Announcing the 2014 Holiday Giveaway

 

Image by Ashley Ruggirello of Cardboard Monet

It’s no secret that Christmas is my favorite holiday, and those that have hung around here for awhile know that I tend to celebrate it by doing a giveaway every year. This year’s no exception, though I am starting it earlier than normal due to the fact it’s my birthday today, and I’m feeling especially generous. 😉

What do I have hidden up my sleeve this time? Something I think many of you will be super excited for. See, I’ve teamed up with the design genius behind the REUTS Publications book covers to bring you a self-published author’s dream — a full-fledged, FREE prize that will take your manuscript from draft to publication-ready. Yep, Cardboard Monet’s Ashley Ruggirello and I have combined our freelance prowess to offer one lucky person the following:

  • A comprehensive, top-to-bottom, full manuscript edit (including structural & line edits)
  • A polished, publish-ready eBook cover design
  • Assistance creating the all-important book blurb
  • A final proofread of the type-set, ready-for-print galley (typesetting/formatting itself is not included though)

It might not be all-inclusive, as you will still need to find a formatter and to create your own marketing materials, but I think you’ll agree that’s a pretty significant monetary value being offered up for free. Every author knows that the two most expensive aspects of self-publishing are the editing and the cover design, so why not take advantage of this rare chance to gain both in one fell swoop?

I’ve got your attention now, yes? 😉

Here’s what you have to do:

Round One:

Starting right now, you can enter to win via the Rafflecopter form. Simply fill out the various possibilities, and your name will be added to the hat. Enter as many times as you’d like until the form closes at midnight on January 2nd, 2015.  On January 3rd, I will select 100 names at random via Rafflecopter’s handy little service. Those lucky people will move on to round two. (And yes, they will be announced on the blog, so you’ll all know who to congratulate.)

Round Two:

This is where the competition gets a little fierce. The 100 winners will be required to submit a query, along with the first 5 pages of their manuscript, via email. (Specific instructions will be sent to the winners on the appropriate date.) I will review them all, and much like an acquisitions editor, I will select the final winner based both on potential and the quality of your pitch. I’ll be looking for the person I think will gain the most value from our help, so your manuscript definitely doesn’t have to be perfect yet, but it does need to be complete. Also, I will consider novellas, but not short stories.

My final decision will be made by January 30th, 2015, and the lucky winner will be announced. So sharpen those pitches, people. Make it so I absolutely have to pick you.

Good luck!

Video Games: The Future of Book Publishing?

There are whispers in the halls of publishing about how the future of books will slowly evolve into the business model seen in the video game industry. But no one seems to be able to define exactly how that will happen, or which facets will be adopted. And frankly, I just don’t see it. In fact, I’d even go so far as to posit that the people spreading these whispers have little to no understanding of how the video game world actually works. I realize that’s a potentially polarizing assertion to make, but here’s why I think this: see, I actually come from the video game industry. I have a degree (that I rarely talk about) in video game art and design, and I’ve been to the Game Developer’s Conference multiple times. So I know how the video game industry works. And publishing is already structured similarly; there’s nothing left to glean from the video game industry that hasn’t already been incorporated into publishing, or vice versa.

But, just for the sake of argument (and because no one else out there seems willing to break this prediction down and explain it), let’s do a little compare/contrast analysis.

From where I stand, there are only four possible areas where the business models of the video game industry and publishing coincide:

  • Distribution
  • Interactivity
  • Production
  • Content

So let’s explore each one and see if we can’t figure out exactly what these vague whispers and predictions are talking about.
 

Distribution

 
Since I’ve heard these claims from people who are largely on the indie side of the spectrum in publishing, this is my top contender for what they’re looking at. And largely why I suspect people haven’t done their research. There seems to be a misconception floating around about the distribution channels involved in producing a video game. The assumption is that games go direct from the developer to the audience. That’s not exactly true. Even for casual games (otherwise known as the time-killing awesomeness on your phone).

