ancient Sumeria. The rational in me wanted to tell him "dude, I have six textbooks I paid too much money for at home, and hundreds of hours of research in my bag, and all you're saying is conjecture or total fabrication."

On the other hand, it was an AMAZING EXERCISE IN SELF-CONTROL! Creating Trinity's universe was an amazingly fun experience. Though the novel's primarily sci-fi and the universe of the Maya and the vampire mythos got the FRINGE treatment, I have to let go at times. Let go of the science and believe in something else.

In the end, I realized: who cares? Why do I ALWAYS feel the need to convince others? I shouldn't have to. I loved the debating team in high-school, but I also think it's good to let it go once in a while.

The lesson hit me in the face when we were in the cheese and the grapes: let it go, enjoy the festivities, fight another day! More importantly, wait until the book gets published THEN light on the debate so everyone goes and buy it.

Marketing, folks. Marketing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why True Blood Kicks Twilight's Ass


Neither romance nor YA are genres I read. When I do, they're exceptions. I love mystery/thrillers/sci-fi with a strong romance element, but not if it's the central theme of the novel. Yet, I enjoyed Twilight quite a bit. Meyer is an amazing storyteller and she hit the nail on the head with the characters and dynamics she created. I think you all knew that.

I'm also uncertain why I like vampires. I love Joss Whedon for Dollhouse and Firefly, though I never saw Buffy. The only vampire movies I saw were INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE and the UNDERWORLD series, which I all loved (and let's also get it out of the way: Kate Beckinsale is hot!).

So why did I fall in LOVE with True Blood? I never read a Charlaine Harris book in my life. But I love True Blood. Absolutely adore it. Can't get enough. It has sex, vampires, blood, gore, action, hilarity, Michelle Forbes and Anna Paquin. It's dark, organic, and feels authentic.

This is why I couldn't stop laughing my ass off when I read this article:
http://tv.ign.com/articles/109/1094901p1.html

You'll never hear me bash Twilight in public. I think it's tacky for a writer to do it, and I'm in awe at what Meyer has accomplished. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy humorous posts by IGN or Le R..

I already hear the "yeah, you're a guy, BIG SURPRISE!". Excuse me for a second, but one of my favorite movies and books of all time is The Notebook. I was dragged by force to the movie theater by the ex, and I loved it. I believe I might also have cried. I'm also a romantic. I have French blood in me. GO FIGURE!

Eclipse is hitting the theaters this month, and so is the third season of True Blood. I'll probably go see Eclipse during a matinée when there are as few people as possible, because I admit hearing the girls scream every time Jacob takes off his shirt is annoying.

Ah, Summer. True Blood.

Awesome.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Disappointing endings

I've never been a HUGE reader. I started to read when I was about eight, but really got into it around age eleven. Compared to my childhood best friend, Anne-Sophie, who used to read 15 MG novels each month, I was a light reader.

I REALLY got into reading when I discovered the MG series ANIMORPHS. First in French, of course (I could barely count to one hundred in English at the time, even though I understood the language really well), then a few years into it, in English. I made a French fansite called "L'Univers d'Animorphs". It was my first website. I was only twelve, and remember how proud I was when I hit 1000 visits. These were the good times!

It was my second introduction to sc-fi (the first being the 1994 movie Stargate, which spawned the very successful TV franchises Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe, the latter of which is very meh, by the way) and I knew right then I LOVED IT!

I couldn't wait for the next books to come out. I followed the books religiously, then the TV series (which, in retrospect, was horrible) and all the goodie books Scholastic released. I still remember when I was in grade school and the teacher would pass the monthly Scholastic magazines to everyone, I couldn't be MORE excited. I'd circle the books I wanted, bring it back home, and beg my mom to write a check!

Back to Animorphs: there are 64 of them. 54 numbers in the main series and ten "chronicle" books. The last one, #54 "The Beginning", was released in 2001. I don't remember when I read it exactly, but I do remember how I felt when I finished reading it: COP OUT!

I was so pissed off, there are no words. I loved the chronicles and most of the books. The ending: hated it. No closure. No answers. When I learned K.A. Applegate really only wrote half of the books and used ghostwriters for the rest, I felt even worse.

It was like a five years love story ending on a sour note. When I looked around the net, I found many fans (if not most) hated the ending, too. I thought, what kind of writer would feel satisfied with that kind of ending?

In the end (see what I did there?), I had to learn to let it go. I do believe the lesson will stick with me forever, and I know exactly how TRINITY could NEVER end.

What about you? Which book series did you think had a terrible ending?