Games, just like books, have multiple parties involved in the making and publishing of a title. It starts with a developer, yes, but that developer then has to secure the interest of a publisher (sound familiar?), and then said publisher needs to find a distributor to actually disperse the thing into the world. So, to simplify, it looks like this:

Game Developer –> Publisher –> Distributor –> Audience

And, in comparison, this is what traditional publishing looks like:

Author –> Publisher –> Distributor –> Reader

There are varying steps that factor in to each that I’m not documenting, (such as agents in publishing, or outside investors in video games), but the basic formula, is, at its heart, very similar. Even if you look at the indie side of things in both industries, the model is the same, minus one step in the middle:

Game Developer/Author –> Distributor –> Reader/Audience

 Video games also struggle with the same divide between traditional publishing and indie, where the AAA titles (as they’re called) are the ones that are mass distributed to brick-and-mortar stores and garner media attention, acclaim, and the all-important exposure needed to succeed. While, on the other hand, the indie titles are left to duke it out for visibility in the digital jungle of the various app stores. Again, it all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? So where is the innovation and industry-changing business model we’re supposed to be looking to? Not here, unless I’m missing something. So let’s move on.
 

Interactivity

 
This would be another possibility for what the self-proclaimed Seers of Publishing are predicting, and in some ways, I can see why they’d say it. But I still don’t think it will ultimately come to pass, and here’s why:

Video games are a very different form of entertainment from books. Both rely on the idea of escapism, of transporting the consumer to another world where they can step outside their own reality and immerse themselves in someone else’s. But the way they accomplish it is fundamentally different. Games are an active form of entertainment, requiring the user to literally interact with the game world. Books are passive, relying on the reader’s ability to visualize and imagine the words on the page as a real scenario. (Note that I’m basing this observation on a scale of  interactivity, and not on the level of imagination/brain involvement required.)

So, in theory, if books were to go this direction, we’d need to increase the level of interactivity to simulate the gaming experience, right? Well, then let me point you to these lovely things, which already happen to exist:

  • Choose your own adventure books: Immensely popular with young readers in the 80’s, these books required their audiences to put themselves in the character’s place, choosing how they would handle the scenario and seeing the immediate consequences of that action. Notice I said they were popular in the 80’s, though. Meaning they fell out of favor almost as quickly as they rose. They still exist, but they’re rare and outnumbered, by far, by the more traditional forms of reading material.
  •  

  • Enhanced books/eBooks: Yes, this is a thing. There are experimental authors and publishers out there who are trying to find ways to bridge the gap between traditional print and multimedia. Some examples include Booktracks (which pairs a soundtrack with your novel, using auditory cues and music to create a richer immersion for the reader), puzzles deciphered while reading, and enhanced books that are almost more like apps, featuring animations and sound effects. Cool ideas, yes, but again, not very popular with readers.
  •  

  • Supplemental Materials: These are almost more marketing related than anything, but I’ve seen authors create real-life scavenger hunts and multimedia apps that go along with their story and world, engaging their fans in new and immersive ways. Essentially, they quite literally marry the video game industry with publishing, but not in a way that truly enhances the reading experience. It’s additional to that basic action, rather than replacing/modifying it.

 
Which brings us to my point, the reason why I don’t see books becoming more like video games — books were never meant to be truly interactive. If anything, they compete with film for their audience’s attention, because film is another passive form of entertainment. Both of these mediums have always been about observing. Yes, they can affect us, making us feel emotions and form bonds with fictitious beings in ways that might have us wondering about our sanity, but their point is to detail observations, impart information, and deliver messages that transcend our day-to-day lives and make us empathize with, or understand, the world around us. Gaming is entirely different, more akin to physical activity in the way it engages the brain. You won’t often find gamers who spend hours mulling over the morality of murdering that NPC (non-player character) they saw appear on the screen for half a second. Because the act of gaming is about reflex, instinct, and less about deep philosophical thoughts and musings.

But that’s a conversation for a later day. Today’s point is that readers don’t necessarily want to interact with books. They simply want to read them. And until that changes, I don’t see interactivity becoming the hot trend publishing will steal from the gaming industry.
 

Production

 
Ah yes, production. This is where I most often see a lack of understanding about how games are made. There’s this underlying idea out there that games are easy to create, that the time invested in them is minimal in comparison to the profit. And just like the first point, distribution, that’s not entirely true.

The AAA titles — the big ones everyone hears about, the Halos and Dragon Ages and Skyrims of the world — take, on average, 3-5 years to produce. And that’s with teams of several hundred people. You have game designers, artists/animators, programmers, actors, PR/marketing/administrative staff, and sound engineers involved, and it’s as time intensive as creating a feature film. The reason these are considered AAA titles is because they have budgets that rival cinema blockbusters. It’s no small feat to release a game of this scale, and with the advances in technology, gamers are becoming more and more expectant of this level of quality. Anything that falls below this often earns derision and ridicule.

The casual games (think the ones on your phone that most people consider mindless wastes of time) are less intense, but still generally require at least a small team of people to invest months or even years of their life into their creation. There are a few really astounding individuals that have found success doing it all on their own, but those are the exception, not the rule.

All right, how much of what I just said sounded familiar to all you writers out there? I’m guessing all of it. Because again, it’s not dissimilar to the way the book industry already operates. You have the Big 5 publishers (with the equivalent of blockbuster budgets) publishing a select few, super prominent titles, and guess what? On average, it takes 2-3 years from the time they sign you to the time your book is in stores. And then we have the indies, where the timeline is much shorter, but you still have a team of experts (editors, cover designers, formatters, etc.) helping you put out a product that is largely under-respected by the world.

So what’s to be learned from the gaming industry here? They’re fighting the same equality battle that publishing is, and frankly, they’re not doing any better than we are on that front.
 

Content

 
This is the last possible area that could potentially be what the predictions are talking about. But they have it backwards. See, the divide between gaming and books isn’t being bridged because books are becoming more like games, it’s because games are becoming more like books. There’s a movement within the gaming industry to include stronger storytelling in games. Let’s face it, up until maybe five years ago, games were not hailed for their storytelling prowess. And that’s because 90% of games were written by game designers, people who focus more on what makes a game fun than anything else. They created the game mechanics (the rules) and built from there.

And then along came companies like Bioware and Bethesda and Square Enix, and suddenly storytelling started to become more important, leading to the employment of actual game writers. So now we have video games that actually include epic narratives with quality writing, bringing the worlds of literature and gaming one step closer together. But that’s not publishing noticing the strengths in the gaming industry and adjusting accordingly, that’s the gaming industry glomming onto the strength publishing already had — story.

Which brings us to the conclusion of our analysis. As you can see, for someone standing with a foot in both industries, this prediction of publishing turning into the gaming industry makes little sense. I simply don’t see the shiny new path these people are touting. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If someone out there has a better understanding of exactly what this vague statement for publishing’s future means, I would love to be enlightened. Please share  your thoughts on this interesting topic in the comments. Do you see publishing moving toward video games, and if so, in what way? I’m sure I’m not the only one out there dying to know. 😉

Blog Tour Feature: Night of Pan by Gail Strickland

Blog Tour Banner Graphic

 

As you read this, I’ll be on my way to attend the Pubcamp Writer’s Conference in Seattle, WA. Which means, finally (FINALLY) you can expect to see some more posts about the craft of writing, and not just about my book recommendations. But before that happens (and because it’s awfully hard to write while also driving), I have another such recommendation for you, courtesy of the blog tour mentioned above. So let’s jump right into, shall we?

Night of Pan

by Gail Strickland

 

cover1000

 

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

The slaughter of the Spartan Three Hundred at Thermopylae, Greece 480 BCE—when King Leonidas tried to stop the Persian army with only his elite guard—is well known. But just what did King Xerxes do after he defeated the Greeks?

Fifteen-year-old Thaleia is haunted by visions: roofs dripping blood, Athens burning. She tries to convince her best friend and all the villagers that she’s not crazy. The gods do speak to her.

And the gods have plans for this girl.

When Xerxes’ army of a million Persians marches straight to the mountain village Delphi to claim the Temple of Apollo’s treasures and sacred power, Thaleia’s gift may be her people’s last line of defense.

Her destiny may be to save Greece…
…but is one girl strong enough to stop an entire army?

I’ve always had a soft spot for books based in mythology, and this one definitely doesn’t disappoint on that front. The story starts with fifteen-year-old Thaleia’s wedding day. A strong, independent heroine, though, she has other plans for her future, plans that don’t involve marrying a man she’s been betrothed to since age five. She escapes and starts to flee, but is stopped by Pan and a prophecy — the Persian army is on its way to Delphi, and she’s the only one who can save her people.

This is an interesting coming-of-age story about how the Oracle of Delphi comes to be. Strickland has clearly done a ton of research into the culture of the region, from the well-known pantheon of gods, to the day-to-day customs and warfare practices of the time. And from that standpoint, it’s phenomenally written. But I did find myself struggling with some of the other aspects. Namely, that the character development felt shallow. I would expect a coming-of-age story to be largely character-driven, but this fell flat on that for me, reading instead like more of a plot-driven action-adventure. I didn’t connect with Thaleia emotionally (nor with any of the supporting cast), and often struggled with her voice. She seemed to be both too mature and too young for fifteen, and some of the modern turns of phrase were jarring against the historical backdrop. While I do feel that she’s a good role model for young girls, she almost borders on a cliche’ed example of the “strong, independent woman” stereotype. I would have liked to see her be a littler more fully developed and multi-faceted as a character.

That said, I do think the prose itself is beautifully written. Lyrical and smooth, Strickland’s style is effortless, and I could appreciate her voice as an author (not to be confused with Thaleia’s voice, as mentioned above.) The additional material included in the book makes this a well-rounded choice for younger readers interested in mythology. It is a YA, and I think it targets it’s market effectively. However, unlike some YA, it doesn’t translate quite as well outside of that target readership. I would definitely recommend it for the 12 + age range it’s intended for, though. And I will probably finish the trilogy, if only to see more of the richly developed, detailed world.

**Disclosure Statement: I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **

About the Author:

Gail Strickland — classicist, poet and musician — was recognized by The Baltimore Review & Writers’ Digest and published by the Oxford University Journal New Satyrica. While studying the classics in college, Gail translated much of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Always passionate about music and bringing the richness of Homer’s language and culture to today’s youth, Gail mentored young poets and novelists and introduced thousands of youngsters to piano and Greek mythology.

Gail was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in northern California. She raised her children, read French philosophers in French and played in an eclectic country band called the Prairie Dogs whose claim to fame was being the only band to play Candlestick Park between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Her first book, NIGHT OF PAN … a mythic journey of a young Oracle in ancient Greece, was published by Curiosity Quills Press November 7, 2014. NIGHT OF PAN is book one of THE ORACLE OF DELPHI TRILOGY.

Gail Strickland Author Photo

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

Featured From the Archives: Story vs. Concept; A Demo Team Showdown

Tonight, I’ll be teaching my annual class on demo teams. I know I haven’t posted about the martial arts recently, and that the majority of you out there reading this are writers, rather than martial artists, but this particular post holds helpful tips for both. And since this is what I’ll be discussing over the next two days with the students of Dragon Heart Tang Soo Do, I thought it would be appropriate. However, for the writers out there, I’ll provide annotated notes, indicating the literary terms that correspond with my demo team lingo. So even if you aren’t a martial artist and you have absolutely no desire to learn about demo teams, give it a read. I think you’ll be surprised to see just how much the two worlds intersect.
 

Story vs. Concept; A Demo Team Showdown

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 5/10/13

 
Recently, I found myself on the wrong side of an angry, pitch-fork touting mob after I eloquently shoved my foot in my mouth. (Turns out, there’s a fine line between snarky and jackass. Especially when it falls on the wrong ears.) And as I was being schooled by a student who naively believed I was a demo team idiot, I was amazed at how often the terms “concept” and “story” were used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. I’m not sure if this is a common misconception, but since I was due for a demo team post, I figured why not take a moment to clarify the definitions and try to make something good out of my embarrassing mistake. And what better way to do that than to pit story against concept in an epic battle of demo team terminology. Sounds fun, no?

So, here we go! Contestants to your places, aaaaaaand . . . fight!

Round One: Concept

(2014 Annotation: Writers, this is the same for you. Everything said below applies to the same definition we use in literature.)

Concept does not, in fact, equal story. If it was synonymous with any word, it would be theme. And what is theme? The point of your project. It’s the message or idea that you want to convey to your audience. Let’s check out some examples.

(These are some of the more common demo themes/concepts I’ve seen over the years.)

  • Video Games such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Etc. (I’m guessing there’s a secret sect of Comic-Con Cosplayer geekhood within the martial arts.)
  • Medieval Asian Warlords (Yes, the Asian part is particularly important. How else can you create something as awesome as a D-grade Kung Fu movie brought to life?)
  • The Korean and/or Association Flag (Especially prevalent in the WTSDA. Apparently, we have a lot of association pride. And unoriginality.)
  • Badass little kids taking over the world (Cute factor combined with awesomeness. Who doesn’t love that?)
  • The Matrix movie franchise (Does this really need further explanation? The Matrix was just, like, the most epic movie ever!)
  • Pretty much any popular movie franchise (Further proof of my statement on example one. Maybe we’re all nerds at heart?)
  • Women’s self-defense (The only thing better than badass kids is watching a bunch of girls pummel a bunch of dudes, right?)
  • Peace, Love and Unity, man (Otherwise known as the undefinable, “high” concepts.)
  • The Elements (Because there can never be too many interpretations of wind, fire and water.)

(I hope, by now, you’re laughing with recognition.)

But despite my mockery, these are all perfectly acceptable examples of concept. I’ve used some of them myself. (There may or may not be multiple versions of Mortal Kombat costumes lurking in Dragon Heart’s demo team archives. 😉 ) The problem comes when that’s all there is to your demo (2014 Annotation: same is true for writing). The concept should be the foundational element, the first spark of creativity. Not the entire focus. Here’s why: concepts are simple. They contain absolutely no allusions to the story they might evolve into, making them a two dimensional, cardboard cut-out experience guaranteed to bore the life out of your audience. Don’t believe me? Let me show you. A concept’s inception typically looks something like this:

Student One: “Dude, let’s do a demo about the Korean flag!”

Student Two: “Like, oh my god! That would be totally awesome!”

Ok, maybe that’s a little facetious, but it’s not that far off the mark. A concept is that first burst of enthusiastic direction, not the ultimate goal. Don’t get me wrong, concept is very much an important part of any demo. Not only does it provide the inspiration, it has influence over decisions like costuming (aka genre, if you’re a writer), set/prop design (setting), characters, and overall presentation (POV/Voice/etc.) as well. But it’s focus remains purely on technique, and will rarely impart any lasting impression or emotion on the audience. For that, you need story.

Round Two: Story

(2014 Annotation: This is more commonly known as “premise” in the written world. But same basic idea.)

If concept is the idea, then story (aka premise) is the way you impart said idea to the audience. It builds on the foundation concept provides to create something with a far richer experience for everyone. However, story is often misconstrued to mean flash. As in, an overly theatrical fluff-fest that’s trying to compensate for a lack of technique. That, my friends, is sadly mistaken. And probably the reason story is given so little respect in the creativity division. (2014 Annotation: “flash” in literature can take on many forms, but most commonly it’s seen as an over-indulgence in world building, or an over-wrought, heavy-handed style that gets in the way of the story.)

All those components that instantly scream flash – costuming, props, etc – are not actually controlled by story. They reside within concept’s domain. (Cheeky bugger, fooling everyone by pointing the finger at story.) The only thing story controls is choreography (aka plot, for writers). Why? Because choreography is how you tell a narrative in a demo (See? Plot). The rest is bonus to help ensure the audience understands. But you don’t actually need anything beyond choreography.

Story is defined in the literary world as conflict. Meaning, there has to be something happening. A journey from Point A to Point B. I’ve written about this topic at length in my previous post, Storytelling for Demo Teams, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll provide an example of how story elevates concept. And how it doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated to be effective. (There’s only so much you can cram into a 5 minute span, after all.)

I’m going to use one of my own demos for this exercise – The Dream Sequence – which I have featured before.

The concept for this demo actually came from the music itself. (As do all my ideas, which many of you know by now.) I wanted to show a dreamy, ethereal world that matched the tone of the music. But since that isn’t enough for a competition-grade demo in my opinion, I needed a story that would deliver that message to the audience. So I created one about a little boy who falls asleep and finds the dolls he was playing with have come to life around him. When he wakes up, the dolls disappear. Literary genius, isn’t it? But that’s my point. No one said you had to be a master storyteller; you just have to tell something.

So, to recap:

Concept = dreamy, ethereal imagination.

Story = slightly creepy dolls coming to life inside a child’s dream.

(2014 Annotation: This same equation applies in literature, and is quite handy for figuring out things like queries. 😉 )

See how neither of these statements is really that complicated or involved? And how, when combined, you end up with an idea that’s far more powerful and interesting than the concept alone? That’s the beauty of story. (If you haven’t seen the demo I’m referencing, take a moment to go watch it. I’ll wait. 😉 )

And the Winner is . . . ?

Neither.

That’s right, our epic showdown actually ends in a draw. Anti-climatic, I know. But that’s because one isn’t better than the other. They work in tandem, not competition. The ideal demo (or novel) is a balance of both, pulling from the strengths of each to create a wonderful masterpiece people remember for years. But, because the two terms are separate elements, it is possible to create award-winning demos using only one of them. You can have a traditional demo that focuses primarily on technique, with no storyline, just concept. And you can create a moving, story-driven demo featuring absolutely no costumes, props, or flash. (Technically, though, if you have a story, you have a concept, regardless of the addition of flashy elements. Concept can live without story, but story needs concept to survive.) The trick is knowing your ultimate goal and utilizing your team’s talents to their fullest. (I’ve given out a lot of helpful tips about how to do this.)

And remember, if you find yourself having to explain what your demo is about, you failed. (Harsh, but true.) Whether your aim is traditional/concept-driven, or theatrical narrative, your audience should always receive your message clearly. That is, after all, the entire point of demos (and storytelling in general), is it not?